How British colonialism ruined a perfect cup of tea

On the colonial colouring of the culinary calamity the British call a cup of tea.

The history of British tea does not begin with some silly aristocratic marriage but with slavery, writes Dabashi [Getty]

Recently my colleague Ilan Pappe and I were in Mexico City attending a conference on Palestine. In the course of the memorable few days we spent together catching up with the latest atrocities around the globe (in between our respective talks on the habitual shenanigans of the Zionist settler colony in Palestine), perhaps the most memorable phrase I remember is when Ilan cited our mutual friend the eminent Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmed who had once told him “our singular historical failure as a nation was after 200 years of British colonialism we failed to teach them how to cook!”

Soon after that memorable phrase I came across a typically blase BBC report headlined “The true story behind England’s tea obsession”, celebrating British and other European aristocracies, this time about the culinary calamity the British call “tea”.

WATCH: The Stream – The real cost of your cup of tea


“Imagine the most English-English person you can think of,” the piece begins, “Now I’m fairly certain that no matter what picture you just conjured up, that person comes complete with a stiff upper lip and a cup of tea in their hand”. Clumsy grammar you might say, but the point is quite clear: the origin of tea might indeed be China, but it was Catherine of Braganza, daughter of Portugal’s King John IV, who made tea popular in England. The entire article is a silly piece of British aristocratic memorabilia covering up a much nastier global history of British imperialism surrounding tea. 

Let’s put it bluntly 

First of all, let’s talk tea. The British do not know how to make tea. What they call “tea” is a travesty. There is no polite way of putting it. They just suck at making tea. Yes, they have built a splendid ceremony around what they call “the afternoon tea” but at the centre of the ritual is a nonsensical disaster they make with a beautiful and miraculous herb about which they do not understand the most basic facts. 

“There are few hours in life more agreeable,” says Henry James famously in The Portrait of a Lady “than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Perhaps so – though the Japanese Tea Ceremony/The Way of Tea is infinitely more elegant and sublime. Be that as it may, the British mannerism around tea is most certainly not because of the wretchedly abused leaves they kill to nullity but because of the literary aura that Henry James and others have helped build around the ceremony. 

 A proper cup of tea, as any civilised Indian, Iranian, Turk or central Asian can tell you, needs to be poured into a see-through cup, writes Dabashi [Getty images]

To be sure, I am not the first person to point out the fact the British are a global embarrassment to the very idea of tea. “Tea is shit.” This is not me. I will never say such a thing about any other people’s culinary habits – no matter how atrocious. This is coming from writer Joel Golby, a proper Brit who has come out and declared what the British call tea “a national disgrace,” confessing for the whole world to know that their “tea is shit.” Further elaborating: 

We don’t examine this enough in England. We just putter along, thinking tea is good; but it’s not good. It’s a lukewarm mug of leaf water, presented as a cure-all for life’s ills. “Nice cup of tea,” people say, when you’ve watched a vivid car accident or been given a terminal diagnosis, or gone for a walk and it’s started raining. Whether the mafia has kidnapped you and made you kill a man with a gun to win your freedom or if you’ve done quite badly in an exam, someone will say: “Let me get you a nice cup of tea.”

But what is the problem, where did the British go wrong with their tasteless abuse of tea? Oh, Brother let me count the ways!

Tea, dear friends, is a miraculous potion and if brewed to perfection it is composed on the physiognomy of the human face – and thus made to yield its God-given properties it will entice three of our most precious five senses. Following the order of the human face, a perfectly brewed tea begins with the gift of sight in our eyes on the top of our face designed to see, coming down to the nose in the middle to smell the aroma and concluding with the lips and the mouth where our sense of taste informs the treasure house of our palate. 

I have known since I was a toddler accompanying my late mother to Hajj Abduh’s grocery store in Ahvaz, may they both rest in peace, that no tea on this earthly abode has these three qualities of colour, aroma and taste together and therefore a good tea is a composite tea, judiciously made of at least three different kinds of teas.


