When Tea Met Sugar

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The Britons passion and love for tea dates back to the early 1600s. Both tea and coffee landed in the British Isles in the 1600s but after a century, tea became the unparalleled popular choice of beverage and has successfully continued to remain so. The reason why the British began loving tea passionately is because tea met sugar and their union resulted in an irresistible beverage. But this British habit of adding sugar to tea wasn’t merely a matter of taste: It also helped steer the course of history. It affected global changes in fashion, economics as well as the unfortunate slave trade.

A Royal Endorsement

Despite being unknown in Europe, tea got an early boost of publicity in England from Catherine of Braganza, a celebrity who became the ambassador for tea. Her marriage to England’s Charles II in 1662 introduced tea among the upper classes who took to it fondly. Sugar, on the other hand, was an expensive rarity in the 1600s, consumed only by the elite upper class. Sugar was sprinkled on edibles, mixed into wine and even its raw consumption was said to increase energy levels.

Unfortunately, doctors in the 1600s launched a backlash against sugar, blaming it for rotting teeth and causing gout, resulting in sugar losing its favored place among the rich. By 1700, sugar was consumed only in moderate quantities and its display by the rich lessened.

Tulp and Tyron turn it on

The health benefits of tea were being written about by a lot of people, including the famous Dutch physician Nicholaes Tulp who was immortalized in Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson. Thomas Tyron, a nutritionist and a writer of numerous self help books detested the way sugar plantations used slaves, yet was fascinated by its sweet taste. He recommended a pinch of sugar in a ‘nonalcoholic herbal’ infusion was the best way to get a taste of sugar without risking one’s health. And what else could such an infusion be, but tea! On Tyron’s recommendation, sugar began to be taken with tea by the 1720s.

The Dark Days of Slavery

Slavery played a big role in bringing sugar to Britain. The Caribbean sugar plantations and slaves were controlled by the British and sugar produced by them transformed British cuisine, especially tea. The transformation of tea into Britain’s most popular drink was brought about by sugar produced in these plantations. Though the slave trade was terminated by the Act of 1833, the British Empire had made enough monetary profits and escalated sugar to a position of daily consumption, via tea.

A Global Economy is Born

The health benefits advertised by tea were also being done for coffee. But the twist in the tale was that coffee came from places like Yemen and Eritrea where there was little European control and ability to increase production. Tea on the other hand, came from China. The Chinese commercial system was efficient and could rapidly meet the rising demand. As the East India Company had already ventured into China, buying spices and silk, it was in a great position to buy and ship large quantities of tea. Despite tea not being a part of their empire, the British imported most of their tea from China and with the decrease in the prices of sugar, tea began to be consumed by everybody.

In India, the first tea plantation was set up in Assam in 1837 in Chabua. Assam and Darjeeling in Bengal became rapid tea producing areas, with the former becoming the leading tea producing region in the world by the end of the 19th century. (Pirates of the Caribbean character Lord Becket wasn’t wrong in prophesying “it’s just good business,” with reference to tea).

Working Class’ Warm Drink

For the working class, beer and cider had been the drinks of choice for a long time as they were calorific and analgesic, necessary requirements for grinding labor. As the beginning of the 1700s saw factories requiring labor, showing up tipsy wasn’t something laborers could risk. Tea, sweetened with sugar gave the workers enough energy to slog through the day and gave them enough warmth during a meal of tea and bread.

Rise of a Superpower

Tea and sugar together filled the British Empire’s coffers faster than a speeding bullet. By 1750, tea accounted for 1/10th of overall tax income and the annual duties on sugar imports were enough to maintain all the ships in the Imperial Navy! This huge strength of wealth allowed the British Empire to expand, colonize and remain a superpower for almost two centuries.

So, the next time you casually stir your tea with a teaspoon of sugar, imagine the centuries’ old global politics behind the sweetened drink and how an entire empire rose up in dominance, courtesy tea and sugar.

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