history, What I am reading

What I am reading … the Opium war and chai

I am reading Stephen Platt, Imperial Twilight: the Opium War and the end of China’s last golden age (Knopf 2018), in which he describes the initial attempt by British traders and soldiers to establish a trading post at Canton via a partly successful military adventure in 1637. The tactical success amounted to little initially since much of Canton was destroyed in the wars of transition from the Ming to Qing dynasties. Still within 100 years the East India Company would be sourcing all of Britain’s tea through this port.

And from that original fleet of adventurers in 1637 also came the first written record of an Englishman drinking tea.

Peter Mundy recorded the Pearl River locals “gave us a certain Drinke called Chaa which is only water with a kind of herbe boyled in it. It must bee Drancke warme and is accompted wholesome”

Original source: The Travels of Peter Mundy in Europe and Asia 1608-1667 (Hakluyt Society)

Image credit: Heating and drying tea leaves, from an album of watercolours on pith depicting stages in the production of tea, China, mid-19th century. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums L2007/174-2

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