Robert Fisk’s World: In praise of tea, the brew that powered Britain for centuries

Before tea, needless to say, millions of Brits warmed themselves with alcohol

Share
Related Topics

When I first met my Aunty Ada – my Dad Bill took me up to Birkenhead to meet her, along with Peggy, my Mum – she did nothing but pour cups of tea. Ada ran a shoe store but spent the entire day with us. Tea. Tea. "Another cup of tea, love?" And she wouldn't take no for an answer. "Good God!" Bill exclaimed later. "Did I drink that much tea when I lived up here?" He thought maybe tea had caught on in Liverpool because that's where the old tea clipper sailing ships – on which my grandfather Edward sailed – arrived from China. And tea, of course, originally came from China, invented in 2,750BC after the leaves of Camellia sinensis accidentally fell into a bowl of hot water in front of the Emperor Shen Nung. He liked the smell and poured himself the world's first cup of tea.

True to all British history, we took a long time to catch up. Our first tea came from Holland in 1650, initially referred to as "tay" from the Dutch thee, a version of the Fujian t'e. This I have on the authority of a fine and unique academic treatise on tea by one A R T Kemasang who is soon to publish an entire book in Indonesia (of all places) on China's role in civilising the West. In eastern Europe and in the Arab world it became known as chai from the Cantonese ch'a. Where I live, in Lebanon, the chai is served up in kettles, already swamped with sugar – though never served with milk.

A secret, now, from the Arab world. Western soldiers in the Middle East are always encouraged to drink 12 litres of water every day. Long ago, in the deserts of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, I learned differently. The Arabs will drink tea at dawn to warm them up – often poured from a great height, at arm's length – and then they will drink tea in the burning heat of midday to cool them down. Then they will drink tea at dusk to warm them up again. I do just the same on my balcony in Beirut. It works. "Water makes you perspire," an old Syrian friend once told me. "Then you have to drink more water to make up for lost water. They you perspire again..." (So is there a military conspiracy going on here, I wonder, by the bottled water companies?)

The East India Company brought tea to India in the 19th century and enjoyed a brief monopoly in the British Isles until Charles Bewley turned up in Dublin with 2,000 chests of the stuff in 1835, directly from China. Earlier, the Great and the Good of English society had actually condemned the stuff. William Cobbett (he of Rural Rides) and Methodist John Wesley (who thought tea caused "paralytick disorders") treated tea as if it were alcohol. Sydney Smith, however, gave it a seal of approval. "Thank God for tea!" he announced. "What would the world do without tea? I am glad I was not born before tea." And I can see why. As Kemasang explains, before tea there were few ways to keep warm in England. Water was filthy and disease ridden. The mass of Britons shivered all night in their unheated homes. Kemasang quotes a 15th century schoolboy whose diary entry reads: "The moste part of this winter my handes were so swellynge with colde that I coulde nother holde my penn for to wrytt nother my knyff for to cutt my mete at the table."

Milk had its problems too. Here's Tobias Smollett on the trade in fresh milk which is "carried through the streets in open pails, exposed to foul rinsings discharged from doors and windows, spittle, snot, and tobacco quids... overflowing from mud carts, spatterings from coach wheels, dirt and trash chucked into it by rogueish boys... the spewing of infants...". Yes, I shall stop here, for it is Saturday morning, O Reader. I shall not mention here the American predilection for coffee, nor the Boston Tea Party which arguably lost us America. Think only of tea.

What words it brought us. A Hokkien weight unit equivalent to just over a pound was called a kati. Hence our tea caddy. But wait. Time for a diversion. How many readers know that in 1859, fighting off the Indian mutineers, the British army found that its soldiers – wearing white, of course – were being cut down by musket fire. Soldiers were thus ordered to rub brown dust into their uniforms. The Urdu for dust is khak. Thus we now dress our soldiers – even in Afghanistan today – in khaki uniforms. I thought I'd reveal this after reading it in an Egyptian newspaper the other day. And one more for the road. Rereading my schoolboy's copy of Group Captain Johnnie Johnson's Wing Leader this week – he was the top-scoring Allied flying ace of the Second World War – I found that the emergency "Mayday" comes from the French M'aidez!.

Before tea, needless to say, millions of Brits warmed themselves with alcohol – which only gives the illusion of warmth. The real effect – as Kemasang makes perfectly clear – is that most people were drinking cider, beer, gin or wine most of the time and were most of the time inebriated. Even the Crusaders, some say, were drunk when they rode into the Holy Land. Molière, La Fontaine and Racine drank wine. A hundred years later, Beaumarchais and Voltaire were drinking tea. In the 18th century, London was unsafe after dark. Hogarth's Gin Lane shows what it was like during the day. Tea changed all that. A sober working class could labour for long hours in the great factories and mines and shipyards of the industrial revolution. Hence tea helped the British Empire to grow economically into the strongest power on earth.

It was a poor Lebanese family in southern Lebanon that first insisted to me that tea could prevent cancer. And subsequent research – especially in China – suggests that this is absolutely true. Especially green tea, though this is more popular in Afghanistan and Pakistan than in the Middle East, where they like it black and strong. So do I these days. No Arab meal can be concluded without it. And now it's like a narcotic for me. Writing a feature at 6am in Los Angeles or a report in Tehran at 11pm, I send for a cuppa. My Aunty Ada would have agreed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker