In the Caribbean & Central America, we are predominantly coffee people. However, there’s still a strong tea culture that resonates through our shared history. Tea here generally referrs to any cup of hot water with flavouring. The traditional Camellia sinensis & variations of herbal tisanes both have a place in our homes. Teas aren’t the centrepiece of social occasions but a means of healing.
The Caribbean & Central America were the focal points of the process of early European Imperialism and Mercantilism from the 15th to 19th centuries
The “New World” was shuffled around primarily between Spanish, French & English colonizers, setting the foundation for the languages spoken & cultural remnants of Europe seen today in the region.
During the 16th- 19th centuries, piracy, colonialism and slave-driven monoculture shaped the region at the expense of native communities, from the Mexican Aztecs to Jamaican Tainos. The discovery & consumption of tea in Europe drove the demand for a sweetener to add to their cup. Sugar plantations throughout the Caribbean were their solution to make the addictive sweetener on a large scale, cheap enough to satisfy European demand. The thought of slave-labour being used to make a cuppa was a distant thought in their minds.
Steeping roots & leaves in hot water became a means of survival. Slave healers, utilised their memory of herbs from their birth country along with their new home to find cures for common maladies such as colds, fevers & dysentery. These healers were prized by owners for the ability to save them from expensive medical bills. You can read more about specific Caribbean & Central American teas how they were used to heal here on the blog. Teas, specifically herbal Tisanes, are widely a source of medicine & healing in times where western medicine isn’t within reach or seen as unreliable.
Tea (Camellia Sinensis) was a high expense imported good which would be near impossible for the mass population of slaves & indigenous workers to acquire, thus European tea culture did not play a heavy influence on mass culture. Instead, coffee became the staple of workers as it was locally grown and could provide long-lasting energy during the relentlessly rough workdays.
Among the colonisers, the English are most famous for their tea pomp & pageantry, however, since slaves were stripped of all human dignity, the thought of afternoon tea didn’t quite spring into their heads.
Former British Colonies:
Afternoon Tea is a British staple & was practised by wealthier families in British colonies. Although slaves were the primary servers & cooks, they never enjoyed this luxury while in bondage. Even when emancipated, tea Camellia sinensis was an expensive commodity. Today, black tea is commonly consumed as a mixture with condensed milk / milk & sugar throughout the English speaking Caribbean as more locals travelled & worked in the UK post WWII, then returned.
Former Spanish Colonies:
Spain does not have a robust tea culture & instead pivoted towards coffee. This also translated to their colonies, such as Honduras, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico etc. which naturally grow coffee.
Former French Colonies:
While drinking tea Camellia sinensis became popular amongst the French Royalty & Nobility as early as the 1600s, the commodity was not as easily accessible as coffee for centuries. Not until the 19th-20th century did tea begin to make a footprint on French society, however, this would not translate to the colonies.
Categories of Tea in the Caribbean
Proper Tea: Teas made from the Camellia sinensis plant. Black & green teas are among some of the most commonly found in shops throughout the region
Bush Tea: This usually referees to Tisanes or plants that are locally grown in the region whose leaves, roots & stems are steeped in hot water such as ginger, mint, Cerasee, Ganja, Bissy & Moringa etc. Bush teas are usually seen as traditional medicines to treat common ailments dating back to the resourcefulness of slaves using their environment to treat their illnesses.
Cocoa Teas: Cocoa based drinks are not considered teas but are often called tea because they’re associated with hot water. Since the Cacao plant is indigenous to the region, it’s quite common to process raw in cacao beans into a ball of pure cacao & use it to prepare a warming drink. Mexican champurrado, Cuban Cholote & Trinidadian Cocoa Tea are a few examples popular during the colder months & holidays.