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On botany and budgets: a tale of two Roberts

Originally published May 30, 2011

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.

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On marketing and masquerade: the persistently plucky Captain Pidding

Originally published March 22, 2011

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.

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On assumptions and arrivals: early American attempts at tea

Originally published July 7, 2011

Well, since it was the 4th of July and all…

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.

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