China's first contacts with the West took place during the Ming dynasty. The countries of Europe wanted to trade directly with the Chinese, without having to pass through the Arab or Venetian intermediaries who were taking too large a profit. The Portuguese were the first to arrive thanks to Vasco de Gama, who discovered the passage to India around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. Reaching China at Canton in 1517, the Portuguese attempted to set up an embassy close to the Emperor, but failed. In fact they, like all the other Europeans to follow them, were forbidden from establishing any permanent presence in Canton. They were allowed only a temporary presence, at particular times during the year, and at specific places in the city. When Portugal was annexed to Spain, the Dutch took control of trade with the Orient, a monopoly they kept until the 17th century.
The diaries of the first travellers and missionaries mention a drink obtained using a leaf highly prized by the Orientals. These remarks elicited little interest, however, and it was only at the beginning of the 17th century that small quantities of tea began to be imported first to Holland (in 1610) and then to England (in 1650). Although tea was first imported into Europe for medicinal purposes, the English quickly made of it a drink for pleasure. First reserved for the upper classes, it soon spread to all levels within society.
Passionate for tea, the English set up trade through the new East India Company. Recently chartered (1600) by Queen Elizabeth, the company had been given the monopoly in Britain over trade with the Orient so that it could fight off foreign competition. At the beginning of the 18th century, England imported 200 000 pounds of tea each year, a figure that grew to over 2 million pounds in 1750. Porcelain, including cups, saucers, teapots, bowls, etc. was also highly in demand.
©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: Ministère des Approvisionnements et Services, Ottawa 1979