Two Leaves in the Age of Discovery
    February 13th, 2012

E. Roberts

In the first part of this series, A Brief History of Two Leaves: Tea & Tobacco, we took a look at the remarkable parallels in the early histories of tea and tobacco—plants springing out of the ground from falling body parts, a close association with spirits and the divine, a sense of ritual. In an age before the modern chemical pharmacopeia, they were both also considered primarily medicinal herbs before their more common recreational uses superceded that.

Appetites for the exotic, be it spices or silver, demanded faster exchange over the great distances between Europe and the Far East. Thus, it is in the Age of Discovery—that period of maritime exploration and expansion by the European powers in the 16th and 17th centuries—that tea and tobacco finally make their way around the globe. Wherever they are introduced, they are incorporated into the local cultures and quickly segue from medicines to exotic luxury goods to vital commodities. With this growing power, they often changed the face of industry. Tea had been filtering slowly westward for centuries overland via the Silk Road, spreading its roots through Russia, India, and Arabia along with the cargo of spices and the textiles for which the route was named. As it changed hands it also changed languages, and the name of the plant was transmuted from ch’a to chai to tay to tee as it moved through Persia and Araby, yet it always retained its phonic sibilance. With this peregrination it also moved slowly out of the realm of the aristocracy to the common people, particularly finding favor with monks and missionaries. It was a common beverage to be had in Mecca, for instance, as pilgrims observant of the Islamist temperance found it a pleasing and religiously acceptable stimulant.

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By E. Roberts

A cup of tea and a pipeful of tobacco are a sublime combination; one that speaks to a contemplative repast, a sense of ritual, and a repudiation of worldly cares. It may not be surprising that tea is the most popular prepared beverage in the world, second only to water in consumption; tobacco is likewise one of the most popular entheogens, or mind-altering substances, currently used by an estimated 1.2 billion worldwide. To chart the historical trajectories of these two plants, however, one is struck by their many intersections and similarities—and by the profound impact they have had on human culture. Because of these unassuming leaves, wars have been waged, nations born and empires toppled, fortunes built and lost, and politics divided on a global scale.

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