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Smuggling Tea into Britain

Source: Deirdre LeFaye
Millions of pounds of tea were smuggled into England along the eastern and southern coasts
Source: Kim Wilson
As long as taxes on tea remained high, smuggling flourished
Source: Jane Pettigrew
English people supported smugglers by concealing, distributing, and purchasing untaxed tea

The East India Company imported tea to England, but it kept prices artifially high and controlled the supply of tea to keep tea in demand. Because of the company’s monopoly on tea and the prohibitively high taxes charged by the Crown, smugglers had every incentive to bring tea into the country illegally.

As the East India Company grew in size and power, it edged out competition from the East India companies of the Dutch, Swedish, French, and Danish. Those companies, in turn, survived by selling tea to English smugglers, who were very eager to bring tea inland to the middle and lower classes.

So many men were involved in smuggling that, at times, it was hard to find enough workers for English farms. Smuggling was more lucrative. Become a smuggler!

Tea smuggling mainly occurred along the southern coast of England, the Scottish borders, around the Isle of Man, the Isle of Wight, and the Channel Islands.

To outsmart excise officers, smugglers had to rely on their ability to evade detection and operate in secrecy with the help of local citizens using light signals, coast watchers, and sheer trickery.

By 1775, smuggling flourished. As an illegal substance, exact amounts are not known, but it is estimated that smugglers brought 4-7 million pounds of tea to England, per year, which had a significant impact on the East India Company's profits.

The rivalry between the East India Company and smugglers ended up favoring the smugglers. The high price of tea and taxes on tea made it affordable for only a small amount of people, but cheaper, smuggled tea was relatively easy to acquire and available to the majority of people in England.

At times, the East India Company ended up with a surplus of expensive tea they could not sell. They attempted to dump the surplus on the American market, which eventually contributed to the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and to the American Revolutionary War in 1775.

As smugglers became more organized and their methods more sophisticated, they impacted the legal tea market and devastated the East India Company's profits. The simple formula to stop smuggling was to lower the taxes on tea and sell legal tea cheaper.

The Commutation Act of 1784 slashed taxes on tea from 119% to 12.5%, and smuggling stopped almost immediately.

The English Crown ignored illegal activities associated with smuggling tea, and many smugglers became legitimate tea dealers and shopkeepers.

A Market for Cheaper Tea
Source: Kim Wilson

Tax-free tea from Holland, France, Sweden, Denmark, and Portugal came to Europe in larger ships and had lower operating costs than the bloated East India Company.

Legal tea and smuggled tea competed for customers, but smuggled tea was much cheaper.

People bought smuggled tea from shopkeepers, traveling tea peddlers, and directly from the smugglers.

Blurring Lines between Legal and Illegal Tea
Source: burtonbradstock.org.uk

There were two methods of smuggling tea into England: buying non-taxed tea from the Dutch or Swedish or buying from East Indiamen who sold their personal stash to smugglers but competed with their own employer.

Legal tea had the advantage of controling major lines of distribution and expert knowledge buying and blending tea.

Smugglers had the advantage of having access to larger quantities of tea, an untapped market to sell it to, and a cheaper product.

Local Support of Smuggled Tea
Source: Deirdre LeFaye

Eventually, the smuggling trade became powerful and resourceful, using large, well-armed ships and large gangs of men.

The middle and lower classes approved of smuggled tea. This included shop owners, common citizens, and even clergymen.

"Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea." Sidney Smith

Some smugglers often used violence and intimidation to get help from English citizens, as described in a poem by Rudyard Kipling.

Adulterating Tea for Higher Profits
Source: Kim Wilson

Chinese adulterated tea to enhance its color by adding artifical, poisonous chemicals. Because of this, British preference shifted from green tea to black tea.

To increase profits, smugglers adulterated tea by adding twigs and dried leaves from other plants, floor sweepings, sheep dung, and by reselling used, dried tea leaves as new.

Some smugglers tried to sell smouch, which wasn't tea at all and contained none of the Camellia sinensis tea plant. Today, people purchase smouch in the form of herbal tea, which contains no tea leaves, but is labeled accordingly.

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