The Dutch Invent 'Orange Pekoe'

By James Norwood Pratt

Your Honors know that trade in Asia must be maintained under the protection and favor of Your Honors' own weapons. We cannot carry on trade without war nor war without trade.
     - Governor-General of Dutch Indies, 1618

In the history of tea, as in much else, the doughty Dutch tend to get overlooked by historians writing about their more numerous neighbors. But in civilization as well as seamanship and commerce they were second to none of these neighbors in the centuries of exploration. The Dutch formed the first East India Company before rival companies were established (by the French, Danes, Swedes, Spanish, Scots and-briefly-Austrians, in addition to the English). Of all these, the Dutch company was far the most prosperous throughout the 1600s. At the height of its power around 1675 the Company commanded a fleet of 150 trading ships and forty warships with twenty thousand sailors and ten thousand soldiers, employed around fifty thousand civilians, held sway over eight foreign "governments," i.e., colonies like Cape of Good Hope, Ceylon, and Java, and maintained five or six additional way stations or trading posts. Despite all these expenses, the company still paid a 40 percent annual dividend!

This was the organization which first brought tea to Europe in 1610-green tea from Japan, to be exact. Before long the Company also imported China tea and promoted it so successfully that evidence of its enterprise survives still in the trade term Orange Pekoe. Pekoe was a corruption of Bai Hao, the Chinese words for white tip, in reference to the unfurled leaf bud covered with white down, an infallible sign of the leaf's infancy and thus of the superior delicacy of the tea. The first teas of this quality brought to Holland must have been presented to the royal family, the House of Orange, and by a stroke of marketing genius, tea of the Bai Hao type was promoted to the Dutch public as Orange Pekoe to suggest a royal warrant.

Within a generation-by 1637-tea from China and Japan was in sufficient demand in Holland for the Company to order regular imports of both on each homeward bound vessel. Within another generation the Dutch had succeeded in introducing tea so widely that it was being denounced in France as "the impertinent novelty of the century." Holland's principal tea customers, however, were her neighbors on the North Sea coast, the Frisians, and the preeminence of Hamburg, Germany, as the center of the European tea trade today is another monument left by the Dutch tea traders of this early period. Although younger than the Frisian tea tradition, the English also owes its genesis to Holland, since the future Charles 11 acquired his taste for tea in exile at The Hague. The first tea in the New World, like the first in England, was bought from Dutchmen. But it was precisely by underestimating the demand for tea-hay water" as Holland's coffee drinkers called it-that their Company failed. The Dutch had long contented themselves with buying tea from Chinese junks trading in Java and undertook direct voyages to Canton only in 1729-too late to challenge their English rival's position in China's tea market. After the English were able to drive them from India in 1759, both the French and Dutch East India companies plunged continuously deeper in debt until forced to declare bankruptcy. (Strange to say, Denmark's East India Company held out until 1845.) John Company maintained its stranglehold on the China tea trade until 1833, when Parliament decreed the East Indies and Cathay open to all Englishmen on a strictly competitive basis. The Chinese were not consulted.