Tea is associated in the cultural imagination with Britain and the British way of life. Yet the habit of drinking a hot infusion of the leaves of Camellia sinensis is comparatively recent. The history of Britain’s obsession with tea is usually traced to the nineteenth-century plantations of colonial India and the dramatic races between tea-clippers. Yet these aspects of tea’s story were the effect – rather than the cause – of the widespread demand for tea. The cultural history of tea in Britain begins properly in the seventeenth century, and the key international relationship it describes is that with China.
Between 1650 and 1850, tea became a major commodity within systems of international commerce, conducted as a long-distance oceanic trade across the world. During this period, almost all tea was sourced from China (with small quantities coming from Japan). So even while tea-drinking took place at home in a china cup, this everyday practice represented an important encounter between Britain and the wider world.
Eighteenth-century Britons experienced tea as an exotic innovation; it was at first rare and very expensive; it was a drug with powerful psychoactive properties. Yet unlike coffee, its great rival amongst hot drinks, its flavour profile was subtle and complex, engendering the language of connoisseurship and refinement in its consumers. All this made the emergence of tea-drinking in Britain a complex and important cultural event, recorded variously in verse, satire, and fiction; in tracts and polemics; in archives and ledgers; and in paintings and prints.