Robert Fortune – Tea Thief or Hero


Oh, this is quite a story- spying, deceit, trickery, fraudulence- modern day industrial espionage in 1848! And it’s all about tea.

First, a little information as to why a Scottish botanist was sent to China by the British East India Company.  The company believed that if Britain could access tea seeds and plants in China and then successfully find a way to grow and harvest the tea, in their tropically-inclined colony India, they could then supersede the Chinese in the tea trade. Fortune’s mission was to steal the secrets of tea horticulture and manufacturing. He was to learn all he could about China’s tea production . In a nutshell – discover EVERYTHING he could.


In September of 1848, Fortune surreptitiously began his underhanded journey from Shanghai through Hangzhou to the green tea regions of the provinces of Zhejiang and Anhui. He disguised himself in Chinese dress and even shaved his head and had a faux queue attached to the back of his head. He hoped that by impersonating a nobleman or a wealthy merchant, his “costume” would make his travels less conspicuous. He would at times, assure people in his faltering Chinese, “I am Chinese from a distant province beyond the Great Wall.” He was aided in his scheme by two Chinese servants who traveled with him. In October, he inspected a green-tea factory, and witnessed the secretive 2,000-year-old manufacturing process.

He explored three other green-tea regions, collecting samples, and making copious notes before returning to Shanghai in January 1849. In May 1849, he reached the even more remote black-tea country of Fujian province. This was the key part of his mission; black tea was considered even more valuable because it was more popular in the West. Often mixed with milk and sugar grown in the colonial plantations of the Caribbean, black tea had become a staple of the new urban populations of industrialized Britain.

No one outside the traditional tea growing areas of China had the first idea about how it was made until Fortune reached Bohea, in the Wuyi Mountains, in July 1849. 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, met in peace, and 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.

When China’s government put a price on his head, he only just escaped, to arrive back in India in 1851, with LARGE 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. 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.

So, in the end – you decide- thief or hero?

Next… Fuliang in my cup

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