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From tea to opium: how the Scots left their mark on China | Aeon Essays
Like their 18th-century predecessors, Jardine and Matheson financed Britain’s lucrative tea trade in Canton by moving their clients’ money from India to China. Instead of transferring these fortunes through a variety of legal Indian and Southeast Asian commodities, namely cotton, pepper, wood, tin and saltpetre, as had been done in the past, the Scottish traders relied increasingly on a contraband product: Indian opium. In defiance of the laws of China they, along with private traders of different nationalities including Americans and Indian Parsis, smuggled tens of thousands of chests of opium into China each year during the first half of the 19th century.

In 1848 and again in 1849, Fortune travelled in full disguise, including the traditional Qing dynasty hairstyle with a shaved hairline and long braid, deep into the countryside of Zhejiang, Anhui and Fujian provinces. He was searching for the finest tea plants in China. Having acquired thousands of specimens and seeds, he shipped them all, carefully packed in airtight glass cases, from Hong Kong to the East India Company’s Botanical Gardens in Calcutta. From there, they went further, to the Company’s gardens in the Himalayas.

Scots played an outsized role in the intertwined trades of tea and opium, giving rise to social, economic and cultural developments that changed the macro relationship between Britain and China as well as everyday cultural practices and patterns of sociability.

When British consumers began sweetening their Chinese tea with Caribbean sugar, these two commodities, one from the East Indies, the other from the West, reinforced one another. The result was new fuel for the industrial revolution. In addition to coal, sugary tea made the revolution possible by helping British workers endure inhumanely long shifts in the textile factories of the industrial North.
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