Though the Portugese and Dutch may have been the first European countries to bring tea from China, the English have been synonymous with this drink for over two centuries. To us here at Teatopit, the relationship between the two sounds like the foundation of an epic movie!It was the Dutch that first began to ship back tea to Holland as a commercial import (by encroaching on Portugese shipping routes) in the latter part of the sixteenth century. By the early 1600’s, the Dutch had a trading post on the island of Java, and it was from Java (the irony!) that the first consignment of tea was shipped from China to Holland in 1606. Tea soon became a fashionable drink among the Dutch, and from there spread to other countries as a drink for the wealthy.
The East India Company had a monopoly on British trade throughout the first half of the 1600’s, and while it is likely that their sailors and tradesmen were familiar with tea, it was not a traded commodity until later. Tea was available in coffee houses (more irony!)—most notably Sweetings Rents in London, as a novelty, but really began to catch on when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza. The Portugese princess was purportedly a tea fanatic, and her drinking of the beverage made it fashionable first among her court, then among the wealthy classes. The East India Company took advantage of this and began to import tea from China in 1664. This monopoly continued for another two centuries, until the East India Company’s monopoly trade with China—which was their chief supplier of tea—ended in 1834. Because of its strong influence within the country, the British Company began exploring growing tea on a wide scale in India, beginning in Assam. Five years later, the Company had enough volume of “marketable quality” tea to begin selling it at auction in England. In 1858, the British government took over direct control of India and expanded the cultivation of tea beyond Assam and into other parts of India. By 1888, British tea imports from India were greater than those from China.
In one of our next posts, we’ll talk about the English custom of “afternoon,” or “low” tea and how it came to be.
Information in part from the UK Tea Council