As a valuable commodity that was traded between East and West, tea holds an important place in the history of the British Empire. Since the early 18th century, the East India Company had been making large profits through their monopoly of the tea trade from China. Tea was shipped in significant quantities not only to Britain but also to the North American colonies, where it was appreciated as a product of ‘polite’ European culture. 

During the 1760s, however, the British government sought to eliminate competition and control the profits of the tea trade to America, passing legislation which required colonists to import their tea solely from Britain while imposing a number of tax acts. This ill-judged decision and the penalisation of those who drank smuggled tea had severe political consequences. In 1773, a series of revolts against the tea tax, known as ‘tea parties’, took place in American cities. The most famous of these was the Boston Tea Party, when the revolutionaries Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty boarded three British ships in Boston harbour and threw the precious cargo of tea overboard into the sea.

W.D. Cooper. Boston Tea Party in The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789. Engraving. Plate opposite p. 58. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

The 342 chests of tea that had belonged to the East India Company held more than 90,000 lbs. of tea, which would cost nearly $1,000,000 today. These revolts were an act of collective resistance to British Imperial authority and ultimately pushed the two countries ever closer to the American War of Independence.

Up until the mid-19th century, all of the tea consumed in Europe and the colonies was shipped from China. The British were still entirely dependent on the cooperation of the Chinese Emperor, who insisted that the tea was to be paid for with silver bullion. This created a problematic trade imbalance, leading the East India Company to consider trading secretly with another commodity: opium that was grown in India. Notwithstanding the moral and ethical concerns and the political dangers of this policy, the levels of opium traded with China rose rapidly during the 1830s, reaching 30,000 chests per annum by 1836.

By the end of the 1830s, the British tea trade was effectively underwritten by the value of opium. It was not long, however, before the Chinese authorities began to respond to halt this illegal trade. In May 1839 an estimated 2.6 million pounds of opium were seized and dissolved in the Pearl River delta and all trading with the British was frozen. In retaliation, the British invaded China and secured a decisive victory in what is now popularly known as the Opium War (1839-1842). The flow of tea from China to Europe was resumed until 1856, when Britain and France launched the Second Opium War (1856-1860), which further weakened the Chinese government and gave Britain greater power and new territories in Asia. The Chinese Emperor fled and the Summer Palace was looted by British troops.

CCN 253. Pair of bowls, China, Qianlong Period, 1736-1780. These two bronze bowls have labels on the underside reading: ‘Taken from Summer Palace Pekin 1860’. They were looted from the Summer Palace as part of the events that ended the Second Opium War (1856-60).

The British dependence on China also led the East India Company to search for an alternative source of tea. Initially the Company planned to smuggle tea plants from China to Europe but during the 1830s it was discovered that there were uncultivated tea plants growing naturally in Assam, a province of India and part of the British Empire. This was an incredible opportunity to relocate tea cultivation to an area under British control and the Company were quick to seize it. The first chests of Assam tea were shipped to London in January 1839 and over the following decades production soared.

CCN 1351. Teapot and stand, Burgess and Leigh, Staffordshire, England, 1896.
Traditionally, teawares copied Chinese shapes and decoration, however during the height of the British Empire, Indian scenes were favoured. This novelty teapot and stand are decorated with an elephant and hunting dogs.

CCN 156. Tea caddy, Vizagapatam, India, ca.1780-1820.
India had also become an important source of luxury commodities. This little ivory tea caddy was made in Vizagapatam, a port on the east coast of India known for its luxury cabinet work.

By the turn of the 20th century, Chinese tea had almost completely disappeared from the market while Indian tea had become firmly established. However, as the British made huge profits from their Indian tea plantations, the local inhabitants suffered under an indenture system that bound workers to the plantations under a penal contract. When Ghandi later came to unite ordinary Indians against British oppression, thousands of tea workers threw their support behind his campaign.