Difficult History: A Cuppa Politics

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Alternate title: “The Boston Tea Party is Relevant Today and Not For the Reasons You Think”

Yes, another one. Apparently, a follower on Instagram who had missed my previous three posts on the political history of tea decided to tell me that “tea should be relaxing, not political.” Obviously, I disagree. And plenty of my other followers immediately came into my DMs with “Yeah, have they never heard of the Boston Tea Party?!” Oh yes, we’re doing the Boston Tea Party today.

But guess what? The Boston Tea Party isn’t what you think it is. It’s come up a lot recently because of the violence, property damage, and looting that occurred surrounding the protests in support of Black lives this year. People on one side of the argument pointed out that looting is considered patriotic when it’s white people destroying tea, while others turned to refute that by ascribing higher morals and debunking that the Boston Tea Party was at all similar to looting Target.

So, in case there are people who aren’t familiar with the “Boston Tea Party,” as it has been come to be called since the 19th century, it was an event in December 1773 when a group of men disguised themselves and destroyed a shipment of tea belonging to the British East India Company. But the details of the event, and its significance in the motivations for the American Revolution, have been shrouded in the mythology of the noble founding fathers.

The myth is that a group of noble Sons of Liberty valiantly destroyed only the tea belonging to the British East India Company in protest of the taxes levied by the crown, selflessly refusing to take anything for themselves or to touch any private property. After this single, glorious act, the cause of liberty was begun, leading to the American Revolution, which freed the colonies and created the new democratic country of the United States of America. Well… it’s actually a lot more nuanced than that.

First of all, they were not protesting higher taxes. They were actually, technically, protesting lower taxes. The Tea Act of 1773 granted license to the East India Tea Company to import their tea without the typical duties levied against other teas coming into the colonies. This amounted to a decrease in the cost of tea for the colonists, if they bought EIC tea. Now, Malcolm Gladwell has argued that the real motivation was that the tax break for the EIC meant that smugglers were now getting undercut, but that seems to be a slightly reductive, naive reading of the situation.

Instead, the main concern was not that tea was too expensive, but that the colonists were protesting the levying of taxes without their input and the fact that the Crown was giving a specific tax break to one large company, effectively granting them a monopoly. The phrase “no taxation without representation” became a rallying cry, not because taxes were too high, but because they were too biased. In fact, the phrase “End Taxation Without Representation” still appears on DC license plates, as the District is federally taxed without full representation in Congress, and yet DC statehood is not supported by many conservatives for *reasons*.

And, yes, notable founding fathers like George Washington and John Adams wrote negatively about “the destruction of the tea,” as it was called at the time. While they supported the cause of colonial liberty (well, for them, at least), they spoke out of both sides of their mouths, lest they sever ties with their business contacts. In my video “Tea with Abigail Adams,” I discuss how, despite the perception that drinking tea was unpatriotic immediately following the destruction of the tea, Americans seemed to have quickly forgotten their newfound protest and return to tea-drinking rather quickly. Adams writes frequently in the years after 1773 about some new tea or other that he has tried and wanted to send home to his wife, and Abigail Adams includes bohea tea in her list of household expenses.

Plus, many of John’s business contacts were in the hospitality business and maintained ties to British ideology in order to serve foreign dignitaries. The politics of business has always been murky. So it is nothing new when a modern company posts support for a cause one day, but continues the practices that benefit them the next. In fact, this is part of the legacy of the Boston Tea Party.

Now, we get to the ideological effect of the Boston Tea Party. First of all, the term “Boston Tea Party” seems to have been coined around 1825 by newspapers referring to the historic event some fifty years earlier. At the time, it was simply known as the destruction of the tea or the dumping of the tea. Even a famous engraving from 1789, which has been come to be called “The Boston Tea Party,” was originally simply titled “Americans throwing the cargoes of the tea ships into the river, at Boston.”

