A story of tea, the Opium Wars, and early globalisation

The BBC In Our Times podcasts “Tea” (2004) and “The Opium Wars” (2007) are a fascinating insight into the interrelated historical journeys of tea and opium and the early development of global capitalism. Originating in and solely sourced from China, European contact with tea in the early sixteenth century paved the way for it later becoming Britain’s first mass commodity and a core component of its national identity. From 1660 onwards, the British East India Company’s dealings with local merchants in the port of Canton provided a foothold into trade with China and its produce of tea. Tea became one of numerous exotic and luxury commodities introduced into Britain from around the world in the expectation that some would appeal to consumers and generate a profit. Tea, coffee, sugar, and tobacco all grew in demand – promoted, in a partnership between commerce and medicine, as medicinal products. While at the end of the seventeenth century, tea drinking in Britain was the preserve of the aristocratic elite, by 1750 there had been a huge increase in the importation and consumption of tea. The mass success of the tea commodity was in conjunction with that of the sugar commodity: Chinese black tea became domesticated as British with the addition of milk and sugar. Sweet hot milky tea satisfied a demand for a non-alcoholic energising beverage that was easy to prepare. Two interconnected trading triangles and systems accordingly developed, signifying the emergence of a global economy by 1750: one, trading in tea, connecting Britain to India to China back to Britain; the other, trading in sugar, connecting Britain to the continent of Africa to the West Indies back to Britain; both plugged into one another.

“… you have Africans imported in their millions by the British … to produce sugar which you mix with Chinese tea to slate the natural thirst of even the lowest income people of this country …” (BBC In Our Times: Tea, 2004)

The problem for British traders in the eighteenth century was paying for tea. China wanted and needed very little from Britain in exchange, so an unbalanced tea trade was paid for with a depleting stock of silver. Silver represented a further global movement: originating in the silver mines of Central and South America and transported via the trading triangles of the colonial empires into China; China being known at this time as “the silver grave of the world” (BBC In Our Times: The Opium Wars, 2007). A crucial development in paying for tea was the British control of the territory and revenue of Bengal in the 1760s, which generated a considerable surplus revenue; between 1750 and 1780, British investment in Indian textiles (namely, cotton) were exported to Canton, providing proceeds to pay for tea. It is at this point in the story of tea that opium enters the picture.

The Portuguese Empire first discovered and shipped opium to China; it also introduced the practice of smoking from the New World, turning opium consumption from a medicinal to a pleasure product. By the 1770s and 1780s opium was in great demand in the country, despite being banned by the Qing Dynasty for reasons of social control. Opium was desirable both as a consumable good and, for traders, as a portable currency, preferable to heavy copper and a shortage of silver. The British East India Company not only had a monopoly on the production of opium in India, its Patna opium was highly demanded because of its known superior quality. The Company, whilst publicly stating its adherence to the Qing Dynasty’s opium ban, oversaw private British traders dealing opium into China; the receipt of which was paid into its treasury.

Manufacture of opium in India (Wikimedia Commons)

This late eighteenth century rise in the trade of (Indian) opium offset the trade deficit between Britain and China and paid for the British addiction to (Chinese) tea.

The 1839 burning of opium at Humen (part of an organised crackdown endorsed by the Qing Dynasty) actually benefited private British traders, since, before this event, the country was inundated with opium driving down its price, while after, its price soared. What followed was the First Opium War (1839-1842): a spectacular military response by the British that used the latest technology of the time, armour-plated steamers, which led to Chinese defeat, the Nanking Treaty (opening port cities, or treaty ports, to foreign trade) and the territorial concession of Hong Kong. The Second Opium War (1856-1860) was both a further defeat for China and a further opening of treaty ports to foreign imperial powers. The rise of Chinese nationalism following the Opium Wars turned an anti-opium failure into a discourse of anti-opium hero; a narrative that remains a key part of Chinese national identity against the West.

Second Opium War (Wikimedia Commons)

Other national identities were bound up with this story of early globalisation. The export of tea from Britain to North America in the early eighteenth century, and its demand and consumption, was part of how American colonial elites defined themselves. However, when the British government imposed taxes on this tea trade in the 1760s, the response was non-importation of tea and throwing tea into Boston harbour, known as the Boston Tea Party. This anti-tax protest was also an anti-British protest. In the early years of the Republic, America was self-consciously on a course to becoming a coffee drinking, not a tea drinking, nation.

Boston Tea Party (Wikimedia Commons)

The problem of only being able to supply tea from China was eventually resolved by turning to India. Although the British East India Company was involved in early trials to grow tea elsewhere, the loss of its monopoly in India in 1813 explains its reluctance to heavily invest in tea production there, since it would be undercut by private tea growers. What’s more, the Company maintained its monopoly in China until 1833. Once the monopolies in both India and China ceased, tea production in India (notably, Assam) significantly developed.

Reflecting on the BBC In On Times podcasts, the historical and interwoven journeys of tea and opium provide a story on the construction of national identities during a period of early globalisation, in which such national identities are themselves the distinct products of globalisation. This story is also an insight into the emergence of a genuinely global economy: its centre and peripheries, and its peculiarities and forced economic and social resolutions. The story of the Opium Wars is actually the story of tea, and the story of tea is in fact the story of capital relentlessly pushing geographical boundaries and abiding no limits.



BBC (2004). In Our Times: Tea, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004y24y

BBC (2007). In Our Times: The Opium Wars, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00776k9