Trude Dijkstra explores the humorous world of tea and politics in early Dutch satirical newspapers
In April 1687, readers of the Oost-Indische thee-post (‘East Indian Tea Post’) were presented with a rather strange account coming from Leiden. The newspaper recounted how, for many days, the city’s Anatomical Theatre had been packed with people wanting to take a look at ‘the never before seen nor heard-of Monster that came floating upon our seafront’. The body of the monster was made up of ‘a head of coffee beans, his legs seemed to consist of green tea leaves’, and the whole was ‘put together with chocolate’. The monster expelled ‘Strasbourg brandy’, from which the assembled company deduced that ‘all devotees of Chinese or Japanese tea would – after consuming this beverage – benefit from a drink of brandy, to be taken in the morning’. The news that followed was equally peculiar: from Spain it was reported that professors in Salamanca, by mixing coffee powder and the ash of burned tea leaves, made ‘the long sought after quinta essentia of the Alchemists’, while another report from Rome stated that the Pope had released a certain Doctor Burri from prison, ‘that he [the Doctor] may relieve him [the Pope] from his terrible arthritis’. The doctor ordered the Pope to drink twelve cups of chocolate every hour, and stew his hands in boiling tea.
By the end of the seventeenth century, hot drinks like tea had become a popular subject of ridicule in the Dutch Republic. Satirical newspapers like the East Indian Tea Post are striking examples of this. After its introduction in the beginning of the seventeenth century, tea soon came to occupy a special place in the European imagination. The first ship known to have brought tea to Europe was probably a Dutch one, arriving around 1610 from Macau. Tea was initially imported as an exotic medicine, then promoted as a safe alternative to gin or jenever, and finally marketed as a mass consumer product. Originating in China, where it was thought to have medicinal properties, tea’s history is closely entwined with the history of botany and herbal medicine. Through their interactions with local people, the European merchants, missionaries, and medical professionals of this period came across many plants that had been unknown to them, which they collected and imported for medical use or general consumption. And so, following local Chinese traditions, when tea was first introduced to Europe, it was advertised as medicine. Newspapers like Oprechte Haerlemsche Courant ran advertisements for the sale of Chinese tea in Haarlem by the broker Herman van Pamburg on 17 April 1685, and according to the Amsterdamse Courant, tea could be bought at Mr. Guart’s in The Hague on 2 April 1689.
In 1631, Jacob Bontius was one of the first in Europe to provide a more or less accurate description of the tea plant, although he admitted that he never saw the plant himself, but had heard about it from a fellow Dutchman in Japan. The preacher Phillipus Baldaeus spent several years in Asia, and wrote a book about his travels after his return to the Dutch Republic. In it, he reports that not only the local population can be cured of their ailments by drinking tea, but that the Dutch could also benefit from this drink ‘because we have a moist and damp air, and gout and podagra or foot disease, pain in the head, melancholy, constipation of the bowels, stones, disease of the spleen, black bile, scurvy and lameness plague us, furthermore blockage of the pores or sweating holes, not to speak of fevers and venomous diseases, against which tea is a good antidote’. The most outspoken advocate of tea was undoubtedly the Alkmaar physician Cornelis Decker, better known as Bontekoe (‘Spotted Cow’). His tireless promotion of the healing properties of tea had even earned him the nickname ‘tea doctor’. Bontekoe’s ideas about tea were not endorsed by everyone, however. His claim that he sometimes drank up to 200 cups of tea a day was hardly taken seriously, and he was suspected of receiving bribes from the Dutch East India Company for this propaganda.
Book producers in the Dutch Republic soon saw the commercial potential of the interest in Chinese tea, and from the 1650s onwards a growing number of publications appeared on this subject. Among them we find intellectual treatises, travelogues and medical tracts, but also emerging genres like newspapers and periodicals. This period not only saw the first uninterrupted cultural encounter between China and Europe, it also marked a defining moment in the history of print. By the late seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic had become the undisputed ‘bookshop of the world’, through which the producers of print not only reshaped the early modern world of books, but that of the transfer of intercultural (medical) knowledge as well. Information on all kinds of socially relevant topics was disseminated through printed matter, which was then discussed by literate citizens in coffeehouses and salons. The proprietors of these coffeehouses regularly made newspapers and pamphlets available to their visitors free of charge, with new editions passed from hand to hand, or read aloud to foster debate and discussion. The growing interest in Chinese medicine and the rising popularity of hot drinks make it likely that they also became a topic of public debate. Book producers responded by issuing short – and therefore cheap – pamphlets and periodicals with a high news value. These publications often had a humorous or polemical character, which made them all the more suitable for public consumption.
The publishers of the East Indian Tea Post adopted the familiar lay-out of early modern newspapers to satirize the proposed beneficial qualities of tea, while at the same time promoting tea by listing exactly these benefits, all the while mocking everyone and all. On 6 February it is reported that ‘the great lord of Turkey’ – probably Sultan Mehmet IV – in his struggle against the Christians, ‘called upon his Prophet Mahomet […] for strength and reason’. The report, however, said that Mehmet ‘has now forsaken this false prophet, and has taken his refuge in the medics’. These medics advised against his tipple of choice, coffee, recommending him instead ‘to go drink tea’. If the anti-Islamic message was not yet clear enough: the doctors would then tell Mehmet that after drinking his tea, he ‘should have some wine, even though it goes against his Alcoran, to relieve him from bad vapours’. Comparable reports come from Portugal, the German Lands, and the Northern and Southern Netherlands. Those who didn’t acknowledge the benefits of tea were ridiculed. Franciscan friars in Antwerp – regularly mocked in the Protestant Dutch Republic – were said to have sent a missive to their king, Charles II of Spain, requesting to ban ‘the worthless and tasteless drink [tea]’, since they were now only served tea, when what they really preferred was wine.
The East Indian Tea Post wasn’t the only satirical newspaper to take tea for its subject. In the last decades of the seventeenth century, an increasing number of farces (comical plays) and songbooks would start to make fun of tea. The Tea Post wasn’t even the only satirical newspaper that exploited the medical substance to burlesque effect: the Darmstadse thee-courant (Darmstad Tea Gazette) took a similar approach. There, one could read, for example, that in Amsterdam an academy in the town of ‘Bowel Pond’, where people can argue about the usefulness of tea, is established, and that a magistrate in ‘Buttockfort’ will make the person who can drink twenty cups of tea without burning their mouth Abbot of Trantheim. The Darmstad Tea Gazette certainly makes copious use of literal toilet humour: the title not only refers to the Dutch expression of ‘getting a tea note’ (going to the toilet), here the word Darmstad does not refer to the German city near Frankfurt and Wiesbaden but should be read as ‘Bowel City’.
About the author
Trude Dijkstra is a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow at the Warburg Institute, London. Her first monograph The Chinese Imprint: Printing and Publishing Chinese Religion and Philosophy in the Dutch Republic, 1595-1700, was published Open Access by Brill in 2021.