Beyond that, the disguise as Mohawk indigenous people, while it has been explained as a statement of identification with the indigenous population of the continent and not as British subjects, was not as comprehensive as later depictions suggest. Contemporary accounts talk of people grabbing ragged clothing and blackening their faces with soot to suggest “savages” rather than donning well-thought-out costumes. That, combined with the secrecy surrounding the identities of the protestors, suggests that the disguises were just that — a way to avoid being identified. And the result was that the Crown, in the absence of specific people to prosecute, cracked down on the whole of the colonies. And THAT was what brought together politically disparate colonial leaders into supporting the Revolution.

As far as the issue of theft goes, while it was generally accepted that the purpose of the event was protest and destruction, not personal gain, the eyewitness account does point out the one or two were caught pocketing the tea and were “roughly handled” by their fellows, but one can imagine that there must have been some who were not caught. While many of the protestors had this ideal, it is apparent that not all of them did. So it is also unrealistic to claim that none of the protestors would stoop to theft. If modern protestors are caught stealing, perhaps it is only because we have a lot more first-hand evidence of current events on camera than we have of events of 250 years ago.

Finally, the protest at Boston is 1773 was not an isolated event. It happens to be the most well-known, but tea protests occurred throughout the colonies, both before and after the Boston event. In 1774, tea protests occurred in my own home state of Maryland in Annapolis and Chestertown. This was not a single, isolated event, carried out by proud, non-violent, non-self-interested people. This was a rash of violence and destruction throughout the country, as it was at the time, that prompted a brutal response from the Crown. And this response led to war.

I suppose the point of this article is 1.) as a reminder that tea has been used as a symbol of politics in the United States specifically since before our country was founded, and 2.) that protest is nuanced. When we view past protest, we are viewing it through the filter of time and the biases of the historians. They say that history is written by the victors, and it’s true here as well. So when criticizing politics and political unrest, it is occasionally important to take a step back and who might be trying to encourage your emotional response to align with their opinion. It turns out the Boston Tea Party is very relevant to modern protests, but not because it was invariably hailed as good and pure from day one, but because it is a perfect example of an event that was decried as violent and destructive at the time becoming a symbol of freedom.

Difficult History: Chai and Protest

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It’s been a stressful week, so while I’m about to talk politics (albeit, 100-year-old politics), I’m going to do it with what many of us consider to be a singularly comforting beverage: masala chai. Fair warning — while I did learn how to make masala chai from my Indian housemate, I am still a white lady talking about how tea fit into Indian politics. I’m largely drawing my distilled history from A Thirst for Empire, which I’ve used for other “Difficult History” posts, though I did look at a few other sources, which I’ll mention as they come up.

Alright. So, my ultimate premise is that masala chai, as we know it today, was originally a kind of culinary protest. The chaiwallahs who made it probably didn’t think about it that way, but the way that masala chai is made today, by boiling tea, spices, milk, sugar, and water together, stems from a practice of frugality which went in direct opposition to the purpose of introducing tea into widespread use in India in the late 19th and early 20th century.

You see, despite the fact that native varieties of Camellia sinensis were found in the Indian subcontinent, and eventually became the main stock from which commodity Indian tea was grown, tea was not widely consumed in India, traditionally. Accounts of “the history of chai” like to make the connection between modern masala chai and an ancient Ayurvedic drink, but in reality, that drink was primarily made from the spices that we associate with masala chai today, and did not include milk or tea leaves. But when the British production of tea in India began to reach large-scale economic viability, the primarily native-Indian workforce in factories and fields were seen as a potential new market.

Tea stalls were set up to sell tea to workers and Indian tea culture started to follow British tea culture — i.e., with lots of milk and sugar. But the sellers, called chaiwallahs, had little tricks to both stretch their tea leaves and appeal to the native Indian palate. They boiled the leaves, allowing them to get a stronger brew out of less leaf, or even using previously-steeped leaves, to save money on the expensive tea. The addition of spices and sugar also added flavor to the beverage without using the more expensive ingredient.

