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A Very Brief History of Tea Smuggling

Teas are much easier to get these days! (ETS image)
Teas are much easier to get these days! (ETS image)

Once upon a time, as tea began to make its way to Europe, it was a commodity that wasn’t consumed by anyone who was afflicted with shallow pockets. Much, if not most, of the tea shipped there in the early days came from China, which meant a voyage of several months. Add to this the fact that some countries levied considerable taxes on this new commodity and you can see why it wasn’t meant for bargain shoppers.

As the title of this article suggests, this is not an in-depth look at tea smuggling so I’ll just touch on the situation in England. Where one company held a monopoly on imports of tea – the East India Company. It was also a place where the tax on tea was well over one hundred percent by the time of The Commutation Act of 1784, which I wrote about here and which eased the tax burden considerably. While some sources suggested that at one point the amount of tea smuggled into the country was three times as much as the amount of legal tea brought in, the reduction in taxes served to put a considerable crimp in the smuggling trade.

Though tea smuggling was clearly against the law back in the day it was not something “common” people – the ones with the shallow pockets – were likely to get too worked up about, as it meant that they were more likely to have a source of affordable tea. And, while this might have caused some consternation among the East India Company, the fact was that many of their ship’s officers contributed to the problem – if indeed it even was one – by selling tea that they themselves smuggled in using the private cargo spaces they were entitled to.

As this more extensive overview (courtesy of the UK Tea Council) notes, tea smuggling operations tended to become larger and better organized as the years went on. And while the smugglers might have been doing a favor, of sorts, for people of more modest means, they weren’t necessarily the kind of people you’d want to invite to your next tea party. Among the better known and more unsavory of these were the rather notorious Hawkhurst Gang, who, to put it rather mildly, were not a very nice bunch.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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One response to “A Very Brief History of Tea Smuggling”

  1. […] wrote about tea smuggling at this site not so long ago. It was once a significant problem, particularly […]

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