Towards a post-colonial theory of tea

Let me be more specific: imagine a beautiful cup of tea. What is the first thing you notice about that cup of tea: Of course its splendidly ruby colour. That is the first law of tea that the British egregiously violate by drinking their tea in those silly cups that are not see-through. A proper cup of tea, as any civilised Indian, Iranian, Turk or central Asian can tell you, needs to be poured into a see-through cup. You start enjoying your tea by first looking at it, “drinking”, as it were, its miraculously crimson colour.  

Milk rudely destroys the delicately combined comportment of colour, aroma and taste of any decent tea all at the same time, writes Dabashi [Getty]

Then as you bring the see-through cup closer to your face to drink it rises the aroma (nose) and finally the taste (mouth) of the tea.


Here comes the next calamity of the British, which is flooding their wretched tea with milk! What a total horror! Milk rudely destroys the delicately combined comportment of colour, aroma and taste of any decent tea all at the same time. 

The few precious words that my generous Al Jazeera editors afford me do not allow me to talk in detail about the most precious of all moments when you actually drink the tea in the company of a small piece of sugar cube you strategically place in the corner of your mouth for what we call dishlameh or ghand-pahlo, the exact antithesis of the criminal atrocity of the British saturating their tea with merciless spoons of sugar, poisoning the wretched tea they drink.  

The entire joy of drinking tea, as any Turk, Russian, Iranian, or Central Asian teahouse master will tell you is the exquisite delicacy of negotiating a peaceful, cooperative, and delightful coexistence between the bitterness of tea and the sweetness of sugar, diplomatically negotiated inside your mouth. Can you even imagine Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, or Theresa May trying to grasp that sublime sense of peaceful coexistence between tea and a sugar cube conversing in your mouth? Of course not. Ask them what is dishlameh – it’s Greek to them. 


The colonial colouring of tea

But “what went wrong” – as the notorious Zionist Orientalist Bernard Lewis would say. How did the British end up with their miserable cup of tea?

The history of British tea does not begin with some silly aristocratic marriage but with slavery. “How did tea emerge as Britain’s hot beverage of choice” an acute observer has asked recently on NPR, to which she has offered the apt observation: “Tea met sugar, forming a power couple that altered the course of history. It was a marriage shaped by fashion, health fads and global economics. And the growing taste for sweetened tea also helped fuel one of the worst blights on human history: the slave trade.”

When American colonies began their revolt against the British, they called their initial uprising the “Tea Party”, for disguised as Native Americans, they threw an entire shipment of tea sent to American colonies by the notorious East India Company into Boston Harbor. But this very American revolution would itself degenerate into the genocide of those very Native Americans and an even more murderous chapter in African slavery.

I am not the first person to point out the fact the British are a global embarrassment to the very idea of tea, writes Dabashi [Getty]

The selfsame East India Company whose tea was thrown into Boston harbour used to buy tea from China for import with the money they made by their illegal trading in opium they grew in India. The British thus aggressively turned the Chinese into drug addicts by the abused labour of their colonies in India. Just imagine the depth of bastardy! What a plague, what a criminal calamity beyond words has British colonialism been to the world. When the Chinese tried to stop these illegal smuggling, Great Britain went to war with China in their so-called “Opium Wars”. 

Historians of tea tell us: “The rise of tea and sugar as a power duo was a boon for British government coffers. By the mid-1700s, tea imports accounted for one-tenth of overall tax income”. The same goes for sugar: “According to one analysis … in the 1760s, the annual duties on sugar imports were ‘enough to pay to maintain all ships in the navy … Those tea-and-sugar monies helped supply the British navy with better foodstuffs … and that navy was key to spreading British might across the globe. It’s this dominance of the British navy that allows Britain to become the major colonial power in the 19th century.” 

What was the cost of this horrid British “cup of tea”? That cost will have to be measured in human misery. “This fad for tea came in just as sugar was under attack and had started to fall out of favour. By creating a new and lasting use for this sweetener, tea helped buoy demand for sugar from the West Indies. And indeed, it continued to support the expansion of slavery there.” 

After all these criminal atrocities around the world – stealing, pillaging, trading in slaves, mass murdering people to rob them of their natural resources – are you surprised at what the British have ended up with? Drinking that tea is an act of redemptive suffering, a just punishment for what the British have done to the world at large. Every time they sip from that accursed cup they are paying penance for the terror they have visited upon this earth.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.