Tea History 1: Tea's entrance to the West
Tea arrived in the West at the dawn of the modern era and became a crucial part of the world history of trade. Taste for tea was created by royals and other elites and trade routes opened up by powerful imperial and corporate fleets.
The history of tea in China dates back hundreds if not thousands of years, with its first descriptions coming down to us as a form of medicine to be made with hot water – and preferably drunk hot. We shall have plenty of time later to discuss the different ways that tea was explored in its homeland; today, let's shine a little light on how the drink appeared in what we might call the 'Far West' – depending on whose point of view we are looking from of course!
Tea made its way along with silk on the Silk Road into Central Asia, the Middle East and Russia from medieval times – but the real European and Western infatuation began later. This came about as maritime trade routes to the East began to open up during the 'Age of Exploration' (from the 15th century onwards). The most adventurous explorers in the first phase of the Age were the Portuguese and the Dutch. This is reflected in how tea began to be known in Europe.
One interesting episode occurred on the 13 May 1662. On that day a flotilla of ships entered Portsmouth harbor in the south of England. The ships carried one prized VIP passenger: Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King Juan IV of Portugal and bride-to-be of Kinkg Charles II of England. Along with Catherine the ships bore a consignment of gifts intended as a dowry: these included sugar and spices and a chest of Chinese tea. The former goods were to be sold upon arrival for money to benefit the king, but the last was to remain with the bride, for Catherine was an avid drinker of tea.
Along with these physical goods the marriage brought a generous set of rights and permissions: the Portuguese gave the British the right to trade with Brazil and the East indies and they granted them full rights over their North African Enclave of Tangier and over what was then still a relatively small colony on the southwest coast of India: Bombay. The king soon leased this port to the East India Company, setting the stage for Britain's long campaign to control tea – and other trades – in the East. However it would take the turning of the 17th century for British and European palates to fall fully in love with the new drink, making the demand that would fuel much investment, invention and conquest.