From the orient to the west
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries China, with good reason, regarded itself as the greatest country in the world. Europe had struggled come through the Middle Ages with its small kingdoms locked in petty religious wars: Europeans could not compete with China’s intellectual, cultural, and technological achievements. The list of Chinese inventions later taken up by the west is a long one including: the seed drill, metal plough, gunpowder and dynamite, the magnetic compass, various navigational and shipbuilding techniques, paper money, and printed books. The first European Portuguese merchants had given up the idea of trade exchange, simply paying the taxes demanded by the emperor. There was little that Europeans could produce to impress and it was therefore difficult to find an incentive for reciprocal trade. Gold and silver became the preferred means of exchange.
In its early years Europe treated tea more as a luxury medicine than a social lubricant. The first substantial consignment of tea arrived in Europe on a Dutch ship in 1610, the cargo being treated as an oriental novelty. Importation and use by other countries was fairly slow – France in about 1630 and England in the 1650s. Though tea arrived in England a few years before coffee it was prohibitively expensive at first, giving coffee a jump start.
Green tea & black tea; sugar & milk
Chinese tea was what we would now call ‘green tea’brewed from the infused and unfermented leaves. Today’s ‘black tea’ is produced when the leaves dry out and become oxidised and fermented to create a rather bitter product the Chinese considered suitable only for foreigners.
The European palette also found this new infused drink rather bitter so black tea (which gradually replaced the green tea that was frequently laced with other greenery) was tempered by sweetening with sugar and by using alkaline milk to counteract the tannic acid. Tea boosted sugar sales, sugar being imported from the slave plantations in the Bahamas.
The British East India Company
Tea was transported to Britain as cargo on ships of the British East India Company (BEIC). Queen Elizabeth I had formed the company by royal charter in 1600 and Charles II (1630–1685) had subsequently granted it a monopoly on tea trading, possibly the result of a complimentarycompany gift of some of the first tea to arrive in Europe imported by the Netherlands. Like the Dutch East India Company the British counterpart would eventually assume great political power, much of it built on its successful trade, especially in tea, with India and Qing China, the dynasty beginning in 1644. Denied direct access to China the first trickle of tea came in trade with Bantam in Indonesia around 1670 and it remained an expensive commodity until the end of the century, after which direct trade with China was opened up. Trade consisted of porcelain (which did not crack when water near boiling point was added), silk, china, timber, and, of course, tea. Tea was the major trading commodity although Chinese internal demand was strong so Chinese merchants were not obliged to sell. Holland, a rival in the Dutch East Indies, was finally defeated in 1784 after a series of wars and with the dissolution of the Dutch East India company in 1795 the tea trade became largely a matter for the British. By the 1770s the BEIC had control of the ports of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta in Indias west, having assumed control of the northeastern province of Bengal in 1757.
The Boston Tea Party
In the 1770s, with tea prices and duties still high, smuggling was rife in both Britain and America. This proved so effective that it led to stockpiling of the legal imports which had accrued import duty. With the Tea Act of 1773 a government loan was organised along with permission to import tea directly from China to America thus avoiding British import duty. Though British taxes were reduced, American taxes remained. Not surprisingly Americans resented this and fought back using the slogan ‘no taxation without representation’, the British government support of their East India Company monopoly and also the taxes imposed from across the Atlantic as Britain used American tax revenue to help pay for their French and Indian wars.
When company ships arrived in Boston Harbour in November 1773, in the first of several similar incidents in other American ports, they were prevented from unloading and chests of tea were thrown into the harbour. The British government responded by closing the port of Boston pending compensation paid to the company thus aggravating the American War of Independence (1775–1783) that resisted the British monarchy and aristocracy finally overcoming Britain’s colonial authority to found an independent United States of America.
When in 1784 tea duties were reduced the price of tea came down and the smuggling days were over and prices began to fall within a range the working man could afford
When at its peak the BEIC generated more revenue than the British government and ruled over more people, while duty on tea alone generated 10% of total government revenue. Not surpisingly the company exerted considerable power over the parliament in London.
Opium, India, and China
The company’s territory in India was now raising taxes as its trading interests declined and its monopoly of Chinese trade was removed as China was uninterested in European goods as tea was exported in large quantities creating an uneven balance of trade with silver only accepted. Though the Chinese government had banned the use of opium in 1729 trade with corrupt merchants had continued. A monopoly of the opium grown in India was now a valuable source of company revenue and a possible alternative to silver and production was increased as the detrimental effect on the Chinese population became more evident.
In 1838 the Chinese emperor decided that action could be delayed no longer and a year’s supply was burned in Canton following this with arrests of people who continued the trade and the banning of British trade with Canton, the only permitted point of entry at this time. Arguing the necessity of free trade the British government declared war, initiating the Opium War which lasted from 1839 to 1842. A now inward-looking China no longer had the edge in technology and innovation as British warships, troops, and weaponry ensured that Hong Kong was siezed and Shanghai and other cities occupied. As part of a peace treaty Hong Kong was handed over, five ports were opened to trade and compensation paid in silver. What had been the world’s most self-sufficient, advanced, and innovative nation through the European Middle Ages was now open to missionaries and foreign merchants who could undercut the price of goods produced by Chinese craftsmen. Opium consumption increased and European powers scrapped over any spoils available in the newly opened country.
The Industrial Revolution (fuelled itself by a scientific bent, the Protestant work ethic, supplies of coal, efficient transport systems of roads and canals, resources of empire to provide finance) started with machinery using water and steam in the textile industry which meant the loss of craftsmanship, continuous work in shifts with staggering increase in productivity even threatening the Indian textile industry but at a cost. Employers awarded workers tea breaks, pleased that tea was less disruptive than Beer.
From the early nineteenth century tea was shipped much more efficiently in sleek heavily-sailed tea clippers like the Cutty Sark: these would race one-another across the seas and creating new records although with the opening of the 171 km long Suez Canal in 1869 transformed trade by eliminating the lengthy and rough passage round the Cape of Good Hope and halving the time of the voyage from Europe to China. This was also an easier route for the new steamships which, by the end of the nineteenth century, had taken over the trade.
Propagation is by seed but cuttings are also used. For ease of picking the plant is regularly cropped to remain a low bush.
Joseph Banks was in 1788 approached by the BEIC for advice on possible crops to grow in montane Bengal had placed tea at the top of his list.(S., pp. 212-213) When the monopoly on tea trade with China came to an end in 1833-1834 advice was sought from the Dutch who had tried to grow tea in Java since 1728 without much success. India seemed a likely place for plantations as it was closer to Europe and the industry would provide jobs for retrenched textile workers displaced by machine-made English fabrics.
The Dutch had introduced tea cultivation to Java in 1690 but there was no commercial production until 1824 and the successful tea trade today follows from the introduction of Assam Tea in 1878. Experimental plantations were established in India from 1818 to 1834 but these were abandoned when ‘wild’ tea was discovered in 1835. Today there are plantations in hilly northeastern and southern India. Today’s tea industry in Sri Lanka (former Ceylon) is derived from plantations set up in the 1870s. Experimental tea plantations were established in Russia in 1846 but commercial production did not start until 1895 in Georgia. There is also now a vibrant tea trade in Central East Africa. Plants sent from Kew in 1886 acted as a seed crop for plantations in Malawi (former Nyasaland) and commercial production in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania began in the 1920s and 1930s.
Tea production in truly global as it involves more than 50 countries including many in Asia and Africa. Marketing innovations such as bagged teas, and powders with additives have been successful and demand for tea continues to grow.