Tales of tea, still stirring emotions in 2020

Tea leaves might not predict the future, but they have a powerful connection to our past.

The Tale of Tea: A Comprehensive History of Tea from Prehistoric Times to the Present Day by George van Driem 2019. Brill.

One way to assess the importance of a book is to count how many pages of notes I made whilst reading it. For George van Driem’s The tale of tea that tally was 18 – which is a lot: This is an important book. And that’s surely understandable for one that starts: “The tea trade is responsible for paper money, the Opium Wars and the existence of Hong Kong. Tea was a decisive factor in the Acts of Navigation, the Anglo-Dutch wars and the American war of independence” (p. xi Preface). It’s hard to imagine a more eye-catching way to begin The Tale of Tea. And ‘eye-catchingness’ is a hallmark of this book which is full of facts and figures – both of people and dates of historical events – that relate to tea and all matters tsiological.

At over 900 pages, The tale of tea is a big book. It’s also an extremely well-written, lavishly illustrated, thoughtful, precise, and evidence-based tome that tells the amazing story of tea, the 2ndmost-widely consumed drink on the planet (after water).* Its scope is quite breath-taking, but entirely appropriate to do justice to a commodity that is truly global, and includes biochemistry, medicine, taxonomy, politics, history, linguistics, geography, psychology, sociology, economics, sustainability, biocontrol, archaeology, colonialism [yes, this is not always a comfortable story]…

The tale of tea is a most impressive attempt to provide the definitive account of this much-loved beverage. Interestingly, the book’s sub-title is “A Comprehensive History of Tea from Prehistoric Times to the Present Day”, a claim I have little reason to doubt.** To contradict that assertion you’d have to be an expert in all the fields of knowledge that the book covers, or in only one but to find a cherished nugget of tea knowledge from your specialism that’s been missed out. But, that seems overly-nit-picky: The scope of The tale of tea is awesome and I can readily believe – and predict – that this mighty tome will be the authority on tea history for many years to come.

It’s arguably all the more impressive because the author is a linguist – he occupies the chair for Historical Linguistics at the University of Berne, where he directs the Linguistics Institute. His specialism is put to very good use in the first chapter in particular which looks at the primordial origin of tea. But languages are very important elsewhere in the book where van Driem goes to great lengths to include texts in their original language – there’s a lot of French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Latin in The tale of tea… – with their English translations alongside. Whilst this may look like over-kill (and omission of the originals would doubtless considerably shorten the book), I see it as an important aspect of the author’s rigour and evidence-based narrative. The tale of tea appears to be a meticulously researched book. Another example of this attention to detail is the use of footnotes to expand upon or provide the evidence for particular statements. There are 2340 of these throughout all 12 chapters, and often they include multiple sources. That is most impressive, and gives the interested reader plenty of material to look at for more information, etc. And, on more than one occasion, the footnotes are as interesting as – and occasionally more so than! – the main text. True, there is some repetition – both within and between some chapters – but removing that would not reduce the length of the treatise significantly (it’s still a very big book), and such recapping helps to remind you of what you read several dozen pages before, probably in a previous reading session.

The quality of the writing is also most impressive. Generally, The tale of tea is highly readable – although it does include several words and phrases that were new to me, and most unusual (e.g.: plurale tantum; monopsony; fissiparous; coetaneous; parvenu stratum; oblations; godown; quodlibetarian; mondaine; instantiation; zeugma; pressing vesical urgency; whilom). Although readable, it can be quite a tough read because it is so packed full of information – hence my 18 pages of notes! The tale of tea is not a book to attempt in one sitting(!) But it will provide many examples of facts and figures that could profitably be incorporated into many lessons with – or without – a plants-and-people dimension. It also includes some really nice phrasing, “where paper money was slow to gain currency” (p. 63) is worthy of mention. And anybody – but especially a non-specialist – who can make a chapter dealing largely with biochemistry and medical matters understandable – as van Driem does in Chap. 11 Tea chemistry and fanciful concoctions – is a very good writer indeed. And van Driem’s expertise is not restricted to tea – as enormous a subject as that clearly is in this book – he also includes a substantial chapter (Chap. 7 Interlude: Coffee and chocolate) devoted to coffee (38 pages), and chocolate (31 pages), which includes a pretty comprehensive account of those other two important beverages which became popular in Europe at about the same time as tea.

By any measure, The Tale of Tea is a monumental work whose sprawling, globe-encompassing story affects us all – whether we drink the beverage, or not. As a natural product, tea is an excellent example of how the fortunes and misfortunes of plants and people are intrinsically, intricately and intimately interconnected. And, lest we be tempted to dismiss The tale of tea as a purely historical backward-looking kind of story, the legacy of tea is very much relevant to modern times.

