The “茶, चाय, Tea” exhibition is at the Horniman museum, London, until 7 July
The “茶, चाय, Tea” exhibition is at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, London, until 7 July

When at home in west London, there’s nothing better than sitting down with a mug of builder’s tea. That said, a bowl of spicy Indian masala chai with its feeling of embracing my Kenyan-British-Indian heritage is even more likely to hit the spot. I’m so in thrall to the beverage that I have an Instagram account full of images of cups imbibed whenever I travel. I associate the drink with soothing warmth in times of trouble, as well as with celebrating good news and catch-ups with friends and family.

Or at least I did until my visit to “茶, चाय, Tea” at the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, south-east London, which runs until July. And now, while I can’t really view tea as a source of pure unadulterated comfort anymore, I have a renewed appreciation of how it’s a potent symbol of multiculturalism and community-building. It doesn’t matter what your heritage is or where you are in the world, there will always be a place to bond over a brew.

Tea, it turns out, has a rather complex history. And in a climate where museums and galleries are treading carefully around the subject of how their items have been collected and curated over the years, it was refreshing to see the Horniman take a more direct approach. The exhibition centres colonialism and racism, especially Sinophobia, as issues blighting the history of Britain’s national drink.

The museum sits on the site of English tea trader and philanthropist Frederick Horniman’s original home. A campaigner for social reform and better living standards in the UK, his own wealth was built through the business of tea. As soon as you enter the museum, there’s a note about Horniman’s Tea Company, founded by Frederick’s father John in 1826. We learn that by 1891 it was “the largest tea trading business in the world” but also that “the production, trade and sale of tea in Britain was rooted in the exploitation of Asian and African peoples.”

Dotted throughout the exhibition are the personal stories of some of those involved in its curation. Coming from different cultures and heritages, each highlights their relationship with the drink and the role it plays in their identity. Two co-curators from Hackney Chinese Community Services give their thoughts. Theodora is pictured smiling and discussing the fact that tea “is not just a drink, it is a moment for reflection and meditation”, while Calvin, who grew up in Hong Kong and has mixed Eurasian, Tancareira and Manchu heritage, bluntly states: “I’m a by-product of colonialism.”

Throughout the exhibition we see how tea has built as well as disrupted communities around the world. These different threads are woven together in every carefully positioned item in the collection, from the booklet of global recipes – including Kashmiri Noon Tea and Russian Samovar – to the wooden tea crates discovered in the Horniman’s archives. These crates bearing their locations – Assam, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Kenya – were being used as storage boxes and appear as symbols of Horniman Tea’s own complicity in the indentured servitude of pickers on what became vast tea estates and the displacement of people forced to leave these lands. The crate stamped with Kericho, Kenya is accompanied by a note on the descendants of the Kipsigis and Talai people who were violently forced to move and work in “disease-prone reserves or detention camps”. They are still campaigning for justice today for what happened to their ancestors.

But first we start with a gentle journey through the development of tea cultivation in China where we read about the Camellia sinensis plant. Its dried leaves are behind the various types of delicious tea we consume. The plant is indigenous to a stretch of land spanning parts of China, India and Myanmar, although plantations are now found all over (including one in Cornwall). We see leaves borrowed from the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and learn the various words used for the beverage. It turns out the most fundamental split was between those travelling the Silk Road and Mongol trade routes, who used the northern word “Cha”, and the European maritime traders, who would say the southern “Te”.

There are many origin stories in this global exhibition. We find out mythical emperor and demi-god Shén Nóng, who features in a painting on a long scroll created by an 18th-century artist, was said to have discovered tea in 2737 BCE while travelling across China. The story goes that tea leaves fell into Shén Nóng’s boiling water and so the brew was born. A little booklet under the portrait offers the mythical origin stories of other types of tea, such as monkey tea from the Wuyi mountains in Fujian. Apparently, the mountains were so steep that monks trained the animals to pick the rare and fine tea leaves.

There is plenty of teaware and accessories on display, including numerous tea bowls and a wonderful hefty Chagama – a 19th-century tea kettle from Japan. Apparently, Chinese scholar Lù Yǔ recommended 28 utensils for brewing and drinking tea in his classic eighth-century tea guide. (The chipped mug in my kitchen cupboard was put to shame.) Families wandered around with children shouting out “teapot” in delighted recognition, passing by the less familiar “teabrick” – a lump of compact tea used for currency. But these aren’t the only entertainments. There is also bubble tea merchandise, tea-themed poetry, and even children’s books tucked away in a corner for the youngest visitors.

Adults might be more interested in the history. As well as the Horniman’s part in the tea supply chain, much is made of the role of the East India Company. It placed its first order of 100 lbs of Chinese tea in 1664, getting it from Java in Indonesia. By 1800 the company was importing 23m lbs of tea to Britain. By then, a nice cup of tea was a staple in British culture, with European makers creating their own cheaper versions of the intricate Asian tea devices. Tea was something to aspire to, a symbol of social mobility and marketed heavily to women in the home. But behind the pretty domestic tableau the business was caught up in illegality and conflict.

The exhibition curators warn that one particular section includes content referencing violence, assault, addiction and enslavement. Here we are confronted by the Opium Wars and the lead up to the conflict, which included the East India Company’s colonisation of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa (now Odisha). Britain sold Indian-grown opium in China to buy silver, which was then used to purchase the tea so desired by the British consumer. But opium had long been illegal and the harm these smuggled supplies was creating was damaging and widespread. When the Qing Empire demanded Britain stop selling opium, our curators tell us: “Faced with this dilemma and in the name of ‘free trade’ and tea, Britain chose to wage war.” Weaponry, opium pipes and photographs of the colonised tea estates bring the “tea wars” to life, as well as the subsequent trade deals and the way in which Hong Kong ended up under British rule.

Then we’re brought right up to the present day and reminded that tea still poses significant ethical questions. We see photographs of tea workers around the world protesting over their rights. A model is dressed in the uniform of a modern-day tea-worker, including rubber shoes and the plastic sheets needed to protect them from jagged branches and leeches. We learn that tea pickers today are mainly women in south Asia. They earn, on average, around £2-£3 a day for 20kg of leaves. That would produce only 3 to 4kg of processed tea.

Horniman’s Tea Company has changed hands and although it is still trading, its business is much reduced. The profit from its heyday was central to the founding of the museum and gardens. It’s perhaps even more important, then, that they are free to all visitors.

While I’m there, I’m lucky to catch two museum volunteers – Alan and Pete – setting up an interactive demonstration. I can feel a teabrick in my hand and am given an opportunity to smell the scent of various tea leaves. But we also talk about what it’s like to be a local and the importance of this free museum to the area. The exhibition has worked hard to build partnerships with charities and community organisations. It includes a short film featuring the young people of Bollo Brook Youth Centre in Ealing discussing their shared experiences over a cup of tea, and also spotlights data provided by THIRST (The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea) to cover the practices of the industry and the ethical questions raised.

Overall the “茶, चाय, Tea” exhibition strikes a fine balance, celebrating a globally popular beverage and all that it represents, while also raising awareness around how this everyday product is socially and politically charged. If you’re planning to visit, make time for the café afterwards – and bring a companion perhaps, to share a cuppa with and dissect everything you’ve just learned.

This article is from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.