Continued from Tuesdays With Norwood: John Company – Part Two

By 1600 around two hundred ships had sailed from Europe for the Far East and perhaps half of them had returned. The Portuguese had secured way stations or factories from Angola in Africa to Goa in India and beyond, while the Dutch held anchorages on the Cape of Good Hope, Sri Lanka, Java and Taiwan. At the very time Europeans were penetrating distant parts of the globe, Asia was turning its back on the world. The Ming emperors transferred China’s capital from Nanjing back to Beijing, much further north, and fostered the myth that China was self-sufficient, lacking nothing. In 1521 overseas trade by subjects of the emperor was declared illegal. These attitudes and laws were little altered after the Manchu established their Qing dynasty in 1644. Three years earlier in 1641 the Japanese, exasperated by these foreigners with their pesky Christianity, had cut off all contact with both Protestant Dutch and Catholic Portuguese, except for a few Dutchmen tolerated on an island called Hirado opposite Nagasaki. On this island a John Company “factor” (head of a “factory,” what else?) had become the first English tea drinker of record, writing a colleague in Macao in 1615, the year before Shakespeare’s death, for a “pot of the best sort of chaw.” (Inexplicable that a man stationed in Japan would not have simply asked the innumerable native tea drinkers for some!) In unscrupulousness as in all else, the English were perfectly prepared to vie with their European rivals. And from this point onward the small print of the history of tea relates a tale of savage conflict and bloodshed, vast and powerful conspiracies, globe-girdling greed and great ingenuity, all harnessed to our harmless pleasure of drinking tea.

Read next: Tuesdays With Norwood: Tea Reaches England At Last – Part One