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Colonial Tea Trade

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Some Thoughts on the China, Tea and Coffee Trade in the American Colonies During the Colonial Period 

by Lee Hardluck Humphrey, Originally Published in Muzzleloader Magazine July-August 1997  

Tea Facts 

 • In 1768, colonists consumed almost two million pounds of tea.. 

 • Ninety per cent of the tea drunk in the colonies was smuggled in. 

 • Brick tea was known and available to the European buyers at Canton. 

 • The price of tea in the colonies varied from an early price of 24 shillings  per pound to a low of 1 shilling 9 pence per pound in 1768. 

 • Rebellion against the tea tax was not a result of a raise in the tax (the tax was actually lowered).      

"Excellent and by all physicians approved, China drink called by the Chineans Tcha, by other Nations Tay, alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness Head Coffee House--------by the Royal Exchange, London," writes Thomas Rugge in 1658 (quoted in Curtis 122).  And so, by word of pen and mouth, we have the faltering first steps of the infant tea industry that would change the course of nations and shape the thinking of great minds.     

In 1660, a scant two years later, the first tea tax was imposed by act of parliament: eight pence per gallon on all tea made or sold in coffee houses (Martin 17).  The ponderous and porcine parliament was quick to do nothing except tax something popular.  The Honorable East India Company had been granted exclusive trade rights in Asia by act of parliament.  However, they were about as mentally agile as parliament when it came to feeling the pulse of their customers.  Parliament's eagerness to cash in on the affluence of the emerging middle class and the duplicity of its members by selling their influence to large business concerns was a formula for political disaster.                

A major contributor to the growth of the English middle class was the business generated by the American colonies.  Merchants grew rich importing exotic goods such as tobacco, deer skins, Sassafras root and Beaver skins. 

As the wealth of American colonists grew and their daily lives became more civilized, they longed for a means to exhibit their new gentility.  The Dutch were the first to exploit this desire.  Coffee and Chinese porcelains were traded for tobacco.  By 1610 the Dutch were dealing in porcelain by the ton, and in 1619 were supplying the tidewater, Virginia planters with slaves (Curtis 121).  1680 found the English East India Company finally in the porcelain business in a significant way.  They could not seem to anticipate the needs or desires of the American colonists.  A prime example of this is coffee.  Prior to 1680, coffee was only available from North Africa.  The city of Mocha in Arabia stood alone as the world trade center.  The Dutch, in order to increase profits, established coffee plantations on the mountains of Java.  The early names for coffee, Mocha and Java, denote their places of origin.  The English company waited another sixty years to establish a coffee plantation in their Jamaican colony, I suppose to insure that coffee was not just a fad.  Playing catch-up with the Dutch East India Company was a way of life for the English company that extended to the tea trade. 

Tea, the leaves of a lowly bush grown all over Asia, became the force that shaped nations, made individuals enormously rich, and crumbled empires.  Although tea was well known in the American colonies, by the last half of the seventeenth century, it was not popular because of its high cost.  

Bohea tea was traded in large enough lots to be listed in the newspaper at Philadelphia in 1720.  The price: a whopping 24 shillings a pound (Kalm 658).  Constant high demand and stiff competition from the Dutch drove the price down to six shillings six pence a box  by 1749 (Kalm 670).  The peak import year of 1768 saw a new low in the price of tea at Philadelphia, a mere two shillings four pence per pound (Labree 333).  Although coffee and chocolate were both available and affordable, they never attained the almost mystical appeal of tea.  

In stark contrast, the French American colonists preferred chocolate and coffee.  "I have never seen tea used here," states Peter Kalm during his stay in Canada.  He further states that they do not consider it worth their while to send money out of their country for it (473).                         

In just two generations, Philadelphians saw tea change from a luxury to a necessity.  By 1768, English, Swedish and Dutch Americans were consuming three quarters of a pound of tea per capita (Labree 7).  Every man, woman, and child on average was consuming three and one half Chinese cups (about three ounces per cup) of tea a day.    

