Following the man who stole tea from China

Tue Jun 7, 2011 5:49am EDT
Email This Article |
Share This Article
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
| Print This Article | Single Page
[-] Text [+]

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Robert Fortune was a scientist, a botanist and, in some ways, an industrial spy. But he is best known as the man who stole tea from deep within China and took it to India in the mid-1800s, changing history.

His venture required years of toil up China's rivers by boat to places where no Westerner had gone before, overcoming illness, pirate attacks and untrustworthy associates in the quest for tea seeds and plants that could be grown in India.

For much of his second journey, he dressed in Chinese clothes, a fake queue of hair down his back.

"People had tried to do what he had done, people had tried to sneak it out via the treaty ports, people had tried to appropriate tea seeds and take them to India, and it ended in failure," said writer Sarah Rose, who spent weeks tracing Fortune's trail through China.

"The plant hunters were the R&D men of the (British) Empire. They took raw materials and said, what can we do with this, and created an entirely new world. And he was one of the very last guys to do that."

Rose's efforts resulted in a book, "For All the Tea in China," that chronicles Fortune's journeys, which finally enabled tea to be grown in India and broke China's monopoly on the beloved beverage for good.

The son of a Scottish farm worker, Fortune's knowledge of plants and science came from practical experience, not higher education. His low social station meant he was only grudgingly provided with weapons by the Royal Horticultural Society, which sponsored the first of his plant-hunting journeys.

Though most of the delicate tea seedlings died due to shipping mishaps on his first try at sending them to India, his experiments with a special case to transport them meant that a later attempt was more successful.   Continued...