Category Archives: scandalous history

Tea and the original Big Pharma

So you think that the history of  tea, that most civilized  of beverages, has a past as genteel as sipping ladies and silver services? Think again.

Coat of Arms of East India Company. Latin for “By the authority of King and Parliament of England.”

Since the 1600s, (when tea was introduced to Great Britain), the major importer was the East India Company, the Amazon of its day — if Amazon had its own militia,  governance, and a trade monopoly. But tea’s popularity became its problem.  China did not want to trade British goods for tea: It wanted silver.  And it wasn’t only tea the British market coveted, but fine silks and porcelain too. What to do? Answer:  opium.  

Opium poppy from India

Although the Chinese emperor banned smoking opium in the mid-18th century and  outlawed it by the 1793, the Brits, in the guise of East India company, saw a sterling opportunity.

By mid-1800s, ten million Chinese were addicted.

Since they controlled much of India, they cultivated opium from poppies and through third party suppliers, flooded the Chinese market with opium, using the profits to buy tea, silks and porcelain.   By 184O, opium paid for the entire tea trade and more than 10 million Chinese were addicted. 

The first opium war was sparked in 1839 when the Chinese destroyed more than 20,000 tea chests totally 1,400 tons of opium warehoused in Canton (Guangzhu). Then, a group of drunk British sailors killed a Chinese villager. The Chinese refused to hand over the soldiers to be tried in a British court.  British warships then  destroyed the blockade at Pearl river and captured Nanking in 1842.  The result of the Opium War led to China paying the Brits, ceding Hong Kong and increasing the number of treaty ports from one to five — including Shanghai.  It also gave Britain the right to try its citizens in British courts and granted Britain  favored nation status. This, and the second Opium War, led to the legalization of opium and to the weakening of the Qing Dynasty, that began in 1611 and was toppled by 1911.

And that, dear readers, is how tea lead to the Big Pharma of its day addicting a whole nation and destroying a dynasty.  Opium was not eradicated in China until the 1940s with ascendancy of Mao.


The Pot Thickens: Why the Boston Tea Party matters and what tea went into the harbor

tea party rally With today’s Tea Party lauding their connection to the original Boston Tea Party and dressing up as 18th century patriots at rallies, it’s time to take a look at history. While Tea Party movement rails about runaway taxes, the original impetus was about control and self governance. Then there is the elements of racism. But first, a little founding fathershistory:

 The East India Company was the multi-corporation of its day. When it was about to go under, the government of King George III bailed it out by giving the company rights to sell directly to the colonies without going through tea brokers in London. While the cost of tea went down (little tax, no middleman), thus undercutting the going rate of smuggled tea from the Netherlands, only approved wholesalers could sell it. The combination of having no say in instituting the tax and giving one company a monopoly on the tea trade was the red flag for the colonists.  Simply put, the colonists had no voice in electing those who set policy that would affect their lives. 

tea service setBut why target tea?   While tea was widely consumed across social classes, a 2010 article in American History Magazine, claims that  the fancy tea accoutrements of the upper classes and rituals redolent of pinkie bending English aristocracy, made it an easy target. Abigail Adams called it “that bainful weed.” In Boston, Dr. Thomas Young, physician to John Adams  characterized it as not just a “pernicious drug,” but a”slow poison, and has the corrosive effect upon those who handle it. I have left it off since it became political poison, and have since gained in firmness of constitution. My substitute is camomile flowers.” (Was this where tisane v. tea began to flourish?)

Who were in the original Boston Tea Party? The 116 participants were a ragtag bunch from all walks of life. Most were young: only nine were over forty; many were teenagers. Fearing for the consequences, many left town after the tea was dumped; others took word of their participation to their graves. Even Dr. Young, who was reputed to be giving a speech about the evils of tea (perhaps the aforementioned) while his fellow colonists were sharpening their tomahawks, left town shortly afterward and returned with his family to England.

tea party as indians Why did the Boston Tea Party dress up as war-whooping Indians complete with  feathers, and charcoal blackface wielding tomahawks? “Those disguised patriots were impersonating American Indians in hopes that the act of insurgency they had just committed would be blamed upon the Indians,” wrote journalist Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, in the Huffington Post.  “They certainly were not dressed in the typical patriot outfit they usually wore and not one of them was dressed as George Washington.”Journalist Tim Giago

Giago (right), a 1990 Neiman Fellow at Harvard continues: “ I remember that as an elementary student at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation we used a history book that sugar-coated, ignored or revised history as applied to Native Americans,” wrote Mr. Giago in the Huffington Post. “but I vividly recall the picture in this book of patriots disguised as Indians as they dumped boxes of tea into Boston Harbor. ”

Take a moment and think about the impact of a mob of screaming Indians wielding tomahawks. Added to this, the Indians sided with the French against the British (and the colonists) during the French Indian War, in which George Washington served as a lieutenant, and which resulted in the first taxes on the colonies to raise revenue for the cash-strapped government of King George III.

davison and newman tea Finally, many attribute the tea thrown overboard as black tea from India. Davison Newman & Co. LTD, whose tea chests were on the fated boats, market Boston Harbour Tea, a blend of Ceylon and Darjeeling. But many sources — including the Old South Meeting House museum in Boston -say the tea thrown overboard was from China, not India. It was called “bohea,” a highly oxidized almost black oolong from the famed Wuyi Mountains.







Behind the Original Boston Tea Party

boston leaflet

Common wisdom is that “taxation without representation” was the rallying cry for tossing 90,000 pounds of tea worth $1,000,000 in today’s dollars into Boston Harbor in 1773, an iconic act of civil disobedience that set the stage for the American Revolution.

But the reasons behind the dumpster party are more complicated and cast a jaundiced eye on current day teaparty dogma.

First a little background: The colonists were progressively outraged by the taxes imposed England Dares to Taxby the British Parliament. After the French Indian War (in which George Washington served as a colonel), the victorious Brits had a huge deficit and saw taxing the colonies as a way to generate revenue. This resulted in the first direct tax on the colonies, the wildly unpopular Revenue Act of 1764, which taxed imported molasses used to make rum. The new tax actually reduced the existing tax,  which colonists who smuggled sugar from Dutch West Indian largely ignored, but the provisions of the act  tightened up inspections and prosecuted violators through the admiralty, not the colonial courts, which were lenient when it came to smugglers.

skull stampNext came the infamous Stamp Act, which put a tax on every officially stamped document from licenses to diplomas. A mob sacked the palatial residence of the then Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, thought to be sympathetic to the Act. (Hutchinson, the great-great grandson of Alice Hutchinson, for whom the Parkway in Westchester, NY was named, turned his allegiance to the crown, in part due to his animosity towards Samuel Adams.) Other protests followed and the Act was repealed in 1766.william hutchinsonEvents leading to War

Did Parliament ever learn?  Next came the Townshend Act, which taxed British imports, townshend medalsuch as glass, lead, paper — and tea, which was the coffee of its day. Colonists reacted by boycotting British items and starting  businesses. By the end of 1789, British imports to the colonies declined by half and the  Townshend  Act was repealed — except for the tea tax.

The colonists’ boycott of British goods was first lifted by New York, followed by Philadelophia and trade resumed despite the tea tax. Even John Hancock resumed tea trade — transporting 45,000 pounds of taxed tea oh his ships between 1771 and 1772.

East India Tea companyThe tea from Britain was from the East India Company, which by the mid-18th century was the most powerful company in the world. But import duty, massive tariffs and smuggled in Dutch tea —  ate away at profits. Bad business decision within the company and corruption resulted in a calamitous situation for this once powerful company: By 1772, it owed the government over a million pounds in fees.  With demand decreasing due to high tarifs and competition, over 17 million pounds of tea sat waiting to rot in warehouses. The solution was the Tea Act of 1773.tea tax

Under the Act, tea from the East India Company was exported directly to the Americas.  Previously, tea was sold to brokers who sold to American wholesalers. By cutting out the middlemen, tea became cheaper to export. In addition, the export duties were reduced. The result was the tea was cheaper than smuggled Dutch tea. Soon, 2,000 chests of 600,000 pounds of tea were prepared for America teapots.

But there was a crucial caveat: The tea would only be brokered in America to wholesalers handpicked by the Crown.The East India Company would have a monopoly on selling tea to the colonies. So while the tea was cheaper, the British controlled the source and the the outlets. The colonists were not fooled: They realized that any segment of commerce could be controlled and that the British rulers could dictate who would sell and who would buy goods.

boston tea party as indiansunerIn response, American captains refused to ship the tea and it was sent via British ships to New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Boston. When the tea got to New York and Philadelphia, agents, aware of the opposition, refused the tea. The ships were forced to turn around. In Charleston, the tea was warehoused. (It was later sold and proceeds went to finance the Revolutionary War.)

ship- boston tea party But it was Boston that set the spark for the Revolutionary War. When the ship, the Dartmouth, arrived on November 28 with 114 chests of tea, nearly 7,000 residents responded to a notice:  “Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! The hour of destruction of Manly Opposition to the Machinations of Tyranny Stares in your Face!” On December 2, the ship Eleanor docked with more tea, followed by the the brig Beaver. A circular signed “The People,” detailed the consequences of unloading the tea as “Wretches unworthy to live …and the first victims of our just Resentment.” The December 17 deadline, at which time the customs officials could seize the tea for nonpayment, was approaching.

Captain Francis Rotch of the Dartmouth, was told to see now- Governor Hutchinson to seek permission to leave the harbor. Hutchinson, who was not only a loyalist, but whose two sons were designated agents, refused. (Hutchinson later left for London, where he lived out the remainder of his life. )The ship remained in port.

