China Begins Shipping Tea to Europe

The introduction of tea as a commodity from China into seventeenth century Europe had far-reaching social, physical, and economic consequences. It led to the development of a “tea culture” that shaped social interactions throughout polite society in Britain and elsewhere, and it became a major source of revenue for nations that imposed a special tax upon the new commodity.

Summary of Event

Although by the third century c.e., the benefits of tea drinking were well documented in China, tea did not become popular in Europe until the seventeenth century China;tea trade . The first European reference to tea (also called chai) appears in Venetian diplomat Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s Ramusio, Giovanni Battista
Delle navigationi et viaggi
Delle navigationi et viaggi (1559; of the voyages and travels), while the first ship known to have brought tea to Europe arrived from Macao around 1609. The ship’s port of origin is uncertain, but it may have been Dutch. By 1615, the English were aware of tea, as it is mentioned in a letter from June 27 of that year written by Mr. Wickham, an agent of the East India Company, and sent from Japan to Macao. [kw]China Begins Shipping Tea to Europe (1609)
[kw]Europe, China Begins Shipping Tea to (1609)
[kw]Tea to Europe, China Begins Shipping (1609)
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China;1609: China Begins Shipping Tea to Europe[0520]
Tea, trade in
Trade;tea from China

First referred to in England as “cha” (from a Cantonese slang term for the beverage), the drink’s name changed later to “tay” or “tee” when the British changed trading locales from Guangzhou (Canton) to Xiamen (Amoy), where the word for tea is te (Wade-Giles, t’e). In 1662, tea was still so uncommon in England that when Portugal’s Catherine of Braganza Catherine of Braganza arrived at Portsmouth to marry King Charles II Charles II (king of England);marriage of , a cup of tea could not be found. The new queen’s predilection for tea, however, soon transformed it into a sensation at the English court, and the English affinity for tea increased substantially over time. Between 1650 and 1700, tea imports to Britain totaled only 181,545 pounds, but during the next fifty years, Britain would import 40 million pounds. The Netherlands would also import large amounts of tea in the eighteenth century, consuming by 1770 almost two-thirds as much as Britain. Moreover, from the day that Peter Stuyvesant Stuyvesant, Peter first brought tea to the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, tea consumption also developed rapidly in the British colonies in America.

Drinking tea became a social activity, and as a tea culture developed in Europe, that culture provided a context for social interaction, especially between the sexes. British men cultivated business and literary connections in coffeehouses, sites believed to be less morally objectionable than alehouses or other public gathering places. Women, conversely, acted as hostesses to create gathering places in their private homes, and the tea table became a center of this domestic space. The originally Chinese drink was to become the British drink par excellence, and the tea table and the ritualized ceremony surrounding it were to define British civility, refinement, and family togetherness.

Far from a mere pastime, tea drinking acquired a set of formal, socially coded interactions that provided participants with opportunities both to display and to confirm their social status. By 1732, families and friends would spend social evenings out dancing, listening to music, or watching fireworks at new entertainment venues known as tea gardens, the most popular being Vauxhall or Ranelagh in London. In these popular tea gardens, men and women could meet and take tea together or take in the amusements accompanying the “tea craze.”

Beyond its social functions, tea improved the health of Europeans, as it had helped the Chinese for many centuries. Originally introduced into Europe as an exotic medicinal agent said to relieve headache and indigestion, tea provided an alternative to alcoholic drinks. Because water was often unsafe, beer and wine were served with most meals, even to children. Tea became a safe, nonalcoholic beverage, since, whether they knew it or not, Europeans sterilized their tea water by boiling it. Alcohol;tea as an alternative to

During the seventeenth century, tea also became a powerful economic factor by providing large sources of government revenue. From the first arrival of tea in Europe, taxes on tea provided a means of enriching the royal coffers. Oliver Cromwell Cromwell, Oliver;tea tax and was the first to tax tea, and in 1660, the Restoration court imposed a tea tax as well. From an exotic luxury, tea quickly became a mass-produced staple commodity, and it came in time to account for one-tenth of British tax revenue. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the tax on tea had grown to 119 percent. However, by 1684, the extreme expense of legitimate, taxed tea created a black market for the drink, and smuggling became widespread. Taxation;tea


The introduction of tea as a commodity from China into seventeenth century Europe had far-reaching social, physical, and economic effects. In addition to creating new cultural practices and giving Europeans new ways to interact, tea provided a major new source of revenue for the British government and trade in tea helped to forge important diplomatic relationships between the East and the West.

The complexity of importing tea from China to Europe, however, ultimately created a need to grow tea in other areas of the world. When the nineteenth century saw an imbalance of trade between Britain and China, the East India Company British East India Company began to pay for its tea with opium grown in its India colonies and smuggled to China in the company’s ships. This situation led to the Opium Wars of 1839-1842. When these wars depleted the tea supply from China, Britain escalated its tea imports from Assam, India, where tea originally grew wild. Tea was also grown in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from 1867 and in Africa from the late nineteenth century. By 1900, there were four thousand estates growing tea in India and two thousand in Sri Lanka. Tea consumption also increased the demand for the sugar grown on American plantations, which in turn increased the demand for slave labor on those plantations.

Caffeinated tea would also contribute to the rise of capitalism by becoming an invaluable drink for urban factory workforces during the Industrial Revolution. Inexpensive and nonalcoholic, when mixed with sugar, it provided nutritional sustenance for those working long hours in factories. In addition, tea later played an important role in the nineteenth century temperance or “teetotal” movement’s fight against alcohol abuse, with tea meetings emerging as a means to convert drinkers to sobriety.

Among the most well known of tea’s unpredictable effects on Western history is the role it played in the advent of the American Revolution. The Townshend Revenue Act, passed by Parliament in 1767 on Britain’s American colonies, led to a protest meeting in Boston that culminated in the adoption of a nonimport agreement. In 1773, colonial merchants loyal to the British crown were granted the right to sell tea without paying the tax. However, this agreement merely eliminated the colonial middlemen and passed the cost on to American consumers.

The New England colonists rebelled against the tea tax imposed upon them without their consent, and angry patriots who called themselves the Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as Native Americans and boarded East India Company ships at Griffen’s Wharf on December 16, 1773, where they threw 342 chests of tea from the London firm of Davison and Newman into Boston Harbor. The event, which in time came to be known as the Boston Tea Party, was organized by Samuel Adams with support from John Hancock and led by the wealthy Boston merchant Lendall Pitts. Silversmith Paul Revere also participated. As a result of the Boston Tea Party, King George III closed the Boston harbor, and royal troops occupied the city. The colonial leaders came together to resist the occupation, and the American Revolution was underway.

Further Reading

  • Forrest, Denys. Tea for the British: The Social and Economic History of a Famous Trade. London: Chatto & Windus, 1973. Contains historical facts regarding tea and statistical figures to put its role in sharp historical perspective.
  • MacFarlane, Alan. The Empire of Tea: The Remarkable History of the Plant That Took Over the World. New York: Overlook Press, 2004. A personal account of life on a tea estate in India and the hardships suffered by the laborers, followed by a history of tea and the economic events contributing to the growth of the empire.
  • Moxham, Roy. Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire. London: Carroll & Graf, 2003. A scathing account of how the addictive properties of tea contributed to imperialism. Deals with the role tea played in England’s loss of its American colonies.
  • Pettigrew, Jane. A Social History of Tea. London: National Trust, 2002. Explores tea’s enormous influence on society and history. Includes lively accounts of the Boston Tea Party, smuggling, and clipper ships.

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Trade;tea from China