07252017Headline:

The Man Who Stole Tea from China

By K.B. Owen

 

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With stories in the news about Chinese hackers breaking into U.S. corporate computers and stealing proprietary software and information (for example, this 60 Minutes’ feature: The Great Brain Robbery), here’s a little historical gem about Robert Fortune (1812-1880) who accomplished the reverse. The low-tech version.

Image via Wikipedia Commons.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

From 1845-1848, this Scottish botanist managed to acquire China’s closely-guarded tea-growing and production secrets, along with actual plants to transplant in India. For the tea-drinking world, this was a game-changer. Within a short time, China no longer had a monopoly on tea, and Brits had control over the production of their favorite beverage.

Background:

Robert Fortune was working for the Horticultural Society of London and had already traveled to China and learned a great deal about tea production, along with some surprises:
Chinese merchants had been telling their customers for decades that green and black teas came from different plant varieties. Fortune learned that the difference between black and green teas wasn’t the variety of plant, but the method of drying the leaves. He also discovered that the Chinese were dyeing the green tea purchased by the English. He published his discoveries in a book entitled Three Years’ Wanderings in the Provinces of China. It drew the attention of the East India Company, which commissioned him to return to China and acquire tea plants for them. In Fortune’s own words:

I was deputed by the Honourable the Court of the Directors (sic) to proceed to China for the purpose of obtaining the finest varieties of the Tea-plant, as well as native manufacturers and implements, for the Government Tea plantations in the Himalayas.

Fortune had no ethical problem with such a request. In his view, plants belonged to the world for everyone’s use.

The Caper:

The Chinese were incredibly secretive (and rightly so, given the outcome) about how their tea was produced. Fortune spent two and half years in China, shaving his head and adopting the attire of a Chinese merchant (read Sarah Rose’s fascinating book, listed below, for more details). It was sometimes a challenge to evade China’s in-port restrictions, which only allowed foreigners to travel one day’s distance from the ports allowed to Europeans by treaty. But Fortune managed to travel to areas few Europeans ever saw.

Fortune used glazed cases, first devised by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, to protect the tea plants he collected for the journey to India. The mission was a rousing success:

Upwards of twenty thousand tea-plants, eight first-rate manufacturers, and a large supply of implements were procured from the finest tea-districts of China, and conveyed in safety to the Himalayas.

Wow…20,00! And the equipment and experts to successfully start a tea-growing operation in India. Can you imagine? I’d say Robert Fortune pulled off the biggest caper of all time.

Want to read more?

Fortune, Robert. Three Years Wanderings in the Provinces of China. London: Spottiswoode and Shaw, 1847.

Fortune, Robert. A Journey to the Tea Countries of China; Including Sung-Lo and the Bohea Hills. London: W. Clowes and Sons, 1852.

Rose, Sarah. For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History. New York: Viking Press, 2010.  Click here for Amazon link.

NPR: Tea Tuesdays: The Scottish Spy Who Stole China’s Tea Empire

 

About K.B. Owen

kbowencloseupK.B. Owen taught college English at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC and holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature.  A long-time mystery lover, she drew upon her teaching experiences to create her amateur sleuth, Professor Concordia Wells, and the 1890s world of Hartford Women’s College, where a surprising amount of mayhem takes place. There are five books in the series so far, and the lady professor isn’t done yet!

Her latest release, BELOVED AND UNSEEMLY, is now available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

kb-owen-cover-unseemly-haste

 

Check out K.B.’s book page to learn more about the Concordia Wells Mysteries at KBOwenMysteries.com.

 


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