Charting the East India Company’s Tea Trade

Figure 1 - Sales by Weight of all Tea Varieties
Figure 1 – Sales by Weight of all Tea Varieties – click to enlarge

The vast manuscript records of the East India Company, held in several kilometres of subterranean vaults below the British Library at King’s Cross, would exhaust the scope of even the most focussed of academic careers. Even so, it is an incomplete archive … and its gaps prove particularly frustrating for the historian of the Sino-British tea trade. For among the many hundreds of volumes of court minutes, correspondence, ships’ logs, supercargoes journals, pay records and military commissions, one searches in vain for information relating to the tea sold to the highest bidder at each of the twice-yearly (later quarterly) East India Sales at the Company’s headquarters on Leadenhall Street: the varieties and quantities sold, the ships on which the cargoes had been transported, the dealers who made purchases. We can be quite sure that these records were maintained as part of the Company’s minute book-keeping. But maddeningly, these ‘tea ledgers’ were destroyed – along with much of the paperwork maintained by the Company’s Committee of Warehouses (which oversaw the movement of cargoes through the cavernous Fenchurch Street warehouse complex) – when the Company’s business was transferred to the new colonial ministry, the India Office, in the 1850s.

Other historical repositories throw us a few bones, however. And one of the juiciest is a document retained among the House of Commons papers, prepared by the Company for Parliament in 1845 (less than a decade after it had ceased active participation in the tea trade). Its title is as descriptive as it is prosaic: ‘Statement of the Number of Pounds Weight of the different Varieties of Tea sold by the East India Company in each Year from 1740 down to the Termination of the Company’s Sales, together with the Average Prices at which such Teas were sold’. Constituting a single large sheet, it documents precisely the poundage sold of each tea variety for every year from 1740 to 1833 (when the Company’s involvement in the tea trade effectively ended). What’s more, it specifies the average prices for which every variety sold at the East India Sales held in each of those years. The source of the document’s information is very likely to have been the soon-to-be-destroyed tea ledgers. This has led Hoh-Cheung Mui and Lorna Mui, perhaps the most eminent historians of tea of recent decades, to evaluate the ‘Statement’ as the most reliable surviving indicator of the state of the legal tea trade across this period.

It took me two days of unexciting data entry to transfer this rather bland table into electronic form as a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel – available on this site via the Excel web app on the ‘EIC Tea Sales’ page. But the dynamic possibilities which a modern data management tool such as this offer for analysis and graphical representation quickly repaid the effort, transforming the static record into a fascinating arena for charting the legal tea market in Britain. Some caveats are, quite clearly, necessary. Firstly, the patterns we might observe here are only as reliable as the data on which they are based; but whilst we have no formal means of checking systematically the figures reported in 1845, such fragmentary records as do exist indicate their veracity. Secondly, using the figures as a guide for overall domestic tea consumption is problematic, as they relate only to legal tea sales by the state-sanctioned monopoly importer: the East India Company. In the 1740s, and again in the twenty years from 1764, tea was being smuggled into Britain in quantities which ultimately exceeded those imported by the Company. Finally, the figures make no discrimination between tea destined for retail in Britain, and that ultimately re-exported (most commonly to America and Ireland), meaning that we need to regard with caution the evidence that they provide for patterns of domestic consumption. Cross-comparison with the records of the Custom House suggest that a relatively consistent 10-15% of tea imported in the period 1740-1799 was ultimately destined for foreign shores.

In a couple of weeks I will posting here again, with some examples of the trends that analysis of the data allows us to observe.

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2 thoughts on “Charting the East India Company’s Tea Trade

  1. Matthew
    I am working on tea smuggling, as part of my PhD on Smuggling in SE Scotland – I should post a piece about Gunsgreen House – and I increasingly wondering about the relationship between the EIC, smuggling and supply and demand. I note particularly the boom in imports of Congou after the Commutation Act, and complaints that the EIC failed to supply sufficient Congou at a reasonable price to meet the needs of the Scottish Market (Paton in the report for Henry Dundas, one of the Muis’ sources). I daresay it is not simple to answer, but I have begun to wonder if the success of smuggling was about more than just price….

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