King's College London
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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

Tea and the British Empire

Frontispiece showing a tea plantation in Bohea, set against a a mountainous backdrop, alongside title page bordered by an image of a pagodaFrontispiece illustration of a tea plantation in Bohea, set against a a mountainous backdrop, alongside title page bordered by an image of a pagodaThough initially less popular in Britain than coffee or hot chocolate, tea, which is most commonly made from the dried leaves of the Chinese tea plant - the shrub camellia sinensis - gained in popularity throughout the 18th century.

By the 1730s import levels for tea outstripped those for coffee and by 1836 the East India Company was importing nearly 50 million pounds of tea a year, most of it from China.

In 1848 the Scottish botanist and plant hunter Robert Fortune (1812-80) was sent on a secret mission to China by the East India Company, his task being to smuggle tea plants out of the country.

As foreigners were forbidden either to purchase tea plants or to venture more than a day’s journey from the newly founded Chinese treaty ports (ports open to foreign trade), Fortune frequently disguised himself as a Chinese merchant when making his plant-hunting expeditions.

Selection of pictorial and textual advertisements for products used in the tea industry and agricultureSelection of advertisements for products used in the tea industry and agricultureHis destinations included the Bohea tea plantations, depicted in the image above, an important centre for the production of black tea. Although most of the tea plants Fortune managed to transport from China to India did not flourish after transplantation, it was later discovered that a variant of the tea shrub endemic to Assam could be cultivated successfully in India, and the Chinese monopoly of the tea trade was broken.  

The cultivation and manufacture of tea became one of the most important economic activities of the British Empire and spawned a wealth of secondary industries to serve the needs of tea planters and manufacturers.

The advertisements at the back of Crole’s Tea, shown on the left, covering such products as tea rollers, packing machines, tea leaf withering machines, pesticides, railway equipment for tea plantations, tea chests and trade journals, give some idea of the size of the tea industry by the close of the Victorian age.

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