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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part one. Regional dynamics and globalisation

The success of Asian products in the 16th to 18th century Europe

Philippe Haudrère

Texte intégral

1June 2006

2Europeans have been acquainted with products from Asia for a long time, since well before the 16th century. Wealthy Romans appreciated spices, particularly pepper, and silk. During the Middle Ages, the “Silk Road” was in use. Although the technique of breeding silkworms had reached the West (first in Italy, then France and then in Spain), thanks to the Byzantines who had practised it in the eastern Mediterranean countries, the production of silk did not completely meet the local demand in terms of both quality and quantity. Spices were still sought after, as were “curious items”, like Chinese porcelain. This trade made Venice a very wealthy place.

3The big change in the 16th century came from the opening of the sea route between Europe and Asia, via the Cape of Good Hope. It was henceforth possible to transport large quantities of goods from the East to the West, whilst avoiding cargo shipping and middlemen, both of which were expensive, and the dangers of taking the traditional route, a part of which involved crossing land. At that time, what the Europeans wanted, in particular, were spices. The Portuguese, masters of the sea routes, transported about 70,000 quintals every year: 20,000 to 30,000 quintals of pepper, 10,000 to 20,000 quintals of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger, and other spices in smaller quantities. The Portuguese were not the only ones. Although the route via the Cape of Good Hope vigorously competed with the traditional route, it did not bring about its decline, and the Venetians brought back the same quantities as the Portuguese, adapting themselves to the new market rules by lowering costs and buying high quality spices. Therefore, the change that occurred in the 16th century, on account of the reduced prices, was that the spice market opened up to numerous European buyers. At the time, “spice merchants” had shops in most European cities. Spices were important in cooking and were used to enhance the flavour of dishes that would seem quite strong to our contemporary tastes; for example, pepper was widely used to preserve meat. Pepper had many other uses like that at the French Court, for example, under the reign of Henri IV, one took sniffs of pepper to unblock the nose!

  • 1 In 1684 the British transported a million pieces of cotton cloth.

4At the beginning of the 17th century the demand for spices was so great that the Portuguese were no longer able to meet it. Other maritime powers, firstly the Dutch and the English, and later the French, Danish and Swedish, went to Asia by the Cape route. They discovered cotton, which already existed in Europe, but only as a highly luxurious product reserved for princes and other rich aristocrats, who used it for furniture or decor, for example, upholstering seats and making curtains. The arrival of large quantities of cotton1, sold at prices that made it affordable for all, led to Europeans using it to make clothes. Cotton was an easy-to-wash material that preserved its colour after use, and was a lot more comfortable to wear than wool, which had been used until then. It was a rapid and significant change in people’s lifestyles: “In less than twenty years”, affirmed a British commentator in 1699, “we have seen cotton become our favourite gem. Everyone, from the fussiest little master to the most vulgar cook, think they cannot do without it”. It was the birth of fashion!

5From the end of the 17th century onwards, two new products aroused as much interest in Europe as spices and cotton: coffee and tea. The main coffee growing region was located in Yemen, in the region named “Happy Arab” in ancient times, the chain of mountains located near the Red Sea. There, between 2,000 and 3,000 meters above sea level, the reasonably humid climate improved the growth of coffee plantations. Coffee was cultivated under other trees that protected it from the sun during the warmest times of the day. The coffee was then taken from the coffee growing regions to the nearby port of Mocha. Like cotton, Europeans had known of coffee for a long time as it had been brought to all the Mediterranean countries from the ports of the Levant, but its extremely steep price had limited its consumption. In the 1660s, the British, followed by the Dutch and the French, started transporting large quantities of coffee via the Cape route and as a result there was a sharp decline in the price. At the beginning of the 18th century, it became widely available to consumers; both the English and the French imported 450 tonnes of it every year. However, the demand for Mocha fell from the 1730s onwards, because the Europeans started to produce coffee in their colonies; the Dutch in Java, the French in Bourbon (La Réunion) and the West Indies, and the English also in the West Indies. However, coffee lovers who appreciated its taste in quality, continued to buy Mocha coffee, and it was still consumed by the French at the Court of Versailles.

