There’s an old saying that I’ve referenced many times on this site: “the sun never sets on the British Empire”. And, at the turn of the 20th century, it was literally true. Britain’s empire was so vast that the sun was indeed always shining on some piece of land controlled by the British.
But there’s another saying from the film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels that’s equally true: “the entire British Empire was built on cups of tea”. And indeed, at the height of the British Empire, one could find Englishmen in cities from Sydney to Calcutta to Johannesburg to London to Kingston to Toronto, all sipping cups of tea as they went about their daily business. And for that, Englishmen could thank a man named Robert Fortune.
It all started in the late 17th century, when the English upper class developed a mania for all things Chinese. Porcelain, silks, lacquered furniture and, above all, tea were so highly coveted by the English gentry that they were snapped up, regardless of price, as quickly as they could be unloaded from ships in London’s dockyards.
But, like so many things in history, there was a problem: the Chinese weren’t interested in any of the goods the English wanted to trade for tea. The Chinese looked down their noses at England’s main export – wool cloth – and aside from a tiny trade in clocks, watches and scientific instruments, the English were stuck paying the Chinese cash for their tea. And the problem with this is that there were only so many silver coins in England, and shipping them halfway around the world to buy tea wasn’t only dangerous and foolhardy, it also caused inflation at home, as the currency supply continually shrank as the demand for tea increased.
But if the Chinese didn’t care for England’s trade goods, they were mad for opium, a product readily available in England’s newest colony, India. So the directors of the East India Company created a “trade triangle”, where English goods were shipped to India and sold, and the proceeds from that sale were used to buy opium, which was then shipped to China where it was exchanged for tea, which was then shipped back to England.
Almost everyone was happy with the trade triangle: 10% of the English government’s tax revenue came from taxes on tea, and that money paid for countless railroad lines, public buildings and bureaucrat’s salaries. English companies got to export their products to India, making Englishmen rich. The East India Company not only made money, but also used some of the income from the opium trade to bribe Indian leaders, cementing the company’s hold on India. Indians got to buy imported goods and get jobs in opium production. And the Chinese were able to get high.
There was, however, one group of people that didn’t care for the trade triangle, and it probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that that group was the Chinese government. They were none too happy about a European company importing illicit substances by the ton into their country and turning tens of thousands of Chinese citizens into opium addicts.
By 1839, conditions were so tense between the Chinese on one hand and British and French merchants on the other that war was inevitable. Unfortunately for the Chinese, their naivety or arrogance (or both) led them to overlook the fact that the European armies had rifles instead of swords and arquebuses, and European navies had steamships and not junks, whose ancient design had not changed for centuries. So while the European forces were greatly outnumbered by the Chinese, they quickly and easily defeated everything the Chinese threw at them. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the Europeans humiliated the Chinese, and as a result, more Chinese cities were opened to European trade, and the English and French (and American, and Spanish, and Portuguese) were given enclaves in the port cities in which they had complete control.
In spite of the easy victory, the directors of the East India Company were worried. Although the “trade triangle” had been successful for some time, they were all too aware that the flow of tea to England could be stopped by a few months of bad weather or a worker’s strike in India, or one haughty Chinese official trying to make a name for himself by cracking down on the opium trade. What they needed was something more stable, something they could control.
The Assam region of India had long produced tea of its own, but it was considered far inferior to the black and green teas China produced. Nevertheless, the area in which “Himalayan tea” was grown as strangely similar to areas in which the Chinese grew their own tea. The Himalayan mountains were cool, the soil was rich, and the mists surrounding them would water the plants, just as they had in China. The directors wondered if there was a way to smuggle tea plants out of China, along with the knowledge of how to grow and prepare tea, which the Chinese guarded as a state secret. They also wondered if large plantations of such tea could be founded in the Himalayas, giving the East India Company an economy of scale that Chinese tea, essentially a large-scale cottage industry, lacked. And this is where the aptly named Robert Fortune comes in.
