Thank you to Yiyun (Malcolm) Huang, who has written the inaugural post for our “Ships, Trade, Food and Fashion” series. Malcolm is a fourth-year PhD candidate at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where he studies early American cultural history within a global context. His dissertation is tentatively titled “‘Nothing but large potions of Tea could extinguish it’: Cultural Transfer and the Consumption of Chinese Tea in Early America.” Malcolm traces the cultural ties that bound Qing-dynasty China and British North America during the eighteenth-century, and argues that British colonists in North America consumed a great deal of Chinese tea before the American Revolution due to a robust global transfer of ideas, attitudes, and beliefs associated with this tea. It took multiple transoceanic networks of physicians, Jesuit missionaries, and merchants to transmit academic and vernacular knowledge of Chinese tea across the globe.
Malcolm would like to acknowledge the support of the Frances E. Malamy fellowship from the Peabody Essex Museum, the Paula Backscheider Archival Fellowship from American Society for the Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), and summer travel grants from UT’s history department and Humanities Center that made his research at archives in Guangzhou, China, Salem, Massachusetts, and Princeton, New Jersey possible. You can follow him on twitter at @YiyunHuang1.
How to make sense of the legacy of China Trade in antebellum America? Historians have highlighted China Trade’s significance from an economic perspective. They have made convincing arguments that the profits gained in the China trade contributed significantly to the industrial-capitalist development in antebellum New England. Also, historians are striving to make sense of the widespread presence of Chinese objects in America during the Old China Trade era. They contend that Chinese objects such as porcelain helped Americans to construct images which were both fantastical and realistic about China. But, for United States in the antebellum era, China Trade was by no means only about the revenue or the porcelain that Americans would display in their parlors.1 China Trade as well as the commercial networks woven by British East India Company (EIC) enabled Americans to travel to major tea-growing regions in both China and India. These Americans then played a crucial role in bringing Chinese tea seeds, and the knowledge concerning its cultivation from East Asia to the United States. Consequently, almost two centuries after Dutch traders first imported tea to America, Americans were finally able to grow tea in the 1840s.
Consumption of tea has a long history in America. First brought to colonial America in the 1650s by the Dutch traders, tea was already a popular beverage by the mid-eighteenth century. Even if it became a token of British oppression in the late 1760s and 1770s, American merchants in the mid-Atlantic and New England regions immediately sought to trade directly with China when the Revolutionary War concluded. Starting from 1784 and continuing well into the mid-1800s, hundreds of ships followed the footsteps of the Empress of China and Grand Turk to bring Chinese tea back to the States. However, the cost of importing tea remained rather high and it was extremely difficult for American merchants to find goods that were desirable enough for the Chinese. So, why not growing it at home? Such plan was not unheard of before. Colonial Americans clearly were eager to learn about the cultivation of tea plants from European travel literature, but planting tea in America became feasible only after the EIC’s successful attempt to grow tea in India.
Britain started its tea-growing enterprise in India in the 1830s. It means that the seeds, specimens and the technical knowledge concerning the cultivation and production of tea would flow more freely out of China. It also means that antebellum Americans could access the tea-growing regions in both China and India. They would not only witness the growing and production of tea, but became tea growers in India. But their ultimate goal was to establish their own tea industry in the United States. Francis Bonynge, who “for fourteen years a resident in India and west of China,” was one of the ambitious Americans who tried to introduce the tea industry within the U.S.
In a report published in 1852, Bonynge claimed that he was “thoroughly” acquainted with the cultivation of tea. He has traveled widely in China’s tea districts——more significantly, he has purchased thousands of tea seeds from Chinese traders near Xiamen and planted them in Northern Assam. This acquaintance with tea cultivation translated into a remarkably informative report that highlighted the types of soil, nourishments, climate which were required for growing tea. It not only shed insights on the temperature and climate of China’s tea districts, but also tried to find a region in the United States that had similar climatic conditions. The conclusion Bonynge reached was that Savannah and Charleston in the United States, had the same temperature as Fogan (or Fu’an), the southern point of the tea district in Fujian, China.
