One of the most important technological breakthroughs of the 18th century occurred in 1771 when the British inventor Richard Arkwright developed a “spinning frame” that could weave textiles. This breakthrough was one of the earliest milestones in the Industrial Revolution, the period during which machines performed an increasingly large portion of labor—manufacturing, delivery, etc. Arkwright became so successful that he was able to open a series of mills where workers controlled spinning frames as they produced clothing. Arkwright gave his workers regular tea breaks. Tea, he found, was a sensible drink, because it was sterile (water had to be boiled) and easy to prepare. Because tea became popular in mills, cases of dysentery and other water-spread diseases went down dramatically in the 18th century.
As with coffee, wine, and beer, tea was a safe alternative to ordinary water, because it didn’t spread bacterial diseases. Standage also argues that tea was a popular drink for workers during the Industrial Revolution. This is a somewhat surprising argument, as coffee seems more conducive for workers than tea does, since coffee is celebrated for stimulating alertness. There is also the fact that in contemporary times coffee is considered the preferred drink for workers, while tea, by contrast, is a drink for leisure and relaxation. Nevertheless, Standage backs up his points with evidence.
The popularity of tea encouraged the Industrial Revolution in many ways. Not only were workers given tea at factories and mills, but the demand for tea itself helped to foster a huge industry of ceramics. Potters like Josiah Wedgwood produced fine porcelain using new industrial techniques. Soon, British porcelain became renowned throughout Europe, eclipsing even the porcelain of China.
The rise of the art of porcelain in England reflected the country’s growing clout when compared with China. By trying to beat China at its own game, England was also attempting to make a bid for world power, usurping China’s status as the center of culture, technology, and military might.
In general, the Industrial Revolution took place in Britain for many reasons: a proud scientific tradition, a strong work ethic, large supplies of coal, etc. But the demand for tea also played a small but important role in the era: tea was a sterile, healthy drink that ensured a steady supply of strong, capable workers.
Standage makes another tenuous claim, but remains modest in his argument. Tea certainly did not “cause” the Industrial Revolution, but it played some part in it by providing a steady supply of healthy, focused workers who could man machines and work in factories.
For more than two centuries, the British East India Company was one of the most powerful organizations in the world. This company was responsible for obtaining tea supplies from around the world, colonizing entire countries to do so. The company’s influence was so great that it could often influence Britain’s foreign policy. One famous example of this occurred in the 1770s. The British East India Company feared that smuggled tea would become so popular in the American colonies that smugglers would put the company out of business. As a result, the company convinced the British crown to tax tea heavily. The long-term goal was to lower the price of tea transportation, thereby making tea smuggling impractical. But this turned out to be a huge mistake, since in the short-term tea prices went up enormously. Colonists were so furious with the new taxes that they organized the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773, during which three full shiploads of tea were dumped into Boston Harbor. The controversy over tea prices, instigated by the British East India Company’s control over the British crown, played a decisive role in bringing about the American Revolution.
Standage jumps back to the American Revolution, which he’d earlier described in the chapters on spirits. This reminds us that while Standage is ostensibly writing a chronological history of the world, the chronologies of his beverages overlap with one another. In other words, it’s not correct to say that tea was the “defining drink” of one era, and coffee was the defining drink of another—these two eras overlapped, and plenty of people drank both tea and coffee, or neither. In this section, Standage reiterates the challenges of ruling a colony from overseas—a recurring theme in his chapters on tea. Nations often depend upon excessive taxes to control their colonies, but the danger of such taxes is that they create resentment and frustration in the colonists, and may even spark a revolution—this is exactly what happened in America (and later in China).
By the 1780s, the British East India Company was in good shape, largely because new sources of tea resulted in lower tea prices throughout the British Empire. These low prices made tea smuggling obsolete, and greatly increased company profits. As the company grew in size, it began to focus more on land control. In India, the company seized huge land territories and set up administrative governments in the name of the British Empire. One side effect of these changes was that the British East India Company became less invested in trade—as a result, other mercantile companies became more powerful. Nevertheless, the company continued to wield great power throughout the empire.
The British East India Company wielded a huge amount of control outside the Western world—arguably more than any modern corporation does. Even Edmund Burke, one of the founders of modern conservatism, made a famous series of speeches in which he condemned the company’s tyranny in India, and argued that no corporation should have so much power unchecked. Standage is clearly in his element here, as a writer and editor for The Economist.
In the early 19th century, the British East India Company faced a new challenge. The company became heavily involved in the illicit trading of opium in China. Although opium was a powerful and dangerous narcotic that had been banned in China, the company traded many tons of opium with Chinese citizens under the table, and opium became an important part of the company’s affairs. It was believed that Britain should have a balance of trade with China because it purchased so much tea from China. As a result, opium quickly became the commodity that Britain exchanged with China in return for tea. Because opium trading was officially illegal in China, the British East India Company hid its tracks by bribing officials and laundering money through Indian companies.
