Arts & Culture

A Nice Cup of Tea at Magdalen College School as part of the Oxford Festival of the Arts

By The Cowley News Team at

An open public event, set on the playing fields of an exclusive Oxford independent school, the first juxtaposition in an afternoon of awkward contrasts. On the Magdalen college school field, on a glorious English summer’s day, the trappings of empire and colonialism were all around us.

Cricket teams representing the countries of the British Empire, flags quilted in the colours of those countries and a tea party; with lovely china, starched cotton tea towels, decadent cakes and the perfect hosts encouraging everyone to stop for ‘a nice cup of tea.’ Contrasting with this quaint and sedate British scene was evidence of other cultures including a vibrant Caribbean steel band and Afro-Caribbean dancing.

Perhaps these exhibitions highlight the joy of different cultures nesting side by side. Perhaps they are a reminder that, despite being enslaved and forcibly displaced, Afro-Caribbean people both retained and developed their sense of self and cultural identity. A Nice Cup of Tea is a project that provokes such thoughts and questions about empire and slavery in a deeply moving and intellectually creative fashion.

British people drink tea to relax, to socialise, to take a break. Tea is soothing. We pair it with cakes, biscuits, scones and sandwiches. We have developed tea drinking etiquette, milk first or last, bag or leaf, what time to take tea. We are particular about tea paraphernalia, cups and saucers, sugar bowls and jugs.

A variety of tea drinking cultures have evolved. Whole industries have grown around it. Yet behind this great British tradition there crouches an uncomfortable truth.
The development of tea drinking culture in the British Empire came at a high price, paid by millions of enslaved Africans.

At the Tea Party Myfanwy Lloyd said “Every time we participate in such a normal activity as drinking a cup of tea, we are making a direct connection with empire and transatlantic slavery.” As we drank our cups of tea, at Tea Party, these years were brought back to us by the powerful and deeply moving performances of Euton Daley and Amantha Edmead.

In their opening poem, their two voices became millions, calling us through the centuries, calling us to remember, calling us back to the millions of slaves on whose enforced sacrifice the British Empire was built and sustained, calling us to remember the kidnappings, the violence and the deaths, calling us to think of them; sacrificed for bananas, for cotton and for sugar, sugar for a nice cup of tea.

In a leap of conflicting emotions we were taken forward to the hope and aspirations of the Windrush Generation. Thousands of Afro Caribbean people invited to come and work for a few years in England, to rebuild the mother country after the devastation of War, and promised the opportunity to earn a comfortable living, with which to return to the Caribbean.

Finally to have our feelings crushed again, as theirs must have been, at the disappointing realisation that the promised wealth was false or at best over estimated, and at the appalling treatment they received from those they considered to be their fellow countryfolk.

As Amantha acted, Euton interwove snippets of poetry from his book, “Ending the Silence”, which was launched at the event. The phrase “In this green and pleasant land,” echoed powerfully, certainly we were in a green and pleasant land, but as the performance progressed, the tannins in the tea became increasingly bitter in our mouths, and the cake assumed a sickly sweetness.

In conversation, Amantha and Euton described how members of their own families had experienced the Windrush era. Identifying strongly with British culture, photographs of the British Monarchy in their houses and tea at 4, the invitation to come to England on a working trip felt not like migration, but relocation; movement within rather than between countries.

Both articulated the shock their parents’ generation experienced at being treated as migrant workers, at the institutional racism, the discrimination they faced and the pain of being treated as unwanted by those whom they had considered to be compatriots.
The Tea Party, as with the other elements of A Nice Cup of Tea, is part of Oxford’s celebration of the Windrush generation. As one explores the relationship between tea and transatlantic slavery, the treatment of the Windrush generation, and the status of black people in British society today, it is easy to feel that we have skipped some vital steps in a process.

It is right that we are celebrating the Windrush Generation – they more than deserve to be celebrated. Yet celebration, fits at the end of a process, and in this case, could be best preceded by acknowledgement, apology, and reparation, both for past and present injustices. As Euton Daley said “There has not been enough acknowledgement, and there has never been an apology.” Nor has there been enough effort made in any sphere of restitution.

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