But the introduction of tea into the Indian diet was meant as a way to earn more money for the tea companies (similarly to how Henry Ford pushed for weekends off work so workers could become consumers and increase company profits), as well as a way to “civilize” them in the British fashion. So organizations, like the Indian Tea Association (ITA), which was founded in the late 19th century to protect the interests of colonizer tea plantation owners, started pushing for rules about “purity” of the tea sold by chaiwallahs, playing on the fears of adulturation that were common at the time. Excessive sugar and spices were considered “adulturants” and only allowed in approved quantities, or not at all.

After World War I, when British tea consumption faltered, there was more of a push to both encourage the consumption of “Empire-Grown Tea” in the British Isles (which led to the xenophobic advertising I mentioned in my post about the feminization of tea in Britain), as well as in India. But this time, the native Indians were organizing under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi to oppose British rule, and were thinking negatively about how the British commodities, like sugar, bread, and tea, had worked their way into Indian life. Gandhi himself wrote in his book The Key to Health that the tannins in tea were unhealthy and praised tea as only being healthful in the milk and sugar it contained.

So perhaps Gandhi would have smiled upon the current trend of using other bases besides tea in beverages called “chai” like turmeric chai or rooibos chai. But the main takeaway is that the chaiwallahs, while they probably did not think of their act as a protest, birthed a drink that showed how adding back Indian flavor into a drink pushed upon them by their colonizers could create not only a delicious beverage, but one that largely spat in the eye of the same organization that tried to capitalize on them by using a method that conserved as much of that expensive tea as possible.

Similarly to yoga, which was codified in its modern incarnation as a way to encourage native Indian strength and nationalism, only to be appropriated and watered down into white popular culture, so too has chai been removed from its context. While a barista can make a perfectly drinkable beverage from steamed milk and a “chai” concentrate without ever having to look at a tea leaf or a ginger rhizome, the real masala chai is boiled, pulled, and served up with a healthy does of resistance.

For anyone who is curious, my chai is made with ginger, cardamom, black peppercorns, cinnamon, Assam tea from Calabash Tea and Tonic, jaggery, water, and coconut milk. The cup is from Ivy’s Tea Co.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details, but you should know that if you want to sponsor a “Difficult History” post, the bar will be high.

Difficult History: Feminization and White Supremacy in British Tea Culture

This is an ongoing series on injustices perpetuated through the history and present of Western tea culture.

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This month’s installment of “Difficult History” is one that I have had in mind to write since I first started A Thirst for Empire and read the introduction, in which the author hints at the complex interplay of white supremacy and misogyny that led to the marketing of tea as a feminine commodity. When we think of a cup of tea, particularly in the Western style, we often think of something distinctly feminine, perhaps with aspects of old-fashioned femininity attached to it. We think of it as something our grandmothers would do. We joke about burly men drinking tea. We refer to our Chinese-inspired practice as “kung fu tea” to emphasize its difference from the feminized British afternoon tea image. But the original white drinkers of tea were explorers (colonizers), imperialists, and missionaries, who were largely men. So how did tea go from a drink of explorers to a drink of dainty ladies?

Well, the early seeds of this were likely planted in the 18th century, as tea became more popular among all classes of people in Britain. In 1733, John Waldron wrote in his A Satyr against Tea that rather than curing headaches and improving virility, as was claimed by some medical texts of the 17th and 18th centuries, tea would instead turn men into bed-wetters and made them womanish in their lust for luxury and waste. Later, in 1756, Jonas Hanaway wrote in his An Essay on Tea (a text that was addressed “to two ladies”) that tea had turned the Chinese into “the most effeminate people on the face of the whole earth,” as contrasted with the manly British. While he goes on to bemoan adulturation and lack of quality control of Chinese tea, his ultimate message is that tea-sipping turns you into a womanish person — like those dreadfully effeminate Chinese.