In this disturbing passage, Standage echoes his descriptions of colonists’ relations with the Native Americans. Just as colonists knew it was in their interest to weaken the Native Americans with alcohol, the British knew that they benefited when Chinese people incapacitated themselves by smoking opium. Standage is writing world history from the perspective of the European countries, but this hardly means that he glorifies Europe unconditionally. It’s not difficult to condemn Britain for using opium to maintain its trading advantage with China.
By the 1830s, the British East India Company traded huge volumes of opium every year—its financial standing depended on the trade, in fact. In 1838, the emperor of China sent Commissioner Tze-su to crack down on opium trading in the country. Tze-su, recognizing that British businessmen were entirely responsible for the opium trade, decided to shut down China to all British businessmen. This launched the Opium War of 1839-42, during which the British Empire fought with China for the right to trade freely in China. Britain defeated China so resoundingly that it was able to establish no less than five ports in China, claim Hong Kong as its own territory, and demand a huge reparation payment in the form of silver. All of this was humiliating for China, which as late as the 1700s was the wealthiest and most sophisticated country on the planet. The demand for tea had thus changed British foreign policy—and world history.
In this section, Standage launches one of his most compelling critiques of imperialism and of European foreign policy in the 19th century. The whims of the people of Britain—a desire to drink more tea—resulted in a short but bloody war that reversed China’s status as the world’s greatest military and cultural power. This is perhaps the greatest flaw in imperialism—it creates situations in which one group’s whims (here, the British people’s need for a certain drink) are weighed more highly than another group’s livelihood (the Chinese people’s desire to live in peace and autonomy, and without the influence of opium).
Although Britain had fought an entire war to ensure its ability to trade opium—and thus consume tea from China—it also pursued ways of growing its own tea. In the early 1800s, it was suggested that tea could be cheaply shipped and grown in Java or India, a major British colony. British officials particularly liked the notion of growing tea in India because it meant the creation of new jobs for Indians, and new sources of wealth for British businessmen. The irony of these calculations was that there already was tea in India, in the region of Assam. Tea bushes had grown in Assam for hundreds of years. When this was discovered in the late 1820s, it was hailed as the most important agricultural breakthrough in British history.
Much as the Europeans learned how to grow their own supplies of coffee in Indonesia, the English worked hard to grow their own supplies of tea outside China, thereby gaining economic independence from their great rival in the East. It’s a mark of tea’s importance in English culture that the discovery of tea bushes in the 1820s was hailed as a monumental breakthrough in British agriculture. The British, one might say, depended on tea almost as much as addicts depended on opium.
Although the British Empire knew that it could grow tea in Assam, it wasn’t clear how tea bushes should be cultivated to ensure maximum production. Charles Bruce, a talented explorer and adventurer, spent more than twenty years learning the best ways to grow tea by interviewing local farmers. Armed with Bruce’s research, the British Empire raised large sums of money from investors with the goal of establishing a thriving tea industry in India. This new Assam Company, a major international company by the 1850s, employed Chinese tea experts in order to ensure success in Assam. Throughout the 1850s, the company’s profits were low, but by the 1860s it had become highly successful, making clever use of industrial innovations like the steam engine and the assembly line. By the 1880s, Britain derived most of its tea from India, not China.
It’s startling that Britain was able to transition from Chinese tea to Indian tea in only a few decades. In many ways, this is a testament to British ingenuity in matters of agriculture and technology. Standage doesn’t hesitate to praise the British Empire for these reasons, even if he takes issue with the basic idea of brutally exploiting China and India for their resources. This “balanced” look at imperialism in the 19th century (praise for the science and technology, criticism of the tyranny and cruelty) is typical of Standage’s book as a whole: he tries to stay apolitical, and though his perspective is Eurocentric, he generally remains objective.
At present, India is still the world’s biggest producer of tea, thanks in no small part to the work of Charles Bruce. India is also the world’s leading consumer of tea (23 percent), followed by China. While Britain itself consumes only 6 percent of the world’s tea, it’s no coincidence that many of the world’s largest consumers of the drink—India, New Zealand, and Australia—are former British colonies. By contrast, the U.S. drinks relatively little tea. While tea was fairly popular in the 19th century, coffee has been far more popular ever since lowered tariffs in the 1830s made it cheaper to buy. In conclusion, Britain’s love affair with tea can be seen all over the world in its colonies—in a way, the popularity of tea around the world is one of the last signs of the huge political and military power the British Empire once held.
By this point, the book’s structural pattern is obvious—Standage ends each of his chapters with a summary of his main points, and with a description of how the events of the past continue to manifest themselves in people’s drinks today. But Standage’s conclusion in this chapter is more poignant than its counterparts in the earlier sections. The prominence of tea in India, Australia, etc. isn’t just a reminder of British naval power—it’s also a reminder of British cruelty, treachery, and tyranny across the world.