Opium War between Britain and China 1839- 1842 Attack on First Bar Battery, 19th century print with digital color.
Food

Why Britain went to war with China over the beloved cup of tea

Jul 09, 2018

The unassuming cup of tea has gone through wars, political intrigue and disrupted trade relations, to land at your table. To understand the struggle, let’s go back almost 200 years.

Britain’s demand for tea was one of the major triggers of the First Opium War in 1839. The three-year war resulted in China ceding Hong Kong to the British Empire for 156 years.

In England, tea was a relatively unknown drink until the 17th century, when Catherine of Braganza, an English queen by way of marriage, began promoting it within her aristocratic circles. Soon, it became a European status symbol and was eventually widely sought after by the layperson.

Catherine of Braganza
Catherine of Braganza / Photo: Wikimedia

Tea became a status symbol in Europe, and was widely sought after by the layperson.

Tea became so popular in the West that by 1765, it represented up to 90 percent of the imports of the British-owned East India Company. At this time, European maritime traders sourced all their loose-leaf tea from southern coastal Chinese areas, including modern-day Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Fujian.

Because the British were trading silver for tea, the country’s insatiable demand for the leaves became so precipitous that Britain incurred a silver shortage.

Their solution? To trade opium instead.

Opium War between Britain and China 1839- 1842 British forces attack Chinese Forts on Chuenpee Island.
Opium War between Britain and China 1839- 1842 British forces attack Chinese Forts on Chuenpee Island.

By the 1830s, 90 percent of young men along China’s east coast were addicted to opium. In 1839, opium sales paid for the entire Chinese tea trade—until the First Opium War.

Smuggling Chinese tea secrets to India

After the war, even with control over Hong Kong, tea growing and manufacturing secrets were largely unknown to the Western world, which deeply frustrated the tea-obsessed British.

So in 1846, they sent Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to Hong Kong to penetrate the Chinese tea trade. From Hong Kong, Fortune went into the rest of southern China under disguise as a Chinese official from a remote province, and managed to smuggle out 20,000 tea plants to India, another crown colony.

The majority of those plants failed to survive in India, but Fortune did one more thing: he brought trained workers from plantations in China over to India illegally, and their expertise helped a handful of those crops survive, forever changing India's place in the global tea production game.

The European 'factories' at Guangzhou (Canton) China ca 1840, Engraving based on a drawing made during the First Opium War by John Ouchterlony.
The European 'factories' at Guangzhou (Canton) China ca 1840, Engraving based on a drawing made during the First Opium War by John Ouchterlony.

The British tea growing industry quickly spread across India. India’s tea industry quickly dominated China’s and from there, spread to other British colonies like Kenya and Sri Lanka.

Tea production in China did not recover until the 1950s.