Some Thoughts on the China, Tea and Coffee Trade in the American Colonies During the Colonial Period
by Lee Hardluck Humphrey
Originally Published in Muzzleloader Magazine July-August 1997
In 1768, colonists consumed almost
two million pounds of tea..
Ninety per cent of the tea drunk
in the colonies was smuggled in.
Brick tea was known and available
to the European buyers at Canton.
The price of tea in the colonies
varied from an early price of 24 shillings per pound to a low of
1 shilling 9 pence per pound in 1768.
Rebellion against the tea tax was
not a result of a raise in the tax
(the tax was actually lowered).
"Excellent and by all physicians approved, China drink called
by the Chineans Tcha, by other Nations Tay, alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness
Head Coffee House--------by the Royal Exchange, London," writes Thomas
Rugge in 1658 (quoted in Curtis 122). And so, by word of pen and
mouth, we have the faltering first steps of the infant tea industry that
would change the course of nations and shape the thinking of great minds.
In 1660, a scant two years later, the first tea tax was imposed
by act of parliament: eight pence per gallon on all tea made or sold in
coffee houses (Martin 17). The ponderous and porcine parliament was
quick to do nothing except tax something popular. The Honorable East
India Company had been granted exclusive trade rights in Asia by act of
parliament. However, they were about as mentally agile as parliament
when it came to feeling the pulse of their customers. Parliament's
eagerness to cash in on the affluence of the emerging middle class and
the duplicity of its members by selling their influence to large business
concerns was a formula for political disaster.
View the Bibliography
A major contributor to the growth of the English
middle class was the business generated by the
American colonies. Merchants grew rich importing exotic goods
such as tobacco, deer skins, Sassafras root and Beaver skins.
As the wealth of American colonists grew and their
daily lives became more civilized, they longed for a means to exhibit their
new gentility. The Dutch were the first to exploit this desire.
Coffee and Chinese porcelains were traded for tobacco. By 1610 the
Dutch were dealing in porcelain by the ton, and in 1619 were supplying
the tidewater, Virginia planters with slaves (Curtis 121). 1680 found
the English East India Company finally in the porcelain business in a significant
way. They could not seem to anticipate the needs or desires of the
American colonists. A prime example of this is coffee. Prior
to 1680, coffee was only available from North Africa. The city of
Mocha in Arabia stood alone as the world trade center. The Dutch,
in order to increase profits, established coffee plantations on the mountains
of Java. The early names for coffee, Mocha and Java, denote their
places of origin. The English company waited another sixty years
to establish a coffee plantation in their Jamaican colony, I suppose to
insure that coffee was not just a fad. Playing catch-up with the
Dutch East India Company was a way of life for the English company that
extended to the tea trade.
Tea, the leaves of a lowly bush grown all over
Asia, became the force that shaped nations, made individuals enormously
rich, and crumbled empires. Although tea was well known in the American
colonies, by the last half of the seventeenth century, it was not popular
because of its high cost.
Bohea tea was traded in large enough lots to be listed in the newspaper
at Philadelphia in 1720. The price: a whopping 24 shillings a pound
(Kalm 658). Constant high demand and stiff competition from the Dutch
drove the price down to six shillings six pence a box by 1749 (Kalm
670). The peak import year of 1768 saw a new low in the price of
tea at Philadelphia, a mere two shillings four pence per pound (Labree
333). Although coffee and chocolate were both available and affordable,
they never attained the almost mystical appeal of tea.
In stark contrast, the French American colonists
preferred chocolate and coffee. "I have never
seen tea used here," states Peter Kalm during his stay in Canada.
He further states that they do not consider it worth their while to send
money out of their country for it (473).
In just two generations, Philadelphians saw tea change from a
luxury to a necessity. By 1768, English, Swedish and Dutch Americans
were consuming three quarters of a pound of tea per capita (Labree 7).
Every man, woman, and child on average was consuming three and one half
Chinese cups (about three ounces per cup) of tea a day.
