The Politics of Tea
- Over the centuries, the tea trade has shaped culture and significantly influenced power and politics in both the East and the West.
16th Century: Tea, Trade, Conflict & Revolution - In 16th and 17th Century Europe, the favorite tea became black tea, prepared from fully fermented green tea leaves.
France and the Netherlands were the two largest tea-consuming nations until the late 1650s. As the English rose to dominate the oceans of the known world, trade ships known as Tea Clippers were born. These vessels carried silk, porcelain and other goods from China to Europe, but they took their name from their most important cargo. Over the centuries, the tea trade has shaped culture and significantly influenced power and politics in both the East and the West.
17th Century: Tea & The Opium War - In 1610, the Holland United East Indian Company bought their first crop of Japanese tea in Hirado and Chinese tea in Macao from a Portuguese merchant.
Eventually, tea became very popular among Holland's royal families and its upper class. In the 1630s, the Dutch began selling teas to France, Germany, North America, and England. Holland developed a major tea plantation in Indonesia in the 1870s and supplied teas both domestically and internationally. It helped transform Indonesia into one of today's major tea producing nations. By 1760, five thousand tons of teas were imported (this includes smuggling) from China to England. By the 19th century, tea was the major commodity traded between China and England. Tea was paid for in silver. The Chinese imported far less than they sold and they levied extensive tariffs. As a result, England incurred a massive trade deficit and a shortage of silver in Great Britain. Subsequently England forced China to accept opium from their Indian colony as payment to reduce their deficit, causing a dispute that eventually lead to the Opium War in 1840.
The addictive nature of opium eventually led to high demand in China. The balance of trade was reestablished with this narcotic and the tea trade once again became lucrative for the English. Understanding the addictive and destructive nature of opium and the impact it was having on their society, China's Qing dynasty banned the trade of opium as well as the outflow of silver, also used to pay for commodities they imported.
England responded by starting the Opium Wars (1840-1842) using military force to achieve what trade and diplomacy failed to. England defeated the Chinese in two conflicts. The two countries signed the Nanking Treaty, giving way to the free trade system. Great Britain gained the territory of Hong Kong as well as numerous trade concessions including access to five other ports, most notably the Shanghai port. France and the United States soon gained similar free-trade rights.
18th Century: Tea & The American Revolution - The French and Indian War exacerbated Great Britain’s financial problems in the mid-18th century.
As a result, a series of tariffs and direct taxes were imposed on the English colonies in North America to help recover some of the costs of the war. Taxation without representation was a major irritant to North American Colonists beholden to the English crown. By this time, the American colonies were consuming more tea per year than England. The Colonists boycotted English products and tea was taxed in retaliation, leading to an extreme decrease in tea consumption in the colonies and a surplus of tea in England. A black market in illegal trade of this very popular commodity was also spawned as a result.The English tried a variety of measures to halt the illegal trade in tea resulting from the official boycott, but the taxes remained. Finally, the English parliament was forced to allow the sale of tea without tax in America. Four ships loaded with tea were sent from England and arrived in Boston. Angry over the British tax policy, a group of colonists disguising themselves as Native Americans dumped hundreds of pounds of English tea into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773 in an event that became known as the Boston Tea Party. British ships subsequently carrying tea from England suffered a similar fate. Tensions escalated, and the English sent troops to the colonies leading to the start of the War for Independence in 1775. The Boston Tea Party became one of the primary catalysts for the American Revolution that led to the independence and subsequent creation of the United States.
19th Century: The United States - After the Revolutionary War, the United States became a trading nation in its own right, gaining direct access to Chinese tea commerce.
The drive to expand its own trading routes and status eventually led the United States to end three centuries of Japanese isolation in the 1860’s when its infamous black warships sailed into Nagasaki harbor – a less that subtle indication of the clout behind its trade mission. Japan eventually opened up because of this mission,
and shared its evolving and distinct tea culture with the West.