The other day, I was thinking about how much tea is loved in the West. Having lived in the UK a number of years ago, I completely understood the British craze for this beverage. It was just a given – kind of like in Asia where tea is just part of everyday life. So, I began to wonder when it became a staple in the West. I had assumed the British were responsible for it – well, that assumption was roundly trounced as I started tracing the journey of tea to the Western Hemisphere.
Apparently, it really wasn’t until the 9th century that there were vague references made to tea drinking. It did not gain popularity until the 17th century when global trade took off. Like I mentioned, most everybody knows about the British love of tea and that would require a whole blog post on all its own, which will come in due course. Anyway, back to the legend of tea tracking to the West.
The first traceable but brief mentions of tea began in the latter half of the sixteenth century as a drink among Europeans. These are thought to be mostly through the Portuguese who were living in the East as traders and missionaries. It could be that a few of these individuals may have brought back samples of tea to their native country. However, it was not the Portuguese who are recognized for introducing tea into Europe as a commercial import.
Believe it or not, this recognition belongs to the Dutch, which at the time were also known as the world’s most successful seafaring nation. The then all-powerful Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602 and is widely known as the first corporation in the history of the world. While they conquered the seas, they also ventured East into Asia and colonized quite a few places along the way. In the latter years of the sixteenth century, the Dutch decided to encroach on Portuguese trading routes in the East.
Why not, the Dutch thought? All is fair in business and trade – today, we call it competition or breaking up a monopoly. You can well imagine that it would have caused quite a kerfuffle and it probably didn’t go down too well with the Portuguese, but that’s another history lesson altogether.
The Dutch wanted in on a lucrative trade and got into the act, using their ships to bring tea not only to their own country but also to France and the Baltic countries. By the turn of the century, the Dutch established a trading post on the island of Java (Indonesia), and it is said that in 1606, the first consignment of tea was shipped from China to Holland. As we saw with the Chinese and Japanese, the taste likely appealed to the Dutch and tea soon became a fashionable drink among them – unfortunately only the noble and wealthy could afford it.
Historical accounts suggest that the traders who bought the tea into the country presented it to the House of Orange and called it “pecco”. It is said, the word originates in Amoy (Xiamen) and is of local dialect meaning tea in China called peh-ho (“white down”). So, the name “Orange Pekoe,” was born and with it all the grandeur of being a “royal” tea. And to date, this distinctive tea called Orange-Pekoe, named for the Dutch Royal House of Orange, remains well known and still a much-loved drink today.
Then there is New Amsterdam, a.k.a New York. Yes, I kid you not – way back when, it was a Dutch colony. If that hasn’t turned your head a bit, this is another little nugget I unearthed. Americans were drinking tea way before the British did but more importantly, New Yorkers were the first to drink it. Some historians believe that Peter Stuyvesant brought tea with him in 1647 when he was appointed governor of New Amsterdam (now known as New York). In the 17th century the fine people of New York enjoyed both Japanese green and Chinese black teas. Even so, tea was still considered as pricey at this time due to the expense of bringing it on ships from the tea merchants in China to market in Europe.
As history notes, in 1664, New Amsterdam surrendered to the English, and the Dutch 'thee' became English 'tee' or 'tea'. It was at this time that the colony was named New York to honor of James, Duke of York, brother of King Charles II. Queens. New York’s largest borough was named for Catherine of Braganza, Charles' Portuguese bride, who was England's first tea-drinking queen. Affluent New Yorkers - Dutch and British - drank tea twice a day, and tea parties with Dutch 'koeckjes' (cookies) grew popular and became a form of entertainment.
We all heard about the infamous Boston Tea Party, but New York had one too. On April 22, 1774, the city hosted its most famous tea party - it is on that day that eighteen chests of that "pernicious British herb" was tossed into New York harbor to protest the tax on tea. Who would have thought the tax on tea would be a harbinger that changed history.
Although tea drinking was considered unpatriotic during the Revolutionary War years, the trend for tea drinking continued. It is said that George Washington enjoyed tea so much he drank at least three cups a day at breakfast. This isn’t such a far reach to believe as his household inventory recorded several sets of Chinese and Wedgwood teaware.
Eighteenth-century New York is said to have had a hundred tea establishments. Gardens, named Ranelagh and Vauxhall after their London counterparts, began to spring up sprang up around the Lower East Side and the Bowery. Here, city sophisticates could stroll through leafy glades, flirt, or sit to sip tea. What a time it must have been.
Although an English-style afternoon tea is among the oldest of New York's tea traditions, it has evolved over time. Today, in the East Village neighborhood once home to Peter Stuyvesant's farm, it is possible to sip Japanese matcha, Moroccan mint, Tibetan bocha, and Taiwanese bubble tea. Within the last 10 years a new generation of teahouses has emerged, amidst all the metropolitan din and breathless pace of life. there is an acknowledged need for spaces where people can slow down and enjoy quiet moments as they indulge in a meditative tea experience – try it and you might just find the world in your teacup.