Although the entire world is on notice of the British love of tea, for the first 200 years of Britain’s tea-drinking history their supply of tea came from China. It was not until this day in British history, 10 January 1839, that the first auction of Assam tea took place in London.
The first time that the new China drink called ‘tay’ was advertised in a British newspaper was 1658, but Charles II’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza would prove the turning point in the British perception of tea. Her love of tea helped it become a fashionable drink, especially among the wealthy class. And, of course, where there was money to be made in the 17th century the British East India Company was involved. Though the company was based in India, all of its tea import came from China. Tea consumption grew exponentially during the 17th and 18th centuries. An interesting related topic is the history of taxation on tea, a phenomenon that influenced the British Empire’s wars during the 18th century, (Boston Tea Party, anyone?) but that is a topic for another time.
The introduction of India tea to Britain was thanks, in large part, to a Scottish trader and explorer named Robert Bruce. His 1823 journey to India was undertaken with a specific goal in mind: to meet with the chief of the Singhpo, an indigenous tribe, in regard to their tea. During his travels in India Bruce had learned that the Singhpo grew several varieties of tea that were not grown anywhere else in the world. Bruce hoped above all to befriend the Singhpo and gain long-term access to the area where their tea was grown, an area in India’s Upper Assam region. His journey to Assam ended successfully and the Singhpo chief allowed him to take samples of the tea plants and seeds. Robert Bruce died in 1824, but not before telling his younger brother, Charles Alexander Bruce, about the potential of the Assam region and what he had learned from the Singhpo.
Charles Bruce took up where his brother had left off, though it would be another decade before the tea leaves from Assam would be scientifically tested and verified as different from the Chinese tea leaves popular in Britain. Before that verification occurred, the British government decided to turn its focus away from China tea and over to the Assam region of India. A contributor to their decision was the end of the East India Company’s monopoly on the tea trade in China.
In early 1834, the British government instituted a ‘Tea Committee’ to decide upon a region where the East India Company should focus its newest venture in establishing tea production. After consulting with military men in India, the Tea Committee settled on Assam as their region of focus and finally had the tea leaves there tested. Though they were confirmed as genuine tea leaves, Charles Bruce’s contribution was largely ignored. The Tea Committee decided not to use the newly discovered leaves as their tea, but rather to attempt a transplant of the already well-known China tea plants into the Assam region. This attempt proved a horrible failure and set back the Tea Committee’s plans for commercial tea production.
While the Tea Committee blundered along, Bruce set out on his own. He planted a nursery in the Assam region consisting entirely of native tea plants. With the help of some Chinese workers Bruce cultivated the plants and harvested enough good Assam tea leaves to send to the Tea Committee. Impressed by the local Assam tea, Lord Auckland approved the leaves on behalf of the Tea Committee. Bruce continued to cultivate his nursery of Assamese plants, and by late 1837 he had harvested enough tea to send 47 chests to the Tea Committee who then forwarded eight of them (350 pounds worth) on to London. It was not until 10 January 1839 that the consignment was auctioned in London, but the excitement that the new Assam tea leaves generated in London was unprecedented.
The first auction of Assam tea in Britain proved to the government and to the East India Company that the potential profit from commercial production of Assam tea was enormous. Several companies were formed directly following the Assam tea auction, but the Assam Company was founded by Parliament and was the first to receive a Royal Charter. Though the company had to overcome initial hardships and mishaps, with the help of outside investment the Assam Company became successful within 10 years. Growth expanded quickly. By 1862 the Assam region produced over 1.5 million pounds of tea per year, and by 1888 the British tea imports from India comprised more of the nation’s tea than did imports from China. The Assam Company still exists and is a major player in the tea industry, with annual manufacturing numbers of over 15 million pounds of tea.