How Africa came to grow tea.

Author:Boateng, Osei

Kenya is the second biggest exporter of tea in the world, after Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). But how did Africa come to grow tea? Roy Moxham, author of The Great Hedge of India (2001) and The Freelander (1990), spent 13 years in Africa, five of them as a manager of 500 acres of tea in colonial Malawi where he presided over 1,000 workers. His new book (right), Tea--Addiction, Exploitation and Empire, an investigation into the history of tea, is a fascinating tale but one that reflects poorly on the British, Americans, French, Portuguese and Dutch. Osei Boateng reports.


Tea production in Africa was started by the British, with seed sent out to missionaries by the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland. But you cannot fully grasp why the British wanted to grow tea in Africa without allowing Roy Moxham, a master story teller, to take you through the tortured, if not ignominious, history of tea. His book is a must read. It is a thoroughly fascinating work. According to the records, China owns the copyright of the origins of tea and tea drinking. "Popular mythology," says Moxham, "credits discovery of tea to the Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, in the third millennium BC. Earlier accounts of the use of tea focus on its properties as a medicine to alleviate digestive or nervous conditions, and there are also references to its use as a stimulant." It was only gradually, during the early centuries of the first millennium, that tea became a beverage and assumed the undisputed mantle of "national drink of China" under the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906).


"Tea had come to Europe surprisingly late, many centuries after it became the common drink of the Chinese," Moxham writes. "The first known mention of tea as a drink in Europe is found in a Venetian book of 1559, Navigatione et Viaggi. The author, Giambattista Ramusio, related what he had been told by a Persian:


"They take herb, whether dry or fresh, and boil it well in water. One or two cups of this decoction taken on an empty stomach removes fever, headache, stomach-ache, pain in the side or in the joints, and it should be taken as hot as you can bear it." From the 16th century onwards, several other brief accounts of tea came back from Europeans travelling in the East, mostly from the Portuguese who were there as traders and missionaries. A Dutchman, Jan Huygen van Linschoten, however, first inspired the transportation of tea to Europe. His Discourse of Voyages was published in 1595, with an English edition three years later. "In 1596," says Moxham, "the Dutch began trading in Java. In addition to local produce, goods from China and Japan were shipped back to Europe. Around 1606, the first consignment of tea was sent to Holland. Although it is possible that individuals, particularly Portuguese, returned from the East with earlier samples of tea, this is believed to be the first commercial importation into Europe."

Over the next decades, aided by their domination of the eastern trade, the Dutch became the premier tea drinkers of Europe. Nevertheless, because of its exorbitant price, tea remained the preserve of the wealthy. Use soon spread to fashionable cities in adjacent countries, and also to Portugal, which had its own independent trading network.

By 1650, tea had become very fashionable in France too, having been taken up by Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister to Louis XIII. Later, Louis XIV himself became an addict. His teapot was made of gold.


Enter the British. As usual, they were very late in discovering tea. Says Moxham: "We have no record of its use in Britain before the 1650s. The first dated reference is an advertisement in a London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, of 23 September 1658:

"That Excellent, and by all Physicians approved, China Drink called by the Chinese, Teha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness-head, a Cophee-house in Sweetings Rents by the Royal Exchange, London." Where the first tea in Britain came from is not known--perhaps from the continent or people returning from the East. But tea was first sold in coffee houses in London, the first of which was established in 1652. The coffee houses even offered a take-away service, as evidenced from Samuel Pepys' diary entry for 25 September 1660: "And afterwards did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I had never drank before."

Moxham adds: "That Pepys, who spent a good deal of his time in taverns and coffee houses, had never previously taken tea would suggest that it was still a curiosity in 1660."

But thanks to Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of King Charles II, whose dowry included a chest of tea, tea drinking became a fad in the British royal household, from where its use tripped out across fashionable society. At first, like in Holland, tea was the drink of rich Britons, only later of the middle classes.

For Westerners who tend today to ridicule the dowry system of Africa, India and elsewhere, Moxham has an interesting piece of history for them.

"King Charles II, Catherine's husband, had been tempted into the marriage by the prospect of a...

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