In the early 1700s, the passage from Canton to London of the first consignments of tea was complicated and protracted. Farmers all over China grew tea as one of various crops on their small land holdings. The first two spring pickings of the season yielded the best quality and were mainly exported. Third and fourth pluckings from the later summer months were generally kept for home consumption. The so-named “smallholders” sold their tea to local dealers who sampled them and put together a “chop” of roughly 620-630 chests.
These “chops” were then transported across mountains by coolies to wholesale centers (shown below) where dealers from China and Europe gathered to select the teas they wanted. From here the tea was shipped in canal boats on a highly developed system of inland waterways down to the main port at Canton, 40 miles inland from Hong Kong on the River Zhujiang.
The journey from the remote mountain areas where the tea was produced could take at least six weeks and could span up to 1,200 miles. Hot sun and downpours of rain could easily destroy the tea, and sometimes the entire year’s crop was lost due to such adverse conditions. By September, the spring teas had usually arrived in the ports, where a second selection process took place, with agents acting for the various European companies.