The Tea Centre | Age of Sail: Hibiscus & Rooibos

The Age of Sail: Cape of Good Hope | Hibiscus & Rooibos

We’re interrupting our voyage to make port on Mauritius island! This was a stop many nineteenth-century seafarers took before rounding the Cape of Good Hope, impacting the diaspora of hibiscus and rooibos tea in the process.

Our Age of Sail series has taken us through the ports of London, Canton, Tokyo, and Kolkata. Now it’s time to travel past the equator! Specifically, we’re heading over to the continent that gave us the rooibos and hibiscus in our Age of Sail wooden tea box: Africa.

In this Tea Journal entry, we’re illustrating how maritime trading (specifically the presence of the Dutch East Indies Company—VOC—in Africa) had the by-product effect of commercialising hibiscus across six continents. Not to mention greatly inform the reframing of rooibos as a beverage too. Talk about painting the world red!

Hibiscus: the floral favourite around the world

While we’re focusing on hibiscus within Southern Africa, please note that hibiscus has cultural significance for many groups around the world!

Hibiscus is drunk in the likes of Eygpt (karkadi), West Africa (bissap), the Caribbeans (sorrel), and Thailand (nam kra-jeab). Moreover, it’s the national flower of South Korea, Malaysia, AND the state flower of Hawaii. In Hinduism, hibiscus is also thought to be the flower of the great goddess Kali. 

Long story short, if tea/tisanes had a popularity contest, hibiscus would definitely take first place. 

Interestingly, while West Africans are thought to be the first to drink hibiscus, no one knows where hibiscus originally comes from. Botanists can trace back as far as the first eight original hibiscus species. A descendant of the original eight is hibiscus sabdariffa. Native to Africa, this is the species of hibiscus that The Tea Centre retails today!

Hibiscus Sinensis specimen classified by Carl Linneaus
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis: the first hibiscus ever collected by botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753. 
Hibiscus sabdariffa specimen: also collected by Linnaeus. The hibiscus you can make tea with!

Simply put, the initial spread of hibiscus across Africa, Asia, and Oceania predates empirical records. Whether through continental drifting or Polynesian seafarers prior to the Age of Sail (the two main theories), the answer to that question is currently unknown.

What we do know, however, is that we can trace its spread into the West back to Mauritius island during the Age of Sail! Understanding how this happened requires a little geography lesson on maritime trading routes first…

Mauritius: a little island of big importance

Pictured: an approximation of maritime shipping routes during the Age of Sail. The pink circle is the Cape of Good Hope and the red circle is Mauritius; an island so small you can’t see it on the map!

Take yourself back to the 1700s when the Suez Canal (the quickest maritime route between Asia and Europe) doesn’t exist. The next best option? That would be to take a harrowing journey around the Cape of Good Hope.

Despite being an established trade route since the 1500s (VOC colonised Mauritius in 1598), this route was particularly perilous. In fact, it’s known to be one of the most challenging legs a ship can take to this day. 

In order to give sailors the best possible chance at surviving it, ships had to stop at Port Louis in Mauritius to replenish supplies first. Inadvertently, this made Mauritius important not only geographically, but culturally as well. 

As the VOC allowed ships from several nations to pass through the port, the island soon began to attract all sorts of botanists, zoologists, and naturalists as well as sailors. These intellectuals were allowed to board trade ships in the understanding that their ‘discovery’ of commercially viable plants or animals would increase the wealth of companies like the VOC.  

Without Mauritius (home to three native species of hibiscus) becoming a trading and cultural hub, the commercial viability of hibiscus and rooibos may have never been realised.

A prosperous friendship: Carl Linnaeus & Carl Thunberg

That’s enough about hibiscus; what about rooibos? Well, their origin stories are very much intertwined thanks to two academics. Incidentally, these academics had the same name: Carl.

First up is Carl Linnaeus, who we credit as the first botanist to classify hibiscus in 1753. However, Linnaeus was famous for much more than that. In fact, he was dubbed “the father of modern taxonomy” during his lifetime. 

Though Linnaeus was Swedish, he spent a significant amount of time in the Netherlands (the country behind VOC) teaching botany to intellectuals he called his “apostles”. These apostles—one being naturalist Carl Thunberg—went on to take part in VOC expeditions to Mauritius and the Cape of Good Hope during the Age of Sail. 

Linnaeus encouraged Thunberg to apply for VOC expeditions into the Cape of Good Hope. With Linneaus as a reference, Thunberg was allowed to board Schoonzicht, reaching South Africa in 1772.

The origin of rooibos tea

Before Thunberg appeared on the scene, the first harvesters of rooibos (Aspalathus Linearis) were the Khoisan people, indigenous to the cape region. However, the Khoisan did not steep rooibos to make tea. Rather, they would harvest and process the leaves for medicinal purposes. The Khoisan was expert bushmen, and it was often an impressive sight to see them scale the cape in order to harvest wild rooibos.

Thunberg was the first to question why the Khoisan were climbing the cape, and record the harvesting of rooibos in 1772. His writings on this practice revived a more widespread interest in rooibos. Early Cape-Dutch settlers also began drinking this tea as a cheaper alternative to expensive imported tea at this time.

While rooibos wasn’t commercially successful until the 1930s, the cultivation of rooibos with the intention of creating an enterprising beverage began with Thunberg and the Age of Sail. Moreover, what’s a worldly ‘Age of Sail’ tea box without our favourite South African tea?

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

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