The Tea Centre Age of Sail series: The First Opium War & Tea

The Age of Sail: Pearl River Delta | The First Opium War & Tea

Our next stop in the Age of Sail series is the Pearl River Delta, where a naval war was fought over the trade of tea. 

The Tea Centre’s Age of Sail wooden tea box boasts a dozen teas that made an impact on the world through the advent of maritime trading. Specifically, our inclusion of Gunpowder and Keemun OP are nods to China, the birthplace of tea.

As seen in previous entries, the Age of Sail was a boon for Western nations—particularly Great Britain. Innovations in shipbuilding meant people could travel further and use naval artillery against kingdoms previously thought to be impenetrable. 

One poignant example of this is the First Opium War (1839-1842). Specifically, tracing the import and export of tea during this conflict opens one’s eyes to how intrinsic the Age of Sail was in making Britain a world superpower.

You may think that this entry should start in the Pearl River Delta during 1839. However, we’re taking you back 175 years prior when a king married a princess and celebrated with tea.

1664 | The British develop a taste for Chinese tea

While the West had drunk tea since the Age of Sail’s onset, it didn’t become ubiquitous in England until Catherine of Braganza married King Charles II, and brought as part of her dowry two pounds of Chinese tea.

Catherine of Braganza & King Charles II of Great Britain
Pictured: Queen Catherine of Braganza & King Charles the II of Great Britain. Circa 1165, courtesy of Christie’s London.


With King Charles II’s tick of approval, the peerage suddenly took to drinking tea. Its all-consuming popularity then spread to the rest of Britain by the close of the eighteenth century. 

Why Chinese tea? Because China was the only nation that could both grow and trade tea globally (remembering that Japan was under sakoku at the time). Therefore, China’s monopoly on the tea trade went unchallenged for another century. 

Some historians argue that this trading prowess and thriving domestic industry in textiles, tea, and porcelain gave the Qing dynasty (1636–1911) a false sense of superiority. This would prove to be a weakness during the First Opium War.

1783 | Too much demand & no silver lining

A century passes and British demand for tea only grows stronger. By the late 1700s, the nation is reporting 7,000 tons in tea imports per annum. 

While the British government were happy about the influx of tea (a 100% tax on tea imports made the trade more lucrative than ever), they were bleeding silver in order to obtain it. 

While this trade imbalance with China (who desired nothing but silver from the West) always existed, it became clear by 1783 that Britain was struggling to keep up with demand. Losing the American Revolutionary War and paying for Indian wars precipitated this, destabilising the economy and cementing the scarcity of silver.

Britain’s morally ambiguous pursuit of free trade to rectify this, and China’s standoffish manner towards any relations with the West, saw excessive measures taken that eventually swung the trade imbalance from one extreme to the other.

1799-1830s | Britain smuggles opium for tea

Chinese tea and porcelain teawares

Britain’s solution toward righting the tea trade with China was two-fold: break the monopoly by growing their own tea, and trade opium instead of silver. Both of these solutions were played out by proxy in British India. 

As you may recall from this entry, the advent of Indian tea plantations is why Assam, Darjeeling, and chai are so popular today. However, another outcome of the East India Company’s foothold in India was control of opium production in Bengal.

A Chinese ban on opium was in place since 1729. However, the demand was still there, particularly in ports where locals had been smoking opium since the seventh century.

Britain soon established an effective albeit devastating trade. Chinese tea was bought on credit and paid off via opium smuggled on British ships from Kolkata into Macao and Hong Kong via the Pearl River Delta. From there, it was illegally sold to the public via Chinese merchants.

In 1804, Britain’s trade deficit became an exponential surplus. Evidence suggests that Britain was importing 30,000 boxes of opium into China by 1835, which grew to 40,000 boxes by 1839. Despite edicts from the emperor shaming the drug, the opium trade kept growing. 

1839 | China & Britain go to war

Everything came to a head in 1939 when the urbanisation of opium saw millions become addicts. An unquantifiable amount of Chinese men also began dying from withdrawal. 

While there were suggestions to tax and legalise opium to equalise trade with Britain, an angry Qing government took the hardline approach instead. Given opium came in via Canton region (containing Macao, Hong Kong, and the Pearl River), the Qing government focused their suppression tactics there.

The government ceased trade, arrested local merchants, placed foreign merchants under siege, and confiscated 1,000 tons of opium without compensation. All within the span of a month. 

An equally angry Britain then sent Indian and English troops plus naval artillery down Pearl River. As a result, the First Opium War began.

1842 | Treaty of Nanking

It soon became apparent that China would lose the war. Its military could not defend against British ships, whose naval technology greatly outstripped their own. At the war’s conclusion, the Qing government had to sign the Treaty of Nanking, later known as the ‘unequal treaties.’

The reason why is made apparent by the terms of the agreement:

  • Britain was allowed to trade not only in Canton, but also in the ports of Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai. They also paid a pittance in fixed tariffs.
  • British residents in those ports were given extraterritoriality rights. That meant—despite residing in China—they were above Chinese law and only answerable to the British government.
  • China was made to pay six million indemnity for the destruction of opium to Britain. In silver.
  • China was forced to cede Hong Kong to the British in perpetuity.*

*The British eventually rescinded and returned all of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. However, you can imagine how humiliating signing such an agreement was for the Qing dynasty at the time.

1840s-70s | Gunpowder & Keemun golden age

Despite becoming a war-torn country (the Taiping Rebellion—a 14-year civil conflict—was another consequence of the First Opium War), China’s tea industry was still robust. In fact, the export of gunpowder tea to Britain hit a peak at 200,000 dan (1000 metric tons) in 1843!

Flatlay of gunpowder green tea.
Image courtesy of Tea Forte.


Proving that war was still very much on everyone’s mind, a British clerk gave gunpowder tea its name. Apparently, the tea’s pellet-like shape made the clerk think of gunpowder granules.

Thirty years later, tea farmers in the Qimen county began experimenting with slower oxidation processes. Such experimentation led to the invention of a brand-new black tea: Keemun OP

Thanks to the large British presence in nearby ports (Shanghai and Ningbo), Keemun quickly grew in popularity overseas. In fact, it went on to form the basis of many English Breakfast tea blends.

The Sino-British tea trade today

These events from 180 years ago have certainly left their mark. While China may not have a monopoly on tea anymore, it eventually reclaimed its superpower status under the economic policies of Deng Xiaoping (1970s-1990s). It also continues to be the leading exporter of tea in the world.

The impact in Great Britain can be seen in the population’s continual obsession with tea. This was a habit they would also pass on to much of the Commonwealth (including Australia)! 

Moreover, Sino-British tensions informed the establishment of tea plantations not only in India but also Sri Lanka. Specifically, we include Dimbula OP in our ‘Age of Sail’ collection as it heralds from one of the first Sri Lankan regions to be staked for tea by Great Britain in the 1860s.

Ready for a taste of history? Purchase the ‘Age of Sail’ wooden tea box or peruse the whole collection here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.