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Tea's Arrival in Europe

by James Norwood Pratt


When the Dutch brought the first tea to Europe in 1610, England's Good Queen Bess had been dead seven years, Shakespeare had six years to live, and Rembrandt was four years old. After decades of Portuguese middle-manship, the Dutch East India Company had been formed in 1602, to establish bases in Indonesia and Japan and trade directly with the Orient. And by 1637 the Company's directors, the Lords Seventeen, were writing their governor general in Indonesia: "As tea begins to come into use by some of the people, we expect some jars of Chinese as well as Japanese tea with each ship." They got their jars on a regular basis thereafter, it appears, for within a few years tea had become a fashionable, if expensive, beverage among high society at The Hague. And if it sometimes cost the equivalent of a hundred dollars or more per pound, so what? The people Vermeer pictured for us in rooms rich with colored maps and intricate Oriental carpets were nothing if not affluent. At first they bought their tea from apothecaries, who added it and other such luxury items as sugar and ginger and spices to their line of medicines. By the year of Vermeer's death (1675, six years after Rembrandt's), tea was being sold in grocery stores to rich and poor alike and was in general use throughout Holland.

It is about this time we find a certain Dr. Bontekoe advising his Dutch readers to use eight or ten cups of tea daily, hastily adding he sees no reason to object to fifty, one hundred or two hundred cups, as he frequently consumed that much himself! The good Dr. Bontekoe met a premature end from a fall for which tea was no cure; his detractors thought him in the pay of the Dutch Fast India company, which had made him a handsome honorarium for the impetus he'd given their tea sales. Tea became a daily necessity in Dutch life as quickly as people could learn how to enjoy it.

In the light of more recent history, it seems strange that tea drinking encountered no official intolerance in Europe-no rabid prohibitionists, no self-perpetuating anti-drug agency. You can, however, trace the spread of tea from Holland by the proliferation of medical Viewers with Alarm. Even before regular imports began, the first of these had warned in a Latin treatise that tea "...Hastens the death of those that drink it, especially if they have passed the age of forty years." This same medical authority, Dr Simon Paulli, also assured his readers that "girl's breasts that are rubbed with the juice of hemlock do not grow thereafter, but remain properly small and do not change the size they are." Prior to Bontekoe's pronouncements, even a Dutch physician, prejudiced by a moldy batch it sounds like, could deride tea as "groats and dishwater, a tasteless and disgusting beverage!" Soon after tea reached Germany we find a German medico gravely blaming tea for the "dried-up" appearance of the Chinese and exclaiming, "Down with tea! Send it back!"

The mid-1600s saw tea set off the kind of raging debate the French are famous for, a prominent Parisian doctor becoming the first to denounce it as "the impertinent novelty of the century." A colleague of his was soon complaining that "the Dutch bring tea from China to Paris and sell it at thirty francs a pound, though they have paid but eight or ten sous in that country, and it is old and spoiled into the bargain. People must regard it as a precious medicament..." You can just see how he must have shook his head. Nonetheless, before the century is finished, poems to tea appear in French. In one of her letters, Madame de Sevigne finds it worthy of note that a friend of hers takes her tea with milk-imagine!-and the aged Racine, who died in 1699, begins every day drinking tea with his breakfast. There is a painting in the Louvre by a certain Olivier depicting perhaps the most famous French tea. It is entitled Tea a l'anglaise in the Grand Salon of the Temple with the Court of the Prince de Conti Listening to the Young Mozart, and it is dated nigh a century after the honest de Sevigne gossip. It is precisely this depiction of how the French nobility gave an "English-style" tea party that assures us the French had given up on tea for themselves. Once the "novelty of the century" had worn off, almost all Frenchmen returned to the beverages traditionally associated with their national life-wines, mostly cheap and occasionally divine, and dark-roasted coffee. The Germans likewise, after the first flurry of excitement, came to ignore the new drink, preferring their old and true favorite, beer. A European tea merchant of 1700 would have recognized only two growing markets outside Holland-England and Russia.