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England Attempts to Cultivate Tea

Even earlier at the beginning of the nineteenth century, British traders already sensed that their reliance on China as the sole source of tea could not continue indefinitely. China's monopoly on commercial tea production was fast becoming unacceptable to England, and the illicit opium trade continually aggravated the Chinese government. For decades prior to the outbreak of the Opium Wars, alternate attempts at tea cultivation in climatically favorable areas controlled by the British Empire offered little success.

Several of these early attempts to bring tea plants to Europe also failed, either because the plants perished in transit or because the plants that survived turned out to be varieties other than the tea-producing Camellia sinensis. So dismal were European attempts at tea cultivation that by 1763, members of the French Academy of Sciences pronounced that the tea bush was so unique to China that it could not be grown anywhere else in the world. Even while the Academy was making its dire declaration, however, Swedish and English botanists achieved limited success in the cultivation of Camellia sinensis in botanical gardens, but a number of errors would be made before these various attempts in growing tea would succeed.

If Europeans knew little about the preparation of tea as a drink, they knew even less about the optimum growing conditions of the tea plant -- such as the fact that certain varieties of Camellia sinensis thrive in rather specific climates at certain altitudes. Little was also known about the actual processing of the leaves for the final product. Understandably, the Chinese were quite satisfied with the ignorance of the foreigners, and they showed little interest in sharing their knowledge with anyone who might jeopardize their monopoly. In addition to substituting ordinary Camellia plants for exported tea seedlings, the Chinese more than likely boiled tea seeds to prevent germination.

But why did the Europeans need to rely on China for a supply of tea seeds or plants? Afterall, Scotsman Robert Bruce had discovered a tea plant (Camellia sinensis assamica) growing wild in the Assam district of India in the 1830s. Why not simply cultivate native tea in India rather than the often-sabotaged China variety? Conventional wisdom of the time held that only Chinese bushes could yield the leaves essential to a quality finished product, so the wild Assam bushes were looked upon as inferior. Acres of the naturally thriving Assam plants were uprooted to make room for the difficult China seedlings. Failed attempts at cultivating Chinese tea varieties in India were undoubtedly frustrating for all involved, but these efforts surely appeared futile to those who believed that the native Assam varieties offered more promise.

Success with India grown China tea finally came -- although the early yield was less than inspiring in both quantity and quality. Weighing approximately 350 pounds, the first commercial batch of Indian tea was shipped to London in May 1838 and arrived 6 months later in November. Attracting considerable interest from all sectors of the tea trade, this historical tea was classified according to Chinese nomenclature as souchong and pekoe and sold for between 16 and 34 shillings per pound. Still, England was far from gaining independence from the Chinese tea monopoly; that year alone over 30 million pounds of Chinese tea entered the British market.

Ignorant of the magnitude of the challenge that lay ahead, thousands of London spectators eagerly invested in the fledgling Indian tea enterprise with hopes of earning huge profits from the new business. Predictably, those expecting to make a quick fortune from their investment were grossly disappointed because the small advances in production could be funded only through enormous increases in expenses. Impatient investors sold their shares at a considerable loss, but those who truly believed in the future of the India tea venture -- and stayed the course against all odds -- would ultimately be rewarded.

With new emphasis on the high-yielding, indigenous tea plants, the turn-around of fortunes began in 1847, and gradual but significant improvements in production rekindled the waning enthusiasm for the India tea trade. Ultimately, India would become the world's largest tea producing country. By the early 1900s, production of India tea exceeded 350 million pounds -- over a million times the amount produced in 1838!

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