There are many strands to the saga of tea. One of these defies the popular notion that the English introduced Europe to tea. For, while they certainly created a culture and an industry, the credit should go to the Dutch—Portugal comes a close second. Or, as tea buff Peter Keen says, “Shakespeare never drank tea!”—tea arrived in England in the 1660s, while Shakespeare died in 1616. The first tea import by the Dutch was in 1606—from Japan, not China. The Dutch East India Company, or the VOC, was founded in 1602, soon after the British East India Company (EIC). It set up bases across Asia, with local trading units to facilitate the tea and spice trades. The Dutch monopoly lasted through the 17th century. In fact, historian Brian Goodman writes that in 1684, the Dutch set up tea farms in Java, Indonesia, using Japanese seeds. The Dutch colonies—Java, the Moluccas (Indonesia) and parts of Ceylon (Sri Lanka)—gave them access to some of the best spices. This ensured a significant advantage in trade with the Chinese—for they did not have to part with silver or gold reserves.
In 1661, the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza married England King Charles II, bringing with her a dowry that included Bombay, and a casket of Chinese tea. Tea, though available in England, was taxed prohibitively. The Dutch began to smuggle tea to England to evade the taxes. At one time, 60% of the VOC’s cargo would be spices. In the 1700s, nearly 70% of it was tea. Inns and taverns in Holland began serving tea. They also created the Delft ceramic ware, their version of porcelain inspired by Chinese tea ware.
By 1784, England’s tea tax had fallen from over 100% to a more reasonable 12.5%. One reason could be excess stock. And in the 1800s, the EIC caught up, soon becoming the biggest importer of tea from China, with a home market that was lapping it up. The Dutch lost out. They suffered in reputation for the poor quality of tea they sold. They lost their exclusive purchasing rights with China. Increasing competition in trade, the Anglo-Dutch wars…a host of factors contributed to their losing the first-mover advantage. The spotlight turned on the English, who went on to create an entire alternative industry in their colonies.
There is, however, one remnant from the Dutch days you may recognise: Orange Pekoe, or OP, a basic whole-leaf grade. The name references the House of Orange, from a time when the merchants sold their tea as “orange pekoe”, hinting at the Dutch royal stamp of approval.
Pickwick, Holland’s most famous tea, is a Dutch brand so named to sound English, for better sales.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.