Well, we’ve covered Captain Pidding, and I’m still working my way through the 1800s literature, so let’s make our next subject the two Roberts: Robert M. Fortune and Robert Montgomery Martin.
The two men are fairly opposite personalities. Fortune can be generally characterized as a robust, fearlessly determined adventurer, while Martin was a matter-of-fact analyst, and meticulously detailed researcher. But both are responsible for great contributions to the spread of tea to the western world, in their vastly different ways.
John Coakley Lettsom was Britain’s first literary authority on tea: his 1772 work, The Natural History of the Tea-Tree2, represents the earliest English language attempt at a comprehensive survey of the science and history of what would become the United Kingdom’s national beverage. In my last essay we reviewed the tea literature of Europe leading up to Lettsom’s time. We’re therefore ready to take a closer look at what Lettsom himself wrote, and get a better sense of Europe’s ideas on tea in his time.
Studying the history of a commercial enterprise is, in my experience, broken down into two distinct portions: the long tedium of endless streams of numbers that have long since blurred together, and the occasional humorous diversion of the trivial, the unusual, and the bizarre, that are the natural occurrences within any extended and well-documented human acitivity.
The history of tea is especially ripe with such stories, as it presented an almost perfectly fertile environment for a cunning mercantile imagination, freed from concerns of honesty or fair practice. Having one’s British customers and Chinese suppliers exactly half a world away from each other offered ample opportunity to tea merchants at various levels of the industry to exercise their creativity in order to advance their prosperity. Some were more amusingly determined at it than others.
I’ve recently been considering the question of identifying the seminal works in tea literature. Every student of tea will quickly learn of Lu Yu’s Classic of Tea 茶經, around 780, and of course the landmark work in the English language, All About Tea by William Ukers in 1935. These are the obvious selections which we will cover at a later date.
In my opinion, an early seminal work worth reviewing would be John Coakley Lettsom’s The Natural History of the Tea-Tree of 1772. 160 years before Ukers does the same thing, Lettsom attempted to digest and summarize all of the tea-related information available at his time, collating botanical, medical, and historical writing into a coherent general survey. Lettsom’s is also the first English work entirely focused upon the subject of tea, granting it a unique place in its history – published prior to the era dominated by the East India Company, it is a relatively apolitical and objective book. It is also significant for its influence, as much of the West’s later understanding of tea was founded upon and shaped by Lettsom’s work, which was widely read, analyzed, and cited for many years.
It was, of course, the British who most determinedly set themselves to the “reverse engineering” of the cultivation and production of tea, with the object of producing tea in their own territories. In America, while tea had been enjoyed by the early colonists, its later association with the Boston Tea Party – an act of protest against symbolic, and heavy, taxes to Britain – put a major dent into its popular acceptance as a drink of choice.
Eventually, however, the unholy gobs of money generated by the British trade could not fail to reawaken an American interest in tea. Early U.S. works on the subject focus primarily on importing tea from China, but there was also some interest in the cultivation of tea, actually growing tea on United States soil. Both approaches to the “tea question” shared one goal: competing directly with, and eventually overtaking, the Great Britain-China trade for the supply of the world’s tea.