Tea Leaves and Coffee Bushes: the history of your morning cuppa’

It seems a simple choice: tea or coffee for that morning pick-me-up. But then there’s the matter of Earl Grey or Breakfast tea, herbal tea or macha latte, a cappuccino or flat white, skinny, full-fat, soya or almond milk. Far more complex and intriguing, though, than these 21st-century dilemmas are the stories of how those beverages made their way to our kitchen tables in the first place.

Tea is a native of China and was drunk there in the far distant past, though the story that the legendary emperor Shennong discovered it in 2727 BC after the wind blew leaves from a tea bush he happened to be sitting under into a pot of boiling water is likely to be a tall tale. By the early 9th century AD, when Lu Yu wrote the Manual of Tea, though, its preparation and drinking had become an art-form, with instructions for precisely the best time to pick the leave and exhaustive tips on how to infuse them (replacing the earlier habit of crushing the tea into cakes and then grating it like cheese into boiling water). For a long time, tea was a bitter beverage, drunk without sugar or milk, and favoured in Buddhist monasteries as a means of keeping the monks awake during prolonged bouts of meditation. Milk only became popular from the 17th century during the Qing dynasty, whose central Asian nomadic roots included a heritage of drinking dairy products previously alien in China. Although tea had certainly reached London by the 1650s (where it was referred to as “Tcha”), it took sugar to transform it into a drink popular among the sweet-craving British and the acquisition of colonies in the Caribbean, beginning with Jamaica in 1655, where plantations operated by enslaved labour produced the magic sweetening catalyst in massive quantities. By the mid-19th century tea had completed its transformation from medicinal Chinese drink quintessentially English beverage.

It took coffee somewhat longer to establish itself on British breakfast tables, although the legend of its origin is equally as picturesque as that of tea. A 9th-century Ethiopian goatherd is said to have observed his goats becoming rather excitable when they chewed on a particular berry and – for reasons somewhat obscure – decided to drop a handful into boiling water, creating the first cup of coffee. Long associated with gossip and scandal – it was banned by the governor of Mecca in 1511 as it encouraged gatherings of dissenters with radical ideas – it reached England by the 1650s, rapidly spawning thousands of coffeehouses (including the forerunner of Lloyd’s insurance market). In 1672, exasperation at the amount of time men were spending in such establishments led to the Women’s Petition Against Coffee which alleged that they were abandoning their wives to spend their days drinking this “little base, black, thick, nasty stinking nauseous puddle”.

Despite this opposition, coffee caught on, especially once its spread from its native habitat in Ethiopia and Yemen and cultivation began in the Caribbean and South America. The epicentre of the industry became Brazil, to where, one story has it, the first plant was carried in 1727 by Francisco de Mela Palheta who used his charms to seduce the wife of the governor of French Guiana, where it was already cultivated, and brought back her gift of a bouquet including coffee seeds. From such picaresque beginning an industry grew which today produces 3.6 million tons of coffee beans a year and is worth more than $1 billion annually to Brazil.

It is stories such as these which made researching History of World Trade in Maps such a pleasure. With a huge canvas, from the bartering for obsidian in the Neolithic Aegean to the information miners of the 21st century, the story of trade is a massive one, but, in the rush of battle and the hurly-burly of politics, it is often overlooked. I hope that this new book will help correct that balance, as well as give readers the opportunity to enjoy the more than 70 beautiful maps that accompany it.