Starting in 1660, the tea tax roller coaster
kept the price of tea in a constant state of flux. The ups and downs
of the gallon tax, the stamp act, the 25% importation tax, and finally
the tea and window act of 1768, resulted in an artificially high price
for English tea. At Amsterdam, tea could be bought for 2 shillings
2 pence a pound and smuggled into Boston at a final cost of three shillings
per pound as Thomas Hancock did in 1754 (Labree 10). The equivalent
tea with all duties paid cost Boston merchants 4 shillings 1 pence.
One 450 pound chest (360 pounds net) of Bohea tea could garner the merchant-smuggler
almost £20 in extra profit. Thomas Hancock brought in fifteen
chests of Bohea tea in the aforementioned manner and after all expenses,
netted over £200 (Labree 100). It is no wonder, considering
the incentive, that over 90% of the 1.5 to 1.8 million pounds of tea consumed
annually was smuggled in by the Dutch and enterprising colonists (Labree
7). These estimates seem high. However, the estimates of those
on the scene are even higher as we see in this excerpt from a letter from
Messrs. Hutchinson of Boston dated 10 September, 1771:
"From a more particular estimate
of the consumption we are of the opinion, the two towns of Boston and Charleston
consume a chest, or about 340 pounds of tea, one day with another....In
this proportion, the consumption may be estimated at 19,200 chests per
annum, or upwards of six millions of pounds....Here we find the Dutch traders
continually gaining ground upon us. If teas do not fall with you
before the spring shippings, we fear the Dutch will carry away all the
trade of the Colonies in this article."
(Quoted in Drake 192-93)
An excerpt from a proposal by Gilbert Berkly to the East India Company
"This country is now become an object of
the highest consequence, peopled by about three millions of inhabitants,
one third of whom, at a moderate computation, drink tea twice a day...[this]
makes the yearly consumption of 5,703,125 lbs." (Quoted
in Drake 200)
On May 26, 1773, when this letter and proposal were sent to London,
Mr. Berkly did not know that the ill fated shipments of tea were already
in process. The point of these missives to the East India Company
was to make money for the writers. One cannot escape the conclusion
that they may have padded the estimates. The mark in their favor
is that they wrote these letters over eighteen months apart and from two
separate colonies. The calculations they compiled were amazingly
To placate the East India Company, in 1767, parliament
eliminated the 25% ad velorum tax on tea to be exported to the colonies.
But, in 1768, they passed the Townshend Act placing a three pence per pound
duty to be paid at the port of entry. Taking advantage of this, English
merchants shipped a record 868,792 pounds of tea to American ports.
At Boston it sold for a heretofore unheard of price of 1 shilling 9 pence
per pound (Labree 333). This caused an unprecedented upsurge in tea
consumption. If the adage "Everything that is good or fun must be
illegal, immoral, or fattening," is true it, could certainly be applied
to tea drinking in colonial America.
Moral indignation at having to pay taxes directly to English collectors
peaked along with tea consumption. Campaigns against English tea
popped up like bubbles in a rocky brook. The substitution of Labrador
tea for the English import was encouraged. A Boston newspaper
offered this verse:
Throw aside your Bohea and your green Hyson
And all things with a new fashioned duty;
Procure a good store of the choice Labrador
For there'll soon be enough here to suit
These do without fear, and to all you'll
Fair, charming, true, lovely, and clever;
Though the times remain darkish,
Young men may be sparkish,
And love you much stronger than ever.
(Quoted in Labree 27-28)
Another aspect of the tea mania was exhibited , as Labree reports:
"A Countryman, a periodical of the time, had
several reasons for supporting the anti-tea campaign. He told first
of a friend's family who consumed so much butter with its tea biscuits
that there was no longer enough to take to market.
'There is my daughters Jemma and Keziah' the friend noted, 'two hearty
trollops as any in town, forenoon and afternoon eat almost a peck of toast
with their tea, and they have learned me and their mother to join them,'
he ruefully admitted; 'and as for Jeremiah, he can hardly live without
it, a booby'" (29). Well, that takes care of
the immoral and fattening, and we've already accounted for the illegal
Because of the aforementioned propensity for smuggling,
it is extremely difficult to catalog the types of tea brought into the
American colonies. The only records kept with any regularity were
those of the English East India Company. The records we will use
are for 1773. One can only hope that after one hundred plus years
in the tea business, they would have figured out what was popular and would
sell. The shipping records are only the tip of the tea iceberg.
