“A Sort of Tea from China”

The Natural History Museum in London has just uncovered a box of tea …. how uninteresting you’re thinking …. except this small cardboard box with the glass lid has been sitting in the basement of the museum lying among other ‘botanical collections’ for more than 300 years!

The dried tea leaves found in London’s Natural History Museum.

The dried tea leaves found in London’s Natural History Museum.

Labelled “a sort of tea from China” it is believed this tea was donated to the museum by Dr. Hans Sloane in the early 1700’s.   But where did it come from and why was it donated to the museum?

A Scottish surgeon employed by the British East India Company, James Cuninghame, is best known for being a passionate botanist, and an extremely unlucky one at that.  During his trips to China and Southeast Asia in 1698 and 1705 with the trading company, he was able to collect and send back to Britain over 600 Chinese botanical specimens. Among his many samples were leaves from the Camellia Sinensis plant, both on the branch and processed.

At that time, western traders were limited by the Chinese to the ports on the island of Zhoushan, and Canton (now known as Guangzhou).  In 1703, the Chinese forced the closing of the Zhoushan trading settlement, which was subsequently moved to an island off the coast of Vietnam.  Driven by the spice trade since the early sixteenth century, this was a very important multi-ethnic port, with populations of seafarers, explorers and tradesmen. Commercial revenues were strong and in return patronage and protection were given.  But on March 15, 1705 Malaysian soldiers, hired to protect the trading settlement, rebelled and set fire to the settlement, killing sixteen men.  The survivors turned to the local authorities for help.  Help came, but shortly after capturing and executing the Malaysian soldiers, they also turned against the English.  Only Cuninghame and a few others survived.

In a letter dated May 4, 1705, Cuninghame provided a personal account of his treatment and trial following these traumatic events.  Appearing before officials, he was made to answer charges against the English.  His defense failed to impress his captors and he was held captive for another two years.  Following his release, Cuninghame’s misfortunes continued.  He narrowly escaped yet another massacre in Borneo and eventually died in 1709 on a voyage from Bengal to England.

Sample box of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), from the British Museum.

Sample box of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), from the British Museum.

During his trips, Cuninghame corresponded with an even more passionate plant collector Dr. Hans Sloane.  Dr. Sloane is actually credited with introducing England to another very popular brew – drinking chocolate.  Sloane discovered that by adding milk to ground cocoa beans, the bitterness was reduced, and made the cocoa drinkable.  Like tea, chocolate was first promoted for its medicinal value.

Among the botanical specimens that James Cuninghame sent back was this sample box of tea.  Dr. Sloane labeled it #857 and cataloged it in his herbarium among his “vegetable substances” collection.

His collections grew so vast they became the basis for the botanical studies of both the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, which is where “a sort of tea from China” ended up.

Matthew Mauger, left, and Richard Coulton, the lecturers who found the oldest tea in England. Photograph: Graham Turner

Matthew Mauger and Richard Coulton are the researchers who found the oldest tea in England.  Photograph: Graham Turner

Historians from the Queen Mary University of London, who are doing research for an upcoming book, were able to identify the sample as the oldest physical remnant of Britain’s favorite drink – TEA!

Although they wanted to taste it, they weren’t even allowed to touch it. The curators of the museum lifted the glass lid off the small cardboard box and they were only allowed to sniff  the contents.  “It had a very very faint scent of hay,” Matthew Mauger, said. “In the 18th century, writers struggling to describe this exotic new drink do refer to the smell of hay,” his co-author Richard Coulton said.  However, he added: “Fresh tea really doesn’t last very long – I doubt very much that it would be drinkable.”

I know I’d love to give it a taste.  How about you?

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References:  British Library, Wikipedia.UK,  The Guardian,  Natural History Museum of London
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