Saturday, April 10, 2021

A Brief History of Tea as it traveled to England & her Colonies (until those pesky, patriotic "tea parties")

Dirk Stoop (Dutch painter, c 1610-1685) Catherine of Braganza Wife of Charles II c 1661

In the 2700s BC, Chinese mythological tales cite the origin of tea-drinking to 2737 BC, when Chinese Emporor Shen Nung sips boiled drinking water into which a tea leaf has floated.  By the 3rdC of the Common Era (AD), many oral stories & some early written medical texts about tea drinks and their health benefits date back to this period in Southeast Asian countries, where the tea plant (camellia sinensis) is native.

In the 6thC, Indian & Japanese legends tell that Indian prince Bodhidharma “couldn’t keep his eyes open while meditating to become a Buddhist priest. Disgusted with himself, he cut off his eyelids & threw them to the ground. From his lashes the camellia (aka tea) plant sprouted.” New tea gardens follow the spread of Buddhism across Asia, as Buddhist monks in China & Japan begin saving the seeds of tea trees, planting them along their travels.
In the 8thC, Chinese tea scholar Lu YĆ¼ wrote what is thought to be the 1st book about tea: Ch’a Ching (The Classic of Tea), describing tea’s cultivation, processing, preparation & tea rituals of ancient Asia. A Classic of Tea was written around CE 760 by Lu Yu (733-804), a native of Jingling, located in modern-day Hubei Province. It became popular for its systematic & comprehensive research from the perspective of both the natural & social aspects of tea. It has laid the solid foundation for a uniquely Chinese culture of tea that has fascinated the rest of the world for more than a thousand years. As a result, Lu Yu is known as the “Sage of Tea” in China. 

By the 9thC, tea, called “ch’a,” in China becomes the national drink during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 906), would remain China’s secret for the next 700 years. China did not want to divulge the propagation & drying methods that had been dutifully kept within the confines of the Great Wall. A penalty of death was the price paid for even mentioning roasting & drying.  Tea leaves were so valuable that, compressed into embossed bricks, they were even used for money. Teahouses & tea gardens are now commonplace throughout China.

By the 16thC, Japanese Imperial tea master & Buddhist monk Sen No Rikyu devised a simple, austere tea ceremony known as ‘wabi cha,’ or the “tea of quiet taste”, which requires a “humble reverence for tea & life. However, it did not appeal to the emperor who preferred a glittering, exhibitionist affair. Because of this difference in taste, Sen Rikyu was commanded to commit suicide.” (See: Israel, Andrea. Taking Tea. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987). 

In 1557, Portugal colonizes the Chinese port Macau, & begins bringing tea back to Europe. Arabs also bring tea to Europe by way of their trade with the Venetians in Italy, c 1559. 

In the 17thC, Black tea (called “red tea” in China where it originated) is invented (until this point, teas are green or oolong). As Russia & China work to establish a safe route for trade caravans to travel, the Chinese ambassador to Moscow makes a gift of several chests of tea to Tsar Aleksey Mikhaylovich, soon making tea a much desired import. It is reported that the Russian aristocracy enjoyed English-style tea ceremonies even before the British made it a part of their culture. There were lavish parties at which society women drank tea as their male companions downed cold vodka.

Prior to its importation to Europe by Dutch traders around 1610, tea was almost unknown to most  Westerners, who routinely began their day with a mug of beer or ale. Three exotic beverages—coffee, tea, and chocolate—arrived in 17C Europe at a time of burgeoning exploration and trade, and their arrival caused a near revolution in drinking habits. Celebrated by some, deplored by others, these stimulating brews gave rise to a number of important social institutions, such as the coffeehouse, the tea garden, and the ritual of afternoon tea. 

In the 17thC, Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam bring the first tea to America in the early 1600s, but Americans do not take instantly to the custom of taking tea. Andrea Israel tells us that “There were still those new Americans who were unfamiliar with the tea leaf. Their dislike of the brown brew probably stemmed from the fact that it was stewed for 2 or 3 hours. Some tried to serve it like spinach with salt & butter, others ate it on toasted bread.”
Charles II by Adriaen Hanneman (England, 1603-1671)

Tea, then called cha, was imported to Europe during the Portuguese expansion of the 16th century. Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, wife of England's Charles II, took the tea habit to the court of Great Britain around 1662. Though Portuguese and Dutch traders have for decades been importing tea to Western Europe, it is King Charles II’s marriage to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, that ultimately makes tea-drinking popular amongst the British aristocracy. “When Catherine married Charles, she was the focus of attention – everything from her clothes to her furniture became the source of court talk. Her regular drinking of tea encouraged others to drink it. Ladies flocked to copy her and be a part of her circle.” (See: Watkins, Sarah-Beth. Catherine of Braganza: Charles II’s Restoration Queen. (Croydon: Chronos Books, 2017).

