In the last blog we looked at the origins of tea (spoiler: it came from China and then travelled to India) and how we went from a 2700BC botanist having leaves fall in his hot water, to those in the UK enjoying their morning cuppa. In this blog I’m going to be sharing stories about dastardly adventures on the high seas and the extent 18th century Britons went to for a cup of tea.
Tea in 18th Century Britain was popular but very expensive, thanks to the monopoly on imports that the merchants of the East India Company had created to keep prices kept artificially high and protect their profits. The UK government had also imposed a high level of duty – which is turn created a huge demand from the British public for cheaper tea.
And what happens when there’s demand and no legal way of acquiring that item at a cheap price? Illegal happenings, that’s what! Enter the booming trade in smuggled tea.
Tea leaves in the early years
During the 18th Century, tea began to arrive in the UK in an illegal way. It was not imported by the East India Company, and it did not pass through customs, instead it was smuggled among other imports and sold on the black market at lower prices. Being light and easy to transport, tea became a very profitable commodity to smuggle – even more so than rum and brandy, and business was booming. Yes, it was illegal, but the smugglers had the support of millions of people who put their tea addiction before their morals. Ironically, the East India Company (whose business was greatly affected by this) also unwittingly facilitated the smuggling by allowing their ship’s officers to have a certain amount of space onboard for their private trade. It goes without saying that many of these officers seized the opportunity to make a big bundle of money on the side by taking tea back and selling it on to dodgy traders as soon as they docked.
Tea smuggling became so popular it reached peaks of 4 – 7.5 million lbs of tea entering the UK illegally. Significantly more than was brought in legally!
By the 1780s, tea smuggling was such a huge business that the unknown author of a pamphlet on the subject declared that outside of the cities thousands of men were choosing to work for smugglers instead of taking up local and respectable jobs. This began to affect the entire economy. The pamphlet declared that: ‘Thousands… who would otherwise be employed in fishing, agriculture etc, to the emolument of this kingdom are now supported in drunkenness, rioting, and debauchery by their iniquitous traffic; – a traffic obviously productive of so numerous a train of evils, that prudence, common honesty, decency, order, and civil government, unitedly cry out for redress.´
The government had to do something about all this crazy tea smuggling. They soon realised the only way to tackle the national problem of tea smuggling was to reduce the duty paid on it and make tea cheaper and more accessible – legally!
Now we can all enjoy a lovely cup of tea at a decent price. So well done smugglers for making that happen so the British public can have a steaming brew with their evening biscuit without breaking the bank!
For high quality, yet affordable, tea take a look at our new online shop. Leafy Bean loose-leaf teas are all fair-trade, using sustainable packaging, and arrived in the UK in a totally boring legal way. But you are more than welcome to dress up as a pirate while sipping it.