Unseen Passage: Britain and Tea

Britain’s first taste of tea was belated – the Chinese had been drinking it for 2,000 years. The English diarist, Samuel Pepys, mentions tea in his diary entry from September 25, 1600. “Tcha,” wrote Pepys, the “excellent and by all Physicians approved, China drink,” was sold in England from 1635, for prices as high as £6 to £10 per pound of the herb (£600 to £1,000, today). In 1662, when King Charles II married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, her dowry constituted a chest of tea, and the island of Bombay for an annual lease of £10, equivalent then to the cost of a pound of tea in England. Catherine, who was used to drinking tea in the Portuguese court, had her first sip of the beverage in England in May 1662 – the month of her wedding – at Portsmouth.

In the 18th century, Dutch firm J.J. Voute & Sons ruthlessly exploited the incapacity of the English East India Company to supply tea to Britain’s thriving domestic elites and coffee houses, smuggling about eight million pounds of tea, annually. Yet, Dutch tea soon became a “name for all teas that are bad in quality and unfit for use.” Meanwhile, the English company began strengthening its commercial ties with China, as Bombay turned into the seed of British India’s commerce, escalating all other European – especially Portuguese and Dutch – operations.

However, with resources depleted due to the Anglo-Dutch wars, by the 18th century, the English were unable to afford the silver that China demanded for continuing trade with Britain. To counter smuggled tea, on the one hand, and the increasing Chinese demand for silver on the other, the British responded by growing opium in India – largely in Bengal, Patna, Benares and the Malwa plateau – and smuggling it into China, in exchange for their beloved beverage.

Still, British tea cultivators were extremely anxious to have Chinese tea and techniques brought to India. In 1788, The Royal Society of Arts began deliberating on the idea of transplanting saplings from China. Then, in 1824, tea saplings were discovered in Assam by Robert Bruce and Maniram Dewan. Tea plantations later expanded across Assam and Darjeeling. In a 19th century lecture to the Royal Society, it was noted that around this time, carpenters and shoemakers from Chinese settlements in Calcutta were being sent up to Darjeeling or Assam, “presumably on the belief that every Chinaman must be an expert in tea cultivation and manufacture,” although many of them had never even seen a tea sapling.

Q. On the basis of your reading and understanding of the above passage, answer the following :

  1. Samuel Pepys refer tea as __________ in his diary.
  2. The cost of a pound of tea in England in 1662 was 10 pounds (True/False)?
  3. Who took advantage of England’s inability to grow tea in the 18th century?
  4. England smuggled __________ to China to get tea.
  5. Catherine had her first sip of tea in May 1662 at
    1. Portuguese court
    2. Bombay
    3. China
    4. Portsmouth
  6. Which tea soon became synonymous with ‘teas that are bad in quality and unfit for use’?
    1. Assamese
    2. Portuguese
    3. Dutch
    4. English
  7. England couldn’t buy tea from China in the 18th century because
    1. it had lost much wealth in the Anglo-Dutch war.
    2. China sold tea at an unaffordable rate.
    3. it had lost in the Anglo-Dutch war.
    4. it had started growing opium in India.
  8. Though China had been drinking tea for 2000 years, many of them
    1. had not tasted tea in the 19th century.
    2. had not seen a tea sapling in the 19th century.
    3. didn’t like the taste of tea.
    4. many of them didn’t know how to grow tea.


  1. ‘China drink’
  2. True
  3. The Dutch firm J.J. Voute & Sons took the advantage of England’s inability to grow tea in the 18th century.
  4. Opium seeds
  5. Portsmouth
  6. Dutch
  7. it had lost much wealth in the Anglo-Dutch war.
  8. had not seen a tea sapling in the 19th century

Try aiPDF, our new AI assistant for students and researchers