How the Brits became a nation of tea drinkers Coffee leaf rust in Ceylon had very little to do with it

Erika Rappaport
Erika Rappaport’s study of tea meticulously documents the many ways in which tea, as it became one of the first global commodities, was responsible for so many aspects of modern life. In the course of our conversation, it became obvious that there is no single reason why the Brits turned to tea. They were drinking roughly equal amounts of tea and coffee to begin with, long before coffee leaf rust arrived in Ceylon, but it was mostly Chinese tea. When the British East India Company decided to try their hand growing tea in Assam, they came up against one big problem: back home, nobody much liked the taste of Indian tea. Persuading them to change their minds was a massive undertaking involving racist rhetoric, fearmongering, and little glimpses of heaven on earth. And it worked.

“Comparative Consumption,”
Sir James Buckingham, A Few Facts about Indian Tea and How to Brew It
(London: Indian Tea Association, 1910, p. 4. British Library shelf mark 07076.48 (4).


  1. Erika Rappaport shared just a few stories from tea’s not so glorious history. There is masses more in her book, and if you’re looking for a long read in which to lose yourself (or a loved one), I highly recommend A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World.
  2. Not entirely by chance, I also watched a video of William Dalrymple talking about his newish book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire. Tea barely gets a look in, but there is so much else to digest.
  3. There is now a transcript, thanks to the show’s supporters

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