Tuesday, 2 June 2020

A Dark History of Tea by Seren Charrington-Hollins

A Dark History of Tea by Seren Charrington-Hollins
Published in the UK by Pen And Sword on the 30th March 2020.

I am linking this review up with June 2020 Foodies Read at Based On A True Story

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Dark History of Tea looks at our long relationship with this most revered of hot beverages. Renowned food historian Seren Charrington-Hollins digs into the history of one of the world's oldest beverages, tracing tea's significance on the tables of the high and mighty as well as providing relief for workers who had to contend with the ardours of manual labour. This humble herbal infusion has been used in burial rituals, as a dowry payment for aristocrats; it has fuelled wars and spelled fortunes as it built empires and sipped itself into being an integral part of the cultural fabric of British life.

This book delves into the less tasteful history of a drink now considered quintessentially British. It tells the story of how, carried on the backs of the cruelty of slavery and illicit opium smuggling, it flowed into the cups of British society as an enchanting beverage. Chart the exportation of spices, silks and other goods like opium in exchange for tea, and explain how the array of good fortunes - a huge demand in Britain, a marriage with sugar, naval trade and the existence of the huge trading firms - all spurred the first impulses of modern capitalism and floated countries.

The story of tea takes the reader on a fascinating journey from myth, fable and folklore to murky stories of swindling, adulteration, greed, waging of wars, boosting of trade in hard drugs and slavery and the great, albeit dark engines that drove the globalisation of the world economy. All of this is spattered with interesting facts about tea etiquette, tradition and illicit liaisons making it an enjoyable rollercoaster of dark discoveries that will cast away any thoughts of tea as something that merely accompanies breaks, sit downs and biscuits.

Tea and books go so well together that as soon as I saw this book about tea on NetGalley I was looking forward to reading it. Charrington-Hollins has researched the history of the valuable tea plant right back to its earliest recorded origins in China over 1700 years ago. I was fascinated by these first glimpses of a drink that is an important part of my life and settled back with a cup of Russian Earl Grey to find out more!

Of course the title - A Dark History Of Tea - had already given away that this was not going to be a happy story and indeed it isn't, due in a large part to British imperial arrogance, selfishness and cruelty particularly towards both China and India. (Anyone British who's still spouting about China making reparations for Coronavirus would do well to read up on the Opium Wars!) As well as hugely influencing our foreign policy, tea was also surprisingly instrumental in determining domestic policy too, far more than I had expected for what is now seen as a fairly basic foodstuff. Tea was a main reason for tackling smuggling and its purity (or lack of) triggered our first food safety laws. If you are a keen tea drinker, the section on how it used to be adulterated by the unscrupulous will probably turn your stomach. Plus, because we're British, good old class snobbery takes it turn with tea drinking being perfectly acceptable for the lazing upper classes, but as soon as the working class can afford to partake there's all sorts of questions asked about whether this sort of thing should really be allowed.

I did find parts of A Dark History Of Tea to be too repetitive, almost as though the book had originally been intended as a series of articles rather than a single work. However, I loved the variety of information that is included. From its history to the various fashions in serving, appropriate attire for taking tea, and even a detailed resource on the interpretation of tea leaves for the fortune tellers amongst us. A Dark History Of Tea is a very interesting read.

Etsy Find!
by WW Ceramics UK in
Swindon, England

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Books by Seren Charrington-Hollins / History books / Books from England


  1. Heck yes on the whole reparations thing - Opium Wars, HELLO!

  2. Almost all addictive or highly flavored foods (tea, coffee, chocolate, booze, nutmeg, pepper...) have a dark side lurking in their history. You could almost become a pessimist.

    be well... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

  3. This is really the book for me. I love drinking tea and reading and it makes me so happy to read and learn about the history of tea... even the dark bits. :D I have never heard of it before but I am going to have to get to it.

  4. My older son has recently become fascinated with tea history. I'll looking this one up for him!