That night, 30 colonists –among them renown silversmith and later famous freedom rider  Paul Revere –disguised as “Mohawk Indians” took over the three ships, forced the customs officials ashore, broke open tea chests with axes and poured the contents into the harbor. A man who secretly filled his coat with tea was beaten by the crowd.

More than 90,000 pounds of tea went into the harbor. As news spread, tea became toxic. When a rumor spread that an innkeeper in Weston, Massachusetts was serving tea, a mob wrecked his tavern and drank all his liquor. In Britain, Parliment demanded Boston Harbor closed until the cost of tea was repaid. (Benjamin Franklin suggested colonists do just that.) And the Revolutionary War was put in motion.

Was it taxation without representation — or lack of control over their own destiny — that sparked the colonists? After all, tea was cheaper under the Tea Act, as was sugar  under the Revenue Act, but in exchange the British set a precedent of dictating the terms of business and what company would be sanctioned to trade.  The history of the Revolutionary War is filled with descriptions of angry mobs storming and taking to the streets, but was it control over their own destiny and not taxes that sparked the road to independence? You be the judge.


Why did Earl Grey have a tea named after him?


If you ever doubted that tea reflects history, then think about the politics swirling around the time Earl Grey, the tea, came into the teapot. While lovely stories proliferate about the origins of Earl Grey tea,  consider this: In 1833, while Charles, the 2nd Earl Grey, was Prime Minister, his government passed an act abolishing the trade monopoly of the East India Company with China. The East India Company was more than a major importer: In its prime, it was an imperial force that controlled more territory than the entire United Kingdom. Since one of the company’s major exports was tea from China, the law passed while Grey was Prime Minister opened up the tea trade for other companies. Was the tea an expression of gratitude? Connection or coincidence?


Fun sip: Few teas are named after British figures. One exception: In 1921, Twinings began marketing “Prince of Wales” tea, a light, fragrant of black tea, that was the personal blend of future King Edward VIII. Yes, that king whose speech “giving up the throne for the woman I love” fame traumatized his country, resulted in the reign of his younger brother King George VI , succeeded by the current Queen Elizabeth, whose daughter-in-law, Diana, Princess of Wales, was the great-great-granddaughter of one of Earl Grey’s daughters.   Got that?

Next Post:  However fascinating tea is with a dash of history, LTR will return to more prosaic tea topics. Coming: How the pros taste tea

Who was Earl Grey?

Earl Grey, the tea, a blend of black Indian tea with bergamot oil, is one of the most popular and beloved teas in the sipping world, with variations limited only by blenders’ imaginations. In addition to green, white or even rooibos, devotees can now find Earl Grey ice cream or even Earl Grey cookies.

Did Earl Grey, the person, inspire the same passion? Or was it just a happy accident that a tea with across-the-board-appeal was named after an Earl with a catchy name? Did the person of Earl Grey leave as lasting a legacy as did the tea named after him?

Grey, Charles Grey, 2nd Earl

2nd Earl Grey, painting attributed to Thomas Phillips, about 1820; in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

 If you thought 18th century  British aristocrats spent their time managing the servants and dressing for dinner, then consider the Earl Grey family. Charles, the 1st Earl Grey, was a famous general, serving in the Seven Years War, French Revolutionary War, and the American War of Independence (where he was known as “no-flint Grey”).

Charles, the 2nd Earl Grey, and the namesake of the tea, fought his battles in the political arena. Educated at Eton and Cambridge with a wit and elegance to match his debating skills, he was elected to parliament when he was just 22. As a member of the liberal Whig party, Grey opposed the conservative government of William Pitt and was one of the founders of the Society of the Friends of the People in 1792 that encouraged lower and middle class parliamentary reform. His later became First Lord of the Admiralty, Foreign Secretary and leader of the Whigs, but left over opposition to Catholic emancipation. When William IV became king in 1830 (at sixty-five, the oldest to be crowned), Grey became Prime Minister. As a statesman, Grey’s greatest achievement was the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832, which dramatically altered the political landscape by abolishing seats from 56 so-called “rotten boroughs,” creating 22 new ones in cities created by the Industrial Revolution and limiting others to one member. While it was a victory for the middle class, only 650,000 could actually vote out of population of 14 million.  Under Grey, other bills  abolished slavery and ended the monopoly of the East India Company’s trade with China, some legacy for a tea namesake.

Grey was no less prolific in his private life. In 1794, Grey married Mary Ponsonby, the daughter of a liberal Irish lord.  By 1819, the couple had 16 children. Fun sip: One of their daughters was the great-great-great grandmother of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Much less is known about how the tea got its name. One story: Diplomats in China sent Grey a shipment of tea and bergamot oranges and when it arrived after a long sea voyage, the tea absorbed the citrus flavor and voila! Earl Grey tea. Another story: a Chinese mandarin gave Grey the tea in gratitude for Grey’s role in rescuing his son from drowning. The only problem is that Grey never went to China.  Cuppa, anybody?