Joseph Van Aken  (Antwerp-born British painter, c.1699‑1749) A Tea Party 1719-1721.

London coffee houses also were responsible for introducing tea to everyday England. One of the 1st coffee house merchants to offer tea was Thomas Garway, who owned an establishment in Exchange Alley in London. He sold both prepared & dry tea to the public as early as 1657. Three years later he issued a broadsheet advertising tea at £6 and £10 per pound touting its virtues at "making the body active and lusty" & "preserving perfect health until extreme old age."
Attributed to Johann Zoffany (German-born British painter, 1733-1810), A Family of Three at Tea, 1727

Colonial Americans quickly adopted the taste for these imported beverages and their fashionable equipage. Colonial coffeehouses, following the London model, became powerful social catalysts, providing an excellent forum for the exchange of ideas and the distribution of news. All three beverages were also consumed in the home, where fine silver and ceramic vessels were especially valued, &
American Silversmiths emulated British and Continental styles. 
Charles Philips (British artist,  1703–1747) Tea Party at Lord Harrington's House, St James detail 1730

Tea was an expensive commodity, as were all the items related to its consumption: the tea table, silver, and porcelain. Tea was normally kept locked by the lady of the household. In Britain & her colonies, knowing how to properly use tea equipment and owning fine porcelain china set her apart from her lessers which is why tea sets and tea leaves were often only handled by the mistress of the house. A noblewoman kept the key for the locking tea caddy or teapoy, from which she smartly blended her own teas, in full view of her guests, to reassure them of the quality of the tea she served. 
Charles Philips (British artist,  1703–1747) The Strong Family detail

Portraits of families at tea demonstrated their wealth, domesticity, and genteel informality.  Tea-drinking came to epitomize civilized behavior in the 18C.  Tea gained popularity quickly in England's coffee houses, & by 1700, over 500 British coffee houses also served tea.
Charles Philips (British artist,  1703–1747) The Cromwell and Thornhill Families Taking Tea detail 1730

The rise in popularity of tea drinking distressed the British tavern owners, as tea cut their sales of ale & gin, & it was bad news for the government, who depended upon a steady stream of revenue from taxes on liquor sales.
Joseph Van Aken  (Antwerp-born British painter, c.1699‑1749) An English Family at Tea 1725

As the century progressed, the use of enslaved labor increased the production of tea and sugar to such an extent that it became available to all classes in society.
Detail The Wollaston Family, William Hogarth, 1730

By 1750, tea had become the favored drink of Britain's lower classes, as well as the wealthy.
A British Family Served with Tea 1745 Unknown

Charles II tried to counter the loss of tax income from spirits arising from the growth of tea, with several acts forbidding its sale in private houses. This measure was designed to counter sedition; but it was so unpopular, that it was impossible to enforce.
Philip Reinagle (British painter, 1749-1833) A Lady and Two Gentlemen seated at a tea table

A 1676 act taxed tea & required coffee house operators to apply for a license.  Failing to curb the popularity of tea, the British government decided to profit from tea.
Gawen Hamilton (British artist, 1692-1737) An elegant family at tea

By the mid 18th-century, the duty on tea had reached an absurd 119%. This heavy taxation had the effect of creating a whole new industry - tea smuggling.
Unknown 18th-Century British Artist, A Tea Party

Ships from Holland & Scandinavia brought tea to the British coast, then stood offshore, while smugglers met them unloading their precious cargo in small vessels. The smugglers, often local fishermen, snuck the tea inland through underground passages & hidden paths to special hiding places. One of the favorite hiding places was in the local parish church.
Joseph Van Aken  (Antwerp-born British painter, c.1699‑1749) An English Family at Tea detail 1720

Even smuggled tea remained expensive for the common man; however, and therefore extremely profitable. Many smugglers began to adulterate the tea with other substances, such as willow, licorice, & sloe leaves. Used tea leaves were also re-dried & added to fresh leaves.
Jean-Etienne Liotard (Swiss artist, 1702-1789) Still Life Tea Set, 1781-83

During the 18th century, tea drinking was as popular in Britain’s American colonies as it was in Britain itself. Legally, all tea imported into America had to be shipped from Britain, & all tea imported into Britain had to be shipped in by the East India Company. The practice of tea drinking arrived with colonists from both England and the Netherlands and was already established by the mid-17C, evidenced by the number of tea wares recorded in household inventories. The earliest of these were undoubtedly imported from abroad, but American silversmiths began producing teapots by the start of the 18C. At first globular or pear-shaped, apple-shaped teapots became the norm by the mid-18C. By the later decades, drum- and oval-shaped pots with straight spouts became popular.
Francis Hayman (1708-1776), Jonathan Tyers and his family, 1740