As I write this appraisal of the book (in early June 2020), the UK is in the midst of demonstrations that are seeking to remove statues to slave-owners or those with important relationships to the Britain Empire and colonialism, or in support of Black Lives Matter: What has this to do with tea?

Van Driem reminds us that the global trade in sugar ballooned in tandem with the trade in tea (Chap. 6 The English take to tea: Wars in Europe). The majority of that sugar would have been produced in the Americas from the labour of enslaved Africans. Whether we like to be reminded of it or not, the habit of adding sugar to tea effectively helped to fuel the slave trade, and gave rise to abolitionist and ‘radical pamphleteer’ Englishman William Fox’s memorable – if rather graphic – notion from 1791 “that in every pound of sugar used … we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh” (Erin Pearson, ELH 83(3): 741-769 (2016); doi:10.1353/elh.2016.0028). But, even in the 21st century we still live with the legacies and repercussions of that shameful practice as witnessed in the racial tensions that persist in demonstrations in cities in America in May and June 2020 *** – and elsewhere – sparked on this occasion by the death of George Floyd, an African American man who died in police custody in the USA.

Globalisation of tea was one of the direct consequences of the expansion of European interests overseas that sought foreign possessions to build empires and monopolise resources of other lands for the profit of the European nation (Chap. 5 Dutch capitalism and the globalisation of tea is devoted to that topic). England played a major part in this with its expansive colonial ‘possessions’ in Africa – e.g. Kenya, a major supplier of tea to the UK today, which has still has unresolved issues from its colonial past – and in particular India (one of the biggest tea producers in the world) and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon, another major tea exporter).

There is also the matter of protests in the far-east amid concerns that mainland China is trying to reduce further the special status that residents of Hong Kong have enjoyed for decades. But, other than the fact that China is the biggest producer of the stuff, what has that got to do with tea? The special status of Hong Kong was agreed when the territory was handed back to China by the United Kingdom, having originally acquired it as one of the spoils of the Opium Wars of the 19th century. These conflicts took place between Britain (primarily, but with French assistance in the 2nd Opium War…) and China (Chap. 9 Tea transformed: Wars in Asia) because the Chinese objected to the fact that the UK was importing large amounts of opium into China (from plantations in British Raj-controlled India) to pay for the tea that was shipped to Britain. ****

Finally – although more examples from the book could have been selected – there is the global concern over sustainability and exploitation of natural resources (e.g. Naveen Kumar Arora, Environmental Sustainability 1: 1–2 (2018);; Ruth Kattumuri, Contemporary Social Science 13: 1-16, 2018;; Adam Lampert, Nat Commun 10, 1419 (2019); Tea growing is not immune from such matters because – certainly historically – for example, the native fauna and flora of Sri Lanka have been “ravaged by coffee, rubber and tea monocultures” in an instance of profit placed before protection of the natural environment. And concerns over the “vast swathes of forest converted into tea estates” in Assam. These considerations are a major part of Chap. 12 Tending the tea garden. And let us not forget that: “Tea is an unusual crop where leaves are sprayed directly with pesticides, harvested and processed even without washing”…

For a comparatively humble plant, tea (Camellia sinensis) punches well above its weight in providing the all-important historical context to some of the most important issues of the modern day. And you can read all about it in The tale of tea, a magnificent example of plants-and-people scholarship. But, for all its great insights and encyclopaedic quality, probably the most sobering of all the facts I gleaned from this work was to learn that what I’d been drinking for decades, and firmly believed was tea, is about as far from actual tea as it’s possible to imagine! So, The tale of tea brought me personal enlightenment – albeit one that was a bit of a disappointment – whilst providing a thoroughly good and insightful read along the way.


Author van Driem is to be applauded for the tremendous scholarship and attention to detail in producing such an important – and refreshing – contribution to the plants-and-people literature, and the history of humanity’s exploitation of the natural world. For a one sentence overview of the book, let’s leave the last words to the author: “Ever since tea had been transformed from a medicinal condiment into a beverage, tea has always had everything to do with taxes, money and politics.”

* Or the most-drunk beverage, if you don’t count water as a ‘beverage’.

** Although van Driem includes nothing about ‘camel breath’s tea’, which was mentioned in Spengler’s Fruit from the sands

*** In case you’re wondering, yes, there is a big mention of the so-called Boston tea party and the development of the USA in Chap. 8 Taxes vs freedom from oppression – and van Driem also mentions the modern-day Tea Party (Amanda Pullman, Sociology Compass 8/12: 1377–1387, 2014; doi: 10.1111/soc4.12231).

**** It’s a sobering thought that the ocean-going ships of the 19th century known as tea clippers, such as the Cutty Sark, that rushed their precious cargo of tea from China to Britain, probably also doubled as opium clippers that transported their cargo of opium from India to China…

  • Thanks, I’ll look for this book. Why not buy organic tea if you are concerned about leaves that “are sprayed directly with pesticides”?

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