Fortune was born on September 16, 1812 in Kelloe, a town in Berwickshire, Scotland. His father was a common gardener, but Robert was ambitious. He used the knowledge he’d learned from his father to get a job at the botanical garden at Edinburgh. There he displayed such an aptitude for cultivating and cataloging plants that he was soon able to secure a job at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden in Chiswick. He so impressed his superiors there that in 1842 he was sent to China following the end of the First Opium War to catalog and discover unknown Chinese plants, not only for the scientific interest, but also to supply the growing Victorian obsession for rare and unusual plants. There he discovered dozens of plants previously unknown to Europeans, and his name is still attached to many of them, including a type of rose (“Fortune’s Double Yellow”) and the kumquat (Fortunella hindsii, Fortunella japonica), which Fortune introduced to Europe.
Because of Fortune’s past experience in China, the East India Company sent Dr John Forbes Royal to the gardens at Chiswick to talk to Fortune about their plan on May 7, 1848. The two spent an afternoon discussing all things botanical, and towards the end of their talk, Royal laid out his proposal: Fortune would go to China and bring back as many quality tea plants and seeds as he could; Fortune would also learn as much as he could about tea production from the Chinese. And for this, the East India Company would pay him £500 a year, quintuple his current salary at the Royal Horticultural Society. More importantly, the East India Company, being interested only in tea, would grant Fortune exclusive rights to anything else he could bring back from China. If Fortune played his cards right, he stood make millions from the deal.
It’s crucial to understand that while the plan had the potential to make Fortune and the East India Company rich, it was also extremely risky. It was illegal for foreigners to travel to China’s interior, and only a tiny handful had done so. And the Chinese government had whipped the nation into a frenzy of xenophobia during the Opium War, so if Fortune were discovered at any time, it was likely that he would have been killed by an angry mob of Chinese citizens. Hundreds of ambitious government officials would be encountered along the way, most of whom would have loved to capture a British spy, as this would almost certainly mean an instant promotion and bonuses from the Imperial Court in Peking. As mentioned, the Chinese also jealously guarded the secrets to making tea, and if Fortune asked one too many questions of the wrong person at the wrong factory, he could be exposed. And then there was good old-fashioned crime and politics: any number of bandits, pickpockets or rebels along the way could either kill or expose Fortune to the wrath of the Chinese government.
Fortune would disguise himself as a mandarin, a civil servant highly respected by the Chinese population. So the first step was to make Fortune look Chinese. To that end, his forehead was shaved and an artificial ponytail was weaved into his own hair. He was then outfitted in the latest Chinese fashions. Although it might seem ridiculous to modern readers to think that a Scotsman could pass as Chinese, one has to remember that China was, and still is, a vast nation of many ethnicities, and that most citizens of the day were barely educated peasants. Travel within the country was also quite limited at the time, so it wasn’t impossible that Fortune could have been a mandarin from some far flung outpost of western China… after all, the Chinese had told legends of a group of tall, red-headed Chinese for centuries, tales that were eventually found to be based in fact.
Fortune’s companion was a man in his early 20s named Wang. Wang’s family was from Kiangnan province, near the Sung-Lo mountain, where tea had been grown for centuries. Wang’s family, like the country itself, had grown dramatically, and with little room left for him on the farm, Wang had been sent to Shanghai to learn the business of trade. With the smattering of Chinese that Fortune knew, and the “trading pidgin” of the port cities that Wang knew, the two were able to communicate. And so Wang and Fortune, who was now known as “Sing Wa” or “bright flower”, took off into China’s mysterious interior in search of tea.
Fortune had planned to break up his trip into two segments. In the first leg he’d go to the green tea fields, only a few short weeks up the various rivers and canals of inland China. Thankfully the trip was more or less uneventful, except for an incident in which the boat’s captain, a hopeless drunk, got mad at Wang and went into a town, trying to stir up trouble against Fortune. When a couple of angry townfolk boarded the boat, Fortune, not knowing what else to do, simply stood up, in most straight and regal manner he could conjure. The townspeople sheepishly grinned at him and left.
