The Tea Trade

The Tea Trade

It’s hard for me to imagine England without tea.  High tea in the afternoon with scones, three kinds of jam, and terribly unsatisfying sandwiches.  The gentry taking tea in paper-thin porcelain cups after doing in a fox who seriously wasn’t asking for it.  John Cleese as some ridiculous character drinking his tea with his pinkie out so far, passerby are endangered.  But how’d it get that way?  Tea is from China, after all, half a world away.

The tea shrub (Camellia sinensis) is thought to be native to that part of the world where India, China, Burma and Tibet rub shoulders.  But it was first widely cultivated in China.  People have grown and drunk tea in China for so long that it’s origins are archaeological, rather than historical.  But for our purposes the important part is that when the British began trading with China, all the world’s tea was in China.

Cultivation of tea is a good deal more involved than say growing tomatos.  After propogation the tea plant requires pruning for ease of harvest and to get the maximum output.  Once picked, the tea requires several processing steps to produce a finished product.  Besides all of the worlds tea plants growing in China, so were all of the people who knew how to grow and process tea.  Europeans thought green tea and black tea came from different plants.  Botanists even went so far as naming two different tea plants, one black and one green.

The British would have to trade, but that wouldn’t turn out to be so easy.  Tea is a mountain plant, growing well as high as the foothills of the Himalayas.  Good tea growing geography is not so good for growing grain like wheat and rice, and tea was traditionally traded within china for food.  When the British trade ships arrived in China, the Chinese did not particularly need a new tea market, were not that excited at the prospect of British trade goods, and were not at all interested in cultural exchange.  Foreign traders were restricted to the port of Canton and the only trade good the Chinese would accept was silver, not something in over abundance in England.

With the almost complete disinterest China had in British traders and with the restrictions placed upon those traders, it’s a bit surprising that coffee didn’t become the caffinated beverage of choice in England.  But the history of Europe is not particularly harmonious.  The Portugese and Dutch traders were already established in the coffee growing regions of Africa and not at all interested in competition from the British East India Company.  The British had taken over large tracts of land in Ceylon to grow coffee.  But the plantations fell victim to a fungal epidimic, almost totally demolishing production.  So goodbye Ceylon, for now, but we’ll come to back to you in awhile.

Now back to Canton.  Paying silver for tea was expensive.  In a story reminiscent of the triangular trade of molasses for rum for slaves, the British hit upon growing opium in India to trade to China for tea which was then sold in England.  Part of the money from the sale of the tea was then used to pay for troops to maintain control in India. Troops were quite necessary to maintain control in India.  The opium was grown on land traditionally used for cotton or food production, leading to economic hardships for the Indian workers.

China was and is immensely large, populous, and tough.  It’s central government was quite well established.  The British East India Company was able to continue trading opium for tea in the face of Chinese objections.  But there was essentially no posibility of them colonizing China as they had done in India.  Up to this time, all the tea in China was still all the tea in the world.  But this was about to change.

Let’s now return to the ruined coffee plantations of Ceylon and the jungles of India.  A botanist named Robert Fortune managed to secure tea plants.  Using elephants and Indian laborers, they cleared vast areas of Indian jungle to plant tea gardens.  Eventually, the tea harvests of India and Ceylon rivaled those of China, which is kind of amazing considering that before the Victorian era, neither country grew any tea at all.  When I consider how the colonization of India effected British kitchens, I usually think of curry.  But that’s nothing compared to tea.

Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade, 1757-1937
Tea: The Drink that Changed the World

Timeline of the Tea Trade

1557 Portugal trades with China at Macao
1600 British East India Co. chartered
1619 British East India Co. establishes factory in Western India
1657 Dutch trade tea in London
1662 Catherine of Braganza marries Charles II, bringing habit of tea drinking from Dutch capital to London. Marriage allows British access to trade routes controlled by Dutch
1669 First tea imported by British East India Co.
1685 All Chinese ports open for trade
1715 All Chinese ports except Canton closed
1729 Chinese edict against using opium
1750 > 10 million lbs. tea imported by British
1757 Battle of Plassey
1758 Parliament grants British East India Co. monopoly to produce opium in India
1796 British East India Co. switchs to trading tea for opium via independant traders
1799 Chinese edict against importing opium
1803 Anglo-Maratha conflicts begin
1805 Anglo-Maratha conflicts end
1830 Son of Chinese emperor dies of opium overdose
1834 British East India Co. monopoly on trading tea from China ends
1840 First Opium War begins
1842 First Opium War ends, Treaty of Nanking opens ports to British and cedes Hong Kong
1848 Conquest of the Sikhs in India
1848 Robert Fortune collects and ships to India twenty-thousand high-quality tea plants, in addition to instruction from 8 Chinese tea experts
1856 Second Opium War begins
1857 India becomes British colony
1858 Second Opium War ends, Treaty of Tientsin opens more ports and allows Christian missionaries into China
1862 2 million lbs lbs tea imported from India
1866 6 million lbs tea imported from India, 90% of British tea still from China
1869 Fungus begins killing coffee plants in Ceylon
1888 86 million lbs tea imported from India, for the first time more tea from India than China
1900 Tea replaces coffee as major crop in Ceylon
1911 End of opium shipments to China by British East India Co.

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