Apart from finding out suitable American regions for future tea cultivation, Bonynge also meticulously calculated the “probable expense of the cultivation of the tea plant, and manufacture in America, on 100 acres.” He contended that, while using slave labor, the cost of cultivating and producing one pound of tea three years after the establishment of a tea plantation would be 2.67 cents. Using free labor then would increase the cost to 7.8 cents per pound. In comparison, common black tea was selling at 20 cents per pound in Canton and the cost of producing tea in China was 4 cents per pound. Bonynge made it clear that slave labor would enable southern plantations to produce tea at a cost much lower than that in China. He went on to emphasize that tea cultivation “would be a mean of not only enriching the cultivator, but of keeping up the price of labor to some $180 a year, and would leave the cotton trade and rice trade to fewer hands.” Overall, despite the difficulty of getting good tea seeds from China, Bonynge had considerable confidence in successfully producing tea in the U.S. South.2
Nine years later in 1861, Spencer Bonsall, a merchant from Philadelphia, wrote another report about tea cultivation and manufacture, based on his six-year residence in Assam with the EIC. Bonsall generally dismissed thousands of other Chinese migrant workers as “worthless.” But he admitted that the “first-class” Chinese artisans “such as green and black tea makers, lead canister, paper and box makers, packers, &c, by whom the Europeans and Assamese employed by the company were thoroughly taught all the branches of the business.” Not unlike Bonynge, what Bonsall highlighted in the report was the prospect of growing tea in the United States. Benefited from his enormous familiarity with the tea industry of both China and northern India, Bonsall presented a detailed instruction for the production of both black tea and green tea. Notably, he included more than a dozen Chinese tools and machines essential for this purpose. With an elaborate delineation on cultivation, plucking tea leaves, roasting, and packing, this report constituted an agricultural manual. So rich in detail, it would provide instructions for any American planter who was interested in growing tea in the U.S, as long as they could acquire tea seeds.3
Equipped with such knowledge, Americans such as Francis Boyngne and Junius Smith started their tea-growing business in Georgia and South Carolina shortly before the Civil War. After his four tea gardens were destroyed in Assam’s conflicts, Boyngne moved to Georgia to plant tea, coffee, indigo, dates and mangos. Also, according to historian Erika Rappaport, Junius Smith was another great promoter and grower of tea in antebellum America. Himself having never traveled to Asia, Smith derived this idea of growing tea in American soil from his daughter Miss Lucinda Smith who lived with her husband, an EIC chaplain, in northern India. So impressed by the East India Company’s tea grown in the 1840s in Himalaya, Lucinda praised it in a correspondence for her father, which convinced the latter of the prospect of growing tea in the US. Upon receiving the tea seeds sent by his daughter from India, Junius Smith established a successful tea plantation in South Carolina in 1848. Even though the thriving tea cultivation in South Carolina abruptly ended in 1853 when Smith died, Smith and Bonynge did demonstrate that tea could be grown in American soil.4
To conclude, because of the Old China Trade, American entrepreneurs were able to trade directly with Chinese merchants in Canton, and to reside in tea producing region in China. Such experience gave them first-hand witness to the cultivation and production of tea. Also, they have made full use of the older trading networks woven by the British East India Company which recently established a successful tea industry in northern India. These American merchants could start their own tea-growing business in Assam. In the meantime, they then were eager to share their experience or to establish tea industry in the United States. Greatly facilitated by the commercial networks, American merchants such as Smith and Bonynge were crucial in globalizing tea industry. Because of them, 160 years after the Dutch first imported Chinese tea to North America, tea for the first time was grown in American soil.
- For the economic legacy of the China Trade, see James Fichter, So Great a Proffit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. For Sino-American cultural exchange during America’s China Trade era, see John Haddad, The Romance of China: Excursions to China in U.S. Culture, 1776-1876, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
- Francis Bonynge, The Future Wealth of America: Being a Glance at the Resources of the United States and the Commercial and Agricultural Advantages of Cultivating Tea, Coffee, and Indigo, the Date, Mango, Jack, Leechee, Guava, and Orange Trees, etc. With a Review of the China Trade. New York: 1852, pp.73-78
- Spencer Bonsall, Tea: Its Culture and Manufacture…Acquired by a Residence of Six Years in Assam, Washington: s.n., 1861
- Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017, pp. 113-114