The Dubious Development of International Trade: The Case of Tea

By Sherra Yeong

January 2023 FEATURE
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TEA AND TITTLE-TATTLE is a match akin to popcorn and movies. To be sure, the former accompaniment presents much more added value by heightening attention and improving mood during conversations[1].

In the early 17th century, the East India Company sailed back to England with what would be one of the most prized possessions – tea leaves. It was presented to King Charles II, and it was his Portuguese wife, Princess Catherine, who then made drinking tea a fashionable pastime among aristocrats. The tea trade was lucrative, with demand growing by the day. By the late 18th century, the British were importing 7,000 tonnes of tea from China with import tax levied at 119%. The average Londoner then drank around two pounds of tea per year.

Tea drinking became part and parcel of British culture and lifestyle in the 19th century, when Anna Maria Russel, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, introduced afternoon tea. But did you know that this great tea proliferation started with a shocking discovery?

Tea and social class

But before spilling the tea on tea, one must know how precious tea was to British society in those days. It was so valuable that some had it stored in a locked tea caddy, away from prying eyes and greedy hands.

It would make its appearance during afternoon tea, which was differentiated into “low tea” and “high tea”. Low tea was served around 4pm and was meant to indicate the use of low armchairs and side tables for teacups and saucers. High tea, on the other hand, was served later, around 5 to 6pm, and was composed of more elaborate offerings such as roast pork, salads and cake, all served on high tables.

Besides apparels and manner of speech, how one drinks tea would also distinguish a person of a higher social class from one of a lower rank – or of the working class. What was known as the “milk-in-first” type of person was a reference to a lower social class who would first pour a substantial amount of milk into their cups before adding tea. This way, they would not need as much tea in their cups to fill it fully. Contrariwise, the wealthy would pour tea in first, then perhaps add a dash of milk and a lump of sugar or two for flavour – or none at all.

Tea grew in popularity, making demand for it unquenchable. The British bought more and more tea from China, who in turn was not interested in British products. But The Chinese were, however, enticed to be more and more interested in imported opium over time. Opium was soon banned by the Chinese government.

A Shocking Discovery

To minimise the British's reliance on tea imported from China, in 1848, several years after the Opium War, the British East India Company sent Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, to the interior regions of China not only to learn about tea but also to obtain the best seeds for planting in India. As foreigners were forbidden in such areas, the botanist had to go incognito on an espionage expedition. He had a local helping hand, someone surnamed Wang, who had grown up on a tea plantation. He served as Fortune’s guide and negotiator on his journey through China.

Using the name, Sing Wa, and dressed in traditional Chinese clothes with a Chinese queue (long braided hair) sewn into his head, Fortune travelled north to the provinces of Zhejiang and Anhui to collect samples and gather information about green tea; then to the Bohea and Wuyi mountains in Fujian Province for black tea. One of the first things he learned was that contrary to common knowledge, green tea and black tea is not made from different plant types. They actually come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis.

Robert Fortune

But that was not all. Tucked away in a processing facility, Fortune discovered a worker grinding something in a pestle and mortar, his hands a deep shade of blue. Upon further inspection, it was found to be iron ferrocyanide, also known as Prussian blue, a substance used in the production of paints. Cyanide is well known to cause complications in the body, ranging from weakness and confusion, to seizures, coma and paralysis. Fortunately, Prussian blue is a complex molecule that is not absorbed well by the body, so its effects were diluted.

In another area, Fortune saw a man cooking something over a charcoal fire. It was a paste made from yellow powder – gypsum, or calcium sulfate dihydrate, a substance used in the production of plaster, fertiliser and hair products. Gypsum on its own is harmless. Issues arise when it breaks down into poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas, which can cause irritability, dizziness, fatigue and memory loss when consumed over a long period of time.

He was shocked at such practices and asked the reasoning behind them. According to the Chinese, the British preferred tea to look the way they are described. Black tea should look black, and green tea, well, green. They also preferred the colour of the tea to be consistent. The question was, how does one make the colour of a natural product consistent? Well, for green tea, they added blue and yellow substances to the mix.

The Tea Heist

This journey of discovery ended with Fortune smuggling 13,000 seedlings and 10,000 seeds of the best stock to Darjeeling, a town located in the eastern Himalayas. His efforts came to naught as the seedlings and seeds rotted en route. On his next trip, he utilised the Wardian case, an invention that would eventually evolve into the terrarium containers we have today, to store the seedlings for the long journey by sea.

The surviving seedlings were successfully cultivated and he hired experienced tea growers and producers to manage the plantation. It was then that tea cultivation started to flourish in India. With the secrets revealed, a new tea empire was born. China’s tea export fell tremendously and this marked the end of China’s tea monopoly and the rise in popularity of Indian tea.

Today, almost 6.5 million tonnes of tea are produced every year. Though India topped China’s tea production at the end of Fortune’s time, China is back in the game with 2.7 tonnes of tea produced in 2019[2]. So the next time you sip on a cup of tea, remember its colourful history, and its journey towards becoming a universal drink.




Sherra Yeong

is an aspiring author with a Bachelor’s degree in Food Science and a passion for good food and wine. She writes at