Cha before tea: finding earlier mentions in a corpus of early English letters (part 2)

Cha before tea: finding earlier mentions in a corpus of early English letters (part 2)

In the first part of this blog post, we discussed an antedating for tea found in the Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEEC). That instance, in a 1643 letter by William Howard, Viscount Stafford, appears to have escaped the notice of earlier scholars. In contrast, the earliest texts written by Englishmen containing the word cha have been known about for nearly 150 years, and were duly used in the first edition of the OED:

OED entry for cha | chah, n.

The first attestation of cha in the OED is from the June 20, 1616 entry in the diary of Richard Cocks, the head of the English East India Company (EIC) trading post in Japan, 1613–1623. Cocks’s diary was edited by the industrious Edward Maunde Thompson, and published by the Hakluyt Society in 1883. But the diary is not the only surviving record of British visitors to Japan in the early seventeenth century, and neither does it contain the earliest instance of cha: the first known attestation is also the first attestation in the CEEC, occurring in the postscript of a letter sent nearly a year before Cocks writes the word down in his diary:

Mr Eaton, I pray you buy for me a pot of the best sort of chaw in Meaco, 2 farre [fair] bowes & arrowes, some half a dozen of Meaco guilt boxes, square, for to put in tobacco.

Richard Wickham at Hirado to William Eaton at Kyoto, June 27, 1615; source edition: A. Farrington (ed.), The English Factory in Japan, 1613–1624, London: British Library, 1991

This instance of cha has not been missed by earlier scholars. For instance, it is discussed by William H. Uker in his 1935 All About Tea (although his information on the writers is incorrect). Richard Wickham and William Eaton were both members of the EIC trading post in Japan, working under Richard Cocks.

The correspondence of the trading post, together with Cocks’s diary, survives in the British Library, where most of the records of the EIC ended up. Many of the letters sent between the British merchants in Japan – as opposed to letters sent to their employers in London – deal not only with business, but also matters of daily life. The merchants took a liking to tea and sought out the best kind, but they also liked to shop for luxury items such as decorated weapons, and also lacquerware, like the gilt boxes for tobacco Wickham asks Eaton for (cf. also the “Indian Brewhouse” in part 1). Tea – consistently referred to in these documents as cha(w), that being the Japanese word for it: 茶 cha – occurs many times in their letters. For instance, in 1619, Eaton writes to Cocks:

William Eaton to Richard Cocks, 8 Sep 1619
(BL, IOR E/3/7 no. 811 [f. 36]; photo by Samuli Kaislaniemi)

I pray you lett my Domingo bye [buy] for mee some lickerich [liquorice] if theare {be}

aney to be had if not a kind of leafe that they vse [use] to put in 

Chaw w[hi]ch hee knowes well enow [enough] doth taste lick [like] lickerich etc and thus fo{r}

present being in haste I end praying to the allmightey god for yo{ur}

good health & prosperytie the w[hi]ch in his mercey longe to Continew {if}

it bee his good will & pleasuer etc ./

   Yours {to c}om[m]aund {W[illia]m}

   Eaton ./

(The cursive script used by the writer of this letter is usually called Secretary Hand or Secretary Script. It was the usual ‘hand of business’ in England during the Tudor and Stuart eras, and is much more legible than it may appear to the uninitiated reader.)

Japanese green tea can be bitter, especially when incorrectly brewed. Perhaps Eaton would’ve liked three sugars in his builder’s. (This is a joke: black tea as drunk today in the UK, very strong, with milk and sugar, did not exist at the time).

While most of the other British EIC merchants stationed in Japan died in the East Indies, William Eaton made it safely back to England, and eventually retired to live in Highgate, north London. He was still alive when tea-drinking began to take off in England in the 1660s, but he would have found the Chinese tea drunk at the time quite different from the chaw that he had tasted as a young man in Japan.

Read part 1 of Cha before tea: finding earlier mentions in a corpus of early English letters

Watch our recorded webinar The OED and historical text collections: discovering new words with Dr Säily and Dr Mäkelä to find about more about the STRATAS project and the OED in humanities research.

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