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John Company and Tea's Arrival in England

by James Norwood Pratt



Queen Elizabeth was facing an important decision of her reign. Her valiant little navy had broken the Spanish Armada, but in international commerce the Spanish remained supreme in the West, just as Portugal was rivaled only by the Dutch in the East. As a lady with a wardrobe of three thousand costumes, mostly made of Oriental fabrics, Elizabeth was in a position to guess at the enormous profits to be had from direct trade for such goods with the Far East. Gradually England and Holland began to form some idea of just what was at stake.

In 1592 the English captured a Portuguese ship off the Azores islands on its way back home from Asia. The Madre de Deus was brought to the port of Dartmouth; 165 feet in length with a beam of forty-five feet and some sixteen hundred tons, she was the largest ship Elizabethan England had ever seen. Beneath her hatches was a cargo of jewels, cloth, ebony and spices with an estimated value of half a million pounds sterling or about half the total holdings of the Crown's Exchequer at the time. This fabulous haul not only created a sensation, but gave England's merchants a firsthand glimpse of the wealthy trade they were missing out on.

Merchants agitated for a chance to compete for this wealth until at last, on the last day of 1600, "for the honour of the nation, the wealth of the peoples" The increase of navigation and the advancement of lawfulle traffic," Elizabeth charted the Honorable East India Company. John Company, as this group came to be called, was granted a monopoly on all trade beyond the shores of the Atlantic, east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of Cape Horn.

This organization of wealthy merchants was to play a central role in the creation of the British Empire. Over the years to come, its far-reaching powers would be extended even further. It was granted the right to acquire territory, coin money, maintain armies and forts, form foreign alliances, declare war, conclude peace, and try and punish law breakers. And as the basis of its power, the John Company was to become the biggest and mightiest monopoly in any commodity that the world has ever known. That commodity? Tea.

Only six weeks after receiving their charter, the East India merchants dispatched their first fleet of five ships and four hundred men under the command of one James Lancaster. Sixteen months later, he found himself anchored off Sumatra and disinclined to venture farther east into seas the Portuguese claimed as their own. He collected a certain amount of cargo in trade with a fat and aged local king and assigned men to stay and start a "factory" not a place of manufacture in the parlance of the times, but a fortified trading establishment complete with offices, warehouses, and living quarters. On the way back, Lancaster captured more Oriental merchandise from a Portuguese ship and reached home to discover that one out of every three Londoners had perished of the plague and James I occupied the throne. And the Company discovered it had a 90 percent profit on capital and expenses to pocket!

Tea finally arrived on the English scene in Septmeber of 1658, the very month that Oliver Cromwell died and presumably went to hell. There is an interesting connection between these two events. Holland was at the height of her power when Cromwell took over in England and beheaded Charles I. If an English merchant of the day wanted to import wine from Bordeaux, say, or ship masts from the Baltic, he was likely to employ Dutch ships as the most economical. Cromwell soon passed laws ordaining that European goods could only be imported to England in English vessels or else in those of the producing nation, but not in Dutch ships. The Amsterdam harbor was suddenly transformed into a forest of masts and idle ships and the Dutch went to war with England over this threat of financial ruin. They lost the war, but the English lost the chance to make tea's acquaintance at the same time as the rest of Europe. Thus it was ten years after "the impertinent novelty of the century" had come to France, that tobacconist and coffeehouse owner Thomas Garway became the first to offer it to England. It may have been an English ship that brought it, but the tea must have come from Holland, for it was ten years more before the John Company first imported tea from the East - a scant 140 pounds of it.

The son of the martyred king had in the meantime been restored to the English throne as Charles II, after having grown up in exile at The Hague. He had brought home with him a taste for tea and soon acquired a Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza, who shared it. This explains the earliest Company reference to tea; two pounds were purchased from a coffeehouse proprietor as a gift for His Majesty lest "he found himself wholly neglected by the Company." (Tea cost over one hundred shillings the pound at this time.) A couple years later the Royal Pair received over twenty pounds from the same source. In contrast to Elizabeth, who breakfasted each day on bread, meat, and a gallon of beer, Catherine was soon known as a tea-drinking queen England's first. Before Catherine's day, sniffed a Victorian biographer in her praise, English ladies and gentlemen "habitually heated or stupefied their brains morning, noon and night." As it was the Royal Pair started a trend.

Had tea been introduced earlier, the English coffeehouses - the first of which was established in 1650 - would have be known as teahouses. By the time of the Restoration, they were all offering tea as a wonderful health drink, but, being made by the barrel, one that must also have tasted like medicine. It is doubtful tea could have caught on had the court not made it fashionable (or Charles and Catherine not known the proper method of pre paring it). Courtiers of theirs, the Lords Arlington and Ossory gave the fashion a major impetus when they returned from a mission to The Hague with a quantity of tea they had bought there. Their wives proceeded to give enormous teas after the newest and most elegant Continental manner. Many an Englishman heard of tea for the first time in connection with these entertainments, the apothecaries of London hastened to add it to their stock in trade, and the ladies of the realm acquired a sudden interest in the vogue. In the middle of the seventeenth century, tea was in.

John Company's first shipment of tea arrived from the East and, by a strange coincidence, tea imports from Holland were forbidden by English law. The Company was not exactly a Young Men's Christian Association; it deliberately kept the cost of tea high until well after 1700, by which year the average annual importation was about thirty thousand pounds, occasionally twice that. Although the cheap cotton cloth imported from its three mian factories in India was the chief reason for the Company's rising profits - annual dividends were reaching 20 or even 50 percent - the tea business was looking up. Tea was in continually greater demand and the Company had finally managed to establish a factory in China, upriver from Portuguese-held Macao right outside the very walls of Canton. Thus by 1702, the directors were able to order an entire ship's cargo of tea.