It is important to remember that at this point, the first attempt of the Chinese government to stem the import of opium from British traders, who used it to trade for tea, had been enacted in 1729. The relationship between Britain and China had started to sour and there was some controversy about whether it was wholly patriotic and British to drink a foreign drink like tea. While the British tried to paint the Chinese as savage or backwards, like they had done in other parts of the world they seized and exploited, it seemed that they couldn’t quite make that stick. So instead, they othered the Chinese by calling their refinement and culture feminine. And tried to demonize Chinese tea as both feminizing, thereby making it dangerous to soldiers and other manly British men, and also potentially contaminated with any number of poisons, as the Chinese had a near-monopoly on the production and export of tea at this time (Japanese tea export would not flourish until the 19th century).

Eventually, the British would ignite the Opium Wars in the 19th century and there would be a focused effort to move British tea consumption away from an independent China to the British-controlled India and Ceylon. By the time tea production in India had become industrially viable on the scale needed, in the late 19th century, the marketing had been cemented. British-controlled Indian tea was pure while Chinese tea was foreign and therefore suspect. In fact, a lot of these attitudes persist into the modern day.

But tea was still associated more strongly with the British woman than with men. In the early 19th century, the temperance movement caught on that tea could be used as a social beverage in place of spirits. However, some advocates of temperance and frugality could not get behind tea. In his 1822 Cottage Economy, William Cobbett refers to tea as, among other evils, “an an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness.” Echoing this sentiment, Esther Copley wrote in her Cottage Comforts, recommends instead to use “the common herbs of mint and balm,” which are just as good as tea, and cheaper and not likely to damage one’s strength. Yet, the temperance tea party seems to have caught on, at least in part due to the idea of the supposed civilizing effect of tea, which is somewhat ironic considering it was originally demonized for its association with the feeble and effeminate Chinese.

By 1874, in his book titled Foods, Dr. Edward Smith says “If to be an Englishman is to eat beef, to be an Englishwoman is to drink tea.” And therein is condensed the attitude that seems to have persisted to the modern day. Men eat steak and women sip tea. And it was with that attitude that British dealers of commodity tea that had been produced in colonized South Asia embarked upon their advertising campaigns. But this time, rather than simply using women as the target customer, they also used the white woman as a symbol. A white girl or a white woman was used as the symbol the tea’s purity, thereby taking on yet another layer of the complicated blanket of white supremacy that cloaks Western tea culture to this day.

And that, I suppose, is the upshot of this meandering historical argument. The idea that British tea culture is a feminine interest stems first from the idea of British superiority over the Chinese, due to their effeminate ways, and eventually became a distillation of white supremacist ideas of the purity of white womanhood as women became symbols for the purity of a product controlled by British imperialism over a product from an independent Asian nation. So when we parrot this idea, that tea is feminine, either by buying into it or by trying to subvert it and assume that tea needs to be “made masculine,” we are perpetuating this historical idea that Chinese=womanly=bad. And I say “we” because I am equally guilty of taking this idea of the tea-sipping lady as a given in my own practice. But, knowing better, we can realize that tea is simply a beverage and has no gender, nor do any particular trappings of tea. We can each choose and drink the tea we like the way we like it without having to apologize for being a man who likes mango-tango white tea buds or a woman who likes a Lapsang strong enough to make Winston Churchill blush (not that I’m aware of him ever feeling shame). So romanize your Chinese-inspired tea practice as “kung fu” or pull out your laciest doilies, but try not to see it as the masculine or feminine versions of tea, but rather as a culture that has passed all over the world though centuries of changes, and has landed here, on your tea table.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

Sources:

A Thirst for Empire, by Erika Rappaport [link]

Foods, by Edward Smith [link]

An essay on tea, by Jonas Hanaway [link]

Cottage Comforts, by Esther Copley [link]

Cottage Economy, by William Cobbett [link]