A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

by Erika Rappaport


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691167114
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 09/05/2017
Pages: 568
Sales rank: 591,698
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Erika Rappaport is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Shopping for Pleasure (Princeton) and coeditor of Consuming Behaviors (Bloomsbury).

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Setting the Early Modern Tea Table

In 1667 Samuel Pepys thought it noteworthy to write in his diary that he had returned home to find his "wife making of tea; a drink which Mr. Pelling," the apothecary, had explained, would be "good for her cold and defluxions." Seven years earlier, on September 25, 1660, Pepys recorded that he had first tried the new "China drink" at the end of a busy day in his new job as the navy's clerk of acts. Pepys likely drank his tea in one of the new coffeehouses that were opening in London, while his wife took her medicine at home. Both paid a great deal for their tea. What propelled the couple to try this foreign substance and to imagine that it could cure a cold or revive one's energy after a long day at the office? I argue that these episodes mentioned in passing by the great diarist illustrate how European consumers embraced a Chinese practice and began to make it their own. Momentous and mundane, these two moments in the history of consumption open up new ways of thinking about Great Britain's position in the early modern world.

In 1660 few Britons had ever heard of tea, but over the course of the next century economic and cultural exchanges that transpired in Asia, the Near East, Europe, and the Americas produced Britain's craze for trading, growing, and drinking tea. Pepys's tea represented a major shift in European material, medical, commercial, and culinary cultures, but it was hardly the first foreign good to make its way to the British Isles. For centuries, spices, salt, silk, silver, gold, and other goods traveled extremely long distances, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe's wealthy began adorning their bodies, satisfying their palates, and decorating their homes with a wider variety of foreign commodities. While most people's material world was unquestionably local, long-distance trade had altered diets and medical and consumer cultures around the world. Social interactions within communities and between people from diverse backgrounds transformed tastes and habits. Between the 1500s and 1700s, however, merchants, missionaries, soldiers, and medical experts were the primary conduits of cultural diffusion, even as they also denigrated the indigenous cultures they encountered away from home. In addition, a small group of educated elite eagerly studied books, treatises, maps, advertisements, and other texts that conveyed knowledge about foreign commodities. Consumers and sellers altered the meanings of new substances; thus exchange was never straightforward but an amalgam of economic, cultural, political, and violent practices that occurred in intimate and public spaces in several continents at the same time.

Europeans did not always initiate or dominate these exchanges, but they certainly profited from them. Initially Europeans were importers who possessed little direct control over the production of eastern commodities, whether Javanese pepper, Indian cotton, Arabian coffee, or Chinese tea. Over time, however, they replicated and exported their own versions of these desired luxuries, providing stimulus for the shifting manufacturing and sales techniques that came to be associated with Europe's industrial and commercial revolutions. Atlantic slavery made such transformations possible. Slave labor enabled the mass production of cotton, sugar, tobacco, and the like, but it also generated wealth that underpinned the refined culture of consumption that emerged in early modern Europe and the Americas. Slavery was moreover a site of cultural exchange in which millions of Africans brought culinary and agricultural knowledge with them to the Americas. Slavery was hence at the heart of European and American consumer society, often hidden in plain sight.

Tea was unique, however, in large part because the Chinese prevented the transfer of its seeds, plants, and knowledge to the West. Europeans were unable to transplant production to regions under their control until the early nineteenth century, and it took another half century to compete successfully with the Chinese in world markets. This did not preclude the growth of a highly profitable commerce, but it did mean that China influenced tea's global commerce and consumption until the twentieth century. Unlike previous studies, I argue that early modern Europeans imported what they believed were Chinese beliefs and practices along with their tea and tea ware. They adopted and adapted the Chinese conviction that drinking tea led to bodily health, psychic contentment, and a more poetic, productive, and sober self. Tea was not without its critics, but in these attacks we see a profound sense that ingestion, and by extension consumption, was a nearly magical act that had the power to remake the self. This is a basic ideology of consumer society. Tea was not the only commodity that was understood to possess such power, but tracing its history allows us to see the global forces that produced Europe's faith in the healing power of commodities and their circulation and consumption, and Great Britain's particular investment in the notion that tea could cure all manner of evils and discomforts.

This chapter builds on the work of a generation of scholars who have shown the diverse ways that Asian, African, and American cultural practices made their way to Europe and established new forms of power and authority, social identities, and tastes. Coffee, for example, became a hallmark of the Enlightenment project of "improvement" and sustained a new type of rational, "masculine" individual who adopted a cosmopolitan appreciation of and knowledge about other cultures. Elite men and women also demonstrated their cosmopolitanism through the consumption and display of foreign art and objects, especially Chinese tableware, furniture, and ornamentation. The craze for Oriental-styled goods orchinoiserie was so pervasive that it left its mark on decorative arts, household and garden design, clothing, and culinary cultures in much of Europe, the Americas, and parts of the Middle East. Chinaware became so associated with overseas trade and new forms of shopping and socializing that observers used this foreign fashion to criticize consumer society itself. This was particularly true in Britain where the taste for China and its things had reached unprecedented heights in the middle of the eighteenth century. Consumers did not import Asia's culture wholesale, however. For one thing, there was no single "Chinese" style and Chinese manufacturers adjusted designs to cater to European tastes. Depending on context, chinoiserie could represent refinement, beauty, elite social status, and politeness or signify pretentiousness, licentiousness, and the feminizing effects of luxury and foreignness. While scholars have recognized that European aesthetics reflected an appreciation and also a repulsion for Asian design, we have not sufficiently acknowledged that beyond its material and artistic practices, European tea cultures also had Chinese roots.

