The History of Tea


Tea in Europe

For hundreds of years, tea was a secret of the Far East. It wasn't until a Jesuit priest from Portugal ventured to China on a missionary journey in 1560 that a European tasted a cup of tea. Father Jasper de Cruz wrote about the wonders of tea, and word of it quickly spread. The powerful Portuguese navy developed a trade route with China and began importing the leaves to Holland, France, and the Baltic.

After Holland broke political ties with Portugal in 1602, the Dutch began importing tea to their own shores. The Dutch created one of the most successful Asian trading companies, the Dutch East India Company. Because tea was so expensive to import (at one point during the early seventeenth century, it was 100 shillings a pound), at first it was only a rich man's drink. Soon, though, the Dutch began importing a larger supply of tea.

The Dutch were the first to introduce tea to America. The first tea was brought to New Amsterdam (later New York) by Peter Stuyvesant, but the drink didn't become popular until English settlers caught wind of the new drink captivating the motherland.

Tea Time for England

England and tea seem as inseparable as America and baseball. But the English weren't all that impressed with tea when it first hit their shores in 1652. It wasn't until King Charles II and his Portuguese bride Catherine de Braganza, both avid tea drinkers, brought the drink to the palace in the latter part of the seventeenth century that tea became popular.

At first only England's nobility and upper classes drank tea; it was too expensive for common folk. As demand increased, however, the British East India Company was granted a virtual monopoly on trade in Asia. This made tea more readily available and affordable. By the 1700s, tea was the most popular drink in the British Isles.

As tea's popularity grew, so did places to enjoy it. Coffeehouses and tearooms dotted cities and towns throughout England. But it was the advent and popularity of tea gardens that most transformed British society. Women were first allowed to mingle with men there, and they enjoyed tea, conversations, strolls through beautiful gardens, music, and dancing. Since the gardens were public, the social classes mixed freely.

Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, is credited with inventing the afternoon tea early in the nineteenth century. At the time, most English people had two meals a day, breakfast and dinner. Lady Anna decided she needed a snack before dinner and made a practice of serving tea and a few sweets to guests for a late afternoon pick-me-up. The idea caught on and soon spread across England.

Wealthy tea lovers mourned the growth of tea's popularity among the country's poor. The upper class eventually lobbied Parliament to raise taxes on tea so the less privileged would not be able to afford it.

The Steep Cost of Tea

The taxes imposed on tea stirred up passions in England. At one point, Parliament placed a 119 percent tax on tea -- putting it out of reach of the lower classes. Demand did not diminish, though, and it presented an opportunity to entrepreneurs. Tea smugglers went to great -- and often violent -- lengths to get tea to England ahead of the established East India Company. Soon the tea smuggling trade began to eat into East India Company profits.

Meanwhile, the East India Company's political and economic strength increased in India and China. It was given the power to create money, establish governments in the name of Britain, build forts and arm them, and even declare war.

Demand for tea imported from China grew, but England didn't have a lot to offer in trade. The East India Company dealt mostly in silver, but by the early nineteenth century, the demand for tea far outstripped that for silver. To meet the need, the East India Company began illegally growing and trading opium to China in exchange for tea. Despite China's 1799 ban on opium imports, the opium exchange continued into the nineteenth century.

China stepped up efforts to curb opium imports, ordering the death penalty for anyone caught bringing the drug into the country. This ignited the first Opium War in 1840, which won Britain the right to trade opium and awarded Hong Kong to Britain. The second war, which ended in 1860, sealed Britain's right to continue trading opium for tea.

Tea played an important part in America's history, as well. Learn more about tea's arrival in America on the next page.

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