In the previous episode, we had discussed about the practice of tea among Singphos in Assam from 11th century:
Before we jump into the history of how tea became mainstream in India, let’s take a slight detour to find out how tea spread from China to the western world, so that we will later be able to seamlessly continue the narration of how it entered India.
As discussed previously, by the 8th century, tea had gained widespread acceptance among all classes in China & Japan. As the enthusiastic Europeans started exploring the world during 15th & 16 century, they were mesmerized by the spices of India & tea of China, and thus began Europe’s romance with tea 500 years ago. The Portuguese & Dutch explorers of the late 16th century who were full of praises for tea, returned to their respective countries with small quantities of tea to gift it to the Royalty & shared with their families which led to some awareness of tea in Europe. Also, missionaries who were trying to spread Christianity in China had developed the habit of tea, sent word about the benefits of it to their families back home and attributed the longevity of Asians to tea.
Sensing a good business opportunity, in 1610, the Dutch East India company started importing tea from China. Since the consignments were in limited & small quantities, it was very expensive and hence remained only within the aristocracy who could afford it. However, by the 1630s, as demand for tea rose in Holland (Dutch), the import quantities also increased, thereby reducing the price and making it affordable to the masses after which there was no stopping.
In a bid to spread tea further and to increase its revenues, the Dutch East India Company sought the help of its Government which had colonized parts of North America. Legend has it that the Dutch Govt had bought a couple of islands including the Manhattan island for a mere 24 dollars from the Red Indians in early 17th century and had established a Dutch town called “New Amsterdam”. Unfortunately, the people of Holland showed no interested in relocating to such a “far-flung” continent due to which the Colonial Govt decided to invite people from all races & walks of life to settle down there. This resulted in the town becoming one of the most cosmopolitan towns in the world with citizens of very good purchasing power (i.e potential customers for tea). The company introduced tea to this cosmopolitan town in North America during the 1630s and hence started America’s romance with tea, leading to a steady income from this region for the Dutch East India Company. (A couple of decades later, New Amsterdam was captured by the British, renamed to “New York” and was allowed to continue as a cosmopolitan).
In this manner, tea had become a part of Dutch (as well as Portuguese) lifestyle by the 1640s, while Germany was still hesitant because the German doctors believed that it would hasten death & ran several campaigns against tea in Germany. In this debate between Dutch (who believed tea was healthy) & Germans (who believed tea was poisonous), Britain chose to remain aloof and there was hardly any penetration of tea in England during that time. If not for a certain marriage and dowry in 1662, England would have taken many more decades (or even centuries) to get introduced to tea culture.
It might sound surprising to find the mention of dowry in an English marriage because the popular belief is that dowry system is from India. Contrary to this misconception, dowry is actually an European system which was introduced (to oppress women) in India by the British during their rule. You can read more about it here:
Coming back to the topic, in the 1650s, England was a war torn county, desperate for funds. King Charles II hit upon the idea of marriage so that he could raise necessary funds by demanding an extraordinary dowry and he managed to negotiate a good bounty including 400,000 crowns & jewels as dowry by marrying a Portugal princess in 1662.
Since Portuguese had imbibed tea into their culture, this princess was accustomed to tea and hence along with her dowry, she brought several boxes of tea to sustain her tea habit. Not surprisingly, the Queen’s court & the elite clubs had started imitating the Queen’s habits (which included her tea habit as well), and due to its addictive property, tea began to witness gradual rise in demand as the habit spread among the aristocracy.
By the late 1660s, tea had literally invaded the British culture, but since Britain was buying it from the Dutch, the prices were high, due to which it remained within the upper classes only.
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