How a Scottish Botanist Stole China’s Tea and Changed Indian History

Packing tea in the warehouses of the East & West India Dock Company, London, 1874.

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Why you should care

Because tea is the world’s second-most popular drink after water.

When Food Gets Political: It's a culinary debate on your plate. When Food Gets Political: It's a culinary debate on your plate.

Robert Fortune knew his tea. In 1843, the Scottish botanist sailed to China, funded by the Royal Horticultural Society, to study the varieties of the drink grown there that had become hugely popular in Britain. But when the British East India Company reached out to him in 1848 and requested he return to China, it was for a very different mission — this time not to study, but to steal. 

By that time — more than 2,000 years after the Chinese first started sipping tea and two centuries after the British fell hard and fast for the drink — the British East India Company had lost its trade monopoly in China, and the supply of drink had ebbed even as demand grew.   

That autumn in Shanghai, Fortune shaved and put on what he later referred to as “Mandarin garb” to tour a tea factory in disguise as an official from a different Chinese province. The superintendent showed him around the factory, where workers plucked, brewed and dried the precious tea. 

 

Little did they know that Fortune was at their factory on a mission: to steal tea seeds, understand how to harvest and process tea and take the stolen goods — and ideas — to India where the British East India Company planned to start a competing tea operation in a bid to end China’s monopoly over the trade. But Fortune’s actions would put India on a path to become one of the world’s leading producers of (and markets for) tea. According to the India Brand Equity Foundation, total Indian tea exports last year were valued at $837.33 million, and India is the second-largest tea producer in the world after China. 

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Robert Fortune.

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Although “Chinese Tcha,” as English diarist Samuel Pepys wrote, “was first sold to England in 1635” — approximately at $1,200 today’s price for a pound of the herb — China controlled the growing and production of tea until well into the 19th century. Britain couldn’t produce its own tea, and for a time depended on poor quality leaves imported to Europe via the Netherlands. Later, the U.K. strengthened ties with China in order to secure tea in exchange for silver, but dwindling coffers saw Britain switch from silver to opium, which it grew in parts of British-controlled India.

In 1788, the East India Company first considered just growing the tea in India, which would allow Britain to access the drink at far lower prices. The company discovered wild tea saplings in Assam, which eventually spread to Darjeeling in North Bengal. According to a lecture delivered at the Royal Society of Arts in 1887, shoemakers and carpenters from the Chinese settlement in Calcutta were taken to these plantations “presumably on the belief that every Chinaman must be an expert in tea cultivation and manufacture,” even though many of them had never seen a sapling in their lives.

“Assam tea was important because up until that moment, the British did not really think tea could be grown anywhere other than East Asia,” says Sarah Rose, author of For All the Tea in China. “This wild sapling gave them the idea that tea could be grown in India.”

After returning from his mission, a very proud Fortune wrote to the company: “I have much pleasure in informing you that I have procured a large supply of seeds and young plants which I trust will get safely to India.” Altogether, he’d collected 13,000 plants and 10,000 seeds. He spent months packing them in glass bottles that allowed them sunlight and just enough air to survive long travel, then smuggled them to Hong Kong, where he put them on a ship bound for India. But the ship was diverted from Calcutta to Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), and by the time it reached the East India Company’s botanical outpost, the seeds had all rotted.

In 1849, he tried again, stealing thousands of branches from the Wuyi Mountains, famous for black tea. Fortune and his new Chinese servant Sing Hoo hired local children to help them collect seeds and they also bought saplings from a nearby monastery. He took the specimens to Shanghai and once again packed them off to India, this time with soil inside their glass bottles to allow them to germinate and grow on the way. 

Until then, India was a land of coffee. But during Fortune’s lifetime, India would surpass China as the world’s leading producer of tea. Tea in India slowly supplanted coffee crops: It could be grown at higher altitudes, and a fungus infecting coffee plants hit in 1869, speeding coffee’s demise.

Later in his life, Fortune would go back to China to obtain tea seeds for American planters interested in growing the crop in the Carolinas and Virginia, a dream that fizzled out after the Civil War as plantations no longer had slave labor to exploit. When Fortune died in 1880, his estate — which included some of the tea seeds he had stolen — was valued at about $5 million. Just one year later, a shop specializing in Indian tea had opened on London’s Oxford Street, and stalls and shops around the British capital were pushing Indian tea. 

But tea still wasn’t popular among Indians themselves. Considered an anglicized drink, it was mostly consumed by British immigrants and those who associated with them. It wasn’t until after independence in 1947 that the Indian Tea Board launched an advertising campaign for the beverage, converting Indians to consume the tea that had previously been exported to Britain. Now, India is the second-largest consumer of tea — known as chai — after China. In fact, tea is right now the world’s second-most popular drink after water. And Indian tea is no longer second best: This August, a rare Assam tea sold for a world record price at an auction in India: $2,035 for just two kilograms of Maijan Orthodox Golden tea.

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