Starting in 1660, the tea tax roller coaster kept the price of tea in a constant state of flux.  The ups and downs of  the gallon tax, the stamp act, the 25% importation tax, and finally the tea and window act of 1768, resulted in an artificially high price for English tea.  At Amsterdam, tea could be bought for  2 shillings 2 pence a pound and smuggled into Boston at a final cost of three shillings per pound as Thomas Hancock did in 1754 (Labree 10).  The equivalent tea with all duties paid cost Boston merchants 4 shillings 1 pence.  One 450 pound chest (360 pounds net) of Bohea tea could garner the merchant-smuggler almost £20 in extra profit.  Thomas Hancock brought in fifteen chests of Bohea tea in the aforementioned manner and after all expenses, netted over £200 (Labree 100).  It is no wonder, considering the incentive, that over 90% of the 1.5 to 1.8 million pounds of tea consumed annually was smuggled in by the Dutch and enterprising colonists (Labree 7).  These estimates seem high.  However, the estimates of those on the scene are even higher as we see in this excerpt from a letter from Messrs. Hutchinson of Boston dated 10 September, 1771: "From a more particular estimate of the consumption we are of the opinion, the two towns of Boston and Charleston consume a chest, or about 340 pounds of tea, one day with another....In this proportion, the consumption may be estimated at 19,200 chests per annum, or upwards of six millions of pounds....Here we find the Dutch traders continually gaining ground upon us.  If teas do not fall with you before the spring shippings, we fear the Dutch will carry away all the trade of the Colonies in this article."  (Quoted in Drake 192-93)  

An excerpt from a proposal by Gilbert Berkly to the East India Company states, "This country is now become an object of the highest consequence, peopled by about three millions of inhabitants, one third of whom, at a moderate computation, drink tea twice a day...[this] makes the yearly consumption of 5,703,125 lbs." (Quoted in Drake 200)      

On May 26, 1773, when this letter and proposal were sent to London, Mr. Berkly did not know that the ill fated shipments of tea were already in process.  The point of these missives to the East India Company was to make money for the writers.  One cannot escape the conclusion that they may have padded the estimates.  The mark in their favor is that they wrote these letters over eighteen months apart and from two separate colonies.  The calculations they compiled were amazingly similar.              

To placate the East India Company, in 1767, parliament eliminated the 25% ad velorum tax on tea to be exported to the colonies.  But, in 1768, they passed the Townshend Act placing a three pence per pound duty to be paid at the port of entry.  Taking advantage of this, English merchants shipped a record 868,792 pounds of tea to American ports.  At Boston it sold for a heretofore unheard of price of 1 shilling 9 pence per pound (Labree 333).  This caused an unprecedented upsurge in tea consumption.  If the adage "Everything that is good or fun must be illegal, immoral, or fattening," is true it, could certainly be applied to tea drinking in colonial America.           

Moral indignation at having to pay taxes directly to English collectors peaked along with tea consumption.  Campaigns against English tea popped up like bubbles in a rocky brook.  The substitution of Labrador tea for the English import was encouraged.   

A Boston news paper offered this verse:

Throw aside your Bohea and your green Hyson tea, 

And all things with a new fashioned duty; 
Procure a good store of the choice Labrador 
For there'll soon be enough here to suit ye; 
These do without fear, and to all you'll appear 
Fair, charming, true, lovely, and clever; 
Though the times remain darkish, 
Young men may be sparkish, 
And love you much stronger than ever.  (Quoted in Labree 27-28)        

Another aspect of the tea mania was exhibited , as Labree reports:  "A  Countryman, a periodical of the time,  had several reasons for supporting the anti-tea campaign.  He told first of a friend's family who consumed so much butter with its tea biscuits that there was no longer enough to take to market.  'There is my daughters Jemma and Keziah' the friend noted, 'two hearty trollops as any in town, forenoon and afternoon eat almost a peck of toast with their tea, and they have learned me and their mother to join them,' he ruefully admitted; 'and as for Jeremiah, he can hardly live without it, a booby'"  (29).  Well, that takes care of the immoral and fattening, and we've already accounted for the illegal part.           

Because of the aforementioned propensity for smuggling, it is extremely difficult to catalog the types of tea brought into the American colonies.  The only records kept with any regularity were those of the English East India Company.  The records we will use are for 1773.  One can only hope that after one hundred plus years in the tea business, they would have figured out what was popular and would sell.  The shipping records are only the tip of the tea iceberg.         

