email from March 28th, 2007
(reproduced here with friendly permission of the author)

Dear Dr Hilgemeier,

Some time ago my attention was drawn to an article you wrote on a large number of Chinese seals that had been found all over Ireland over the past 200 odd years. The seals in question are all from the Dehua kilns of Fujian and all date to the 17th century. This type of ceramic Blanc de Chine seal was produced exclusively at the Dehua kilns over an extensive period from early in the 17th century to probably the first decade of the 18th century and many survive.

The Dehua kilns of Fujian are close to the port from which the Dutch shipped tea to Europe in the second half of the 17th century. Catherine of Braganza had a chest of tea in her dowry when she married Charles the second and tea is first mentioned as being drunk by Pepys in a diary entry for September 1660. When first drunk in Scotland in 1684 the Scottish divines thought it an evil influence and recommendaed it be laced with whisky before being drunk! I dont know the date it first came to Ireland but I should imagine about the same time.

Tea was of course a Chinese monopoly until the mid 19th century , at which time Robert Fortune , the famed Scottish plant hunter, smuggled out of China 18000 seedlings and 8 chinamen, who were experts in its processing, and established the tea plantations in Assam.

In the 17th and early 18th century tea was a luxury commodity and heavily taxed. As a result, it was the most smuggled commodity into the British Isles contrary to the myth of novelists who have elevated brandy to this position. The English East India Company did not become active in the tea trade until the last decade of the 17th century.

I have recently written a catalogue for the Museum here dealing with Chinese ceramics and the Maritime Trade pre-1700 entitled Chinese ceramics and the maritime trade pre-1700 and I suggested there that these Dehua seals were put into cases of tea as presents to the tea buyers ( probably only in the first few shipments ) and this would account for their wide distribution throughout Ireland. They would have been cheap throwaway pieces in China at the time. I thought you might be interested in this suggestion.

Yours sincerely
Museum of East Asian Art
12 Bennett Street
Bath BA1 2QJ
01225 464640

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