A Map is Worth A Thousand Words

THOBIM cover 2oday marks the publication of A History of Britain in Maps. Apart from the joy of working with such wonderful visual records of British history – nearly 100 of them – the process of compiling of the book has been marked by amazing discoveries which have really underlined how rich are the stories woven even the humblest seeming maps. Who would have thought that the very first ever published weather map – in The Times in 1875 – is tied up with a double suicide and the theory of evolution? Its compiler, Robert Fitzroy, had been the captain of the Beagle, the vessel on which Charles Darwin made the key discoveries in the Galapagos Islands that eventually developed into his evolutionary theory. On his return to the United Kingdom, Fitzroy developed an interest in weather forecasting, setting up a network of weather stations that could alert mariners to looming storms and, so it was hoped, preserve their lives. Unfortunately, he also attracted the attentions of a jealous naval establishment, including a biting report written by Francis Galton, who, coincidentally, was Darwin’s cousin. He became depressed by this and also by guilt that as a religious conservative he felt over his role in facilitating Darwin’s work on evolution – Fitzroy believed that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused not by their failure of the “survival of the fittest” test but by the very simple and obvious problem that they had been too large to fit through the door of Noah’s ark. Finally, one spring day in 1865, Fitzroy locked his study door and blew his own brains out. In doing so he became the second captain of the Beagle to take his own life; Pringle Stokes who had skippered the vessel on a previous voyage to Patagonia had been so afflicted by melancholy brought on by the relentless bleakness of the regions around Cape Horn that he, too, had shot himself. Weather – and evolution – it seems, could be fatal affairs and the story is exemplified by a simple line map in a British newspaper.

From a 2nd-century AD cup that bears a schematic representation of Hadrian’s Wall to a map charting the distribution of votes in the 2016 Brexit referendum, my research took me across two thousand years of British history, covering themes as diverse as population growth, disease, civil wars, invasions (both feared and actual), rebellions, the growth of the railways, the first ever-route planners (from the 17th century) and, of course, that perennial British preoccupation, the weather, it’s been a real pleasure to discover all the fantastic stories hidden in maps of Britain’s past!

The Raven has Landed!

The long awaited British Museum Vikings exhibition has finally opened in the new Sainsbury Galleries. I went along on the first day; so how does it match up to the hype? The centre-piece of the exhibition is the more than 37-metre long Roskilde ship, an astonishing survival from the Viking age, whose timbers were lovingly dried out and preserved by archaeologists after being raised from the waters outside the port in 1996. The vessel was sunk in 1070 to block a navigation channel and deter raiders from attacking Roskilde and now, encased in steel supports, the 20% of the original ship’s timbers which survived look like mottled skin stretched over a ghostly metal frame. This is the biggest Viking longship to be discovered by archaeologists and to see it “moored” in Bloomsbury is an extraordinary sensation.
There is an amazing range of artefacts from the Viking world on show, from delicate amulets of Valkyries to an enormous brooch (over 650g in weight) and, of course, a collection of long double-edged blades and axe-heads, grim reminders of the violence those who travelled in the longship inflicted on their prey. Not all the Norsemen made it home, and one of the most striking exhibits on show in the exhibition are the remains of some of the 4 dozen or so Scandinavian males found in a drainage ditch near Weymouth, most of whom had been decapitated. It truly was a violent age. The most poignant of the exhibits, though, is one of the more commonplace; a set of toy wooden boats, little longships perhaps once played with by children while their fathers were out raiding, dreaming of the plunder and, more important to a Viking, the glory they would win when full grown. As the Havamal (a collection of epithets says) “Cattle die, kindred die, we ourselves shall die, but I know one thing that never dies: the reputations of each one dead”

The Vikings are Coming!

This Thursday the Vikings are arriving in Britain and a Viking longship will be seen in London for the first time in a thousand years. 6th March will not, though, mark an unheralded resumption of the raids that died down in the 11th century, but the opening of the much-anticipated British Museum Vikings exhibition. With the display of the Roskilde 6 ship, one of the largest to grace Scandinavian waters in the era of the raids, and a host of other artefacts on show, this is the most important exhibition on the Vikings for a generation. I will be reporting back on it at the end of the week, but be sure not to miss it.

The other major event of the week is of course, the publication my own book, The Northmen’s Fury: A History of the Viking World, also on 6th March. It’s taken over four years to complete, and it’s a gratifying coincidence that I’ll be able to celebrate its launch by going to the British Museum and gazing at one of the longships.