24th
May
2013

Posted in Reference

It is estimated that tea has been enjoyed as a drink for around 3000 years, first used in China before spreading to places like Korea and Japan, but it is only in the last 500 years or so that Europeans were able to try out the beverage.

In 1497, a Portuguese explorer by the name of Vasco da Gama set sail from Lisbon in an attempt to find the sea route to India. Despite losing two of the four ships and over half of the collective crew that set out, the voyage was otherwise a resounding success, managing to sail to Calicut in India and return to Lisbon via the Cape of Good Hope. Spices brought back from India were sold for a huge profit. The success of this voyage opened up for Europe the possibility of trade in the East by sea, though it was used by the Portuguese excusively for almost a century as the lucrative route was kept a secret.

The vessel sailed by da Gama was a carrack, or Nau as it was known to the Portuguese. It was a development of the earlier caravel, also built by the Portuguese to aid their exploration of the west African coast. The carrack typically had three masts, with the fore and main carrying square courses and topsails, with the mizzen carrying a lateen sail. A bowsprit also carried a spritsail. This large sail area propelled an extravagant vessel with tall fore and aft castles and a capacious cargo hold. The pair of carracks that accompanied da Gama weighed in at around 180 tons, but whilst they were considered fairly large at the time- certainly larger than an accompanying caravel- in context with later carracks they were some of the small ones. Designs varied wildly in tonnage as the Portuguese India armadas attempted to carry more and more trade goods back and forth. The larger vessels were often unseaworthy, to the point where when loaded down with cargo they became dangerous. This didn't stop traders pushing for larger vessels though. After the 700 ton Madre de Deus was captured by British forces resulting in plunder equal in value to almost half of the Engish treasury, traders and shipbuilders decided on building smaller vessels.

With their holdings in east Africa and India, Portugal pressed on eastward to Indonesia, capturing Malacca, further onwards to China where they established a trading post at Macau and eventually made it to Japan. As Britain first imported tea from the Dutch, and the Dutch had received that tea from the Portuguese, it is conceivable that this tea would have been brought back to Portugal from Macau. We owe it to these intrepid explorers, who risked life and limb, that we are able nowadays to enjoy tea with such ease.

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