The Era of Contraband

The Era of Contraband

From Fashionable Drink to Indispensable Commodity

In 1684, the Chinese Emperor K'ang Hi declared his empire open to a limited degree of foreign trade. This allowed the English to begin to trade with China through the East India Company. In 1600, this company had received a charter from Queen Elizabeth granting it the monopoly over trade with the Orient. The East India Company soon crushed the competition, firms from Holland, France, etc., and became the main exporter of Chinese products in Europe.

To begin with, the East India Company dealt mainly in the spice trade, but exceptional growth in demand transformed tea into its main import product. At the beginning of the 18th century, England imported 20 000 pounds of tea; this figure rose to over 2 million pounds in 1750.

It is actually impossible to know exactly how much tea was imported into England during this period. Oliver Cromwell had imposed heavy taxes in the middle of the preceding century, with the result that an entire contraband network sprung up. From the nobility to the humblest, and not forgetting the clergy, almost everyone was involved. It was even said that the peasants were so busy with this business that they barely had time to cultivate the land. During the last quarter of the 18th century, it is estimated that only a third of the tea imported into England was legal.

The problem of contraband was settled in 1783, when taxes dropped from 114% to 12.5%. Considering tea as a luxury product, the British government had thought a surtax would bring in a good profit. Those in charge did not realize that tea had become an essential commodity, and that if people could no longer afford to buy it, they would find other means to obtain it, even if this meant engaging in illegal activity and supporting foreign economies.

©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: Histoire du thé, Tea Bureau, s. d.