Tea, Sugar, and Slavery

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Our beloved tea, Camelia Sinensis, has a rich and complex history that spans elevations, continents, languages, and cultures. It is truly mind blowing to think about my own ease of accessibility to tea. I drink at least one cup every morning, in rural Vermont, a place where a tea plant would only grow if very carefully tended in a greenhouse. Stone Leaf Teahouse is the reason that I have access to this miraculous plant. We are a business that dedicates it’s resources to sourcing loose leaf tea made in small batches, with great expertise, and with practices that do not exploit the land or the people making the final product. But this is the story of one modern business and not necessarily the story of the industry as a whole or it’s history. My ease of accessibility to this miraculous plant is also in large part due to a history of exploitation and slavery.

Today people are making history, flooding streets and village squares across the United States protesting the systemic murder of black people. Thereby it has become all the more urgent to study the history of industry and investigate how it has directly shaped today’s economic and social injustices. If we do not know where the systemic racism came from we do not know how to reshape societal norms. Like so many other beloved plants, the commodification of Tea and its industry has actually played a role in this history wrought in expansionism, violence, slavery and greed. Let’s take a closer look together.


Long before tea came to Europe, it had already been established as a drink for all classes of people in Japan and China. There are many books on the subject, but there are thorough examples with “The True History of Tea” or for specifically tea in China, Laslo Montgomery’s podcast The History of Tea is highly recommended. You will discover a complex history spanning thousands of years of consuming this miraculous beverage. The first reportings of tea spreading through Europe come in the 1600s. This occurs along with the establishment of global trade networks and such companies as the Dutch East India Company and British East India Company. It wasn’t until the end of the 17th century, that there was a boom in global tea trade to Europe and the Americas. To give an idea of numbers, in 1678 the British East India Trading Company imported 4,717 pounds of tea. Less than 50 years later in 1721 the British East India Company officially imported 1 million pounds of tea from China.


It is impossible to say when the exact moment was that Tea and Sugar met, but we can say with absolutely certainty that the relationship stuck. It is also impossible to say that Tea was responsible for the growing sugar industry. But based on anthropological and economic evidence the growing popularity of tea, sugar, and the custom of putting one with the other, reinforced the demand for both (Complications of the Commonplace: Tea, Sugar, and Imperialism).

In 1638 the Secretary to the German Ambassador to the Persian Shah, Adam Olearius writes “The Persians boil it (the tea) till the water hath got a bitterish taste and a blackish color and add thereto fennel aniseed, or cloves, and sugar”.

Although British did not invent the custom of sugar in tea but they did help to establish the immense growth of both industries. Accounts from the year 1660 show that the average person in England consumed approximately 2 pounds of sugar, but thirty years later in 1700 had doubled to 4 pounds per person. The trend for taking sugar in your tea (and coffee) may have had something to do with this spike. (True History of Tea).


The mutually beneficial relationship between sugar and tea helped to support growth in both industries and fuel the demand for more slaves to be taken from the African Coast.

Historians believe that the mutually delicious relationship between Sugar and Tea did strengthen plantation slavery in the West Indies, help to promote British imperialism in Asia, and contribute to economic growth in Europe and North America (Complications of the Commonplace: Tea, Sugar, and Imperialism).

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database an estimated 12.5 million slaves were taken from Africa to help fuel the sugar, cotton, Indigo, and tobacco industries. Keep yourself more deeply informed and check it out here. Apparently the top four nations who took black slaves from the western coast of Africa were Portugal, Great Britain, France, and Spain. But we know well that the USA was not an innocent bystander. By the time of emancipation in 1862 (two hundred years after the first slaves were taken to the Americas) there were 4 million slaves “freed” who were direct descendants of the initial 305,326 people taken from Africa (read this source). The United States created an industry of slave labor, and built a nation’s thriving economy off of endentured black bodies.

SpainPortugalGreat BritainNetherlandsU.S.A.FranceDenmark

The slave trade was an essential component of the Atlantic Triangular Trade Network. Slaves were bought all along the west coast of Africa and sold in the Americas (in the Caribbean Islands and West Indies as well as the North American Continent). Sugar, Tobacco, Textiles, and Rum were exported to Europe and Africa. Then more slaves were taken from Africa to feed a seemingly never ending loop. More slaves, meant more sugar, meant more rum, meant more goods being traded from North America. The higher the demand the more the demand was met with the exploitation of black lives.

The Atlantic triangular trade network was intertwined with the export and production of tea primarily due to tea’s relationship to sugar. Though hardly the main instigator, Tea was a propelling force in the rise of sugar production and thus the increase of slave labor in the sugar mills. Whether it was for the production of rum, or the craving for confectionery pleasures, societal thirst for sweetness established strongholds of slave labor in the Caribbean islands, North American Colonies, Brazil, South America and many other places.


Today is a reflection of our history. When we focus on the modern day tea industry, we can see the remnants of the colonial era model of doing business. When an industry pursues the cheap production and immediate maximized profits over the well being of its workforce and community, exploitation is a common result (and we haven’t even gotten into the ecological impacts!). The vestiges of the colonial era tea industry are still present in the large tea estates of India and Africa. It is not to say that all of the industry is exploiting its workforce…to the contrary, there are many in the tea community working to make it the best for all. But there are undeniably many challenges to this model.


Understanding these histories of industry is essential to being a socially responsible business. As a small business importing loose leaf tea from around the world have invested in this research and will continue to do so with a series of blogs concerned with the histories of Tea and how it is wrapped into environmental and social sustainability. Although slaves were emancipated less than 200 years ago racism and inequity are still alive today. Why? Together we will learn more and together we might find hope in our communities as we fellow businesses and organizations commit to becoming evermore responsible.

Stone Leaf Teahouse was built out of a desire to do the tea business a little differently than most massive production companies. As a small business we work hard to travel to the places where we source our tea, buying tea made fairly and grown without the use of chemicals. This is our radical action, one that we are continually reviewing and renewing. Together as small communities we have the opportunity to redefine industry, and speak out against acts of exploitation. Stone Leaf Teahouse is indebted to our many faithful costumers who help us to maintain our mission and source fresh and fairly traded teas from around the world. Please continue to support, give us feedback, help us become more accountable to people of color in our community.

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