6The rise in the consumption of tea was simultaneous to that of coffee, but it happened more quickly and became a craze similar to cotton. Tea was transported in British and Dutch cargo ships at the same time as coffee. From 1678, the directors of the English East India Company decided to import it in large quantities and they went to much trouble to encourage its widespread consumption. “The consumption of tea has increased here”, they wrote to their employees in Asia, “We have offered it to some of our closest friends at the Court, and we wish to have five or six of the best quality and freshest tea every year; tea which gives a beautiful colour to the water in which it is brewed, especially green tea, is the most sought after”. In Europe, the directors of the Dutch company did the same thing, targeting the medical profession, in particular. The famous Dr. Nicolas Tuli, from Amsterdam, recommended drinking tea to feel well. In 1685, one of his colleagues published a Treaty on an excellent herb named tea and advised his patients to drink fifty to two hundred cups of tea every day [sic], as the best remedy against all the pains they could suffer from. This propaganda had a very decisive effect. At the end of the 17th century, tea was still the beverage of the wealthy elite, who drank it out of fine porcelain cups, with the best quality cane sugar. By the beginning of the 18th century, it had come to be widely consumed by all strata of society in both England and the United Provinces (former name for the Netherlands), and tea merchants were found in all the major cities of these two countries.

7Tea was only produced in China. How did the Europeans obtain it? At first, it was from their “trading posts” in India, brought by local navigation ships. Then, from 1697, the English and the French sent ships directly from Europe to Canton, a port in southern China. The Dutch did the same thing a little later. There were large differences in the quality of tea, which was bought by the Europeans. Approximately 30% of the British cargo held green tea, about 40% held the best quality black tea and roughly 30% held bouy tea, which was of average quality and had a rather poor taste. For the Dutch, French and other traders from continental Europe, their cargo ships were filled with 70 to 80% of bouy. This was intended for consumption in the British Isles where it arrived as smuggled goods, often after being “cut” with local herbs to reduce its price. According to those at the time, fraud amounted to twice the legal trade. The tea imported by the British was, in fact, crippled by heavy taxes (at least 40%). The tea merchants, who met with Thomas Twining in the middle of the 18th century, were not able to reduce these taxes, let alone abolish them. It was not until 1784 and the Commutation Act of William Pitt (the Younger) that the taxes were put back to 12.5%. This immediately caused a rapid increase in trade: 6 million pounds (in weight) were transported in 1784, 16 million in 1785 and 20 million in 1786.

8Trading was not one way. To buy these products, Europeans left their countries with large quantities of precious metals, including gold and, especially, silver. Silver made up 85 to 90% of the value of the cargo consignments and it included “piastres”, which were coins that weighed a little over 27 grams each and had the symbol of Spain on them. Considerable quantities of silver were sent to Asia and these quantities continued to increase, from 150 tonnes in the first half of the 17th century, to almost 600 tonnes in the second half of the century, to 1500 tonnes in the first half of the 18th century. All of these precious metals came from Central and South America, and they were exchanged for European agricultural products, such as wine, wheat, flour, manufactured goods (e. g. wool garments), or even oriental products (such as cotton), all of which were requested by the native inhabitants of the New World. In this way, trade between Asia and Europe was part of a larger, global trade movement.

9This trade also benefited the inhabitants of Asia. The orders made by Europeans, the driving force behind the trade network, stimulated agricultural and handicraft production. Large quantities of silver brought to India and China, regions, which lacked these precious metals, stimulated monetary circulation and played an important role in the improvement of the lifestyle in 18th century Asia. The difficulty was that although Europeans had control over the sea route by the Cape of Good Hope, they did not have control over local markets. To achieve this, they exerted pressure on the local authorities using the police forces that they were authorised to employ, which were few in number, but better equipped and trained than the Eastern armies. As a result, trade between the Easterners and Westerners was no longer balanced; the West won and this was the birth of colonisation.


1 In 1684 the British transported a million pieces of cotton cloth.

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