The black teas listed are: 

Bohea  1586 chests 
Congou 70 chests 
Souchong 35 chests

Green teas: 

Hyson 70 chests 
Singlo 290 chests (Labree 335)           

This shipment represented a last ditch effort by the East India Company to clear out a vast surplus of tea in their warehouses.  The urge to speculate was so strong they could not resist.  William Palmer wrote in May, 1773 that one type of tea never exported to America should be included:  "...also and particularly Singlo tea, might be introduced into America..." (Drake 190)  The company agreed and the records show the 290 chests in the above shipping list.  The reason for this speculation was stated by Palmer in a later proposal dated August 5, 1773. 

"As it would be a great object with the company to introduce, if possible, the consumption of Singlo tea into America, that being a kind of tea which spoils by age, much more than Bohea, and also that of which they are much more considerable overloaded with...even to sell it in America, at the quoted price of Bohea, by which means they might be relieved from the disagreeable alternative of selling it here under prime cost....." (Quoted in Drake 242, my emphasis)

The tea business in England itself was not good.  The Dutch were landing ships daily along remote beaches and off-loading cargo.  Sixty-six  percent of the two pounds of tea consumed per capita in England was smuggled (Twining 4).  This loose tea, or untaxed tea  was causing the company great financial harm (Twining 22), thus the plan to dump huge quantities of cheap tea on the American market.  The Honorable East India Company's plan failed.  The tea was rejected or dumped and the stage for rebellion in the colonies was set.

Bohea tea, pronounced Boo-hee (Ukers 510), was by far the most popular tea.  It was so popular, that the word bohea became the slang term for tea.  It consisted of the scrap tea, broken orange pekoe, pekoe, and souchong dumped In a pile and then sifted.  The best was put in chests and the twigs, fannings and dust were used to make brick and tablet tea, all of which was used and sold under the generic name Bohea.  The Cantonese preferred brick tea, therefore we know it was both known and available to the tea buyers at Canton.              

Souchong tea is the largest leaf tea.  It has less caffeine than the others.  This tea is smoked like other black tea, but seems to retain the smoky flavor more than others, apparently because of the larger leaf area that is not rolled up.

Congou tea is the highest quality black tea.  The leaves are twisted for curing.  Congou is pronounced Kung-foo according to Thomas Wu, a California tea dealer.  The Keemun Congou is the original English breakfast tea.  It requires the hands of a master (kung fu) to cure this tea properly.                

Young Hyson tea is the most desirable green tea and is the first picking in the spring before the monsoon rains.  Pinhead gunpowder is Young Hyson rolled into pellets by the picker.                

Singlo tea is a later picking of larger leaves and cured green.  Gunpowder is Singlo rolled by hand into pellets and cured.                              

All Chinese teas that were available at Canton during the eighteenth century are available now.  However. some names have been changed, and a little research is required to identify them.  

_______________________

Bibliography 

Curtis, Julia B.  "Chinese Export Porcelain in Eighteenth Century Tidewater Virginia"  Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 17 (1987) 119-44.  

Drake, Francis S.  "Tea Leaves:  Being a Collection of Letters and Documents  Relating to the Shipment of Tea to the American Colonies in the Year  1773, by the East India Tea Company"  1884. Detroit: Singing Tree,  1970.        

Kalm, Peter. " Peter Kalm's Travels in North America:  The English Version of  1770"  Ed. Adolph Benson.  1937. New York: Dover, 1987.     

Labree, Benjamin. " The Boston Tea Party" New York: Oxford UP, 1964.        

Martin, R. Montgomery.  "The Past and PresentState (of the) Tea Trade of England (and of the) Continents of Europe and America; and a  Comparison Between the Consumption; Price of, and Revenue Derived  from Tea, Coffee, Sugar, Wine, Tobacco, Spirits, Etc." London: Parbury,  Allen & Co., 1832.        

Twining, Richard.  "Observations on the Tea and Window Act and on the Tea  Trade" London: T. Cadell, 1784.          

Ukers, William H.  "All About Tea  Vol. 2 of 2" New York: Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Co., 1935.


 

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