Previous in series: Tuesdays With Norwood: Border Tea – Part 2

The love of tea is a glad source of fellow-feeling between the Englishman and the Asiatic; in Persia it is drunk by all, and although it is a luxury that is rarely within the reach of the Osmanlis [Ottoman subjects], there are few of them who do not know and love the blessed tchai. Our camp-kettle, filled from the brook, hummed doubtfully for a while, then busily bubbled under the sidelong glare of the flames; cups clinked and rattled, the fragrant steam ascended, and soon this little circlet in the wilderness grew warm and genial as my lady’s drawing-room.

-Alexander Kinglake, the father of travel writing, in Eothen, his account of an 1835 caravan trip through Syria and Palestine

Apart from a stray Marco Polo or so, very few Occidentals and Orientals had ever met face to face before Vasco da Gama of Portugal sailed around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and reached India in 1498. True, the first Europeans to trade with the Chinese were the Romans, even though this trade was carried on indirectly via Persian and other middlemen. One theory blames Rome’s decline and fall on the constant flow of Roman gold over the caravan routes to China in exchange for silks. But it was some twenty years after da Gama’s voyage that, for the first time, a European vessel stood off the coast of China. The ship was Portuguese and was over fifteen thousand sea miles and almost two years’ sail from home. To return, her captain had to find his way through a maze of uncharted rocks, shoals, and islands, cross the Indian Ocean, beat his way back around the Cape into the Atlantic, and then face a still-considerable voyage to Lisbon, all in a small, square-rigged ship that was hard to handle under the best of circumstances and absolutely helpless in a storm or against a headwind.

Since there was no question of sailing so far without places to put in for repairs and fresh supplies, the Portuguese’ first order of business was to find in China a base like those they had es­tablished in Africa and India. In sign language, one supposes, permission was denied. The Chinese authorities greeted these yang-kuei-tze or “foreign devils” (what a name for the courteous Portuguese!) with the suspicion and disdain they reserved for all outsiders. But if East and West did not exactly meet, at least they’d made contact-and somehow the Portuguese maintained that contact.

The Portuguese carried on a sort of buccaneering trade up and down the coast of China for forty years, until the Ming emperor finally relented and granted them a legal port of entry and base of operations, a rocky peninsula about three miles long that jutted off an island in the Pearl River delta, some miles down river from the major port of Canton. In 1557

A weed from Catholic Europe took root
Between the yellow mountains and the sea
and grew on China imperceptibly

as W.H. Auden said of Macao, which Portugal was to hold until the year 1999. There the Emperor hoped at least to receive the import and export duties he was losing otherwise, while keeping the “foreign devils” under the Ming thumb. They traded there, not for tea, but for the silks, brocades and velvets, the exotic wares and condiments to season food and drink that the European up­per classes had hitherto received, when at all, through Venice. When Portugal received the exclusive right to trade in Macao in 1557, the Venetian connection was doomed. More and more oriental products were shipped to Lisbon whence they were transported to the ports of France, Holland, and the Baltic mainly by the Dutch. After almost fifty years of this commerce, Dutch ships also ventured East.

To be concluded in Tuesdays With Norwood: Rumors of Tea – Part 2