There is nothing more British than a cup of sweet tea. Or is there?
Originally it was made with the leaves of a Chinese plant that the East India Company bought with the proceeds of the opium they grew in India.
The sugar to sweeten it was cultivated by African slaves on Caribbean plantations.
There was, therefore, barely anything British about a cup of tea, yet it’s became a symbol of national identity.
Before they fell in love with tea the English were first smitten with sugar.
A German traveller in Elizabethan England was disgusted by the rotten teeth of aristocratic women (including the Queen) who constantly sucked sweets and put sugar in everything including glazes for roast meat.
Once sugar production got off the ground in the English colony of Barbados, the price fell and it became a kitchen staple. By the 1770s West Indian sugar was the country’s most valuable import.
But the human cost was terrible. The death rate of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean due to appalling working conditions, malnutrition and disease was so high at one point the English sugar islands needed 20,000 new slaves just to maintain their labour force.
When his frigate toured the West Indies at the end of the 18th century, ship’s purser Aaron Thomas was shocked by the condition of the slaves and wrote in his diary: I never more will drink Sugar in my Tea, for it is nothing but Negroe’s blood.
Meanwhile tea was the last of the new colonial groceries to arrive on the English market.
Garaway’s London coffee house began selling tea in 1658, and in September 1660, Samuel Pepys mentioned sending for a cup of tee (a China drink) which I never drank before .
By the late 18th century, tea had become widespread. Among the labouring poor, it eventually displaced sweet, malty beer as the primary drink.
By now many rural labourers were without access to even a small patch of common land on which to graze a cow or sheep.
Enclosure also meant they were no longer able to go into the woods to glean firewood and catch the odd rabbit for the pot.
So the rural labouring population lost the means to produce their own food.
Many labourers who could no longer afford firewood to brew their own beer turned to sweetened tea as a less expensive alternative.
Sadly it was detrimental to their nutrition and health. Beer was, in effect, liquid bread, containing protein and vitamins, as well as providing about 350 calories per pint.
Tea contained neither vitamins nor protein, and even heaped with four spoons of sugar it would only contain about 64 calories.
But labourers would have been under the illusion it gave them more energy because the sugar was immediately accessible to the body, while the sugars in beer are released more slowly.
Hot tea was welcome to labourers working outside and to families who could no longer afford to cook on a daily basis.
Surveys conducted in the 1790s found porridge, potatoes and barley broths still constituted an important part of labourers’ diets in northern England, where cheaper peat and coal meant they could still afford to cook.
But in the South, where wood was dear, labouring families lived on shop-bought bread and the odd scrap of cheese or bacon.
Some social surveyors were irritated that poor families spent at least 10% of their income on tea and sugar.
But one, David Davies, understood they relied on it for a small measure of comfort.
He said: Tea-drinking is not the cause, but the consequence of the distresses of the poor.
The rural labourers who moved into the towns to look for work took these habits with them.
The urban industrial poor in the 19th century survived on the same diet of shop-bought bread, washed down with heavily sugared tea.
In the filthy cities their malnourished young got pneumonia, rheumatic fever, TB and diarrhoea.
Those that survived were stunted, as their bodies diverted their little nutrition into recovery rather than growth.
Working-class boys 150 years ago were on average 10ins shorter than those from privileged backgrounds.
Life expectancy in Manchester was just 26 –10 years less than the national average.
Sugar and tea gave 19th century workers the energy to spin and weave the cotton and forge the steel to make the goods that fuelled Britain’s industrial might.
But it came at a high price.
The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World, by Lizzie Collingham, is published by The Bodley Head, and costs £25.
News Source MirrorNews