The Global Pull of Tea
Earlier this spring, Robin Donovan, one of our Education Associates, debuted a new special tour at the Old State House. A good deal of research goes into the development of a new tour, and in a series of two posts, Robin shares her work with our readers, giving a virtual tour to those who can't visit us in person. In this post, she examines the global impact of tea.
People in the Western world first became aware of tea in the mid-1600s but it didn't grow in popularity in Britain until an economic boom in the 1720s. Even then, tea was still very expensive and was only enjoyed by the rich and powerful - but that would change as the increase in tea sales would promote importing more and more tea.
Chinese tea growers responded to this need by growing and cultivating more tea. This was a trade that was as profitable to them as it was to the merchants importing and exporting it. In the Wu Yi province, bohea (boo-hee) tea was one of the only profitable plants that could thrive in the area, and tea growers took full advantage of that opportunity.
The British East India Company was the only company in Britain who traded with the East Indies. This monopoly worked to their advantage for the most part, but they had to pay taxes to the British government to maintain it. To keep it profitable they got raw material and tax money out of Bengal, India, then used the taxes collected in Bengal to purchase tea and other goods from China. Those goods would then go back to England to be auctioned off, and money from those auctions would be used to pay the ship captains and crews. This cycle worked until a massive drought hit Bengal in 1768.
Needing the money from Bengal to pay for tea meant that the East India Company continued to tax the people of Bengal through the drought. Unfortunately, this meant the economy couldn’t recover and the money ran out. While the resources in Bengal were drying up, the East India Company had begun to give IOUs to the Chinese to pay for the tea. However, those IOUs would come back to Britain to be repaid and when they did, their timing was unfortunate. The East India Company had finally hit a ceiling on the amount of tea people could drink.
The Tea Act of 1773 was the British government’s way of trying to handle this situation. They thought sending the tea to America, where tea was a popular beverage, would solve the East India Company’s problems. But they were insistent on leaving in place a 3-penny tax left over from the Townshend Duties. There was concern in the American colonies that this tax was an effort to treat colonists as inferior to those in England. Colonists believed they were at risk of being subjugated to British demands no matter the cost, like Bengal had been. This was seen as a form of slavery and was one of many reasons that prompted the Boston Tea Party.