Why am I writing about this company, which actually changed the face of Britain? Because I am frequently asked “If England never grew tea, how did tea get to England?” Well, here’s the answer. It all started with establishing the spice trade for Great Britain and the “John” Company …..
Spices had been known to man since the beginning of recorded time. Pepper, cinnamon, clove, saffron, ginger and nutmeg are some of the oldest. Not only for preserving foods, spices made spoiled foods taste better, and helped make the ‘unwashed’ smell a little better. Spices were used for embalming the dead, in religious practices, and as medicine. Nutmeg, in particular was thought to be a miracle cure for the plague, which killed more than 35,000 people in 1603 in London.
With spices grown primarily in Asia and the surrounding islands, the Indonesians were the first to begin selling their spices through what is now known as the Ancient Spice Route. This long and arduous journey began in Indonesia, traveled through China, India and the Middle East to the east coast of Africa and ended in the coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria thus became the central trading center for most of Europe. Needless to say, these much-in-demand spices became very expensive.
The Portuguese were the first to set their ships off to find the spice islands and by the 1400’s, they dominated much of the overseas spice route. It wasn’t long, however, before the Dutch and the Spanish went in search of these treasures. Who doesn’t remember the poem “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue ….“? Columbus was, of course, searching for the spice islands, but, as we know, went a bit off course. By the 1600’s, however, these countries all had a stronghold in this area.
The British East India Company, which was originally named the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies, but more commonly known as the “John” Company, was the brain child of London businessmen in 1600 for the sole purpose of importing these expensive and important spices from Asia, which was now dominated by the Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish.
Led by James Lancaster, the John Company set off for Indonesia with five ships laden with linens, iron and lead to trade with the Indonesians. These items were of no interest to the leaders of these tropical islands. The Company continued on and finally ended up establishing trading posts in India where they bargained with tribal leaders and received exclusive rights to build factories.
The Company brought back all sorts of exotic goods in addition to the spices … silks, porcelain, lacquerware, cocoa, tobacco, tropical fruits, sugar, coffee and tea. The Queen was delighted! Royalty and the affluent members of society were fascinated by these, before now, unseen treasures. Although these rich and powerful people knew very little about these other things, what they did know was that they wanted them … all of them!
Trade wars began and because of their violent encounters with the Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese competitors, as well as with pirates, the “Company” found it necessary to create their own military and administrative boards, making them an imperial power. With this overwhelming power in place, the East India Company soon became the ruler of this massive territory.
One of the more popular items they brought back was, of course, “TEA“. As with spices, TEA was also first touted for its medicinal benefits …. it “helpeth headaches, giddiness and heaviness …. good for colds, dropsies and scurvies.” It didn’t take long, however, for tea to be drunk purely for its exotic qualities. Coffee had been adopted by the French and the Italian. TEA was to be for the British. (For more information, be sure to read Earl Grey … The Man The Tea.)
The Company continued building trading posts in India and continued to buy tea from the Dutch, because the Chinese would not trade with the English company. With the Dutch as the middleman, this made the tea even more expensive. The Company persisted. It took about 50 years, but finally they were able to negotiate a trade deal with the Chinese to purchase tea directly. Their first order was for 100 lbs. The demand for tea grew to the point where less than 100 years later the Company was placing orders for almost 5,000,000 pounds of tea each year! England was addicted.
The Company was in full control now and was setting the prices. The Chinese wanted to be paid in silver bullion. At the beginning this wasn’t a problem for the British because silver was in great supply; but with losing the American colonies, access to South America, where the silver was mined, was becoming more and more difficult.
Several decades earlier the Dutch had begun trading tobacco and opium with the Chinese – which the Chinese used mainly for medicinal purposes. The British, led by the Company, was now ruling over India and had established some opium plantations. They soon realized the answer to their “tea” problem was to increase their opium trade with the Chinese, ultimately leading to the Opium Wars.
The Company would sell their opium to the Chinese at auction for silver; the very same silver that the Chinese were being paid for their tea. For the next twenty years, this trade was so lucrative that other trading companies wanted a share. Although China issued an edict that opium importing and consumption were illegal. The edict had no effect whatsoever. The Company, using smugglers and corrupt Chinese officials, continued to bring the drug into the country, using a technique still in practice today of giving away free samples. Interestingly, the term for accepting bribe money was called “tea money”.
The British East India Company aka the “John” Company had grown into a very powerful political and trading monopoly which rivaled the British Government, and, in effect ruled many of the British Empire’s territories. It fought nations, set prices and taxed goods. (We’ll discuss the Boston Tea Party in another blog.) They had become too powerful and the British government sought to regain control. No longer was the John Company simply a commercial venture. It was now a political one.
In 1834 the Company was finally dissolved and it was then that London merchants sprang into action. The first thing they did was to purchase as much tea as possible and as cheaply as possible.
More to come ….