The Great Tea Heist: Robert Fortune's Journey into China The Great Tea Heist: Robert Fortune's Journey into China

The Great Tea Heist: Robert Fortune's Journey into China

By Alan Hughes

The Great Tea Heist: Robert Fortune's Journey into China The Great Tea Heist: Robert Fortune's Journey into China

How 19th-Century Espionage Transformed Global Trade

In the mid-17th century, tea arrived in London's coffeehouses, and by the mid-18th century, its popularity led to the production of imitation Chinese tea ware in Chelsea. The beloved English "tea time" tradition was established in the 1830s, largely credited to Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford. For over two centuries, the British adored tea without knowing its precise origins or production methods.

Like silk, tea was a closely guarded secret in China, a vital trade commodity. In England, botanists debated over dried tea leaves, speculating that black and green tea came from different plants. However, this was mere conjecture as no European had studied living tea plants or understood the complex production process.

Scottish botanist Robert Fortune put an end to this debate. In 1843, Fortune traveled to China as a collector for the Royal Horticultural Society. Instead of focusing on orchids and shrubs, he returned with stories of adventures, including encounters with pirates and anti-foreigner mobs, documented in his book, Three Years' Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China (LINK)

England's insatiable demand for tea meant paying China in silver, a situation that frustrated the British Empire, especially during the almost continuous wars of the 18th century. To mitigate this, the British sought to cultivate tea in their newly-conquered territory of India. However, China refused to share tea plants or cultivation knowledge and restricted foreign ships to a few ports, prohibiting inland travel. Ignoring these restrictions, the British enlisted plant hunters to venture into China’s interior.

Scottish botanist Robert Fortune was tasked with this mission, making three extended trips to China. Despite knowing he was forbidden from traveling inland, he disguised himself by shaving his head in the Chinese style, faking a long braid (queue), wearing mandarin robes, and attributing his accent to being from a distant province. He documented his adventures in a series of popular books.

Despite his biased views on Chinese culture, Fortune expressed an appreciation for China. He noted, “All along the coast, at least as far as Zhejiang, richly deserve the bad character which everyone gives them; being remarkable for their hatred to foreigners and conceited notions of their own importance…are nothing less than thieves and pirates. But the character of the Chinese as a nation must not suffer from a partial view of this kind.” 

Fortune explored Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Fujian provinces to uncover the secret of tea. At the time, the prevailing scientific belief was that black and green tea came from two distinct plants: Camellia bohea and Camellia viridis. Fortune's studies revealed a surprising truth: both teas originated from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, with the difference being in the oxidation process.

He also discovered that Chinese teas from Guangdong were dyed with Prussian blue (iron ferrocyanide) to enhance their appearance, which appealed to European and American consumers. His writings, popular in England, captured the intrigue and challenges of exploring China.

Fortune's discoveries were significant, but the British government needed more than just knowledge; they needed to break China’s tea monopoly. The Opium Wars had strained resources, and the East India Company sought a cheaper way to procure tea. They turned to Robert Fortune.

Fortune's expertise made him an ideal candidate for a covert mission to obtain live tea plants for cultivation in British-controlled India. His subsequent journey had lasting trade repercussions. Fortune documented his experiences in A Journey to the Tea Countries of China (1852), detailing his encounters with opium smokers, Chinese spies, and hostile boatmen.

Disguised as a Chinese merchant, Fortune traveled to areas restricted to foreigners. He even endured a painful traditional head shaving or in Robert's words “tiresome difficulties”. Despite these challenges, he succeeded in sending over 20,000 tea plants and seedlings to the Himalayas, revolutionising the tea trade forever.

Fortune introduced over 120 plant species to the West, but his impact on the tea industry was monumental. His efforts shifted the center of tea production from China to India, altering global trade dynamics for over a century. Sarah Rose, in her book For All the Tea in China, noted that China struggled to reclaim its dominance in Western markets until recently.

Fortune wrote, “The Himalayan tea plantations could now boast of having a number of plants from the best tea-districts of China.” His actions are regarded as one of the most successful acts of corporate espionage in history, significantly bolstering the British Empire's tea trade and ushering in the 'Century of Humiliation' for the Chinese Empire.

Fortune's botanical contributions are invaluable. He continued his explorations in China and Japan, leaving a lasting legacy in the world of botany. His daring acquisition of Chinese tea secrets and seedlings remains a pivotal moment in history.

In my opinion the adventures of Robert Fortune seem to belong to a different world, where men once hailed as intrepid heroes are now often viewed as ruthless plunderers. It's essential to remember that these individuals were merely the ones willing to embark on perilous journeys in search of adventure. Meanwhile, those who sent them were driven by the desire to profit from their discoveries. Fortune's legacy, though controversial, highlights a complex interplay between exploration, exploitation, and the relentless pursuit of knowledge and economic gain.


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