Tea’s Journey from Canton to London – and beyond

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.

DUTCH EAST INDIAMANThe East Indiamen (as the Company’s ships were called) set sail with their cargoes of tea, silk, spices and porcelain in January, reaching London the following winter or spring. The teas that were eventually sold in 17th century London were never less than 18-24 months old. By the time they arrived in Boston, the East India Company’s Chinese teas were three or four years-old!

From the days of the earliest shipments, both black and green teas were imported. At first all types were referred to by one of three names: “tea” or “tee,” derived from the Amoy dialect word te and adopted by the Dutch traders who had regular contact with Chinese merchants from Amoy. “Cha” is the Cantonese and Mandarin word, used by the Portuguese who traded out of Macao and by any other traders who came into contact with Cantonese- or Mandarin-speaking Chinese.

bohea tea pot“Bohea” was quickly adopted for black tea, named after the Wu-yi mountains where black tea was and still is produced. By the 1700s, customers were being offered 20 or so different types, each of which had its own name.

To help the public understand what they were buying, merchants often published explanations of the goods available. In 1699, John Ovington, Chaplain to King William III, wrote his Essay upon the Nature and Qualities of Tea, in which he described the different sorts and the way in which they were transported:

The first Sort is Bohea, or as the Chinese have it, Voui, which is the little Leaf inclining to black and generally tinges the Water brown, or of a reddish colour. Those in China that are sick, or are very careful of preserving their Health, if they are weak, confine themselves only to this kind of Tea … The second Sort is Singlo, or Soumlo with the Chinese; of which there are several kinds, according to the place of Growth, the manner of preparing it, and the Nature of the Tea. One of them is narrow and long Leaf. The other smaller, and of a blewish green colour, which tastes very crisp when it is chaw’d … And will endure the Change of Water three or four times. This Tea is brought over in round Totaneg [a kind of metal brought from China] canisters pasted over with paper and inclos’d on a wooden Tub … The third Sort is Bing, or Imperial Tea. This is a large loose Leaf … ‘tis highly esteem’d likewise in China, being sold there at three times the price of the other two. This likewise, as the others, is imported in large thick Totaneg Canisters included in wooden Tubs, or in Baskets made of small Bamboo canes.

Read more about about the story of tea in A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson (2014 Benjamin Press).

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