Everywhere communities spawned local modes of preparation and meanings, but there was a similar tea culture that stretched from China to the Americas in the early modern world. Men and women living in many lands endowed the China drink with extraordinary healing and civilizing properties. Long before food scientists discovered caffeine, early modern experts proposed that tea could cure many ailments, increase longevity, counter drunkenness, stimulate one's libido, and help one live a spiritual, intellectual, and productive life. Nearly everywhere tea was said to bring balance to the self and to society. Such philosophies originated in China and Japan and moved overland through Central Asia and via maritime trade to ports, cities, and hinterlands around the Indian and Atlantic oceans.

The faith in tea's temperate and civilizing nature crossed political borders, social divisions, and historical epochs. Although prevalent and enduring, tea cultures were not a mere force of habit. They were a product of a history. New attitudes toward foreign things and people compelled exploration and colonization and created novel understandings of health, the economy, the polity, and the household. Consumer and capitalist fantasies, desires, and anxieties wove together the modern world, but similar tastes did not lead to equality of conditions. Rather, tea's global culture produced new social hierarchies and inequities. We have to take seriously people's desire to feel less pain and anxiety and to find pleasure in acts of ingestion. We also have to recognize that such aspirations brought a great deal of pain to those who labored to produce modernity's palliatives.


In Asia, the Near East, Europe, and North America, tea was a powerful medicine, a dangerous drug, a religious and artistic practice, a status symbol, an aspect of urban leisure, and a sign of respectability and virtue. State and military revenues derived from its use waged war and paid for colonial expansion. Cultivation of the plant transformed the environment and generated servitude. Tea was a tool of empire and a mode of protesting imperial power. And everywhere tea drinking was said to fuel the body, stimulate the mind, calm the soul, and civilize the consumer. Travelers' accounts, ship manifests, tax and probate records, government and court documents, art and literature, scientific and religious texts, and the voluminous archives of merchant trading companies have told us how tea spread from East to West, but we have less evidence about how attitudes and consumer practices moved with the commodity. The first half of this chapter begins to investigate this question by considering the multiple sites and people who translated Asian, Middle Eastern, and European practices and traditions. The second half then examines how Europeans came to profit from and think about the tea trade and tea drinking. Tea was highly desired in France, the Netherlands, and parts of central, southern, and eastern Europe, but in Britain and its North American colonies a tea culture developed that rivaled that of China and Japan. Yet everywhere Western tea culture was an interpretation or translation of East Asian practices and ideologies.

Tea arrived in Europe later than coffee and chocolate, but its history parallels these other hot beverages. Europeans encountered tea, much like New World foods and drinks, as an unintended consequence of attempts to best Arab merchants who had come to dominate the whole of the Eastern spice trade. By the fifteenth century, Arab states and traders had gained firm control of a limited number of trade routes and impeded direct contact between Europe and India and China. Alexandria reigned as the center of the spice trade, a situation that benefited Venetians and the Genoese but meant that most Europeans depended on Arab middlemen to satisfy their desire for spices and other "Eastern goods." This problem prompted the age of exploration, but for some time Europeans were much more interested in spices than tea.

Medieval Europeans desired spices for their ability to cure, astonish, and impress. They sought spices for their intense flavors, colors, and aroma. Spices were also redolent of heaven and the Garden of Eden. They signified the divine and offered a momentary taste and scent of paradise. Their price and rarity also meant that these sacred condiments served as ideal status symbols. Pepper, ginger, cinnamon, and other spices were also regarded as powerful drugs. Generally thought to be hot and dry, spices balanced the dangers of wet and cold foods and treated illnesses such as melancholia. Some spices such as ginger, both "hot and moist," enhanced sexual desire. Europeans often thought of the new beverages in a similar way, as hot, moist, and stimulating, but medical theory was divided on their effects.

It was in truth difficult to place chocolate, coffee, and tea into the reigning medical theories of the day. The theories of Galen, the Greek physician who developed the predominant European thinking about health and diet in ancient Rome, were experiencing a revival in early modern Europe, just as Europeans began to encounter new foods and drugs from Asia and the New World. Throughout Europe, Galenic principles determined notions of health, personality, and diet. The body and mind were considered a cohesive whole, and foods and drugs balanced the four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. All ingested substances were designated as wet, hot, dry, or cold because like all matter they consisted of the four elements: water, fire, air, and earth. Foods could therefore be either healthy or harmful depending on how they were prepared, what they were consumed with, and the nature of the consumer. There was no hard and fast line between foods and drugs, since a healthy diet was one that matched the particular needs of the person. But while humoralism was significant, Europeans also adopted many Eastern notions about tea's impact on the body and society. This should not be surprising since it was in Japan, China, Persia, India, and Java that a handful of seventeenth-century Europeans first tasted tea.

