In chapter five of Empire of Tea, I wrote about the ways in which tea was understood and instrumented within British scientific culture during the eighteenth century: botanically, medically, and horticulturally. Part of the chapter examines the scholarly correspondence of John Ellis and Carl Linnaeus during the 1760s. Ellis and Linnaeus exchanged a wide range of ideas, information, and specimens. They often returned to topics of shared concern. One recurring motif of their letters to one another is their mutual desire to bring living tea trees (now known as Camellia sinensis) from China to Europe.
Linnaeus and Ellis were above all collaborators, but one detects in their epistolary conversation a taste for one-upmanship as they vied for priority in this horticultural quest to secure a real-live tea plant. Part of the explanation is that aside from the botanical adulation this might confer, both parties saw potential economic benefits for their respective nations from owning the means of tea production. Sweden’s tea market was relatively limited, but Linnaeus nevertheless considered that coinage was unnecessarily making its way to China in exchange for a fashionable and insipid leaf. His intention was to see tea agriculturally cultivated in Skåne, in the Swedish south. Ellis’s ambitions were more complex and extensive. As King’s Agent for the American colony of West Florida, he dreamed of masterminding a transatlantic tea-trade under British control and with imperial dimensions.
In August 1763 Linnaeus was in the ascendant. He triumphantly took delivery of a tea-tree to his botanical garden in Uppsala, where it arrived accompanied by the wife of Carl Gustaf Ekeberg, the ship’s captain responsible for transporting the plant safely from the East Indies. There was little immediate hoo-hah in London, but a couple of years later when claims circulated in France that a living tea-tree had arrived in Europe for the first time, British newspapers dutifully publicised Linnaeus’s claim to the contrary:
Stockholm, Nov. 15. A Tea-tree having been lately brought from China to France, and represented as the first tree of the kind ever seen in Europe; the Baron de Linné has published an account here, that there are in his Botanic garden at Upsal two Tea-trees, which were brought him from the Indies in 1763; that those trees are in a thriving condition, that they increase every year, and are certainly the first that ever appeared in Europe. (Public Ledger, 16 December 1765)
Intriguingly, nonetheless, a British counter-claim was also in the works. Writing in the Supplement to the Gentleman’s Magazine for the Year 1765, a correspondent styling himself ‘Damanianus’ (perhaps an oblique reference to Damian à Goes, a Portuguese friend of Erasmus) asserted that ‘in the year 1739 there were tea-trees in Captain Goff’s (of the East-India Company) garden at Enfield’. This was is a reference to the Middlesex estate of Harry Gough (1681-1751), formerly Chairman of the Court of Directors to the British East India Company as well as M.P. for Bramber, a famously rotten borough in Sussex. Damanianus continues with an eye-witness report (albeit one deferred by a quarter of a century):
In the year 1742 I visited this garden on purpose to see the tea-trees, and there I saw two fine trees in great prosperity; the largest between three and four feet high; the other less. The great one blossomed annually, bearing a single white flower, like that of the wild briar-rose that bears the hipps. The gardener told me, they were so hardy as to require no more care than an orange-tree; it is a beautiful ever-green, and, no doubt, will thrive well in West Florida, when some public spirits shall arise that are zealous to improve their country.
The implication that tea had flourished near London long before Linnaeus’s proudly trumpeted Swedish shrub initially seems outlandish. But Gough had sailed regularly to China, and in his earlier years had both been with the Scottish botanist James Cuninghame in Zhoushan (Cuninghame was the first European meaningfully to document tea growing in its native habitat and systematically to send specimens to Britain) and was on good terms with the great patron of natural history Sir Hans Sloane. Moreover, upon a little probing, not only does the description of ‘Damanianus’ reasonably approximate to the tea-plant, but the author turns out to be a pretty credible source. He is almost certainly Peter Collinson (1694-1768), an eminent botanist who is now best remembered for his intellectual friendships with Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram in North America.
Collinson lived in Mill Hill, 10 miles to the west of Gough’s Enfield home. He was himself a celebrated horticulturist. Not only would it have been entirely in character for him to enquire in person after a local natural historical rarity such as a flowering tea-tree, it would also be surprising for him to be completely wrong when it came to species identification (although it’s important to note that any previous exposure to the plant would have been limited to dried cuttings or imperfect engravings). It does therefore seem highly likely that Collinson had seen a tea-like shrub flowering in Gough’s grounds, probably one from China, perhaps a camellia, just maybe Camellia sinensis. It certainly wasn’t a suggestion that the assiduous John Ellis dismissed out-of-hand. Indeed when he wrote to Linnaeus (himself a correspondent of Collinson) to congratulate him on taking receipt of Ekeberg’s tea-tree, he hadn’t been able to help himself recalling the anecdote:
You delight me in telling me of your success in getting a living and thriving plant of the Tea tree from China. Our friend Peter Collinson says, he has seen two plants, about 25 years ago, in England, which grew freely and blossomed; but they were destroyed through the ignorance of a gardener. (Ellis to Linnaeus, 29 May 1763)
Was Ellis also behind Collinson’s contribution to the Gentlemen’s Magazine? While swatting aside the upstart French tea-tree in favour of Linnaeus (‘there were tea-trees at Upsal before it’), there is no doubt that the intention is to wrest back a sense of national pre-eminence. ‘England, I believe, may claim the priority’ in this particular European contest, Damanianus concludes. One might note too that Collinson’s article declines to publicise the ‘ignorance’ of Gough’s ‘gardener’, which apparently led to his tea’s demise and might undermine any claim to horticultural superiority. Moreover, the writer’s championing of ‘public spirits […] zealous to improve their country’ by cultivating tea in ‘West Florida’ can only be designed to support Ellis’s schemes for profitable and efficient colonial agriculture in British America.
Collinson had written several times for the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1765, and so the involvement of Ellis in prompting this report might be fanciful. But his relationship with Linnaeus seems from extant letters to have been slightly strained during the early 1760s, and it is tempting to imagine that he took some pleasure from this opportunity to diminish Ekeberg’s and Linnaeus’s achievement. In any case, the Professor eventually lost patience with his tea tree when it failed to flower for several years in a row. By the end of the decade, to make matters worse, Ellis had taken receipt of multiple live plants from China, which were successfully propagated in southern England. Ultimately however neither man ever saw tea cultivated commercially outside of East Asia. That would have to wait another 75 years, for the Anglo-Indian plantations in Darjeeling and Assam.
This is part of a series of posts to this blog that relate to specific chapters of Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World.