How the humble tea leaf, with the help of a humble Scottish botanist, changed the course of British history.

We've just finished reading an unputdownable book on the history of tea. It's called For all the tea in China, by Sarah Rose, and charts the inspiring story of Robert Fortune: a Scottish botanist-turned-tea-thief who, almost singlehandedly, changed the nature of the global tea industry.

Reminded of the fascinating history behind our favourite drink, we thought we'd share the story of Robert Fortune and all that he achieved...

Canton, 1839

It is November 1839, and war has just broken out between the British and the Chinese. It is a war about opium - a drug that, for many decades, the British have grown in colonial India and sold to China. Although the importation of the drug is officially banned by the Chinese government, the British have nonetheless continued to supply the country with this much-desired narcotic. With the proceeds, they buy Chinese tea.

Now, fed up with the pernicious effect that opium is having on his people, the governor of Canton has held British traders hostage in this trading port - the ransom, their opium. The British have surrendered their haul of the drug, and the Chinese have destroyed it. In retaliation, Britain has declared war.

The end of the war, 1842

In the First Opium War, as this battle came to be known, the British were victorious. In the resulting peace treaty, they gained the island of Hong Kong and access to five new trading ports. For the British, who had not previously been permitted beyond the port of Canton, this was a significant step forward.

But China's pride had been damaged, and the British worried that its Emperor might legalise opium production in the country - depriving them of their profitable monopoly. If this happened, Britain would no longer be able to afford to buy Chinese tea.

If you can't beat them...

So, the British hit upon an idea. Why not try to replicate Chinese tea in Himalayan India? The geography and climate matched those of some of the best tea-growing regions in China. So, there was no reason for their experiment to fail... except that the Chinese were fiercely protective of their near-monopoly on tea.

If the experiment was to succeed, the British would not only need to obtain tea seeds and plant specimens from areas of China in which most Britons would refuse (and were not permitted) to tread, but they would also need the natives to yield their secrets of tea production. This was going to be no easy task. The British knew that the Chinese would not willingly share their precious tea plants, or their invaluable knowledge. So, this left only one option. They would have to steal both.

The East India Company, and Robert Fortune

As traders of tea for the British, it fell to the East India Company to find a way of doing this. Their solution was Robert Fortune: a botanist and plant-hunter who had already spent three years collecting plant specimens in China on behalf of the Royal Horticultural Society. This expedition had given Fortune precisely the knowledge and experience that the East India Company were looking for - making him the obvious choice for their mission.

So, in September 1848, Robert Fortune found himself on a boat in Shanghai harbour, about to embark on the most important mission of his life.

Watch out for the next instalment, in which Robert Fortune embarks on a quest for green tea.

22nd July 2011

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