Robert Fortune (16 September 1812 – 13 April 1880) was a Scottish botanist, plant hunter and traveler, best known for stealing tea plants from China in the employment of the British East India Company.
The Great British Tea Heist
This is the story of a Victorian scientist who loved China, its people, its language, its landscape, and above all its beautiful flowers … but who is also notorious as the man who stole tea away from China.
The East India Company believed that if the finest seedlings could be obtained, together with the secrets of production, from the hinterland of China, it could grow precious tea in the British colony of India and control a trade that dominated 19th-century economics. China dominated the tea trade until the East India Company broke its monopoly, having sent Scottish botanist Robert Fortune on a covert mission to steal its plants and tea-processing technique 170 years ago. So, the British decided to send spies to China to try and discover the secrets of growing tea and Fortune was their man! Disguised as a tea merchant, he managed to gain access to the gardens and pick up enough clues to understand the mysterious process that produced China’s famous black tea and the important phenomenon involved oxidation.
In July 1843…
He arrived in China – ‘to collect seeds and plants of ornamental or useful kind, not already cultivated in Britain’ as well as to obtain information on Chinese gardening and agriculture together with the nature and climate and it’s influence on vegetation. He was provided with a list of items to find including the peaches of Peking grown in the emperors garden and said to weigh 2 lbs each, tea of different qualities, double yellow roses and the true mandarin orange.
He disguised himself in Chinese dress with complete with a shaved head save for a pigtail. He was assisted in the subterfuge by two Chinese servants who traveled with him. It was so very important from the British point of view for tea to be stolen. The Chinese government guarded tea very closely (on pain of execution, in fact) because they were aware how valuable the secrets of tea potentially were for foreigners. When China’s government put a price on his head, he only just escaped, to arrive back in India in 1851, with quantities of seeds, tools, a highly skilled team of Chinese workmen and 12,000 plants. It was at this point that the cultivation of tea in India really got under way.
Among Fortune’s tasks in China, and certainly as critical as providing Indian tea gardens with quality nursery stock, he learned the procedure for manufacturing tea. From the picking to the brewing there was a great deal of factory work involved: drying, firing, rolling, and, for black tea, fermenting. Fortune had explicit instructions from the East India Company to discover everything he could: “Besides the collection of tea plants and seeds from the best localities for transmission to India, it will be your duty to avail yourself of every opportunity of acquiring information as to the cultivation of the tea plant and the manufacture of tea as practiced by the Chinese and on all other points with which it may be desirable that those entrusted with the superintendence of the tea nurseries in India should be made acquainted.”
Robert Fortune: Tea Thief or Hero?
Fortune became the first Western to realize that green tea comes from the same plant as black and is only manufactured differently. (This was a really big deal by the way). He learned the secret of keeping seeds alive through the winter in baskets filled with damp sand. When at last he reached the heart of the Wuyi mountain district, “considered by the Chinese to be one of the most wonderful as well as one of the most scared spots in the Empire and home to the best pekoes and souchangs in the world,” he went up to a temple atop a 1,000 foot peak and as with all he met in peace, made friends with the monks.
To quote his Visit to the Tea Districts of China; “The High Priest…called a boy and ordered him to bring us some tea. And now I drank the fragrant herb, pure and unadulterated on its native hills.” That must have been one of the finest moments of Robert Fortune’s life.
Thanks to the theft by Fortune, tea industries became well established in India (especially on the Himalayan foothills of Assam and Darjeeling) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and in due course these countries superseded China as the principal exporters of tea to Europe and America.
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