In the second part of this story, Robert Fortune embarks on a quest to uncover the secrets of green tea. But will he succeed?

In Fortune Hunter Part I, we left tea-hunter Robert Fortune sitting aboard a boat in Shanghai Harbour, about to embark on a perilous journey into the Chinese interior. Perilous, because these were lands on which foreign visitors were forbidden to tread. Even more so, because Robert Fortune was searching for secrets that the Chinese would stop at nothing to protect. 

During his first trip to China, Fortune had made an interesting discovery. Up until that point, many Westerners had believed that green tea and black tea came from different plants. But Fortune discovered that, in fact, this was not the case. What distinguished these teas was not their species, but rather the way in which they were processed. So, the East India Company had set Robert Fortune the double challenge of stealing tea plants from the Chinese, and unearthing their closely guarded secrets of tea production.

Disguised as a Chinese Mandarin, and in the company of two servants, Fortune set out from Shanghai Harbour. Travelling by cargo boat and sedan chair, he was destined for the provinces Zhejiang and Anhui - home to some of the finest green teas in China.

A green tea factory

On his journey up the Yangtze River, Fortune - in the guise of an official from a faraway land - managed to gain entry to a green tea factory. Here he observed how, after picking, the tea was dried in the sun, pan-roasted, rolled, fired again, and then sorted by hand.

But he also noticed something that caused him concern. In the final stages of processing, the tea manufacturers were adding bright blue and yellow substances to the tea leaves. The Chinese, it transpired, believed that foreigners wanted green tea to look green. To achieve this, they were adding cyanide and plaster to the tea they exported around the world.

This made the tea-factory trip a resounding success. Not only had Fortune discovered how the Chinese manufactured their tea - he had also uncovered something that would make Westerners decidedly less keen to consume it. 

Anhui province

Continuing on his way, Robert Fortune soon arrived at the Sung-Lo Mountains in Anhui province. Staying with the family of one of his servants, he spent several weeks roaming the mountain slopes in search of tea seeds. Fortune then headed on to three other celebrated tea districts, to continue his hunt for tea.

By the end of this first trip, Fortune had collected around 10,000 tea seeds and 13,000 young tea plants. Now, all that remained was to transport them to their new home in India.

A passage to India

To protect the plants during their voyage, Fortune put them into glazed sealed cases. Some of the seeds he wrapped in paper, while others he put into boxes of earth. Then he escorted his cargo to Hong Kong, whence he sent it on its way to India. 

Unfortunately, the journey was not an easy one. First, the ship carrying the seeds and plants was diverted to Ceylon - meaning that it did not arrive in Calcutta until some two months after its departure from China. From here, it was sent up the Ganges into the Himalayas.

It was during this leg of the journey that the fate of Fortune's cargo was sealed. Or, to put it a better way, unsealed. A well-meaning official decided to open the glass cases, to check how their contents were faring. Little did he know that this was the worst thing he could have done. With their seals broken, the cases were useless at protecting the tea plants within. By the time these seedlings arrived at their new Himalayan home, only 1,000 remained alive. To make matters even worse, not one of the 10,000 tea seeds had germinated.

Although he did not yet know it, Robert Fortune's quest for green tea had ended in disaster.

Does Robert Fortune have any more luck in his search for black tea? Find out, in the next instalment.

Read the full story of Robert Fortune's adventures in For all the tea in China, by Sarah Rose.

22nd September 2011

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