Dutch East Indiaman (Dutch East India Cargo Vessel)

The earliest mention of tea—as “chaw”—by an Englishman is the famous Wickham letter of 1615.

The letter was found in a set of old records entitled Japan Miscellanies, consisting of copies of letters from Richard Wickham, the East India Company’s factor at Hirado (Japan’s only port of trade to the world located in Nagasaki Prefecture).

Wickham went first to the Indies as a factor aboard the Union in 1608. At Zanzibar, he was captured by the natives and handed over to the Portuguese who carried him to Goa where he met the traveler Francoise Pyard. In 1610, Wickham, with other European captives, was sent to Portugal before finding his way back to England. Ever the adventurous soul, he offered his services to Captain John Saris and soon made his way back to Hirado.

His letter book from 1614-16 is still preserved among the India Office records. Wickham left Japan in 1618 for Bantam, later going to Jakarta where he died.

In his letter of June 27, 1615 to Mr. Eaton, the company’s agent at the Portuguese trading post in Macao (China), Wickham wrote:

Mr. Eaton, I pray you buy for me a pot of the best sort of chaw [cha, or tea] in Meaco [Macao], 2 Fairebowes and Arrowes, some half a dozen of Meaco guilt boxes square for to put in to bark [barque, or sailing vessel] and whatsoever they cost you I will be alsoe willing accountable for them. Vale, yors. R. W.

Dutch port of Jakarta, c.1610
At the time, tea could only be procured from China. It was a very precious thing: a “treasure of the world” which appeared occasionally among the lists of gifts to sovereigns, to princes, and the nobility. The British East India Company appears to have been slow to appreciate its commercial aspects.

While the Dutch were busy promoting its introduction and sale on the Continent, and were selling it to London coffee-houses (1657) where it retailed at the considerable price of 16 to 50 shillings per pound, the British agents were neglectful of the considerable profits to be made by direct import. This missed opportunity can be explained by the Dutch supremacy in the Far East.

Catherine of Braganza
Although the first written mention of tea being consumed in London was laid down by Samuel Pepys in his diary entry of 1660, it would be another four years before the British East India Company entered the word in their journals – as a gift! 

The momentous occasion came when 2lb. 2oz. of “good thea” were purchased from Thomas Winter (imported by the Dutch) for presentation to Charles II.
Being a wise suitor, the king re-gifted the tea to his Queen Consort, Catherine of Braganza, already an ardent devotee of the exotic beverage.
It was the beginning of their marriage and Britain’s long love affair with the world’s most popular beverage.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam was being transferred to the English in 1664. Families there had already been drinking tea for over a decade!
Read more about the history of tea in the western world in A SOCIAL HISTORY OF TEA.

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