In the early years of the New South Wales colony, tea was a precious commodity. Although the First Fleet brought sugar and spices, five puncheons of rum and 300 gallons of brandy, there is no mention of tea on the list of provisions. The Governor, Arthur Phillip, and his officers may have brought private supplies of tea, but it was not available to convicts or the average marine. It wasn’t until 1819 that convict rations included tea.
As early as 1792, tea began to be imported with officers of the New South Wales Corps controlling trade with China and India. However, it remained a luxury. Those who couldn’t obtain or afford the real thing made do with a variety of native plants. One such was native sarsaparilla, Smilax glyciphylla, which was commonly known in the colony as “sweet tea”. In her blog The Cook and the Curator, historian Jacqui Newling quotes from one of the First Fleet officers:
We also found a plant which grew about the rocks & amongst the underwood entwined, the leaves, of which boiled made a pleasant drink & was used as Tea by our Ships Company: It has much the taste of Liquorish & serves both for Tea & Sugar & is recommended as a very wholesome drink.
Lieutenant Bradley October 1788.
Various other shrubs were tried as tea substitutes, including Manuka, Leptospermum scoparium, which had reportedly long been used by indigenous Australians to brew a form of tea. The colonists falsely thought (and hoped) that these tea substitutes would prevent scurvy. One of the First Fleet surgeons, Dennis Considen, wrote enthusiastically:
I have sent you some of the sweet tea of this country, which I greatly recommend, and is generally used by the marines and convicts. As such it is a good anti-scorbutic as well as a substitute for tea which is more costly.
The price of tea fluctuated with the supply. A large shipment from China meant a reduction in price, although the commodity remained expensive. The Sydney Gazette reported in 1807:
The last arrivals have had a wonderful effect upon the price of tea, which in the short space of two days experienced a decrease of seven shillings in the price of a single ounce.
That would add up to a decrease of £5/12/- ($11,20) per pound (.45kg). If that was the reduction in price we can only imagine how much the actual commodity cost. At these prices it’s not surprising that it was another decade before convict rations included tea.
In the early colonial days, most tea consumed in Australia, as in Britain, was from China. Both green and black teas were imported. Tea was sold in bulk and connoisseurs had their own blends. By the 1840s, Australians were among the biggest consumers of tea in the world.