WHO BROUGHT TEA TO EUROPE?

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In the history of tea, the subject of tea coming to Europe makes a fascinating chapter. You might wonder, “tea came to Europe in which century?”

Short answer: Europeans did not know tea until the mid-1500s. Tea and tea-growing originated in China. Tea drinking had been popular in Chinese culture for thousands of years before any European got a whiff of it.

How Tea Came to Europe

Tea was first introduced to Europe through Portuguese seafarers and missionaries in the 16th century. So which tea first made it out to Europe? Black tea! Today, Black tea is still the most popular tea in the West.

One of the first famous Europeans that took to tea was Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza. Turns out, she not only was a fervent tea-lover but the fate of tea was held in her porcelain hands.

The film 9 DRAGONS TEA (watch trailer) uncovers long-forgotten secrets of how she powerfully changed the course of tea history, with one fell scoop!

Back then, Chinese tea was considered a medicinal drink and sold through pharmacies in Europe.

In the mid-1600s, tea was such a luxury that one pound of tea leaves cost what an average worker earned in a year. Only the wealthy, upper classes could afford to drink tea. And patience was required as tea took a year to travel from China to Europe! (It really makes you appreciate how easy and accessible tea is now.)

The Portuguese First Introduced Tea to Europe

The Portuguese, the world’s consummate traders, established Macao as its trading port. The negotiation of this territory was no easy task; it took 45-years! Finally, the Ming Emperor of China granted the use of Macau for a rent payment of 41.5 pounds of silver annually. Chump change compared to how much the Portuguese profited from having this colony for trade.

In 1569, a Portuguese missionary mentioned tea in a letter to his king. He wrote – there is a bitter and red-colored medicinal drink called “Cha.”

Did you know “Cha” is what Cantonese called tea? Canton (now Guangzhou) was a significant port for China to trade with foreigners, exporting tea, porcelain, silk, etc.

With Macau as its profitable base, the Portuguese seafarers and missionaries brought tea from China to Europe.

The early 17th century marked the era of mercantilism, as many European countries established their own East India companies to trade with Asia.

Tea importation played a starring role in China’s trade with the West. Tea became the most desirable good than all other Chinese goods combined up ’til the late 19th century.

The Dutch Tea Trade Takeover

The tea trade was so lucrative that in 1602, the Netherlands organized The Dutch East India Company (DEIC), the world’s first public company. They imported Europe’s first Chinese tea through Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1610. The Dutch took over Java (now Indonesia) as a colony in 1595, after defeating the Portuguese who had been there since 1512.

Known for its shrewd trading practices, the DEIC allocated up to 70% of its annual expenditures on military costs. After all, dominance requires firepower. And the ambitious Dutch East India Company declared it in its motto: 

“No Profit without Power.” 

For well over eight decades, the Dutch dominated the tea trade in Europe. At the height of their dominance, the DEIC’s fleet comprised 246 vessels, dwarfing the Portuguese 79 ships in 1619. The high seas were battlegrounds to wage trade wars.

The Dutch were such a force to be reckoned with when it came to tea that they brought embarrassment to England.

When Princess Catherine of Braganza married Charles II in 1662, she brought tea to England as part of her dowry. Knowing their new queen loved tea so much, the British East India Company wanted to give her tea as a gift. But they had to buy their tea from the Dutch East India Company. Suffice to say, the English pride was bruised.

The Dutch and the English would become archrivals in the tea trade when the Chinese Emperor finally granted the English a trading post in Canton in 1684. Business was war!

Enter the empire-building period of monopoly, maritime trade, and global land grabs.

How did tea spread to England? Our story continue here.

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