pearl river china

“China, China, China,” rants Donald Trump, the presidential hopeful who loses no opportunity to blame America’s economic woes on China and its “unfair” trade policies. But how did the fortunes of the free world and the Middle Kingdom become so inextricably intertwined? What started it all?

The roots of U.S.-China trade can be boiled down to one fragrant little word: tea. The history of the tea trade is a fascinating story of wealth, adventure and cultural exchange, but also a tragic one of human suffering and cruelty.

Although many Americans gave up tea as an unpatriotic beverage after the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and turned to coffee, the majority still craved it. And it was this overwhelming demand for tea that motivated the newly independent United States, finally free from the monopolistic clutches of Britain’s East India Company, to sail to China in search of it.

How A Taste For Chinese Tea Minted America’s First Millionaires

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Caption: A view of Canton (Guangzhou), on the Pearl River in China, circa 1840.