When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

No-one knows what happened to the Porpoise. Wreck books, such as the Lloyds Wreck Register, maintained in London, recorded merchant ships lost at sea in similar circumstances. The name of the ship and a few other details would be written up along with a statement such as ‘sailed and not since heard of’ but this entry would only be made after a reasonable length of time had elapsed.  During that period those waiting for the arrival of the ship would feel concern turn to dread before gradually realising it was pointless to hope any longer. Naturally, there would always be a nagging, residual question as to what had happened to the vessel. It is thought the Porpoise may have been caught in a typhoon, although no proof was ever found.  


Although there was no chance of a ship sinking without trace at the mouth of the Min, Richards would have been well aware of the dangers in the area long before he arrived. The most important waterway in Fujian province, the Min had over 1500 tributaries. There were also over 800 shoals and sandbanks in the main channel, which made an inland journey difficult, but it was the stretch between Foochow and the outer bar that Richards was most concerned with and here the hazards were no less. It was approximately 22 miles from the outer bar to what was known as the Pagoda Anchorage, taking its name from a pagoda on a nearby island. From the anchorage, which was essentially Foochow’s harbour, it was 11 miles to the port itself.


As the 1850s wore on Foochow became the most favoured place in China for loading tea. The leaves came from the Wuyi hills to the north-west of Fujian province, a ‘tea country’ known as Minbei. The Min was a vital artery in getting tea from small bushes to big boats.


Long before the commodity appeared in any quantity in Europe tea had been grown and processed in China, indeed it appears to have been taxed at least as early as the C8th. There were an enormous number of varieties with all kinds of variables influencing taste so it is no surprise one Chinese saying had it that;


Even though one studies the tea industry until old age one can never learn all the names of types of tea.


There were no great tea plantations in Minbei, for production was, as it had been for centuries, in the hands of small scale enterprises which included peasant smallholders, minor landlords, and Buddhist and Taoist temples and monasteries. The earliest development of the tea trade in the area are truly lost in the mists of antiquity but by the time the Saracen arrived on the Min momentum was building that would enormously expand exports from the port. Foochow, being further south than Shanghai had an advantage in exporting tea to Britain and the disruptions caused by the Taiping rebellion lead several trading houses to look more closely at the possibilities offered by access to Minbei via the Min. However, despite the promise of increased wealth an expansion of the tea trade would bring, representatives of the trading houses were not made welcome in Foochow and indeed some complained they found it difficult to rent accommodation.


The disdain shown by many of the merchant class in Foochow is hardly surprising given the humiliation Britain had inflicted China in the first Opium War and the alacrity with which other Western powers had exploited the new opportunities in a way the Chinese considered unfair. There were also other reasons, to do with agricultural espionage. It was quite natural that Chinese manufacturers and producers would wish to protect the secrets of their trades and for this reason would have been supportive of Imperial edicts that prohibited Western merchants travelling far from the treaty ports. These suspicions were well founded for in the late 1840’s a botanist and plant collector named Robert Fortune had smuggled tea plants from China to India at the behest of the East India Company and brought Chinese ‘tea technologists’ too. Fortune’s endeavours were, eventually, to form the basis of the Indian tea industry, an unwelcome competitor to the producers in the country of origin.

Despite the antagonism felt in Foochow the trading companies pressed on and soon began to take considerable risks in expanding their businesses. Just how successful can be seen from these figures – in the 1853-1854 season over one and a quarter million lbs of tea were exported from Fujian to the USA which rose, in the following season, to nearly six million. The figures for exports to Britain are even more startling rising from just under six million to over twenty. What was also growing was the export trade to Australia and in fact, in 1860, Australia was to overtake the USA to become the second largest overseas market for Fujian tea.


Four crops of tea were harvested in the Minbei and of these only two were for export. As, despite the political troubles, the domestic demand for tea was maintained it was natural Chinese connoisseurs would want to keep the finest for themselves. Many were horrified on hearing the British liked to add milk and sugar to their tea, which would have confirmed their suspicion that Westerners truly were barbarians. The very best crop was the first, picked in the middle of April. It usually stayed at home. It was second crop which would be found in the holds of the first ships to depart, two months later, from the Pagoda Anchorage.


Freshly plucked leaves of tea would soon rot away unless they were processed, a complicated procedure that sometimes included fermentation and which meant buying agents had to be able to judge the quality of the product at whichever stage it had reached. The degree of fermentation sometimes determined the description of the final commodity. Fully fermented tea, such as soochong, was called black and this was the kind generally shipped off to Britain and Australia. Unfermented tea, such as gunpowder, was described as green and partially fermented teas, such as oolong, which was generally an American preference, were neither green nor black. Another division, not heard of today, was between cliff and sandbank teas. The cliff tea came, naturally, from the higher land and sandbank from the adjacent valleys.


Once a consignment had been prepared in a warehouse in Minbei it was shipped down river to Nantai, a suburb of Foochow where trading houses had established their offices and godowns (warehouses). Here, if needed, processing was completed and then the tea was packed ready for transport on an ocean going merchant ship.

 

When an export cargo was due to be loaded the hold would be carefully prepared. Woodwork would be scraped, ironwork painted and stone ballast made ready. This ballast, supplemented by iron weights, was laid very carefully as it was important to ensure the cargo did not spoil and that a ship was in good trim before setting sail. Very hard, non porous stones such as shingle were used for ballast as it was thought the dampness in porous stone might be absorbed by the leaves and spoil the quality. When everything was ready sampans would draw alongside the ship and the wooden chests into which the tea had been packed manhandled on board. The Chinese stevedores would then place them in the position they would occupy for the duration of the voyage.


As much space as possible was used for storage. The largest tea chests were 23 inches by 17 inches by 21 inches and these could be supplemented by half chests and one foot cube units called catty boxes. The standard tea chests were loaded in tiers. The lowest would be placed on boards directly on the ballast and a couple more tiers were then added which also rested, to some extent, on boards resting on the stones. Above those first tiers the others would just rest on each other and once each was complete dunnage would be used to fill the spaces between the outside (or ‘wing’) chests and the hull of the ship. Following this the outside chests would be pounded with a wooden mallet in order to force the rest of the chests in the row together. The result, to an untrained eye must have seemed like a smooth new deck.


During the C18th and early C19th tea exports to Britain were usually carried in a well armed East Indiaman, a type of vessel that was large but relatively slow. The ending of the East India Company monopoly, combined with the security offered by global reach and power of the Royal Navy in the post-Napoleonic period meant it was no longer quite so necessary to carry heavy cannon and moreover, there was an increasing demand for speed. This was something which could be provided by the new clippers, which could carry tea just as well as opium.


On to Chapter 11 - Eclipsing clippers

Back to Introduction








Chapter 10 - Tea to the Pagoda Anchorage

Commanders and clippers

In the Wuyi Hills

Taiping territory

East Indiaman at East India Dock basin in 1820