What beverage pops into your mind when you think of England? It’s almost certainly tea. But how did this leafy drink become British? After all, tea plants usually grow in far-away places like India or China. The answers have something to do with empire-building, and with sugar. Join your intrepid host for a caffeine- and sucrose-powered journey through thousands of miles of space, over thousands of years of time. You’ll wrestle with the harsh realities of the Atlantic slave trade, and face the legacies of multiple globe-spanning empires. Along the way, you’ll also learn about the origins of Southern sweet tea. At the end, you’ll discover why your seemingly innocent cup of hot leaf water may have come with strings attached.
Select historical sources
General Histories of Tea
- Erling Hoh and Victor H. Mair, The True History of Tea (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009).
- Sarah Rose, For All The Tea in China: How England Stole The World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History (New York: Penguin, 2010).
Tea Grown in England
- Tregothnan https://tregothnan.co.uk/
Maps of the Indian Ocean Trade Region
- University of Texas at Austin, Map Collection https://maps.lib.utexas.edu/maps/indian_ocean.html
Lu Yu: Celebrity Popularizer of Tea
- James A. Benn, “The Patron Saint of Tea: Religious Aspects of the Life and Work of Lu Yu.” In Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History (Honalulu: University of Hawai’I Press, 2015), 96–116. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x1kn2.9.
Portuguese Armed Trading
- Robert B. Marks, The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Environmental Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), 65–67.
- Tonio Andrade, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History (Princeteon, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 124–137.
Gaspar Da Cruz
- Original source verified in Portuguese: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Tractado_em_que_se_contam_muito_por_este/9YjFZ864V9wC, Cap. 13.
- Valerie Sartor, “All the Tea in China: The Political Impact of Tea,” American Journal of Chinese Studies 14, no. 2 (2007): 185–88. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44288857.
Catherine of Braganza
- Maria Godoy, “Tea Tuesdays: How Tea + Sugar Reshaped The British Empire” The Salt from National Public Radio, 7 April, 2025, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire .
- Hoh & Mair, True History of Tea [see general history section], 40.
Pre-European African Forms of Servitude & Slavery
- Akosua Adoma Perbi, A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana from the 15th to the 19th Century (Legon-Accra, Ghana: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2004), esp. Ch. 5.
- Kevin Shillington, History of Africa [4th Kindle Edition] (London: McMillan International, 2019), Section 5 introduction & Ch. 11.
- E.g., Johan Kohl, Panorama of St. Petersburg (London: Simms & McIntyre, 1852), 22 https://books.google.com/books?id=HVwBAAAAQAAJ; and in The Quarterly Review (Oxford: Oxford University, 1842) at https://www.google.com/books/edition/Quarterly_Review/Du0EAAAAQAAJ , 411.
- Quoted in Charles Dickens, Editor, Household Words (Vol 9), p. 146 at https://books.google.com/books?id=fe5LAAAAcAAJ .
Britain’s Russia Company
- Michael Wagner, “Misunderstood and Unappreciated: The Russia Company in the Eighteenth Century,” Russian History 41, no. 3 (2014): 393–422. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24667162.
The Russian Sugar Cube – Tea Trick
- E.g., Adrian Wanner, “The Russian Immigrant Narrative as Metafiction,” The Slavic and East European Journal 55, no. 1 (2011): 58–74. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23347693 .
1879 “Iced Tea” recipe in Housekeeping in Old Virginia
- “Mrs. S.T.” in Housekeeping in Old Virginia, Louisville, KY: John P. Morton & Co., 1879), 64. https://books.google.com/books?id=ZxUEAAAAYAAJ
Japanese Green Tea in the USA
- Robert Hellyer, Green with Milk and Sugar: When Japan Filled America’s Tea Cups (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021).
1875 “Cold Tea” recipe by Mary Virginia Terhune as “Marion Harland”
- Mary Virginia Terhune, Breakfast Luncheon & Tea: A Recipe Book (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1875), 225. https://books.google.com/books?id=tUACAAAAQAAJ
- “Marion Harland, Author, Dies at 91 [Obituary]” in New York Times, 4 June, 1922, 28.
- Airplane sound extracted from https://freesound.org/people/keng-wai-chane-chick-te/sounds/439536/
- Ocean & sea bird sounds from https://freesound.org/people/straget/sounds/436965/