We’ve all heard of the Boston Tea Party, but tea came to the Western hemisphere long before that. Time to follow that trail and see just when tea was brought here and by whom.
Once upon a time (some say as long as 5,000 years ago), a studier of plants in China was boiling some water when some leaves from a nearby bush/tree (it varies, depending on the source of the tale) fell into his open pot (sort of like the “billy” those swagmen use in Australia). He let the water continue boiling and then decided to chance it and drink the liquid. Voilà! A beverage was born… or so the legend of Shen Nong goes. Whatever the real beginnings of this heavenly infusion, it took until the early 1600s for tea to reach Europe.
In 1492, a mere 4500 +/- years later, Europeans found that there was another continent between them and China when Columbus decided to sail straight West instead of the route around Africa that took so long. He was trying to find a shorter trade route. Many folks still thought the Earth was flat and that they would surely sail off the edge. His adventure was considered a big risk and rather foolish. However, his ships bumped into some islands off our Eastern Coast. More Europeans followed and established colonies, still not knowing about the wonders of tea.
Fast forward to 1560 A.D. when a humble Portuguese missionary named Jasper de Cruz encountered tea in person and wrote about it, the first European to do so. He brought tea to the attention of his countrymen in Portugal, and soon tea was shipping regularly to Lisbon.
Around 1610 the Dutch from the Netherlands, which at the time was the world’s most successful seafaring nation, got into the act, using their ships to bring tea not only to their own country but also France and the Baltic countries. The tea was rather expensive, though, by the standards of that time (about $100 per pound) and was thus much more the beverage of the wealthy. [One source said that the first tea arrived in Amsterdam in Holland in 1606 and was “the first known cargo of tea to be registered at a western port.”]
The year 1647 is the one set by some historians for Dutchman Peter Stuyvesant bringing tea to the Western hemisphere for the first time. He had travelled to New Amsterdam (the main Dutch settlement that is now New York City) to be its governor and brought that precious tea with him. True tea dedication when every item of cargo was given careful consideration. However, tea was still quite a pricey commodity at this time due to the expense of bringing it in those ships from the tea merchants in China to market in Europe.
In 1664, the British took over the settlement and renamed it New York. They found that despite the high price, tea drinking had caught on and the settlement consumed more tea than all the rest of England combined.
Around 1675 A.D., the price of tea in Europe was dropping as the beverage grew in popularity and became more available, especially in food shops in the Netherlands and France. Tea had become a way of life, with people in those two countries outpacing other Europeans in tea consumption.
In 1682 William Penn founded Philadelphia and he along with his fellow sober Quakers started a new market for “the cups that cheer but not inebriate.”
In the 1730s the price in New York and elsewhere in the Western hemisphere was brought down by the introduction of sleek, fast clipper ships that could get that tea across the oceans more quickly. But taxation on the tea, which was now under the monopolized control of the East India Company of England, was becoming a major offset to that lower transportation cost. In the mid 1700s, the Dutch aided revolutionaries in America, smuggling a steady supply of tea past the English.
Now we come to 1773 where the East India Company, with large stockpiles of unsold tea, got the British government to pass the Tea Act of 1773 so that the tea could be sold to the colonists without the tax, effectively undercutting both local tea merchants and smugglers. Neither group was happy about this, obviously, since they couldn’t similarly use government to their benefit. A boycott was declared, but a few port officials who were either very pro-British or really ardent tea lovers let some ships land and unload their tea cargo. On December 16th that tea got a dunking in the harbor waters and sparked a call for independence.
Fast forward this time to today, tea is plentiful and relatively cheap. The varieties in terms of flavorings, types, and styles are even wider. And to think that it all started with the Dutch!
See also: Tea Traditions — The Netherlands
See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.
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