Most of us are familiar with the Boston Tea Party of 1773, an iconic moment in American history where chests full of tea were dumped in the Boston Harbor out of protest against the heavy taxes on tea levied by the British, an incident that helped kickstart the American revolution. However, this wouldn’t be the last time a war was fought over tea, as the Opium Wars in China in the 19th century would quickly remind the world how valuable this popular brew was.
By the 18th century the popularity of tea had spread through every level of British society, so naturally there was a big demand for importing tea (and other goods) from the main producer of tea, China. However, the British had little of worth to offer in return, and the Chinese were aware of what British imperialism had done to other nations that traded with them, so they were very reluctant to trade with the British. In addition, the Chinese only accepted silver as payment, putting a tremendous strain on trade relations. The American War for Independence had left the British with a shortage of silver and so they needed to find a new solution to their tea problem.
The British East India Company (EIC) initially started to explore the possibility of growing its own tea in the British controlled region of Assam in India, where the tea plant grew in the wild. After the first successful export of black tea from Calcutta in 1839 British tea gardens were created in other regions of India, including Darjeeling, the Nilgiri Hills, and Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka). By this time the EIC was also producing large quantities of opium in India meant for indirect, illegal trade with China, as China was willing to pay silver for opium, and the Brits could use this silver to buy their tea.
The proliferation of Opium in China had a devastating effect on its society, leaving many addicted. The Daoguang Emperor tried to suppress the import of opium and seized enormous quantities of opium. The British, obviously not happy, began sending a number of warships alongside their merchant vessels, and as the Chinese fleet sent out warships to meet them, war was pretty much inevitable. With their superior fleet and overwhelming firepower the British secured a number of small skirmishes and the Chinese were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. The treaty established five trading ports for Western powers, forced China to recuperate financial losses, as well as conceded Hong Kong to the British. The signing of this unequal treaty remains a point of humility for the Chinese to this day.