Bitter Weed: Tea, Empire and Everyday Luxury

Written by Jack Bennett.

Unprecedented unrest erupted in Boston on December 16, 1773 when the Sons of Liberty protested the increasing British taxes by disposing of 342 tea chests with a value of $1 million into the harbour. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 became a pivotal event in the history of a nation and an empire, reverberating across the globe. At the centre of these transformative changes was a humble commodity: tea. John Adams described the act of rebellion which sparked the American Revolutionary war as: ‘the most magnificent Movement of all…This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an Epocha in History.’ This reveals a fluidity and development of national identity, through American conspicuous non-consumption as a political and mercantilist protest. The global production, trade and consumption of tea funded wars, fuelled colonisation, instigated political rebellion and defined cultural refinement – the effects of which are with us even today.

Tea was both a product and driver of global connections. Economic profitability determined British imperial expansionism and the manipulation of ecological space, social hierarchies and labour systems. Cultural cartographies of conquest developed alongside the practice of mapping of exoticism. The Canton system (1757-1834) in China imposed strict regulations on foreign trade, which catalysed British colonisation in order to gain a hegemony on the global trade of tea. This was conducted through the British East India Company, which ruthlessly extended its military-economic influence into India with a vengeance. This private company control of India provided the ideal landscape for the implementation of plantation agriculture using native, indentured labour, producing both a socially and ecologically exploitative economic system. Cultures of discovery, success and signification emerged with tea acquiring new layers of cultural, political and economic characteristics in local contexts. 

During the 1880s, there emerged a proto-mass consumer society throughout the British Empire, Europe and the United States related to advertisement for tea. These advertisements conveyed British imperial nationalism and the ‘orientalism’ of Indian plantation labour, emphasising the British Raj as ‘our Asia’ through reducing the exoticism of tea and domesticating tea from the Empire.  This happened while erasing the origins of tea creating a national identity through the process of naturalisation. This marked a significant shift in the representation of tea production, shifting from Chinese origins to Indian, informed by racial hierarchies which emphasised Indian purity and Chinese inferiority. Importantly, advertisements expressed individual corporations, conflict of interests and commercial imperial prosperity in the developing proto-consumer societies and rapidly globalising economic market, dominated by imperial powers in the nineteenth century. 

Tea became a symbol of civilisation and domesticity. As the moral anti-tea indignation of the eighteenth century gave way moving into the nineteenth, and Britain’s global economic ascendancy, tea suffused social structures, becoming synonymous with progress and order; civility and industriousness. Markman argues that there was a transition from “oriental exoticism to Victorian domestication” regarding tea production and consumption. Demand for tea began to cross into the middle and urban working classes from the eighteenth through to the nineteenth centuries. Critically, this reveals a simultaneous reinforcement between the cultural economics of consumption and the impetus for creating and expanding mercantile and administrative impetus for Indian colonialism. Consequently, tea determined the very concept of luxury in everyday life in Europe as it experienced proto-globalisation, as imports and production increased under British imperial control the accessibility of tea within the lower classes flourished. Class anxieties surrounding tea, however, became prolific, as the personal sphere became progressively interconnected with the public and political. This incorporation of tea in the quotidian created a delineation of labour and leisure, domesticating exotic wildness. Tea, therefore, reveals a fluidity across class boundaries, a developing social universality as a vehicle of national character and apparatus of social routinisation. 

Rituals of tea consumption vitalised emerging conceptualisations of femininity and leisure. Crucially, a private sphere of female influence emerged defined by Chatterjee as ‘new interior worlds.’ Gendering tea as a consumptive feminine product brings into question the integrity of domestic and family life in early modern Europe, the United States and across Empires. Intriguingly in tea’s geography of origin, China, the commodity was ironically an agent of male elite sociability, compared to the female-orientation and fashionability of the commodity in Europe and the United States. Nevertheless, the associated ceramics with tea contributed to the defining of social status, reinforcing the femininity of tea. For instance, this was manifested in the literary and popular cultural ‘scandal around the tea table,’ something inherently negative during the eighteenth century. Meanwhile in Japan the tea ceremony was reinvigorated after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and became culturally valued, encapsulating the spirit and tradition of Japan in a nationalised, modernising project and global imperial assimilation. By foregrounding the interconnection between gender and tea, women assume an intrinsic role in the development and fluctuations of imperial trajectories. Fundamentally, tea encapsulated increasing modern consuming pleasures of discovery. 

Europeans adopted, appropriated, and altered Asian tea culture in order to construct an expansive consumer demand for tea in Britain and other modernising global economies, along with an intensive plantation system of agriculture and labour in Asian and African colonial territories. Development of class power structures in relation to tea consumption were distinctive, with new fashionability embroiled in discourse regarding the exploitative nature of empire. From international advertising to political lobbying, the historical emergence of tea as a commodity of global connections underpins modern frameworks of political, public and international economic interconnection. Tea is ultimately a complex social and cultural commodity, reflective of particular contexts yet interwoven with global flows; informing conflicts and national imperial identity. 


Image: Nathaniel Currier, The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor (1846). 

Chatterjee, Piya.  A Time for Tea: Women, Labour and Post-colonial politics on an Indian Plantation, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001. 

Ellis, Richard Coulton & Matthew Mauger, Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World. London: Reaktion, 2015. 

Ramamurthy, Anandi. Imperial Persuaders: Images of Africa and Asia in British Advertising. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. 

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