Tea was indigenous to the monsoonal district of southeastern Asia and the Chinese grew and drank tea for thousands of years before Europeans. From its first appearance in Chinese myth tea grew into an article of intra-Asian trade and warfare, state building, religion, art, and connoisseurship. Climate, soil, and rainfall determined the plant's territory, as did the migrations of animals, people, and religious and cultural practices. The Chinese first used tea as a medicinal herb and drink during the Western Han period (c. 206 BC–AD 9), and it found a place in the broader culture during the Tang era (618–907). Initially people simply picked fresh leaves, dried them in the sun, and infused these in water. Without processing, only the leaves could not last and would have necessarily been consumed locally. During the Tang dynasty, however, cakes made of unfermented leaves that were steamed and mixed with a binding substance allowed tea to be stored and traded. Through the Yuan (1279–1368) and Ming dynasties (1368–1644) modern forms of processing emerged. Freshly picked leaves were pan-fried, rolled, and dried. This procedure prevented immediate oxidation and produced what is commonly known as green tea.

Leaf teas slowly replaced cake and powdered varieties, and these would become the primary teas of commerce. Green tea was the earliest leaf tea to be used, but in the sixteenth century fermented black teas became popular. These were chiefly souchong, congou, and bohea, a bastardized European term for tea from the Wuyi Mountains. Black teas were fermented before roasting, whereas green teas were roasted immediately to prevent fermentation. After roasting all leaves were rolled by hand to extract their juice, and quality teas such as souchong could go through this process up to four times. Congou was made from thinner leaves and was roasted and rolled fewer times. The best teas were then dried over a slow-burning fire and the very finest were then put through a sieve to discard any burnt or coarse leaves. In the eighteenth century, oolong, a semi-fermented tea that originated in South Fujian, was a very profitable cash crop in Formosa and pekoe became especially popular in the export trade to Russia.

Production methods varied with region, and this along with the growing conditions accounted for many of the differences in type and quality. By the eighteenth century tea was cultivated in at least twelve provinces, but Anhui and Fujian supplied the majority of the crop consumed in Europe. Production was dispersed on smallholdings of between one and five acres employing perhaps only a few dozen workers each. Peasants processed the raw leaves before selling them on the open market or mortgaging them in advance to buyers who then resold the leaves to manufacturers for processing and packing. Some of the larger merchants, however, employed up to three hundred workers and the whole operation was, according to one study, similar to a kind of assembly line production.

Green, black, and the semi-fermented varieties all came from the same plant, though Europeans did not recognize this fact until the nineteenth century. There were dozens of types of green and black teas. Hyson, which included some of the finest green teas and was in great demand in eighteenth-century Europe, consisted of some thirteen qualities. Another green tea produced for export known commercially as singlo or twankay came from the T'un-chi or "Twankay" region of Anhui province. In contrast to the care taken with hyson, these teas were produced quickly and were picked and manufactured in a more haphazard manner and thus were considered an inferior product, selling in London for about half the price of superior hyson. By the end of the eighteenth century, bohea was the poorest-quality black tea, picked and processed quickly and on a mass scale. For example, one merchant could roast as many as 70,400 pounds at a time and pack it into chests of 170 pounds or more. Manufacturing methods improved after the Napoleonic wars, and by the 1820s bohea was the third largest selling tea in London.


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Table of Contents

Abbreviations ix

Acknowledgments xi


A Soldiers’ Tea Party in Surrey 1

I: Anxious Relations

1 “A China Drink Approved by All Physicians”: Setting the Early Modern Tea Table 23

2 The Temperance Tea Party: Making a Sober Consumer Culture in the Nineteenth Century 57

3 A Little Opium, Sweet Words, and Cheap Guns: Planting a Global Industry in Assam 85

4 Packaging China: Advertising Food Safety in a Global Marketplace 120

II: Imperial Tastes

5 Industry and Empire: Manufacturing Imperial Tastes in Victorian Britain 147

6 The Planter Abroad: Building Foreign Markets in the Fin de Siècle 183

7 “Every Kitchen an Empire Kitchen”: The Politics of Imperial Consumerism 222

8 “Tea Revives the World”: Selling Vitality during the Depression 264

9 “Hot Drinks Mean Much in the Jungle”: Tea in the Service of War 305

III: Aftertastes

10 Leftovers: An Imperial Industry at the End of Empire 335

11 “Join the Tea Set”: Youth, Modernity, and the Legacies of Empire during the Swinging Sixties 375

Notes 411

List of Illustrations 529

Index 533

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