The Spread of Tea In Europe: East Meets West

As early as the 5th tea spread to the countries on China’s western borders when it even reached Europe through the Turkish traders that plied through the Silk Road, the network of trade routes that linked the ancient East and West in commerce.


While the overland journey across South Asia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and Southern Europe bought China’s tradition of tea to the middle east, the global tea industry did not take off until the golden age of navigation when Portugues sailors found a route to the east landed in China in 1516.

The first tea exports from China to Europe took place in 1606: tea  traders brought tea from China to be shipped to Holland by the Dutch East India Company. The Europeans regarded this strange beverage from the east with the same caution they regarded any exotic import in their shores that made take a while to be popular, but once the Europeans grew to love it, they fell hard for it.


By the mid 1700s importing tea was a lucrative trade with the craze spreading all over Europe. The price that tea was sold in Europe was exorbitant. Importers and merchants sold it for twenty times the price they had paid for it, but the Europeans were willing to fork over such large sums for it.It became the trendiest drink in fashionable Paris, a love that crossed over the English channel. 

Britain was the last of the three great maritime power to cash in on the tea trade, but it was so well loved in the country it became their favorite drink. Thus was the start of the British love affair with tea.


As the British were establishing their afternoon tea habits, they were cementing their position as a global superpower.


As one writer put it,  “The story of tea is the story of imperialism, industrialization, and world domination, one cup at a time.” Their fleet monopolized all trade east of the Cape of Good Hope and the west of Cape Horn which enabled Britain to maintain an iron grip on global tea trade for well over a century.


At its time, it was the largest and most powerful monopoly in world history.

Back on its own shores, the lucrative tea industry caught the eyes of the government who devised ways for the state to profit off of the commodity. Oliver Cromwell levied the tea tax on the Empire’s favorite drink.


Naturally, his subjects weren’t pleased and they just as well found creative ways to smuggle tea. The ramifications of this tax were more than what the government had expected, and just like how tea brought Britain to the ultimate heights a superpower nation rise up, it would also bring the empire tumbling to its knees.


But that’s a story for another time.