by Stephanie Hanson
On New Year’s Eve, 1600, Queen Elizabeth chartered the East India Company. She could hardly have known the lasting impact that that charter would have over the next several centuries.
When the English saw the success of the Portuguese in trading with China, they jumped in, along with the Dutch and the Spanish. This lead to trade wars between these European nations and against the countries they planned to conquer.
However, despite her charter and England’s new trade with China, Queen Elizabeth’s court would not enjoy tea for a few more years. Beatrice Hohenegger marks tea’s arrival in Europe as 1610, via Dutch imports from Japan. Generally, Catherine of Braganza, the bride of Charles II, is credited with bringing tea to the British isles in 1662. The first official tea purchase, by the British East India Company, was made in 1664, as a gift to the king.
With this step, the British East India Company stepped onto the scene, determined to play its part in the tea trade with as little competition as possible. First, the Dutch found duties increased on their imports, and by 1667 all Dutch imports were declared illegal, paving the way for the Company’s monopoly.
The British East India Company rose the price of tea, putting it out of the reach of all but the wealthy. But Britannia was already hooked on tea and unabashedly turned to smuggling it in from other trading companies. The Swedish East India Company actually based its entire business on smuggling tea into Scotland. Eventually, smuggling led to the relaxation of trade laws, and tea prices settled into a range affordable for the average person. By 1790, English citizens drank 20 million pounds of imported tea per year.
The English government and the British East India Company were doing quite well until the Chinese emperor pointed out that neither money nor objects meant much to the Chinese, whose technology far exceeded that of the West. Wars had also meant the loss of access to silver in South America. The East India Company needed something of value to the Chinese — Opium.