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.
Besides this, Fortune was the first to determine that black and green tea actually came from the same plant. He also introduced many trees, shrubs and flowers to the West, including varieties of roses, tree peonies and azaleas.
For Rose, who stumbled onto Fortune’s story thanks to a comment from an ex-boyfriend, the years she devoted to his life, traveling in China and in the stacks of the British Library, then writing, were both joyful and frustrating.
“At some points I found him very unlikable — that kind of haughty Victorian notion of the West, a superior race, and the East as an uncivilized, wild place that they could dominate,” she said.
“At the same time, I would have to locate him in the who he was and the world he came from, and out of that he was extraordinary. He was so full of daring — gone from the entire world that he knew for three years at a time, leaving his family behind, to explore this wild place.”
Though she began working mostly from Fortune’s own papers — “he’s not a very joyful writer” — she had exciting moments when, combing through handwritten documents in old, leather-bound books, she discovered stories behind what Fortune himself knew, rounding out the overall drama.
In the end, she also came to feel that Fortune’s life and experience may hold a message for modern times.
“There is still a kind of espionage between China and America, there is still so much mutual suspicion,” she said.
“I think I might say there’s a lesson that when both sides sow so much suspicion and the stakes are so high, somebody has to step down and trust or you are going to get a lot of stealing of national secrets.”
Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato