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News > Culture

5 Ways Your Morning Cuppa Tea Reflects Britain's Imperial Past

  • Victorian women at a tea party

    Victorian women at a tea party | Photo: Archive

Published 15 December 2016

Probe deeper and it becomes clear the innocuous drink belies a darker history.

On International Tea Day we look at how the worldwide stereotype of the English, the penchant for copious tea drinking, really reflects Britain's dark imperial past.

1. Led to the Opium Wars

Tea was originally grown in China. But to raise revenues to purchase the teas (and other products), Britain forced the highly addictive drug opium on China.

The Easter Rising and Anti-Imperialism

As China tried to suppress the trade due to the great social and economic disruption caused, the Chinese military destroyed British stocks of opium leading to the first Opium War. Tens of thousands of Chinese were killed in the two opium wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-1860.

2. Manipulated Trade

Britain then sought out other sources to satisfy its desire for tea. In the 1830s, it started to grow the leaf in its Indian colony. Britain removed all import taxes from Indian teas helping to reduce demand for the more expensive Chinese version, and soon after strong dark Indian tea became to be seen as the national drink.

3. Forced Migration

Later in search of even more providers, tea was grown into the British colony of Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) forcing thousands of Tamils to move large distances to work in the fields. Tea affected the human geographies of both India and Sri Lanka.

4. Promoted Slave Labor

Bitter tea was sweetened with sugar from the colonies in the Caribbean, with many of the millions of slaves originally forced from Africa to work on sugar plantations.

5. Lengthened Working Day

Tea was pushed by the authorities to create a sober and healthier workforce. It replaced beer and gin that were often used by the working class to avoid drinking polluted water. With sweet tea being an easy source of calories it also allowed these more sober people to work long days in factories to make the goods that Britain exported across the world to its colonies.

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