London, Paris, Macau: Getting to Know Tea

One of my first forays into the early history of tea in Britain was to prepare an edited version of one of Thomas Garway’s famous (well, in tea history terms ‘famous’) broadsides advertising his retail businesses in the Cities of London and Westminster. An Exact Description of the Growth, Quality, and Vertues of the Leaf TEA (c. 1670) – like its earlier incarnation An Exact Description of the Growth, Quality, and Vertues of the Leaf Tee, alias Tay (c. 1664) – is notable for the volume of information about the ‘leaf’ that it seeks to communicate. Garway was aiming to sell an unusual and little known commodity to ‘Persons of Quality’ (indeed to all who could afford this innovative good priced from ‘sixteen to fifty shillings the pound’); and he reasonably considered them less likely to buy if they lacked understanding about how and why to procure and consume the beverage. His advertisement therefore outlines a series of crucial contexts: the natural history and botany of tea; a report of its usage in China; a description of its medical ‘Vertues’; and an account of its encounter by Europeans, including its currently fashionable status amongst metropolitan ‘Noblemen, Physitians, Merchants and Gentlemen’ in London.

Garways c. 1670 Tea Advertisement

The first chapter of our book Empire of Tea fleshes out this story by asking how European (and especially English) society was first introduced to and taught about tea. Garway, it turns out, was participating in a broader endeavour to make sense of this strange infusion, in part to explain the obscure habits of a distant civilisation, but more obviously to educate an unsuspecting but malleable market about a new item of diet that was of no immediately self-evident value. In China and elsewhere in East Asia (Garway also mentions Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan) tea had long been appropriated to a range of social, political, and religious rituals, as well as being credited with an impressive array of pharmacological properties (review Garway’s register of ‘Particular Vertues’ for a sense of these supposed benefits). Tea’s European adoptees sought to test and imitate such uses for this new herbal drink, initially as visitors to distant lands, and later as habitués at home.

Garway’s broadside lists his most important European sources of knowledge about tea. This underwrites his own experience as a merchant and tea-drinker by reassuring patrons that to consume the beverage is to join an elite community of scholarly learning and exotic taste. As an editor I was briefly disheartened by Garway’s catalogue of neo-Latin names (although I tracked them down in the end) – ‘Bontius, Riccius, Jarricus, Almeyda, Horstius, Alvarez Semeda, Martinious’ – and both relieved and intrigued by the more explicit citation of a final reference, ‘Alexander de Rhodes in his Voyage and Missions […] printed at Paris 1653’. When I came to research chapter one of Empire of Tea, I decided to follow Garway’s lead and turn to this authority (among others) in building up a sense of how tea was first perceived and partaken in seventeenth-century London.

Alexandre de Rhodes
Portrait of Father Alexandre de Rhodes (Wikimedia Commons)

Alexandre de Rhodes (1591?-1660) was one of many men of faith and intellect who travelled to Asia in the service of the Society of Jesus during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A philologist and lexicographer, he spent much of the 1620s in Cochinchina and Tonkin, before returning to southern Vietnam around 1640 after 10 years’ absence. During these periods de Rhodes compiled an impressive trilingual dictionary of Latin, Portuguese, and Vietnamese terms that was published in Rome in 1651. De Rhodes’s Roman alphabet transliterations of local words remain the basis of Vietnam’s chu Quoc ngu or ‘national language script’. But it was his interim decade on the island of Macau – a Portuguese colony opposite Hong Kong on the Zhusanjiao (Pearl River Delta) – that taught de Rhodes all about tea.

De Rhodes is important (although not quite unique) for the European history of tea because he lived among ordinary Chinese people at a relatively early date – throughout the 1630s – and later published detailed memoirs of his daily life following a temporary return home in the mid-century. De Rhodes’s Divers Voyages et Missions du Pere Alexandre de Rhodes en la Chine, & autres Royaumes de l’Orient (literally: ‘The diverse voyages and missions of Father Alexandre de Rhodes to China and other kingdoms of the Orient’) was printed in Paris in 1654, having been trailed the previous year by a briefer Sommaire des Divers Voyages, et Missions Apostoliques (‘Summary of diverse voyages and apostolic missions’). There is of course an important religious bent to these texts; but integral to de Rhodes’s methodology – and his approach to ‘mission’ more generally – is a desire to comprehend Asian cultures and to improve Western (especially French) awareness and knowledge of them. Apart from anything, when it comes to tea de Rhodes wonders whether its universal usage across East Asia isn’t at least partially responsible for the good health and longevity that the population appears to enjoy.

The chapter ‘On Tea’ from Divers Voyages et Missions isn’t particularly lengthy, but it does quite clearly adumbrate the social, spiritual, and sanative selling points that were among those Garway wanted to persuade his metropolitan clientele they could access through the beverage. In this way de Rhodes’s perceptions as an observer – and reception as a writer – became formative within the network of ideas and practices of tea that shaped the drink’s early consumption in England. Rather than write a fuller commentary on what de Rhodes has to say about tea’s cultivation, preparation, and benefits, I thought I’d post on this website my translations of his work. I don’t recall other English versions being readily available (although they may be out there), so reader beware that I had to dust down my high-school French in order to produce these.

This is part of a series of posts to this blog during 2015 that relates to a specific chapter of Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World.

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