Notes towards the Cultural History of Bohea

Tea first became known in Britain in the mid seventeenth century. For the next five decades or so, British knowledge about tea was scanty. All tea was simply ‘tea’. When Pepys first drank it in September 1660, he called for ‘a Cupp of Tee (a China drink)’, of which he ‘never had drank before’. Sometimes the commodity was spelled a bit differently. Advertisements in the newspapers referred to ‘that excellent and by all Physicians, approved, China drink, called by the Chineans Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tee’. But despite these different names, derived from transliterations of different Chinese languages, all tea was ‘tea’, undifferentiated into different forms and kinds.

Then, in 1696, some tea was identified more specifically as ‘bohea’, an English word for a Chinese tea. The word ‘bohea’, pronounced /bəʊˈhiː/, derives from the name of a geographical district in China now known as the Wuyi mountains, in the province of Fujian: in the eighteenth century known as Fokkien. The word ‘bohea’, as a name for a kind of tea, is first recorded by John Ovington in his Voyage to Surat in 1689, published in 1696, and popularized in his Essay on Tea, published in 1699. Louis le Comte, in his Memoires en Chine in 1696 makes a similar transliteration, rendering the word ‘Voui’. The tea that is ‘bohea’ in English is ‘voui’ in French.

Ovington was a clergyman, employed by the East India Company in Surat, in India. He’s an interesting man, and we write a lot about him in our book Empire of Tea. He says there are three sorts of tea, which he names as ‘Bing, Singlo, and Bohe’. The first two are both green teas.

Bohe is a small Leaf and very young, and by its moisture, upon the score of its under-growth, requires more than an ordinary frixure [roasting], which makes it acquire that blackness visible in it, and which discolours the Water to a kind of Redness. The second is Singlo, which is a larger Leaf, because more grown. The third, which is Bing, is the largest of all; and is in China of a proportionable larger rate than the other two.

[John Ovington, A Voyage to Suratt, in the Year, 1689. Giving a Large Account of that City and its Inhabitants, and of the English Factory there (London, 1696), pp. 308-09.]

Ovington offers here the first distinctive description of kinds of tea, specifying two forms of green tea, bing and singlo, and one ‘red’ tea, bohea. What constitutes bohea changes over the following century, and by the end of the eighteenth century, it refers to the lowest grade of so-called black tea (tea that appears black to the eye when dry, and which stains the water a reddish-brown colour).

This is a well-known history, and before Ovington, all English tea was simply ‘tea’. But not quite, and here we get to the purpose of this blog post. In 1692, the English playwright Thomas Southerne satirizes a pedantic connoisseur named Mr Friendall in his matrimonial comedy The Wives Excuse, who offers his fashionable friends a range of specialty drinks. To the men, he offers an extraordinary range of wines, to the women, a range of specialty teas, suggesting they might like to drink it ‘fresko’ (al fresco) in the garden.

Mr. Friendall. Ladies what say you to the Fresko of the Garden? we’ll Drink our Tea upon the Mount, and be the Envy of the Neighbourhood.

Mrs Wittwoud. O delicately thought upon!

Friendall. Madam, which Tea shall we have?

Mrs. Friendall. Which the Company pleases, Mr. Friendall.

Mr. Friendall. The plain Canton, the Nanquin, the Bohe, the Latheroon, the Sunloe, or which? Ha!

Wellvile. Have you any of the Non Amo Te?

Mr. Friendall. Faith, No, Sir, there came but little of it over this Year; but I am promis’d a whole Canister by a Friend of a considerable interest in the Committee.

Lovemore. Then the Bohe, Sir, the Bohe will do our business.

Mr. Friendall. My Bohe, at the best hand too, Cost me Ten Pound a Pound, but I have a Tea, with a damn’d Heathenish hard Name, that I think I was very much befriended in, at an Indian House in the City, if you please, we’ll have some of that.

Mrs. Friendall. ‘Tis in my Cabinet, Mr. Friendall, I must order it my self for you.

[Thomas Southerne, The wives excuse, or, Cuckolds make themselves a comedy, as it is acted at the Theatre-Royal by Their Majesties servants, written by Tho. Southern (London: Printed for W. Freeman, 1692), IV (i), p. 38.]

The satire here is directed against the fop Friendall, whose ridiculous connoisseurship is revealed to be shallow. This is shown by his failure to recognize the pun in ‘Non amo te’, which is not a rare kind of tea, as he supposes, but a joke against him (it means ‘I do not love you’ in Latin, made famous in a distich poem by Martial).

But for the history of tea in Britain, Southerne’s satire is interesting too, as it depends on the audience recognizing that ‘bohea’ is one kind of tea among many. In this scene, tea isn’t just ‘tea’, though the difference between kinds of tea, Southerne suspects, is ridiculous (Friendall also cares about the difference between different kind of wines). He is a ‘critic’ in the seventeenth century sense of being focused on insignificant difference, missing the main point (you drink wine to get drunk, for example). Southerne’s satire suggests it was well-known enough to make a joke about (the joke wouldn’t work if nobody in the audience knew what Friendall was on about). The scene suggests that sophisticated tea knowledge was circulating in conversation and in shops, but leaving no records in the archive.

What this evidence demonstrates is that there was a connoisseurial attitude to tea in London as early as 1692, well before Ovington’s published his researches. Friendall’s offer suggests there are five kinds of tea, including bohea: Canton, Nanquin, Bohe, Latheroon, and Sunloe. The last, sunloe, suggests perhaps ‘singlo’ or ‘soumlo’, a green tea identified by the French Jesuit Le Comte as having a fleeting ‘pleasant’ taste and a scent ‘a little of Violets’. Canton and Nanquin (Nanking) suggest places in China, ports from which tea was exported. Latheroon is plain mysterious.

It is likely that Friendall’s tea is derived from Dutch imports of tea, and his knowledge likely based on Dutch connections. The market for tea in the Netherlands was much larger and more specialized in the 1690s than it was in England. Yong Liu describes how Dutch agents of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in Canton supplied a wide variety of teas (though he is referring to a much later period): for example in 1762, Tsia Hunqua supplied ‘Bohea, Ankay, Congou, Souchong, Songlo, Hyson, Hyson skin and Twankay’.[1] Tea connoisseurship, we might go on to say, is another aspect Dutch Protestant culture imported into England by the regime of William and Mary after the revolution of 1688.

In chapter 2 of Empire of Tea, we explored how John Locke, the great English philosopher, learned about tea and tea drinking in Holland when he was in exile there in the 1680s. He developed a taste for fine tea, and when he had returned to England in 1689, he spent considerable sums getting his friends to send him high quality tea from certain shops in Holland. He wrote to his friend Philip Limborch in September 1789 asking him to send him a box of tea by way of the English ambassador, so as to avoid tax. ‘I should like the best tea, even if it should cost forty gulden a pound.’ But even though he considered himself a great tea aficionado, and very much preferred the best kinds, he only referred to tea as tea.


[1] Yong Liu, The Dutch East India Company’s Tea Trade with China, 1757-1781 (Leiden: Brill, 2006), p. 204.


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