The Great Chinese Tea Theft

Imagine Indiana Jones, but if Indy had been a gardener, rather than an eminent archaeologist. Meet Robert Fortune, the man the British East India Company hired to steal tea from China.

way back when1For centuries, Chinese farmers and merchants held a near monopoly on the production and sale of tea. It had taken them nearly 4000 years of trial and error to process the leaves of the plant Camellia sinensis and make a beverage out of it, experimenting with fermentation, oxidation, soil, light, and topography to find the perfect balance needed to make a satisfying cup of tea. In the process, numerous invented varieties of tea, based on different production methods and growing regions, contributed to a sophisticated culture of connoisseurship that raised the simple drink from a mere commodity to a cultural phenomenon.

Tea first appeared in England during the 17th century as an exotic luxury to be enjoyed by the very wealthy, but by the turn of the 19th century, tea had become an economic staple. The British East India Company, founded in 1600, began to rely upon tea as its main source of revenue. Increased demand led to a growing trade deficit with China. Even pivoting the venerable joint-stock company into the world’s largest drug cartel had failed to calm shareholders. Opium helped balance the trade in the short term, but many worried Chinese domestic production of poppies would eventually undercut the competitiveness of opium imported from what Company traders and their allies back in London cheerfully referred to as “Our Indian Possessions.”

The company’s solution? Break the Chinese monopoly on tea. This was a delicate job requiring a very special skillset.

His mission was sensitive. For not only were the methods of production and cultivation of tea closely guarded secrets, but most of the tea growing regions were inland where foreigners were forbidden to travel.

Born in Scotland in 1812, Robert Fortune rose from humble beginnings to become something of a prodigy in the field of Horticulture and Botany, working first at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and later, at the Horticultural Society of London’s garden at Chiswick.

Fortune made his first trip to China in 1842, after being sent by Horticultural Society to collect plant specimens from areas in China newly made accessible following Britain’s victory in the Opium War and the subsequent opening of the first treaty ports along the Chinese coast. Nevertheless, it was his voyages for the British East India Company that began in 1848, which made him famous throughout the botanical world and beyond.

For nearly three years, Fortune traveled in disguise throughout the tea growing regions of China. His mission was sensitive. For not only were the methods of production and cultivation of tea closely guarded secrets, but most of the tea growing regions were inland where foreigners were forbidden to travel.

Using the cover of an official “from somewhere else in China,” he visited the tea factories of Wuyi Mountain, Anhui, and Zhejiang. He studied firsthand the methods of rolling, drying, and processing tea leaves. He was not there to simply collect knowledge, but to also bring back actual plants. Once in the possession of the East India Company, the plants would be taken to the foothills of the Himalayas in India, where they would be used to develop a rival source of tea to break the Chinese domination.

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A year after first arriving in China, Fortune notified his handlers in the British East India Company that he had succeeded in his mission. In all, 13,000 young tea plants and five gallons of seeds were boxed in Ward’s Cases (a kind of airtight terrarium) and shipped to India via Hong Kong. When the shipment finally arrived in India, a bumbling official opened the cases too early and prematurely exposed the contents to air. Only 1,000 plants survived, and of those, only 3% remained usable.

Fortune had no choice, but to return to the tea fields. This time, rather than collecting grown plants, he planted seeds in the Ward Cases. The seeds grew in transit and arrived as sprouted seedlings that were ready for planting. In this way, more than half survived the journey.

Buoyed by his success, Fortune sent a third shipment in 1851. This time the load was accompanied by eight Chinese tea experts who were paid to go to India and supervise the development of the new tea plantations.

It’s probably unfair that Robert Fortune is best known as an agent of industrial espionage. He certainly didn’t see his mission as such. For Fortune, tea was a gift of the natural world, to be shared by all, without regard to national boundaries. Moreover, he viewed the mission as one of science, not business. The British East India Company offered him a financial reward generous enough to support years of independent research and they also allowed him to keep and profit from any new plant species (other than tea) discovered during the trip.

Nevertheless, the success of Fortune’s mission forever changed the business of tea. It took a few years for the new industry to take root outside of China, but the result was dramatic. In 1879, 80% of all tea came from China. By 1900, Chinese product accounted for only 10% of global sales.

Even though Fortune would later go on to make significant contributions to the fields of horticulture and botany, he will perhaps always be remembered as the Man Who Stole China’s Tea.