Friday, July 16, 2010

Tea on the High Seas

By Jess Hodges

The story of tea in the UK is in no small part the story of the success of the East India Company. Granted it's charter in 1600 with the intention of trading with the East Indies the company ended up doing the majority of it's business with India and China. This was the beginning of a success so great that the company actually came to rule large portions of India for many years.

The company history is rife with blood and intrigue, The East India Trading Company featuring in the film franchise Pirates of the Caribbean is a tribute to it's past. While the company in the films is primarily a work of fiction, the influence that it exerts is a fairly accurate portrayal. At one time the East India Company accounted for 50% of the worlds trade on it's own and it's political influence in the UK was extensive.

Battles on the high seas weren't entirely a product of the film maker's imagination either. The company's influence in India began when a strategic foothold was needed from which to more effectively wage war with rival Dutch and Portuguese trading ships.

The company was largely responsible for promoting tea in the UK in the sixteen hundreds. It's ships were sailing out to China with holds full of manufactured goods to trade but were returning half empty. Tea was chosen to fill the gap and was sold in Britain as a health tonic originally before becoming increasingly popular until by 1750 it was the national drink.

In order to pay for this tea the company needed to find a new, high value product to export to China. They settled on opium, smuggled into the country from Bengal to circumvent the ban on it's import. It was a decision which resulted in the addiction of many Chinese citizens and eventually the opium wars and the British seizure of Hong Kong.

The East India Company was eventually abolished after it's rule in India, which had become increasingly exploitative, lead to an uprising. Having redefined world trade and catapulted the British Empire to even greater heights of global power the company left it's mark forever on the history of many countries and products.

Yet another thing to muse on while enjoying your next cup of tea.


Hillary said...

The health benefits of tea are widespread and well-publicised; from fighting cancer, to lowering cholesterol, fighting allergies and lowering blood pressure. UK is dependent in tea.