Reviewing: A Dark History of Tea by Seren Charrington Hollins

A copy of this book was provided by Netgalley and Pen & Sword in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.  

Content warnings: Racism, drug addiction, sexual assault, slavery, murder. 

My rating: 4 books out of 5

Highlights: 

  • From tree to mug the story of tea is anything but boring. 
  • I find it fascinating how one thing can have such a profound effect on the politics and history of a nation. 
  • Life might be hard but at least there’s not dung in our tea any more. 
  • People used to plan historical uprisings in coffee houses so we haven’t changed that much to be honest. 
  • If only people had protested racism and sexism with the same vehemence they protested the King trying to shut said coffee houses. Again, haven’t changed that much. 
  • There’s a list of tea spells at the back!

Tea enjoyment is seen as one of life’s most basic and natural pleasures, but the rise of tea consumption in Europe and Britain is stained with tears and corruption.

A cup of tea. For me, there’s little more peaceful and comforting than a cuppa and a book. I’m drinking tea as I write this, I drank an awful lot of it while I read this book. Despite my liking for a cup of coffee on a Monday morning, or a night time hot chocolate, it’s tea I fall back on in times of stress or sadness. 

And there’s been rather a lot of that going around lately, hasn’t there? 

While there’s little more quintessentially British than a cup of tea and a chat, the plant isn’t native to our little island. It’s not even native to our continent. A drink so old its discovery predates any written history beyond myth and legend, tea is fundamentally Chinese in origin. Of course, once European travellers discovered it, things changed. Two wars and a revolution later, here I am drinking my cuppa from a mug with a fairytale landscape on it. And thank goodness it doesn’t contain floor sweepings, poison or animal waste. 

At least I really hope it doesn’t, it’s my favourite type. I’d hate to have to change. 

This book was absolutely fascinating, both for the history of tea itself and for the illuminating glimpse into the history of the country I call home. I took an AS level in history – I still to this day cannot escape Gladstone and Disraeli (no really I bought hot chocolate and the receipt had a Gladstone quote at the bottom) – and the way colonialism affected our modern views of literature was a topic I covered at university (spoiler alert: if it wasn’t by a white dude it rarely made it big), so while I’m hardly an expert I did recognise a few names and events mentioned. However, a lot of this stuff was entirely new to me. And pretty much all of it was horrifying. 

History is in many ways cyclical, but it was chilling to see the sort of rhetoric spread about Chinese immigrants over a hundred years ago, especially when you hold it up to the sort spread about immigrants in general nowadays. It’s almost identical. There has always been political power in getting voters to unite in hating the same people. 

So while I knew the history of the humble tea leaf wouldn’t be idyllic, this was a JOURNEY of war, racism, drug addiction, shady business dealings, murder and witchcraft. 

Yup, it really does have everything. 

The main thing I had against this book going through was that the narrative of it wasn’t entirely linear. It followed a mostly chronological setup in terms of time passing, but had a tendency to bounce about a bit when further discussing certain topics – like the opium trade or the nasty state of many a Victorian larder – and as someone for whom dates do not come naturally, I found myself getting a little confused from time to time. There was a lot of ‘wait didn’t we already cover that bit? Isn’t it the 1800s now? Okay no…okay back to the 1800s’ but let’s all remember there’s a high chance that this is for two reasons:

  1. I am an idiot
  2. I read this in lockdown and my brain was slowly turning to mush. I couldn’t even remember the current date. Still can’t tbh, it’s just somewhere between January and inevitable death. 

So if you’re a historically minded person you may not find that this is an issue. Just be aware going in that there are callbacks to earlier dates throughout. 

Overall I really enjoyed reading this book. Despite the slight confusion from the non-linear dates I took away a great deal from the reading experience that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry. Even something as simple as a cup of tea with breakfast has a dark and storied history that might just change the way you look at it.

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