Continued from An Empire Brewed From Tea Leaves – Part 1

Tea was in demand everywhere as soon as it was introduced, Europe or America, Indians or Laplanders, commoners or quality, but England’s thirst for tea surpassed the rest. The first quantum leap in demand came after 1720 and has been linked to England’s expanding imports of sugar from the Caribbean. In 1730 John Company imported over a million pounds of tea, four times more than a decade before, and realized profits in excess of one million pounds sterling. In 1760 tea imports reached almost three million pounds; in 1770, nine million. By 1801, England had thirty thousand wholesale or retail dealers in tea and the English were annually consuming two and one-half pounds of tea (and seventeen pounds of sugar) per capita. Tea thus became the Company’s most profitable commodity by far and the value of the trade the Company conducted on its fifty yards of waterfront in Canton surpassed its revenue from the whole of India.

The ships which made possible such wealth and which connected this maritime empire were constructed to be both fortresses and floating warehouses. Up to the end of the 1700’s the Company built its ships deep and wide not only to maximize cargo space but also to evade certain tax assessments. This “tea waggon” plowed through the water with a sickening lurch and at such slow speed that the round-trip to China required almost a year. Conditions on board were not the least of the hazards facing the thousand or more passengers who each year set out from England aboard such ships to tend to the business of the East India Company in Asia, packed like so many sardines amidst cargo, arms and provisions for the ship. By 1790 the Company was replacing and enlarging its 120-ship fleet with vessels which could stow almost twice as much cargo. That their lines and rigging virtually matched those of a seventy-four gun warship often proved useful in the twenty-three year contest with France to follow. The most famous case was in 1804.

Concluded in An Empire Brewed From Tea Leaves – Part 3