In 1946, George Orwell published an essay on a matter that is the subject of “violent disputes”—namely, the making of a “nice cup of tea.” His recommendations include warming the pot beforehand and pouring tea in the cup before adding milk. He also touches on the global reach of the beverage: tea, he explains, is “one of the mainstays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia, and New Zealand.” “China tea,” he writes, “has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays—it is economical, and one can drink it without milk—but there is not much stimulation in it.” His final point is that tea, unless drunk in the “Russian” style, must be served without sugar.

In A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World, Erika Rappaport places the consumption of tea within a larger history of empire and globalization. In the process, she explores the ways in which an ancient infusion traveled from Asia to Europe, becoming a symbol of temperance, civility, and refinement. And as Britain sought to extend its influence to Asia, it laid claim to the beverage, transforming a foreign drink into a vital part of modern British culture. Throughout the book, she describes tea’s wide influence on politics, social life, war, empire, diplomacy, commercial life, and religion.

A symbol of temperance, civility, and refinement.

When tea arrived in Europe during the seventeenth century, it was an object of conspicuous consumption. England developed a taste for the leaf later than its continental peers, after the restoration of the British monarchy. According to one story, the East India Company curried favor with Charles II by giving him two pounds of tea. Others suggest that Charles’s queen, Catherine de Braganza, made tea fashionable (a 1663 poem, “On Tea,” written for her birthday, honored “the best of queens, and the best of herbs”). Tea, like coffee and chocolate, gradually became a central part of English culture, politics, and economics. The tea trade became a motivating force behind the rise of English maritime life and a popular cargo for smugglers. It also provided new retail opportunities as tea shops emerged, including, in 1717, Thomas Twining’s retail tea shop for female shoppers. By the middle of the eighteenth century, prices were low enough that tea was consumed by members of the lower classes, with some critics decrying the fact that the foreign substance was being consumed by every “Lady, Lord, and common punk.”

Indeed, there was no unanimity regarding the effect of tea on British society. For some the drink served as an antidote to Britain’s widespread overconsumption of ale. Tea was a symbol of temperance and moderation. For others it signaled decadence. In 1822, the radical journalist William Cobbett decried tea as the drink of the idle. He called it “a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth and maker of misery for old age.” “There is no useful strength in it,” he declared, “it communicates no strength to the body . . . [and] does not in any degree assist in affording what labour demands.”

Of course, although tea rapidly became a central part of British society, it was not initially a British commodity. The transformation of the world’s perception of British culture seems to have resulted from Britain’s taking an active role in the crop’s production with the discovery of tea in Assam. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, the Raj offered Britain the opportunity to compete with China. During a time when trade wars were evolving into military wars between the two empires, the tea trade provided a valuable commodity for Britain and a source of national pride, even as the global production and sale of Assam tea went hand-in-hand with certain cruelties of British imperialism. Tea originally may have moved from East to West, but by the end of the nineteenth century, Britain was sending tea back to the East and around the world.

Patience and attention to minutiae are essential parts of tea culture.

For Rappaport, tea provides a framework for examining subjects ranging from the Depression and the World Wars, to advertising and decolonization. Her book is tremendously detailed and clearly the result of painstaking research. A Thirst for Empire is not light reading, however. Indeed, Rappaport’s desire to engage with academic literature often leaves her narrative feeling a bit oversteeped in historiographical debates. She writes with hesitant prose, seeming to fear that at any moment her narrative may be subject to attack from one or another group of scholars who may feel slighted by being overlooked. In addition, there is a didactic quality to the text, given her focus on “how global capitalism has produced both ideologies of internationalism and multiple articulations of nationalism and racism.” It is certainly true that Britain’s relationship to tea reflects its changing self-conception as a nation and empire, and the ways in which a commodity can affect politics and society. One wonders, however, whether her extensive research and compelling stories could have reflected her thesis more deftly.

The patient reader will find A Thirst for Empire informative and thought-provoking. Patience and attention to minutiae are, of course, essential parts of tea culture. To quote Orwell again, “It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 3, on page 61
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