The nineteenth century witnessed the most explosive episode in the history of the tea trade: the Opium Wars. This turmoil centered on economic and outright military conflict between the British Empire and the Chinese. The strength of the tea trade in Western Europe by the mid-seventeenth century led to numerous attempts to supplant the dependency on China with European plantations. Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, led this cause, participating in multiple failed attempts to retrieve and grow tea from China. For the tea-drinking Europeans, China remained their lifeline, something Britain hoped to change. The Seven Years' War (1756-63) and the American War of Independence (1775-83) extinguished the East India Company's silver reserves, which until that point had been the goods used to purchase tea from the Chinese. Vi...
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...eals. Mair and Hoh reinforced this in their study of the conflict, offering, "The long fuse of the 19th-century Opium Wars was lit by the unhappy confluence of two parties profoundly ignorant of each other's history and culture . . ." As for China's economic progress after the conflict, Mair and Hoh offered this tragic footnote: " . . . ¬China's doors were forced open, and the country descended into more than a century of economic hardship, foreign invasions, civil war, revolution, and the collapse of the country's ancient tea industry."
The history of tea both in and out of China is long and far-reaching. It is not limited to violence, either economic or physical. Neither is it a story of peace. Understanding tea's material history, and its orbiting elements, as a change agent yields insight into the clashes of culture and ideology that populate human history.
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