The black teas listed are:
Bohea 1586 chests
Congou 70 chests
Souchong 35 chests
Hyson 70 chests
Singlo 290 chests (Labree 335)
This shipment represented a last ditch effort by the East India Company
to clear out a vast surplus of tea in their warehouses. The urge
to speculate was so strong they could not resist. William Palmer
wrote in May, 1773 that one type of tea never exported to America should
be included: "...also and particularly Singlo tea, might be
introduced into America..." (Drake 190) The company agreed
and the records show the 290 chests in the above shipping list. The
reason for this speculation was stated by Palmer in a later proposal dated
August 5, 1773.
"As it would be a great object with the company to introduce,
if possible, the consumption of Singlo tea into America, that being a kind
of tea which spoils by age, much more than Bohea, and also that of which
they are much more considerable overloaded with...even to sell it in America,
at the quoted price of Bohea, by which means they might be relieved from
the disagreeable alternative of selling it here under prime cost....."
(Quoted in Drake 242, my emphasis)
The tea business in England itself was not good.
The Dutch were landing ships daily along remote beaches and off-loading
cargo. Sixty-six percent of the two pounds of tea consumed
per capita in England was smuggled (Twining 4). This loose tea,
or untaxed tea was causing the company great financial harm (Twining
22), thus the plan to dump huge quantities of cheap tea on the American
market. The Honorable East India Company's plan failed. The
tea was rejected or dumped and the stage for rebellion in the colonies
Bohea tea, pronounced
Boo-hee (Ukers 510), was by far the most popular tea. It was so popular,
that the word bohea became the slang term for tea. It consisted of
the scrap tea, broken orange pekoe, pekoe, and souchong dumped In a pile
and then sifted. The best was put in chests and the twigs, fannings
and dust were used to make brick and tablet tea, all of which was used
and sold under the generic name Bohea. The Cantonese preferred
brick tea, therefore we know it was both known and available to the tea
buyers at Canton..
Souchong tea is the largest
leaf tea. It has less caffeine than the others. This tea is
smoked like other black tea, but seems to retain the smoky flavor more
than others, apparently because of the larger leaf area that is not rolled
Congou tea is
the highest quality black tea. The leaves are twisted for curing.
Congou is pronounced Kung-foo according to Thomas Wu, a California tea
dealer. The Keemun Congou is the original English breakfast tea.
It requires the hands of a master (kung fu) to cure this tea properly.
Young Hyson tea is the most desirable
green tea and is the first picking in the spring before the monsoon rains.
Pinhead gunpowder is Young Hyson rolled into pellets by the picker.
Singlo tea is a later picking of larger leaves and cured green.
Gunpowder is Singlo rolled by hand into pellets and cured.
All Chinese teas that were available at Canton
during the eighteenth century are available now. However. some names
have been changed, and a little research is required to identify them.
Curtis, Julia B. "Chinese Export Porcelain in Eighteenth Century
Tidewater Virginia" Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture
17 (1987) 119-44.
Drake, Francis S. "Tea Leaves: Being a Collection of
Letters and Documents Relating to the Shipment of Tea to the American
Colonies in the Year 1773, by the East India Tea Company"
1884. Detroit: Singing Tree, 1970.
Kalm, Peter. " Peter Kalm's Travels in North America: The English
Version of 1770" Ed. Adolph Benson. 1937. New
York: Dover, 1987.
Labree, Benjamin. " The Boston Tea Party" New York: Oxford
Martin, R. Montgomery. "The Past and Present State (of the)
Tea Trade of England (and of the) Continents of Europe and America;
and a Comparison Between the Consumption; Price of, and Revenue Derived
from Tea, Coffee, Sugar, Wine, Tobacco, Spirits, Etc." London:
Parbury, Allen & Co., 1832.
Twining, Richard. "Observations on the Tea and Window Act and
on the Tea Trade" London: T. Cadell, 1784.
Ukers, William H. "All About Tea Vol. 2 of 2"
New York: Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Co., 1935.