Brought in Europe only after the sixteenth century, the trade of tea (Chinese, and much later, Indian) emerged with the discovery of channels connecting the West to the East. Termed tcha, Portuguese merchants first came in contact with this beverage in China.

 

The history of sipping on a cup of tea in the West is rife with subversive politics, even in the context of Europe. Way before the inception of dainty little tea houses, consumption of tea was looked upon as a threatening influence over prevalent values in the Western world.

Brought in Europe only after the sixteenth century, the trade of tea (Chinese, and much later, Indian) emerged with the discovery of channels connecting the West to the East. Termed tcha, Portuguese merchants first came in contact with this beverage in China.

The earliest shipment was when the Dutch East India Company shipped a cargo of tea from Macao to Java. The growing popularity of tea in the Netherlands later contributed to the inception of the beverage in Germany France and even New York, America.

What ensued in 1662 when the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza wedded King Charles II of England and brought in her love for tea to the country has ever since turned into a national sport. The great divide amongst enthusiasts and critics notwithstanding, tea percolated down to every strata of English society, gathering more and more detractors in the process. Gentleman’s Magazine opined:

Were it entirely wholesome as balm or mint, it were yet mischief enough to have our whole populace used to sip warm water in a mincing effeminate manner once or twice a day…in this manner the bold and brave become dastardly, the strong become weak, the women become barren; or if they breed, their blood is made so poor that they have not the strength to suckle, and if they do, the child dies of the gripes.

From reservations against the addictive quality of tea to xenophobic declarations of its origin, the growing anxiety regarding tea consumption touched various Georgian tropes and foreshadowed the imminent social revolution in England. With the Industrial Revolution next, and the multifarious changes in social justice, a higher quality of living became the aim for people of all classes. Drinking good tea became a symbol of good living and the practice even managed to inspire in its consumers a sense of revolution.

In effect, drinking tea offered a glorious opportunity to women, to set up a rendezvous and enjoy conversations while sticking the kettle on. Indeed such an innocuous practice was not left alone as is evident in how one pamphlet promulgates, “the times will never be good till poor men leave off whiskey, and poor women tea.” Unhindered by the criticism, the gradual emergence of inexpensive tea shops, the perfect place of congregation sans prying eyes, only took women’s liberation forward and aided the Suffrage Movement eventually. For instance, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, the famous suffragette used to hold fundraising tea parties to garner more support for the cause of suffrage.

Not deferred by denigrators and their growing fear of “domestic instability,” “laziness” and “irresponsibility,” Penelope Barker of Edenton, North Carolina organized a tea party in the fall of 1774 where fifty one eminent women (and enthusiastic tea drinkers, one would assume) pledged to not drink a drop of tea until “[a]ll acts which tend to enslave our Native Country shall be repealed,” thus nudging towards the American Revolution.

The world has come a long way from the times of perpetual tea-hate. Tea has ceased to be a symbol of unthinking tragic luxury as in Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth and has traversed to a point where Neil Gaiman asks “Honestly, if you’re given the choice between Armageddon or tea, you don’t say ‘what kind of tea?'”

 

Srishti Dutta Chowdhury

Srishti Dutta Chowdhury

Srishti Dutta Chowdhury is a Charles Wallace Scholar for Creative Writing in the University of Edinburgh (2016) and student of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University. She is a poet, photographer and avid translator.

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