Friday, February 6, 2015

History of Tea in England & Her Colonies

Dirk Stoop (England, c 1610-1685) Catherine of Braganza c 1610

The first recorded drinking of tea is in China, where the earliest records of tea consumption date back to the 10th century BC. It was a common drink during Qin Dynasty (around 200 BC) & became widely popular during Tang Dynasty, when it was spread to nearby Korea & Japan. 

Pieter Gerrits van Roestraten (1630-1700) Detail of an early Tea Service - A Yixing Teapot and a Chinese Porcelain Tete-a-Tete on a Partly Draped Ledge

Tea, then called cha, was imported to Europe during the Portuguese expansion of the 16th century. Portugese Catherine of Braganza, wife of England's Charles II, took the tea habit to the court of Great Britain around 1660.

Charles II by Adriaen Hanneman (England, 1603-1671)

London coffee houses also were responsible for introducing tea to everyday England. One of the 1st coffee house merchants to offer tea was Thomas Garway, who owned an establishment in Exchange Alley in London. He sold both prepared & dry tea to the public as early as 1657. Three years later he issued a broadsheet advertising tea at £6 and £10 per pound touting its virtues at "making the body active and lusty" & "preserving perfect health until extreme old age."

 1715 Two English Ladies & an Officer at Tea

Tea gained popularity quickly in England's coffee houses, & by 1700, over 500 coffee houses sold it. This distressed the British tavern owners, as tea cut their sales of ale & gin, & it was bad news for the government, who depended upon a steady stream of revenue from taxes on liquor sales. By 1750, tea had become the favored drink of Britain's lower classes.

 1720 English Family at Tea by Joseph Van Akien

Charles II tried to counter the loss of tax income from spirits arising from the growth of tea, with several acts forbidding its sale in private houses. This measure was designed to counter sedition; but it was so unpopular, that it was impossible to enforce. 

1720 Man and Child Drinking Tea possibly by Richard Collins, England, d. 1732

A 1676 act taxed tea & required coffee house operators to apply for a license.  Failing to curb the popularity of tea, the British government decided to profit from tea. By the mid 18th-century, the duty on tea had reached an absurd 119%. This heavy taxation had the effect of creating a whole new industry - tea smuggling.

 1725 English Family at Tea possibly by Richard Collins, England, d. 1732

Ships from Holland & Scandinavia brought tea to the British coast, then stood offshore, while smugglers met them unloading their precious cargo in small vessels. The smugglers, often local fishermen, brought the tea inland through underground passages & hidden paths to special hiding places. One of the favorite hiding places was in the local parish church.

 1727 English Family of Three at Tea by Richard Collins, England, d. 1732 

Even smuggled tea remained expensive for the common man; however, and therefore extremely profitable. Many smugglers began to adulterate the tea with other substances, such as willow, licorice, & sloe leaves. Used tea leaves were also re-dried & added to fresh leaves.

1730 Tea Party at Lord Harrington's House, St. James's by Charles Philips 

During the 18C, tea drinking was as popular in Britain’s American colonies as it was in Britain itself. Legally, all tea imported into America had to be shipped from Britain, & all tea imported into Britain had to be shipped in by the East India Company. 

 1740 Ladies Having Tea Unknown Artist 

However, for most of the 18C, the East India Company was not allowed to export directly to America. But during the 1770s, the East India Company ran into financial problems: illegal tea smuggling into Britain was vastly reducing the amount of tea being bought from the Company. 

A British Family Served with Tea 1745 Unknown artist

This led to a downturn in its profits, as well as an increase in its stockpile of unsold tea. In an attempt to revive its flagging fortunes & avoid bankruptcy, the Company asked the British government for permission to export tea directly to America, a move that would enable it to get rid of its surplus stock of tea.

Unknown 18C British Artist, A Tea Party

 The Company actually owed the government £1 million, so the government had no desire to let the Company go bankrupt. Thus in 1773, the Tea Act was passed, granting the Company’s wish, and allowing a duty of 3d per lb to be levied on the exports to America. The colonials were growing increasingly resentful of "taxation without representation."

Jean-Etienne Liotard (Swiss artist, 1702-1789) Still Life Tea Set, 1781-83

The British government did not anticipate this being a problem for the colonials. By being exported directly to America, the cost of tea there would actually become cheaper, & 3d per lb was considerably less duty than was paid on tea destined for the British market. But it had underestimated the strength of the American resistance to being taxed at all by Britain. 

Drinking tea in the British American colonies, the John Potter Overmantle at the Newport Historical Society in Rhode Island

The issue of the taxation in America had been hotly debated for some years. Many Americans objected on principle to being taxed by a Parliament which did not represent them. Instead, they wanted to raise taxes themselves to fund their own administration. But successive British governments reserved the right to tax the colonies, & various bungled attempts to impose taxation had hardened American opposition. In the later 1760s, opposition took the form of boycotts of taxed goods. As a replacement for them, the Americans either bought smuggled goods or attempted to find substitutes for tea made from native products.

Drinking tea in the British American colonies, Gansevoort Limner, possibly Pieter Vanderlyn 1687-1778 Susanna Truax.

Finally at the end of the resulting war with America, in 1784, William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act, which dropped the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%, effectively ending smuggling. Adulteration of tea both at home & that headed for foreign markets remained a problem, though, until Britain's Food & Drug Act of 1875 brought in stiff penalties for the practice.

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