Tea Smuggling

Throughout the 1700s, consumers found ways to avoid the heavy taxes and duties levied on popular products. A complex network of smuggling brought untaxed supplies into Britain. Fishermen’s boots were filled with gloves and jewelry, women’s petticoats were padded out with lace and silk stockings, hollow loaves of bread concealed amber and more lace, sailcloth was furled around tobacco and rolls of silk. Tea was high on the list of these smuggled desirables.

Rigging Out a Smuggler, an 1810 illustration by Thomas Rowlandson, shows the practice of concealing contraband around the person: the comely lady has a barrel of cognac and panniers of tea, and a bottle of perfume wedged firmly between her breasts.

Rigging Out a Smuggler, an 1810 illustration by Thomas Rowlandson, shows the practice of concealing contraband around the person: the comely lady has a barrel of cognac and panniers of tea, and a bottle of perfume wedged firmly between her breasts.

Illegal tea, originating mostly from the Dutch East Indies, was landed along the southern coast of England, divided up and wrapped in oilskin bags ready to be loaded on to pack horses and carts. If no immediate transport was available, it was concealed under hedges and bushes to await later collection.

The illicit trade encompassed not just criminals and petty thieves but respected members of society who, even if not actually involved in the smuggling, concealing and distribution of the tea, certainly bought the untaxed leaf. The Rev. James Woodforde recorded in his diary for March 29, 1777,  “Andrews the smuggler brought me this night about 11 o’clock a bagg of Hyson Tea. He frightened us a little by whistling under the Parlour Window just as we were going to bed. I gave him some gin and paid him for the tea.”

In his Observations on the Tea & Window Act and on the Tea Trade, 1784, Richard Twining commented that “the smuggler has become so formidable a rival [to the East India Company], that, upon the most moderate computation, they shared the Tea-trade equally between them; and according to some calculations, the smuggler had two thirds of it.”

Americans as well found ways to avoid the high cost of British tea. For the year 1770, only 147 pounds of legal tea entered the port of New York, and a paltry 65 pounds were logged through the port of Philadelphia. Bostonians, however, were never able to establish consistent smuggling routes to Holland, and they found it hard to swear off their tea drinking habits. Also, two dominant mercantile houses, Richard Clarke & Sons and the partnership of Thomas & Elisha Hutchinson, sons of Governor Thomas Hutchinson, were loyal to the Crown and imported a combined 50,000 pounds of dutied teas that year.

 

Excerpt from A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson, (Benjamin Press, November 2013)

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