ea: 'It purifies the blood, dispels heavy dreams, chases away stupidity, and strengthens Venus.' At the outset, Europeans drank tea mainly for medicinal reasons. When they started to drink it for social reasons as well during the first half of the eighteenth century, China's ports began to attract an ever-greater number of western merchants. With much of Europe hooked on the drink, the VOC and other European companies lined up in Canton to get a piece of the action. European traders offered silver, tin, pepper, sandalwood, birdsnests and other tropical import products as barter to purchase tea and porcelain.

(click image to enlarge)

Batavia: City at the Crossroads

n 1619, the VOC decided to establish its headquarters at the crossroads of the intra-Ocean traffic. The location chosen, Jacatra (renamed Batavia), was close to the Portuguese-dominated Straits of Melaka, where the traffic lanes from both the Indian Ocean and the China Sea came together. Both the Dutch and Chinese had interests in common in the Southeast Asian markets, and both strongly affected the fortunes of insular Southeast Asia.

The Formosa Experiment

rom their centre at Batavia, the VOC tried to capture a share of the China Sea trade, especially that from Fujian. Shortly after the initial conquest of Jakatra, Governor General Jan Pieterszoon Coen felt bold enough to attack the Portuguese trading post at Macao in order to break the China-Manila trade connection. In the end, violent Dutch attempts to exert dominion over the Chinese coastal settlements failed. The Dutch instead settled down on Taiwan (Formosa) in 1624. During the late 1630s, the connection between Batavia and Taiwan grew into a principal trade link in the Indies for the VOC , which imported silk from Amoy, and later Tonkin, through Taiwan to trade for Japanese silver.

Until the victory of Ming China under Cheng Ch'engkung ('Coxinga') over the VOC and consequently the fall of Fort Zeelandia in 1662, the Company exercised almost 40 years of political, economic and religious control over the native Formosans. Dutch-Chinese commercial and agricultural activities attracted the first wave of Chinese immigrants to the island. VOC sources, such as the recently published four volume 'Daghregisters' (accounts of daily affairs) of Fort Zeelandia, form the single most important historical resource for the study of pre-Chinese Formosan society

China's Junks, Dutch Treasure

fter the loss of Taiwan, the VOC was not able to establish any form of direct trade with China again. Military expeditions, diplomatic missions to Peking, and endless pourparlers in Fuzhou were all in vain. Chinese junks only began to sail to Batavia in great numbers after the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1683, when Peking liberalized the overseas junk trade of the southern provinces to Southeast Asia. The period between 1690 and 1740 was the heyday of this revitalized junk trade, primarily between Amoy and Batavia. The junks brought valuable shiploads of saltpetre, raw silk, porcelain and tea to Batavia, while the Chinese nachodas returned with the pepper, textiles, and cloves much sought-after in China.

The New Market of Canton

he rapid increase in tea consumption throughout Europe was the immediate reason that English traders began to navigate directly from London to Canton in 1697. The VOC in Batavia relied on revenue from the yearly cargoes of tea brought in by Chinese junks. Imperial trade restrictions and growing European competition, however, led to the VOC decision in 1728 to navigate directly from Amsterdam to Canton and Macao. A chain of Chinese trading houses or hong at Canton then served as intermediate offices for the European tea trade.

When prices in Europe dropped owing to strong competition, the Dutch tea trade came under regulation by a special VOC China Commissie in 1756. Until the 19th century, China remained the only major supplier of tea to the world market, and until its dissolution the VOC remained a major player in the global tea trade.

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