From China to Britain, with a few stops in between
Tea is believed to have originated in China, several thousand years ago. Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor, Chen Nung, discovered it one day completely by chance. He was resting near a tea bush, when some leaves blew from the plant and into his bowl of boiled water. Before long, a fragrant aroma drifted up towards him; tempting him to take a sip of the tea-infused water. He was extremely pleased with what he tasted – and thus, tea was born.
In around 552AD, Buddhist monks brought tea to Japan. They also imported tea-plant seeds, to enable tea to be grown in the gardens of Japanese monasteries. This inaugurated the Japanese tea ceremony, which is still practised to this day.
It wasn’t until 1610 that tea finally reached Europe. It arrived first in the Netherlands; imported by the Dutch East India Company, which held a monopoly on trade with the Far East.
In 1669, the English started to import their own tea via the British East India Company. This broke the Chinese/Dutch monopoly, and gave rise to a Chinese/British one. This situation continued until 1833, when the British became dissatisfied with their dependence on China. Tea was imported by long, dangerous sea routes – routes that were costly to navigate, and had a detrimental impact on the quality of the tea.
In an effort to circumvent these problems, the British decided to grow tea on home soil – an experiment that, unsurprisingly given the climactic conditions, ended in failure. Unwilling to admit defeat, they next turned their attentions to their Indian colonies. Through a combination of seed testing and the discovery of wild Indian tea plants, the British were able to ship their first box of Indian tea back home to Britain in 1838.
So there we have it: a potted history of how tea arrived on our shores, and began a love affair that continues to this day.