Six things we learnt at ‘Tea: Nature, Culture, Society 1650-1850’

This June, the Chitra Collection was invited to participate in the conference ‘Tea: Nature, Culture, Society 1650-1850’, hosted by the Linnean Society and organised by Richard Coulton (QMUL), Jordan Goodman (UCL) and Romita Ray (Syracuse University).

Submitting a short film showcasing objects from the collection and participating in a panel discussion on day two, we were privileged to be amongst leading experts and institutions on the subject, hearing academic papers from tea scholars around the world. By hosting online, the conference was able to reach attendees from around 50 different countries with an average of 300 attendees across the three days, and the Chitra Collection was honoured to be able to take part. The recording from the conference and the short films are available to watch on the Linnean Society’s YouTube channel, and here we share a brief overview of some of the things we learnt:

Page from Panacea, a poem upon tea by Nahum Tate, 1700

1. Tea inspired a genre of poetry

Tea has been the subject of poetry for many centuries, forming a rich literary tradition in China. As Markman Ellis (Queen Mary University) described, when Europeans adopted the beverage, writers were inspired to write about tea, contributing to a genre of ‘commodity’ poetry that examined new products, weighed their benefits, and recommended how to prepare and consume them. Coffee had preceded tea as a subject for poetry in Britain, and tobacco followed. Nahum Tate, an Irish writer who became poet laureate in 1692, wrote Panacea, a poem upon tea in 1700. His introduction describes its uses/benefits for different professions, followed by two cantos. The first describes teas mythic origins in China as told by a shepherd named Palomon, and the second departing from historic fact by transplanting tea to classical Greece and being drunk by the Gods. The poem finishes with the word ‘THEAE’ a transliteration of the word into the Greek alphabet, anthropomorphising the plant as a classical goddess. This served to appropriate and domesticate the Chinese plant, creating a mysticism around it that helped promote tea consumption in the West.

2. The first live tea plant to be grown outside of China landed in Sweden

Isabelle Charmantier (Head of Collections at the Linnean Society) gave a fascinating insight into early cultivation of the tea plant outside its native region. Before the British began cultivating tea in Assam in the 1830s, various attempts were made to grow tea outside of China. Scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) experimented with growing tea in the Uppsala Botanical gardens in Sweden without success. It took many failed attempts to ship a live plant back to Sweden, and Linnaeus finally acquired one in 1763, transported in the care of Hedvig, the wife of the ship captain, Carl Gustaf Ekeberg. Unfortunately, the plants didn’t thrive and had perished by 1765. During this time, Linnaeus kept a correspondence with English merchant and naturalist John Ellis, whose ambition it was to cultivate tea in Florida and sent seeds to the colony several times. Both saw the potential economic gain of establishing tea plantations outside of China, and their correspondence suggests some competitiveness. Complicating Linnaeus’ claim is an account by botanist Peter Collinson claiming he’d seen a tea plant grown in the garden of a Captain Harry Gough in Enfield in 1742. However, it is difficult to confirm that this was indeed a tea plant and not another camellia strain. Perhaps to Linnaeus’ frustration, Ellis was eventually successful in propagating a tea plant in southern England.

Illustration of Linnaeus’ house and garden at Uppsala Botanic Gardens, from Amoenitates academicae by Carl Linnaeus,1749-1769

3. Botanical illustrations in the 18th century weren’t always based on observation

The illustrations and botanical studies that were published on tea weren’t necessarily based on observation of live specimens but textual or scholarly works, as Bettina Dietz (Hong Kong BU) described in her paper. As few tea plants reached Europe, botanists based their illustrations on textual accounts, or on the rare drawings made from observation. Engelbert Kaempfer’s study of the flora japonica in Amoenitates Exoticae of 1712 was based on observation of a live tea plant specimen, and so was thought of as a reliable source. Linnaeus endorses his work in Hortus Cliffortianus of 1737. In contrast, Jacobus Breyne’s illustration was not based on observation but compilation of various scholars’ texts and illustrations.

‘Camellia japonica’ from Amoenitates Exoticae by Engelbert Kaempfer, 1712
‘The sinensis’ from Exoticarum aliarumque by Jacobus Breyne, 1678

4. Science was conducted through correspondence

The study of botany by early modern scientists was a highly sociable practice, as well as being an information science. It was carried out through correspondence as scholars shared their deductions and discoveries. The difficulty of coming by live specimens of plants from the Asian continent meant that scientists gathered their information through books and letters, from second, third, and fourth hand accounts of studies of specimens by their peers. Bettina Dietz’s paper also gave a fascinating insight into the referencing system used by Linnaeus to log the studies of different scientists on the same plant. His lists of synonyms and sources is a fantastic record of collaboration and the development of a referencing system in information science. As the names of plant specimens were not formalised, a central list collecting all the names referring to the same plant by different botanists was a way to keep track of their various contributions to knowledge on that plant. An important factor in discussions of botanists at the time was not only about deducing the correct and most up-to-date information about a plant but also the reliability of the scholar. It was important to display a strong moral code and carry out due diligence to be accepted as a reliable scientist.

‘Thea’ in Species plantarum by Carl Linnaeus, 1753

5. The British Empire’s tea industry caused deforestation in Assam

Romita Ray of Syracuse University described how huge areas of the Assam jungle were razed by the British in order to sow vast tea plantations, the first instance of active cultivation of tea in India, with only 30% of Assam remaining forested today. Until this point, the local Assamese forest dwelling tribes, Singhpo and Khamti, harvested tea leaves from wild tea bushes but didn’t actively cultivate them. The deforestation destabilised the natural habitat and growing conditions of tea even as the plantations grew. The genesis of this imperial project was in 1835 when a group of British botanists, associated with the government’s Tea Committee, set off on numerous expeditions to collect specimens of the tea plant that was thought to be native to the region. At this time the jungle seemed an impenetrable, unknowable landscape to the British, which they aimed to domesticate by mapping it and cataloguing its flora and fauna. The expedition was considered successful, and resulted in specimens being sent to the East India Company Museum and Calcutta Botanical Gardens.

6. The correct way to load a tea clipper

From Louise Macfarlane (Curator at the Cutty Sark), and Kunbing Xiao (Southwest Minzu University), we learnt that the packing of a vessel bound for England from China, would take three days to complete in order to make storage organisation as efficient as possible. The bottom of the hull was filled with crates of porcelain first, followed by chests of bohea, the cheapest variety of black tea that was predominantly drunk in the West at this time. Bohea also filled the porcelain vessels, which helped to cushion the pieces from damage. The middle of the deck was also cambered to minimise water damage to the cargo if it were to wash onto the deck.

‘Loading tea’ from China Tea Clippers by George F Campbell, 1954

With three days of fascinating talks and presentations, this is only a snapshot of what we took away from the speakers, with other avenues and ideas waiting to be explored. We look forward to following the outcomes of the conference, be inspired by its findings, and continue our involvement to showcase the wonderful objects that make up the Chitra Collection and share our mission to preserve tea drinking cultures from around the world.