Given how often people turn to tea to find a moment in their day to slow down, it’s easy to mistake it for a passive beverage. Sure, its meditative, lends itself to reflection and its rituals are about tradition and ceremony. But the other side of tea’s story tells a more absorbing tale, one of how tea has often played a part in rebellion and revolution.
Of course, the most famous of these is the Boston Tea Party, that set off what would become the American war of independence. Here, tea became a symbol of both Company monopoly and colonists’ resistance. The British government were running out of money, the East India Company had a surplus of tea (about 18 mn pounds) and the colonies were an already primed market for it. But the winds of rebellion had been blowing for some time. The colonists had been protesting the duties imposed by Britain as the Townshend Acts, which included tea. Incidentally at this time, over two-thirds of the tea in north America was being smuggled from the Dutch, which also caused the higher taxed British tea to go unsold. To keep the East India Company afloat, the British government passed a Tea Act, which would allow the Company to export tea, duty-free to the colonies, to sell at a price that worked to their advantage. This would address the smuggling problem, but also undercut local merchants and allow the Company to retain its monopoly on tea sales. The colonists were still protesting the tea taxes and this Act would push them to accept Company tea, on which duties had been collected. Obviously, the colonists were angry. While in some ports like New York and Philadelphia, the ships were forced to return to England, in Boston, the Sons of Liberty, a rebel group, retaliated by boarding the ships that were docked in the harbour and dumping the tea (three shiploads!) into sea. The British empire passed the Intolerable Acts law. From this point on, the fight was real, concerted, and eventually won by the colonists.
A lesser known story is about how tea played a more direct role in the feminist movement, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Coffee houses were seen as more masculine spaces and here is where the tearooms came into play. Run by women, they served tea and food. It was mostly frequented by women, and soon, these tea rooms became meeting places for the suffragette movement. This was true of England and also America. There were ‘pink teas’ which was the name given to political gatherings, ‘suffrage teas’ which were events organised by suffragist Alva Vanderbilt Belmont on her lawns, and ‘Equality Tea’ a Californian tea brand available as English Breakfast, Ceylon, Gunpowder Green, Hyson and Oolong. In Los Angeles, Mrs R.L. Craig promoted a Votes-for-Women tea as a fundraiser. The suffragists won, when women earned unconditional voting rights in both the US (1920) and the UK (1928).
Tea continues to make an appearance even today, as a symbol of dissent. The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s A Ton Of Tea is a ton of pu’er (Chinese fermented tea) compressed into a large cube, and his Teahouse is made of compressed pu’er set on a lawn of loose tea are works of art. These were displayed in galleries, including the Royal Academy, London.
In India, tea brands have used the product to run awareness campaigns, like the one that called on people to cast their vote responsibly.
Last year, pro-democracy, pro-human rights movement gained momentum in southeast Asia. Representing Taiwan, Myanmar, Thailand, Hong Kong, it gained the name, the Milk Tea Alliance, an opposition to the communist regime, led by China, whose tea culture is dominated by green tea.
Sometimes symbolic, sometimes a catalyst, tea features ever so often in history. And sometimes, its role seems to be to simply to fulfil its function as a beverage. We saw this in 2019, as protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act began in New Delhi. Many women carried placards that read, “Join us for tea.” It was an invitation to the prime minister to meet them, to dialogue and listen over a cup of chai. Perhaps it’s in its simplicity and ordinariness lies tea’s greatest significance.