FOOD HISTORY: TEA: Part 3 - Western Europe



Portugal was the first European country whose sailors successfully traveled around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean basin in search of trade in the East. By 1513, a Portuguese captain, called Jorge Alvares, had reached China.  In 1560, the Portuguese Jesuit priest, Father Jasper de Cruz traveling by caravan between Portugal and China was the first European, personally, to taste tea and write back to Portugal about it. While the Portuguese had contact with China since 1513, it took Portugal two decades more to receive permission from the Ming Dynasty Emperor to anchor ships trading in tea in the harbors around the Chinese settlement of Macau in southern China. Portuguese traders and sailors had to return to their ships each night, and they could not build any structures on Chinese soil. In 1552, however,  China granted the Portuguese permission to build drying and storage sheds for tea in the area now named Nam Van, in Macau. Finally, in 1557, by helping the Chinese defeat pirates who were praying on Chinese shipping, Portugal got permission to establish a trading settlement in Macau. It took almost 45 years of inch-by-inch negotiation, but the Portuguese finally had a real foothold in southern China. The Portuguese established a trade route by which they shipped their tea to Lisbon where tea was readily accepted by the Portuguese. However, because of the high price it could be afforded only by the wealthy or royalty. As we will see later, this fact had an impact on the spread of tea drinking to Great Britain.


From Lisbon, the Portuguese contracted with the ships of the Dutch East India company to transport the tea to France, Holland and the Baltic countries. While tea never caught on in France, Portugal was affiliated with Holland at that time, and tea became popular among the Dutch. Dutch sailors on the ships transporting tea from Portugal to Holland saw the value of this tea trade and encouraged Dutch merchants to enter the trade and by-pass Portugal. In 1602, a combination of mercantile organizations in the Netherlands formed the Dutch East India Company to compete with colonial trade in Asia, particularly against the Portuguese. It was built and organized around the prospect of monopolizing the lucrative spice trade of pepper, cloves and mace, which had made them so profitable. To do this. they conquered and controlled 30 settlements throughout Asia and the entire archipelago of what is now Indonesia. Since the Dutch East India Company had huge resources of money, with their comfortable financial advantage, they took over the Asian trade at the expense of Portugal. However, the value of these possessions was rapidly reduced when Europe’s demand shifted from spices to tea, which was not found in Indonesia.


While the Dutch were the first to bring tea, directly, to European countries,  their slow reaction to the new European demand for tea allowed their main competitor, the British, to make major inroads in the tea trade thru The British East India Company. However, the British did not embrace tea, initially, since coffee was the preferred drink of men in British coffee houses. Slowly, the fad of drinking tea caught on with English women as a healthy and genteel drink. The rise in tea’s popularity and consumption was increased in 1657 when Thomas Galloway started to sell imported Dutch tea, as well as coffee, in his coffee house. Other coffee shops soon followed. An additional and more major factor in the increased popularity of tea in Britain occurred when King Charles II married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza in 1662. She brought her Portuguese love of tea with her and introduced its drinking into the British court. To please King Charles II, the British East India Company brought gifts of tea from Europe in 1664 and 1666 for Catherine but they did not consider tea worth importing from China. England was the last European country to use its maritime power to trade for tea. In 1600, the British East India company was given a royal charter to use British sea power to compete for the valuable spice trade in southeast Asia and China but not for tea.


While the company had a royal charter, it was not a governmental entity but the enterprise of a band of London businessmen/capitalists using their own ships to compete with the Portuguese and the Dutch. The company, with its royal charter, acted as an imperial arm of England and exercised significant political power which helped create a wealthy and powerful British Empire. This included not only trading for spices but the right to annex land, direct troops and dictate British laws. The company’s encounters with foreign competitors lead to its assembling its own military and administrative departments and it became an imperial power of its own. As stated above, in the early to mid-1600’s, it became the dominant trading power and monopolized the spice trade in southeast Asia until 1668.  Tea only became a serious trading commodity in 1669. In 1669 tea imports from Holland were prohibited by the English government and the British East India Company had a monopoly over all tea imports to England and, also, the tea trade with China. By 1686, tea  became a large part of the British East India's regular trading, was selling in English markets and by the 18th century, not only was tea the common drink of England replacing ale, but tea changed English dietary norms, as well. (see previous post: FOOD HISTORY: British Tea Traditions, 5/27/2015). The Company  had trading stations in India where it had introduced tea drinking and growing in 1774, and created, rather than conquered, colonies, such as, Singapore and Ceylon. Thus, the company was expanding the British Empire without the British government being involved. Finally, the British government reigned it in 1773 by creating a government controlled policy making body. Further, in 1813, at the urging of the British free-trade lobbyists, the government took away the company’s monopoly and after 1834, it worked only as the government’s agency until the government took full control in 1857.


In over it's 150 years of  time of operation, the British East India Company not only greatly expanded the British Empire but changed the whole English culture, based on tea trading and tea drinking.