- The Trouble with Tea: The Politics of Consumption in the Eighteenth-Century Global Economy by Jane T. Merritt
The Trouble with Tea is an excellent study of the politics of tea consumption in the eighteenth century, with a pronounced focus on North America. In this way, it provides some deeper context for the role of tea in the American Revolution, especially the socalled Boston Tea Party, which, as many have observed, was no tea party. The book demonstrates the long history of both increasing demand for, and complaints about, tea in colonial British North America. The first chapter provides a thorough account of the emergence of tea as a major commodity in the commerce of the English East India Company (EIC) in the early years of the eighteenth century. Having been initially focused on the textile trade in India, EIC's fortunes were transformed in 1713, when the company negotiated access to the port of Canton in China. By 1717, the EIC was making regular annual commercial voyages to China in which tea was an important commodity: predominantly singlo green tea, and after the midcentury bohea, a brown or red tea. Within a matter of decades, tea came to be the most significant commercial item of EIC trade. Merritt's account is based on some archival work with EIC records and calendars of papers, and an extensive survey of the scholarship on the company over the last half century.
After the first chapter, the focus pivots from the metropolitan concerns of the EIC's China trade to Britain's North American colonies. Merritt describes how the consumer revolution in colonial America enhanced a taste for luxury commodities such as tea and tea-wares, although comparatively unsophisticated in its expression. Tea, with no nutritional value and no domestic cultivation, was a particular target for criticism of exotic luxuries, both economic and moral. Between 1720 and 1740, American consumers demonstrated both a growing demand for tea, and a growing sophistication in the tea trade and more refined and elaborate tea services. The market for tea in North America was undertaken through the East India companies in London and Amsterdam. Merritt sees the market in tea, and ideas about tea as expressed in medical tracts, poetry, commercial and geographical treatises, as an Anglophone and transatlantic venture. Nonetheless, her [End Page 206] chronology suggests the North American colonies had a developed taste for tea, tea knowledge, and tea cultures about two or three decades behind those in London.
Chapter 3 extends the story up to the 1760s. As tea consumption in the American colonies continued to increase, merchants found greater profits by using tea smuggled from Dutch sources. The legitimate EIC trade could not compete with the contraband, not only because Dutch merchants could land tea at a cheaper wholesale price, but also because customs enforcement was haphazard and underfunded. The very extended coastline of the colonies, with many small harbors, made regulation difficult, allowing illicit tea to be transshipped to the bigger cities. Imperial conflicts between Britain and France, with its embargoes and sieges, further encouraged the illegal trade, not only between Europe and America but also between America and the colonies in the Caribbean. The tea trade was a lucrative business increasingly oriented against British authority, as the illicit trade was more efficient and profitable than the legal. After the end of the Seven Years' War, a new enemy to the American tea trade emerged: British tax policy. Tea was an easy target for consumer resistance and political agitators, who led boycotts against its importation and consumption, and who reminded consumers of the satirical heritage that painted it as an immoral and exotic luxury and promoted diverse domestic herbal import substitutes. Merritt notes that despite this, tea imports and consumption actually increased in these decades, as consumers, especially loyalists, remained faithful to the drink. However, debate on tea and its continued consumption made it not only a focus for conflict between America and Britain, but also between...