However, for most of the 18th century, the East India Company was not allowed to export directly to America. But during the 1770s, the East India Company ran into financial problems: illegal tea smuggling into Britain was vastly reducing the amount of tea being bought from the Company.
Ladies Having Tea c 1740 Unknown British artist

Smuggling led to a downturn in its profits, as well as an increase in its stockpile of unsold tea. In an attempt to revive its flagging fortunes & avoid bankruptcy, the Company asked the British government for permission to export tea directly to America, a move that would enable it to get rid of its surplus stock of tea. The Company actually owed the government £1 million, so the government had no desire to let the Company go bankrupt.
Johann Zoffany (German-born painter, 1733-1810) John, Lord Willoughby de Broke, and his Family.  c 1766

Thus in 1773, the Tea Act was passed, granting the Company’s wish, and allowing a duty of 3d per lb to be levied on the exports to America. The Tea Act, passed by Parliament on May 10, 1773, would launch the final spark to the revolutionary movement in Boston. The act was not intended to raise revenue in the American colonies, & imposed no new taxes. It was designed to prop up the East India Company which was floundering financially & burdened with 18 million pounds of unsold tea. This tea was to be shipped directly to the colonies, and sold at a bargain price.
Francis Hayman (1708-1776), The Gasciogne Family

The Townshend Duties were still in place, however, & the radical leaders in America found reason to believe that this act was a maneuver to buy popular support for the taxes already in force. The direct sale of tea, via British agents, would also have undercut the business of local merchants. The colonials were growing increasingly resentful of "taxation without representation."
Drinking tea in the British American colonies, the John Potter Overmantle at the Newport Historical Society in Rhode Island

The British government did not anticipate this being a problem for the colonials. By being exported directly to America, the cost of tea there would actually become cheaper, & 3d per lb was considerably less duty than was paid on tea destined for the British market. But it had underestimated the strength of the American resistance to being taxed at all by Britain. The issue of the taxation in America had been hotly debated for some years.
Drinking tea in the British American colonies, Gansevoort Limner, possibly Pieter Vanderlyn 1687-1778 Susanna Truax.

Many Americans objected on principle to being taxed by a Parliament which did not represent them. Instead, they wanted to raise taxes themselves to fund their own administration. But successive British governments reserved the right to tax the colonies, & various bungled attempts to impose taxation had hardened American opposition. In the later 1760s, opposition took the form of boycotts of taxed goods. As a replacement for them, the Americans either bought smuggled goods or attempted to find substitutes for tea made from native products.
Gawen Hamilton (British Painter, ca.1698-1737) The Sharpe Family Maryland State Archives

Colonists in Philadelphia & New York turned the tea ships back to Britain. In Charleston, the cargo was left to rot on the docks. In Boston the Royal Governor was stubborn & held the ships in port, where the colonists would not allow them to unload. Cargoes of tea filled the harbor, & the British ship's crews were stalled in Boston looking for work & often finding trouble. This situation lead to the Boston Tea Party.

Ordinarily conservative shippers & shopkeepers were directly impacted by the new law & were vocal in their opposition. Previously, American ships brought much of the tea from England, but that trade was now reserved for the East India Company. The shop owners objected to the new practice of using only selected merchants to sell the tea; many would be excluded from this trade in favor of a new monopoly.  The radical patriots found allies in the formerly conservative business community.

Ladies of the gentry class in colonial America did not have the opportunity to attend public meetings, debate, vote, or have a real voice in democracy. Some women, such as Mrs. Charles Carroll & Mrs. William Paca of Annapolis, supported the patriotic cause in other ways. During the years of the American Revolution, these women grew a variety of herbs that replaced English teas. These included varieties of mint, chamomile, rosemary, lemon balm, and valerian root.

Rather than pay tea taxes, even before the Revolution, colonials were looking for tea alternatives, An article in the November 21st, 1768 Boston Gazette advised,  "Tea made from a plant or shrub (Ceanothus americanus) grown in Pearsontown about 20 miles from Portland, Maine, was served to a circle of ladies and gentlemen in Newbury Port, who pronounced it nearly, if not quite, its equal in flavor to genuine Bohea [one of three Chinese black teas tossed overboard later in 1773]. So important a discovery claims attention, especially at this crisis. If we have the plant, nothing is wanted but the process of curing it into tea of our own manufacture."

In 1774, Manasseh Cutler wrote of the Liberty Tea called the New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus) "The leaves of this shrub have been much used by the common people, in some parts of the country, in the room of India tea; and is, perhaps, the best substitute the country affords. They immerse the fresh leaves in a boiling decoction of the leaves and branches of the same shrub, and then dry them with a gentle heat. The tea, when the leaves are cured in this way, has an agreeable taste, and leaves a roughness on the tongue somewhat resembling that of the bohea tea."

Finally at the end of the resulting war with America, in 1784, William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act, which dropped the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%, effectively ending smuggling. And tea did return to the New Republic of the United States of America.