“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” (Henry James)
According to legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water, when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, and the resulting drink was what we now call tea.
Containers for tea have been found in tombs dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) but it was under the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), that tea became firmly established as the national drink of China.
It became such a favorite that during the late eighth century a writer called Lu Yu wrote the first book entirely about tea, the Ch’a Ching, or Tea Classic. It was shortly after this that tea was first introduced to Japan, by Japanese Buddhist monks who had travelled to China to study.
Tea drinking has become a vital part of Japanese culture, as seen in the development of the Tea Ceremony, which may be rooted in the rituals described in the Ch’a Ching. (UK Tea)
The world began to learn of China’s tea secret in the early 1600s, when Dutch traders started bringing it to Europe in large quantities. With regular shipment to parts of Europe by 1610, tea first arrived in Britain in the 1650s, when it was served as a novelty in London’s coffee houses.
Back then, tea was a rare drink that very few consumed. The famous diarist Samuel Pepys wrote about his first tea experience, and the first written reference to tea drinking in England.
On September 25, 1660, Pepys was called to the meeting to discuss peace with Spain; he noted, “And afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drank before, and went away”. (BBC)
Tea was slow to catch on in England.
However, it may have been the wife of King Charles II, two years later, who popularized tea in the UK. In 1662, Charles II, the newly restored monarch, married Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of Portugal’s King John IV. She became Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Upon arriving in Portsmouth on May 14, 1662 ahead of her marriage to the king, Catherine asked for a cup of tea. Tea had arrived by this point, but it was rare for anyone to drink it, so none was available – instead, she was offered a small ale. She was already a regular tea drinker, as the drink was already a popular beverage among the aristocracy of Portugal.
The king and queen got married on May 14, and Portugal provided several ships of luxury items as it had been agreed. One of those items included a chest of tea, the favorite drink of the Portuguese Court.
Catherine popularized the drink among British nobility, and subsequently to the wealthier members of society. The invasion of tea in the country had well and truly started. (BBC)
OK; so, how does this relate to Hawai‘i?
Beginning well before 1600, the North American fur trade was the earliest global economic enterprise. Europeans and, later, Canadians and Americans, hunted and trapped furs; but success mandated that traders cultivate and maintain dense trade and alliance networks with Native nations.
Within ten years after Captain Cook’s 1778 contact with Hawai‘i, the islands became a favorite port of call in the trade with China. The fur traders and merchant ships crossing the Pacific needed to replenish food supplies and water.
The maritime fur trade focused on acquiring furs of sea otters, seals and other animals from the Pacific Northwest Coast and Alaska. The furs were mostly sold in China in exchange for silks, porcelain, other Chinese goods … and Tea, which were then sold in Europe and the US.
The East India Company was perhaps the most powerful commercial organization that the world has ever seen. In its heyday it not only had a monopoly on British trade with India and the Far East, but it was also responsible for the government of much of the vast Indian sub-continent.
Both of these factors mean that the East India Company (or, to call it by its proper name, the British East India Company) was crucial to the history of the tea trade. (UK Tea)
After acquiring the “Louisiana Purchase” in 1803, under the directive of President Thomas Jefferson, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the “Corps of Discovery Expedition” (1804–1806), was the first transcontinental expedition to the Pacific coast undertaken by the United States.
Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was a fur trading company that started in Canada in 1670; its first century of operation found HBC firmly focused in a few forts and posts around the shores of James and Hudson Bays, Central Canada.
Fast forward 150-years and in 1821, HBC merged with North West Company, its competitor; the resulting enterprise now spanned the continent – all the way to the Pacific Northwest (modern-day Oregon, Washington and British Columbia) and the North (Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.)
Fur traders working for the HBC traveled an area of more than 700,000 square miles that stretched from Russian Alaska to Mexican California and from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
Ships sailed from London around Cape Horn around South America and then to forts and posts along the Pacific Coast via the Hawaiian Islands. Trappers crossing overland faced a journey of 2,000 miles that took three months.
Traders, in order to obtain the wherewithal to purchase teas and silks at Canton, spent 18-months or more of each China voyage collecting a cargo of sea-otter skins, highly esteemed by the Chinese.
Needing supplies in their journey, the traders soon realized they could economically barter for provisions in Hawai‘i; for instance any type of iron, a common nail, chisel or knife, could fetch far more fresh fruit meat and water than a large sum of money would in other ports.
A triangular trade network emerged linking the Pacific Northwest coast, China and the Hawaiian Islands to Britain and the United States (especially New England).
Practically every vessel that visited the North Pacific in the closing years of the 18th century stopped at Hawai‘i to replenish supplies, refreshment and recreation.
Fur trading on the coast remained profitable from the 1780s into the 1820s, but the successful trade in furs depended entirely on the locale. Some parts of the coast, such as Nootka Sound and Clayoquot Sound, witnessed a complete collapse of the sea otter population after only a decade of intense hunting. (Igler)