Read the concluding part of our four-part series on Robert Fortune, as we examine the aftermath of his daring tea theft.  

In Fortune Hunter Part III, we followed the exploits of tea hunter Robert Fortune, as he successfully introduced top-quality black tea to the Himalayas. In this, the final part of Fortune’s tale, we look at the impact of his endeavours on the world’s tea industry.

 On the quest for knowledge

Robert Fortune may have succeeded in his illicit transportation of tea to India, but his mission was not yet complete. To fulfill the East India Company’s brief, Fortune would also need a group of tea experts to accompany his ill-gotten cargo. Not only would these specialists require generations’ worth of tea-growing knowledge, but they would also need a willingness to share it with the Indian workers producing tea on behalf of the British.


As Fortune’s quest for tea was fraught with danger, so, too, was his pursuit of people to grow it. The Chinese authorities were vehemently opposed to emigration: Chinese citizens were considered the property of the Emperor, and if the botanist was caught enticing them to foreign climes, he risked death. So, he engaged the services of agents. These agents ventured into the same regions that Fortune himself had visited in his hunt for tea, and recruited individuals skilled in its cultivation and manufacture.


And so, in February 1851, Robert Fortune and his band of tea traitors set sail for India. With the final pieces of the jigsaw in place, tea production in the Himalayas could start in earnest. Under the watchful eye of the British, India’s tea-growing industry went from strength to strength. And by the time the Chinese authorities realised what had happened, there was nothing they could do to stop it.

 How tea helped to shape the world

When one considers the world influence of tea, both now and in the past, the significance of Robert Fortune’s efforts is brought into sharp relief.


For a start, tea played a part in the growth of the British Empire. It encouraged the British to colonise further east – to Burma, Ceylon, and other places that tea could be grown. It also influenced the colonisation of the Caribbean, where the British could grow the sugar that played so central a part in their tea-drinking culture.


Tea also contributed to the development of Britain’s porcelain industry. As the Chinese drank their tea at lower temperatures than the British, they were perfectly happy to drink it from handle-less cups. But for the British, who preferred their tea just off the boil, teacup handles were a desirable addition. The obvious solution was for the British to manufacture their own teacups, handles and all. Unfortunately, though, things were not that simple. Traditionally, European clay was fired at lower temperatures than Chinese clay. This made it more likely to break, and gave it a porous glaze – making it less than ideal as a tea receptacle. Eventually, though, European factories cottoned on to the secrets of porcelain production – leading to the birth of a new industry.


The world’s transport systems were also influenced by tea. When the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China ended in 1834, merchants realised that it was in their interests to import tea to Britain as expeditiously as possible. The sooner it arrived, the fresher it would be – and the more money there was to be made. Thus, the tea clipper came into being: a long, sleek, tall-masted vessel that, to this day, remains the fastest sailing ship in the world.


For the British, tea brought health benefits, too. Whereas the nation’s custom was to drink coffee in hot water, the British preferred their tea to be boiling. This killed off germs, and enabled many to escape the diseases that plagued the country during the Victorian era. The milk and sugar so often added to tea also provided the British with a much-needed source of energy and protein.


As tea increased in popularity, so many Britons chose to drink it in place of beer. Not only was this better for health and productivity, but it was also good news for British agriculture; freeing up much of the country’s wheat harvest for food, rather than beer, production.


Last but not least, the rise of Indian-grown tea led to a reduction in tea prices. This turned it from a luxury reserved for the few, into a drink that everyone could enjoy. On which note, we’d like to conclude by saying: thanks Robert – we owe you one.

 Read the full story of Robert Fortune’s adventuresin ‘For all the tea in China’, by Sarah Rose.

26th March 2012

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