Tea has a rich and well-documented past. The beverage originated in Asia long before making its way to seventeenth-century London, where it became an exotic, highly sought after commodity. Over the subsequent two centuries, tea’s powerful psychoactive properties seduced British society, becoming popular across the nation from castle to cottage. Now the world’s most popular drink, tea was one of the first truly global products to find a mass market, with tea drinking now stereotypically associated with British identity.
Imported by the East India Company in increasing quantities across the eighteenth century, tea inaugurated the first regular exchange between China and Britain, both commercial and cultural. While European scientists struggled to make sense of its natural history and medicinal properties, the delicate flavour profile and hot preparation of tea inspired poets, artists and satirists. Becoming central to everyday life, tea was embroiled in controversy, from the gossip of the domestic tea table to the civil disorder occasioned by smuggling, and the political scandal of the Boston Tea Party to the violent conflict of the Anglo–Chinese Opium War. Such stories shaped the contexts for the imperial tea industry that later developed across India and Sri Lanka. Empire of Tea is based on extensive original research, providing a rich cultural history that explores how the British ‘way of tea’ became the norm across the Anglophone world.
‘a stimulating and attractively illustrated history’ – History Today
‘The authors adopt three lenses – poetic, botanic and gendered – to view tea’s growing influence on British daily life, weaving together an impressive array of sources. The plentiful visual material (seventy-seven illustrations in all) beautifully bolsters the detailed narrative . . . For those tempted to begin the tale of British tea-drinking with the Opium Wars, or with the establishment of Indian tea plantations, this book offers a richly textured history of the “empire” that preceded, and long outgrew, those events.’ – TLS
‘It’s a story of great scope. The genre of “The Food/Drink/Condiment that Made the Modern World” has become a cliché, and many performances of this sort are shallow, overstated or merely cute. But in the right hands, telling the history of foodstuffs and foodways responds to current calls for histories of wider scope: histories of the longue durée; of global exchanges and contacts between cultures; and of the relations between human doings, things and the environment. Empire of Tea is an important example, sometimes brilliantly told . . . a history of modernity told through one of its consumable commodities.’
– London Review of Books
‘“Tea” has at least five meanings: the shrub Camellia sinensis; its leaf; the dried commodity; the infusion made from it; and the occasion for consuming the infusion. As Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger show in this stimulating volume, history is steeped in the stuff.’ – Nature
‘The authors of this fascinating history tell the brew’s history from a gendered, botanic and poetic point of view. And all three lenses are relevant since tea became the personal realm of dreamy Duchesses who debated endlessly on the different types, while the famous opium eater Thomas De Quincey referred to his drug of choice ecstatically as “bewitched water”, thinking that it generated a kind of tea . . . Accompanying this excellent narrative is a wealth of visual material from across the ages . . . the sheer wealth of information in the book is to be savoured over a refreshing cup of tea – whether Darjeeling, oolong, or Assam, is up to the reader.’ – Outlook Traveller
‘In their focus on just one commodity – tea – the authors have offered a fine study of a plant that has, as they argue, “shaped the patterns and practices of global modernity” . . . The book is more than just a history of tea-drinking. It also offers insights into the global connections facilitated by this one plant. The title is no coincidence. Empire of tea suggests that tea was an active agent in the development of empire. It created its own “empire” of consumers, but it also offers another window on to the empire of the East India Company.’ – Archives of Natural History
‘Empire of Tea is a beautifully produced volume, outstanding at first sight for its seventy-seven exquisitely reproduced illustrations, fourteen of them in colour. This is such an unusual luxury these days in a scholarly work that Reaktion Books has to be lauded for offering such gorgeously rare images to the book’s authors and readers. Empire of Tea’s text is no less polished than its visuals, as they together animate the discourses and representations that surrounded and popularized tea in the British Isles and eventually for British diasporas hundreds of thousands of miles away from the lands where it was grown.’ – Canadian Journal of History
‘From the Boston Tea Party to the PG Tips chimpanzees’ tea party, this fascinating history is well researched and entertainingly written in a beautifully produced book. Just the book, in fact, to enjoy, as this reviewer did, with his afternoon tea.’ – Historic Gardens Review
‘Empire of Tea is not only thoroughly researched and written in a manner so that anyone will appreciate the rich story of tea behind what we take for granted, but the book’s illustrations from paintings and sketches are quite outstanding. Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger have produced one of the most gripping historical and contemporary writings I have encountered in a long while.’ – Methodist Recorder
‘The world history of tea is an enormous project – one that a single book cannot pretend to accomplish. The strength of this book is in its narrower fo-cus on the cultural history of the incorporation and transformation of tea into British society, primarily in the eighteenth century. As the authors show, this is the crucial century – though understudied until now – for understanding how tea came to be a central force in British society. This is a ﬁne addition to the myriad histories of foodways and cultural commodities, on a food commodity that perhaps more than any other formed an empire.’ – Food, Culture & Society
‘The authors take us on a wonderful journey to view tea’s role in empire-building by Britain and the response by the colonised . . . Today, the use of the tea-bag has made tea-drinking more convenient and more efficient, but one wonders whether it has come at the expense of something valuable – that is, in the disappearance of the semi-ritualised preparation of the brew and the reflectiveness it had evoked in the performer of the ritual. Empire of Tea returns us to that space of contemplation. It is a deeply rewarding book not just for the aficionados of tea but also for someone like me, a devotee of coffee.’ – Open Magazine, India
‘a thoroughly researched book on the history of tea . . . shows how the world’s greatest powers fought to gain “control over a simple beverage that became an enduring pastime.”’ – Kolkata Telegraph
‘Empire of Tea is an extensively researched volume, which provides a rich cultural history that explores how the British “way of tea” became the norm across the Anglophone world . . . In a nutshell, this book emcompasses the aromatic history of tea making its inroads into the British household.’ – Uday India Magazine
‘a gripping read . . . the book is a great read for a lazy Sunday afternoon. And the reading experience can only be enhanced further if you can somehow complement it with a few cups of hot tea.’ – Sunday Guardian Live, India
‘Empire of Tea is an intoxicating brew. Marshalling a dizzying array of archival material from nearly 400 years of English tea-drinking, the authors of this deeply erudite, highly readable and often very funny book have written the definitive history of the most sober yet intoxicating of beverages . . . a triumphant and authoritative account of the inescapably foreign, yet indispensably English, object and act that we call tea.’ – Jerry Brotton, Professor of Renaissance Studies, Queen Mary, University of London
‘Empire of Tea is a wonderfully wide-ranging and illuminating study of tea (the commodity, the drink, its rituals, its associations) that combines a long-term history of its changing place in the national, imperial and global economy with fascinating insights into how it became embedded in British culture…commodity histories tell us not just about our material life, but reveal the dynamics of culture. Empire of Tea is one of the best.’ – John Brewer, Eli and Edye Broad Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology
‘Deeply researched and elegantly written, Empire of Tea is as refreshing as its subject, transporting the reader on a voyage of discovery into the complex and often surprising history of the leaf that conquered the world.’ – Richard Hamblyn, Birkbeck, University of London.
Markman Ellis is Professor of Eighteenth-century Studies at Queen Mary, University of London.
Richard Coulton is a lecturer in the Department of English, Queen Mary, University of London.
Matthew Mauger is a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London.
To view the authors’ blog on the history of tea please click here.