Tuesday March 19, 2013 | 1 comment
“Long long ago in China I’m told
To England was traded some tea
And so sealed the fate
In pieces of eight
All England and all of the world . . .
When soon his majesty sent soldiers and thieves
To India searching for gold
Instead from the ground
Some magic they found
Something far better I’m told.”
- Poppies by Marcy Playground
Someone once told me that I am addicted to chamomile. I like it, don’t get me wrong, but I’m more hooked on white and green teas, both of which contain caffeine. That being said, the second most consumed beverage in the world – Camellia sinensis – does have a bizarre history of addiction.
I used to listen to the song Poppies a lot when I was a young teenager, even through I didn’t fully understand the meaning of the lyrics. Yeah, I knew from a fascination with the movie, The Wizard of Oz, why it wasn’t all that ironic that Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and her other buddies fell asleep in a field of poppies, but I had no clue about the connection between tea and opium. Who does? Perhaps just historians, anthropologists, and tea nerds.
In another harrowing example of imperial subjugation, the Dutch East India Company got a little sneaky in its tea trading with China. For Britain, the price of tea was becoming unsustainably expensive. They didn’t really have anything, besides silver, that the Chinese wanted in payment. The solution to their problem was to get the Chinese addicted to opium from India, which the company had a monopoly on.
As you might guess, opium is a little more addictive than tea. The situation soon reversed itself. The East India Company no longer had to worry about not having enough silver to pay for tea. The Chinese had become so addicted to opium that they were paying for it in silver. Even though the emperor of China outlawed opium in his country, corrupt officials managed to continue the illegal trade until it was forcibly made illegal in 1857.