The History of Tea

Tea appears to have been cultivated in China for over 2000 years; in Japan for over 500 years, but in India only since 1840 and in Sri Lanka since 1880.

Legend credits the Emperor ShÍn Nung (2737 – 2697BC), the so-called “father of agriculture”, with its discovery in 2700BC, when some leaves accidentally fell into a pot of boiling water. Accident or not, the brew had a pleasant taste and a soothing effect on the digestion, and became widely used in China as a herbal medicine.

China’s tea culture continued to develop over the next 500 years, becoming (if anything) more ritualised and elegant. During the Ming Dynasty, tea was drunk in delicate sips in accordance with the maxim “tea should be drunk often but in small quantities” and not in the so-called “thirsty ox fashion”.

Contrary to popular belief, Britain was almost the last country in Europe to sample tea. By the time the first tea reached British shores, the Dutch, Portuguese and French had been tea drinkers for many years; the Portuguese were the first drinkers bringing it to Lisbon from about 1580 onwards. Tea, coffee and cocoa arrived in London in the same year, 1652.

Early in 1820 David Scott, commissioner for the newly acquired state of Assam in British India, sent samples of leaves from Cooch-Bihar and Ranpur to his superiors in Calcutta. They were sent to the Linnaean Society in London where they were declared to be leaves from the tea plant.

Ironically, when the tea industry started in Assam a dozen years later, stolen seeds from China were planted in the Brahmaputra River Valley. The planters used cheap labour and land cleared for opium production, but the seedlings were sickly and never flourished. The native Assamese wild tea plants had been uprooted and burned to make way for the Chinese bushes.

Under huge pressure from the East India Company, which was losing trade to the Dutch and Portuguese, the pioneers redoubled their planting efforts. Then, unexpectedly, a lone explorer reported tea bushes growing wild in the forests of Bengal. Trials began with this new strain – Thea assamica – which is an agrotype of tea which left to its own devices reaches a straggly 30 – 60 feet. The tests were successful and in 1830 an ambitious planting programme began. 10 years later the first shipments of Assam tea were sold in London for an impressive price and the East India Company was on the road to recovery. By 1860, an industrialized European tea industry had been established by around 1860.

Ceylon became a tea producer in desperation. Until 1796, the “pearl at the foot of India” was a Dutch colony, and like other Dutch colonies in Indonesia and the Caribbean, coffee plantations had existed there since the late 17th century. The bushes flourished in the rich soil of the hill regions, until Ceylon was supplying the world with coffee in much the same way that China had been supplying it with tea.

By 1860, leaf blight had all but destroyed the coffee industry. It was a disaster that had its parallel in Europe; for as Hemileia vastatrix swept through the plantations of Dimbula and Dikoya, a small mite called Phylloxera was attacking the root systems of European grapevines. The vineyards survive by importing American root-stock. Ceylon survived by turning to tea production, using a variation of the Assam leaf that had proved so popular in India.

It was the greatest success story in the history of tea. Within 20 years, Ceylon was growing over 300,000 acres of tea bushes, using agricultural knowledge culled from Assam and machinery developed by Jackson Brothers.

Sir Thomas Lipton, whose teas still are a household name today, won his place in the history books by investing money directly into the new tea estates long before their success was assured

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