England entered the 17th century with little influence on Continental Europe, to say the least. "The Channel kept them at a distance from the rest of Europe, and the rest of Europe was not sorry."* The Portuguese, the Dutch and the Spanish had developed trade with the East during the 16th century, well before the English. Over the next three centuries the English would surprise the rest of the world with their boldness and entrepreneurship. Many factors would come into play, each of which was significant in its own way.
The English East India Company was founded at the beginning of the 17th century and would quickly become the most powerful trading conglomerate in the history of the world. Tea would be one of their most important products. Sea transportation would be revolutionized, as the lumbering East Indiamen (which originally took as long as three years for a round trip voyage) were replaced by the great China Clippers of the 19th century. Rapid transportation of tea was the primary motivator for this development. Some of the greatest sailing dramas of all time involved tea clippers, loaded with newly harvested teas, competing to reach the London market ahead of the competition. Without improved navigation the tea clippers would have been unable to make their historic journeys.
Astronomers and clock makers of London and Greenwich, England played a central role in solving the problem of determining longitude at sea, thereby enabling direct navigation from one point on the earth to another, rather than simply following the coastline of known territories. The significance of this later achievement would earn England the rights to the Prime Meridian forever. It was as significant an accomplishment, and just as challenging, as reaching the moon would prove to be two centuries later. An interesting account of the efforts to solve the problem of determining longitude at sea can be found in Dava Sobel's book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.
The combination of entrepreneurship, advanced transportation, and simple navigation would all come together to make the British Empire a world force which at its height was greater in power and wealth than any previous or since. At its peak, the British Empire would include one fourth of the world. This was also the era of British tea trade.
Some significant changes have taken place since Tea Revives the World was produced. Kenya, which was just beginning to grow tea in the early twentieth century, is now one of the largest exporting countries. Soviet Georgia would become a major tea source, only to be devastated a few decades later by concerns over radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Today, sea transportation is still used for the vast majority of all tea shipments. However, many of the best lots of tea are shipped by air to minimize exposure to hostile conditions and to speed delivery. It is now possible to drink first flush Darjeeling teas within a few days of production.
In 1940, when air travel was a luxury that few could afford, MacDonald Gill recorded that "4 o'clock TEA is served on the cross-continental airlines"...
References *Brian Gardner. The East India Company. New York: The McCall Publishing Company, 1971. p. 20.
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