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The First Mention of Tea by an Englishman

The earliest mention of tea —as “chaw”—by an Englishman is the famous Wickham letter of 1615.

The letter was found in a set of old records entitled Japan Miscellanies, consisting of copies of letters from Richard Wickham, the East India Company’s factor at Hirado (Japan’s only port of trade to the world located in Nagasaki Prefecture).

Wickham went first to the Indies as a factor aboard the Union in 1608. At Zanzibar, he was captured by the natives and handed over to the Portuguese who carried him to Goa where he met the traveler Francoise Pyard. In 1610, Wickham, with other European captives, was sent to Portugal before finding his way back to England. Ever the adventurous soul, he offered his services to Captain John Saris and soon made his way back to Hirado.

His letter book during a portion of his service there, 1614-16, is still preserved among the India Office records. Wickham left Japan in 1618 for Bantam, later going to Jakarta where he died.

Dutch port of Jakarta in the early 1600s
Dutch port of Jakarta in the early 1600s

In his letter of June 27, 1615 to Mr. Eaton, the company’s agent at the Portuguese trading post in Macao (China), Wickham wrote:

Mr. Eaton, I pray you buy for me a pot of the best sort of chaw [cha, or tea] in Meaco [Macao], 2 Fairebowes and Arrowes, some half a dozen of Meaco guilt boxes square for to put in to bark [barque, or sailing vessel] and whatsoever they cost you I will be alsoe willing accountable for them.  Vale, yors. R. W.

At the time, tea could only be procured from China. It was a very precious thing: a “treasure of the world” which appeared occasionally among the lists of gifts to sovereigns, to princes, and the nobility. The British East India Company appears to have been slow to appreciate its commercial aspects.

While the Dutch were busy promoting its introduction and sale on the Continent, and were selling it to London coffee-houses (1658) where it retailed at the considerable price of 16 to 50 shillings per pound, the British agents were neglectful of the considerable profits to be made by direct import. This missed opportunity can be explained by the Dutch trading and naval supremacy in the Far East.

Catherine of Braganza, Portuguese wife of Charles II
Catherine of Braganza, Portuguese wife of Charles II

The first mention of tea by the British East India Company finally came in 1664 when 2lb. 2oz. of “good thea” were purchased from Thomas Winter for presentation to Charles II.

Being a good suitor, the King transferred the rare gift to his Queen Consort, Catherine of Braganza, an ardent devotee of tea.

It was the beginning of Britain’s long love affair with the world’s most popular beverage.

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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