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Tea Gains Popularity in Europe

By the middle of the seventeenth century, tea became increasingly available in England, and in 1658 British coffee house proprietor Thomas Garway advertised the availability of an exotic "Chinean" tea. Little was known about this bizarre tea, or "tay" as it was often pronounced, except that it was highly valued by the Chinese for its medicinal and restorative properties. The European Scientific Revolution had just begun, so for a continent still firmly gripped by superstition and ineffective medical practices, tea's reputation as a medicinal was met with great interest.

A few years later, no doubt in an attempt to increase sales and take advantage of the prevailing superstition, Garway and others began to promote tea as beneficial for a long list of ailments. While some doctors and writers enthusiastically proclaimed tea's effectiveness against a dazzling array of ills, others just as emphatically voiced dire warnings that it was a dangerous beverage that would lead to an early death or cause innumerable other ills.

Yet, in the absence of solid evidence one way or the other, the use of tea grew -- however haltingly. In 1669, the English East India Tea Company imported only 143 1/2 pounds of China tea; yet even nine years later, a shipment of merely 4717 pounds satisfied the English market for several years. With a pound of tea selling for roughly a month's wages, the demand among average workers was nonexistent. Still, tea continued to make headway, and by 1717 Thomas Twining found that it could be profitable and opened an establishment devoted strictly to tea.

Worldwide demand for China tea continued to grow steadily as the product became more affordable, and largely due to the efforts of the English East India Company, England became one of the biggest importers of tea -- with annual imports reaching 32 million pounds by 1834. This booming popularity of tea created a serious economic problem for the English market. Until well into the nineteenth century, the Chinese held a near monopoly on the tea market, and they well-understood the considerable advantages of having a commodity that everyone wanted. While China was experiencing an unprecedented demand for her silk, bone china, and tea, the Europeans had little that the Chinese wanted in return trade -- except silver.

Ultimately though, the British could not afford to have their state coffers depleted to satisfy what was fast becoming the national craving for tea. In an attempt to cultivate a product that would be equally desirable to the Chinese, the British began to expand their opium production in India with the ultimate goal of selling the addictive drug to Chinese merchants. Although not officially sanctioned by the British government, the opium trade was generally overlooked by those in power, and soon China was at the mercy of her own opium-addicted population.

In an effort to further protect herself from the corrupting, barbaric influences of England, China chose not to renew its trade agreement in 1833, and it was only a matter of time before conflict ignited. In 1839, the Chinese destroyed a shipment of British opium destined for port, and the infamous Opium Wars erupted.

For three long years, the two proud nations fought to protect their own national interests -- China desperately struggling to defend her conservative heritage in the face of encroaching Western ways and England fighting for the principles of free trade and mercantile capitalism. The treaty following Britain's siege on Nanking left China wide open for European merchants. Trading centers were developed, with guaranteed protection to the English, at Canton, Amoy, Foochow-fu, Ningpo, and Shanghai. England had successfully created a trade route with the unwilling Chinese.

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