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A Tea for All

by Michael Begun

When England captured New Amsterdam on September 8, 1664, the colony's trade relations with China were essentially nonexistent. There were at most a few porcelain items in the houses of upper class merchants that had been imported indirectly from Amsterdam. This did not change under the British until the 1720s, when the British began to enforce the Navigation Acts of 1651, severely limiting New York merchants' ability to conduct direct foreign trade. Essentially, England envisioned New York in the same way the Dutch saw New Netherlands: as a supplier of raw materials (such as fur and lumber.)i

In fact, there is little reason to believe that New Yorkers desired Chinese goods at all before 1720. During this year, however, a new import from China started to catch on throughout Europe. This import was tea, a drink derived from certain Chinese leaves which would initially be used as a means of medical treatment before becoming a trendy drink of the upper classes. Many historians believe that tea initially came to the America through Peter Stuyvesant when he became governor of New York in 1647. Initially, the drink was primarily a beverage for the elites, just as it had been in Europe. However, tea would eventually become by far the greatest European import from China as it became a quotidian beverage "sold with milk in the streets"ii. By the 1760s, a great demand for tea had developed in New York, with shipments of several hundred thousand pounds of Chinese tea imported annually.iii Simultaneously, retailers near New York's port who dealt in more traditional Chinese goods such as porcelain, spices and silks were taking advantage of the invigorated tea trade to provide for a more limited demand of these comparative luxury items.iv In this manner, New Yorkers acquired a strong taste for both tea and other Chinese goods (especially porcelain) during these later colonial times up until the start of the Revolutionary War. These goods would have a strong impact on local tastes in the decades to come, both for their inherent exoticism and practicality.

However, New York would have little direct connection with Chinese trade prior to the liberating 1780s. Like the Parthian intermediaries of Roman times, Britain took advantage of both sides of this "Silk Road" for its own benefit; the fact that America acquired these goods from the English rather than directly through foreign trade with Canton must have obscured their exoticism, while leaving New York's merchants "in no position to control their own destinies".v This repression would lead to the famous New York Tea Party of April 22, 1774, in which eighteen chests of tea were poured into the Hudson in protest of the unfair taxes the British imposed on the colony.


Left: Dutch East India Company officials weigh tea-chests in Canton. (courtesy of Stephanie Hoppen)
Right: A fine example of a teapot from the Qing Dynasty. (courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum)


i. Howard, D. New York and the China Trade. New-York Historical Society. 1984. p. 21

ii. Boxer, C.R. The Dutch East India Company and the China Trade.

iii. Howard, D. New York and the China Trade. New-York Historical Society. 1984. p. 21

iv. Ibid. p. 22

v. Ibid. p. 22

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