Editor’s Note: A version of this story originally ran in March 2010.
In the mid-19th century, Britain was an almost unchallenged empire. It controlled about a fifth of the world’s surface, and yet its weakness had everything to do with tiny leaves soaked in hot water: tea. By 1800, it was easily the most popular drink among Britons.
The problem? All the tea in the world came from China, and Britain couldn’t control the quality or the price. So around 1850, a group of British businessmen set out to create a tea industry in a place they did control: India.
For All the Tea In China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History is writer Sarah Rose‘s account of the effort to control the tea market, what she calls the “greatest single act of corporate espionage in history.”
“The task required a plant hunter, a gardener, a thief, a spy. The man Britain needed was Robert Fortune,” Rose writes. Fortune was the agent sent to sneak out of China the plants and secrets of tea production.
Before Fortune, England engaged in trade with China, sending opium in exchange for tea.
But “the Chinese emperor hated that opium was the medium of exchange, because a nation of drug addicts was being created. So the emperor confiscated all the opium [and] destroyed it all,” Rose told NPR’s Guy Raz in a 2010 interview. “England sent warships. And at the end of the day, they realized that if they were going to keep pace with the British tea consumption and not deal with the Chinese, they had to own it themselves.”
Enter Robert Fortune, a botanist in an era when the natural sciences were on the ascent in Britain. At the time, many botanists had university degrees and were trained as doctors, but Fortune, who was Scottish, grew up poor.
“He kind of worked his way up through the ranks of professional botany, learning with hands-on training instead of book training,” Rose said.
Around 1845, when the botanist was in his early 30s, he took a two-year trip to China in search of plants. Upon his return, he published a travelogue in which he described his adventures.
“He was attacked by pirates, he was attacked by bandits, he encountered all kinds of disease and storms, and he also goes in Chinese disguise, dressed up as if he were a wealthy Chinese merchant,” Rose said.
His memoir captured the imagination of Victorian society, and Fortune was approached by a representative of the East India Trading Company — at the time, one of the most important (if not the most important) multinational corporations in the world. The company recruited Fortune to return to China — this time, to smuggle tea out of the country.
“They wanted really good tea stock from the very best gardens in China, and they also needed experts. They needed the Chinese to go to India to teach the British planters, as well as the Indian gardeners,” Rose explained.
Fortune succeeded. He managed to get seeds from China to India, and the impact on the tea trade was immense. Within his lifetime, India surpassed China as the world’s largest tea grower.
“It astonishes me,” Rose said. “China has pretty much never really come back from that, certainly not in the Western markets. Now that Asia has such a booming economy, the Chinese are again pretty fierce tea producers. But it took a hundred-plus years.”
So was Fortune history’s greatest corporate thief, or the man we can thank for the tea we drink?
“I think he thought of himself as a China expert and a gardener,” Rose said. “He didn’t see himself as stealing something that didn’t belong to him. He thought plants belonged to everybody.”
Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.