The party eventually reached a tea factory, where the “visiting mandarin” was given a complete tour of the factory. Fortune remembered every detail, even down to the text of posters on the walls, which featured quotes about tea from some of China’s most legendary authors and philosophers. Fortune rapidly learned more about tea production than any other European on earth.
He found out, for example, that the very best tea comes from the leaves at the top of the plant. He also learned the crucial fact that green and black tea were actually made from the same plant, and not different plants, as Europeans had previously believed. He also discovered that the Chinese were using Prussian blue (iron ferrocyanide) and gypsum (hydrogen sulfide) to dye the tea leaves green. Both substances are toxic in large doses (especially Prussian blue, as it contains cyanide). Amusingly, the Chinese weren’t doing this out of malice – they simply thought Europeans wanted their tea leaves to be a nice, bright green. Fortune managed to sneak out samples of the chemicals, which were later put on public display at the wildly popular Great Exhibition of 1851 as a stark warning of the dangers of Chinese tea (and a not-so-subtle advertisement for “safe” British tea).
The group then made their way to home of Wang’s family, where they stayed for a time due to inclement weather and also to collect ever more plants – as mentioned, the Sung-Lo area was a center of high quality green tea. Fortune and party eventually made their way back to the coast, and Fortune set up shop in the warehouse of Dent, Bew and Co. in Shanghai. There he carefully organized and packaged all of the plants and seeds, some 13,000 plants and 10,000 seeds in all. He then contracted a local craftsman to build 11 “Wardian cases”, a forerunner of the modern terrarium. Provided that the cases weren’t opened, the tea plants could survive in the cases for years.
But it wouldn’t be that simple. Although the East India Company considered the “tea mission” to be of utmost importance, it’s unclear as to how many in the company knew just how important it was. And many company officials – especially ship’s captains – were in the habit of ignoring (or “re-prioritizing”) their orders from London. Fortune’s plants and seeds were put on ships, and Fortune himself went with the plants to Hong Kong, just to ensure their safety. Returning to China, months passed without word from either India or London.
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Although Fortune’s plants were being sent to Britain’s imperial capital at Calcutta, the ship which transported them was delayed by two months when it was diverted to Ceylon. According Hugh Falconer, the East India Company’s chief botanist at the massive botanical garden at Calcutta, the plants arrived in perfect condition. They were then put on a steam ship for the trip to Allahabad.
It was there that disaster struck. A company official, whose name has been lost to history, opened the cases and watered the plants far too frequently. To make matters worse, there was a drought at the time, and the steam ship wouldn’t be able to complete its journey until the first summer monsoon, when intense rains would cause the water level of the river to rise enough to allow the boat to sail upstream. The plants spent six agonizing weeks in the brutal heat in Allahabad before being sent upstream, then put on oxen for the final leg to Saharanpur.
It couldn’t have been much worse. Only a tiny fraction of the plants survived, and those that did were covered in mold and fungus. Not a single seed germinated, and when the seeds were dug up to find out why, they appeared to be rotten. Although William Jameson, the East India Company’s botanist in the area, did the best he could, the experiment was a total failure.
Jameson might have been a bad botanist, but he was a good bureaucrat. After the failure of the tea crop, he wrote letters to London describing in painstaking detail everything that had been wrong with the plants. He also revealed a shocking ignorance of not only tea production, but of botany in general. In his letters, Jameson said that he had planted Indian tea in flat fields, then flooded them like a rice paddy, even though his Indian and Chinese laborers repeatedly told him that this would kill the plants. Had Jameson bothered to read the only English-language book in the entire world on tea production – written by Fortune after his first trip to China – he would have known that he was destroying, not growing plants. A series of “blamestorming” letters then flew between Falconer, Jameson, their bosses in Calcutta and Saharanpur, and company directors in London.
But Fortune had an ace up his sleeve. He had kept a third of the seeds for himself, and while the first batch of plants were dying on their way to Saharanpur, he was busy on the second leg of his trip, this time to China’s black tea regions. When he arrived back in Shaghai, he found a packet waiting for him from India, and when he opened it, he found the devastating news that the crop had failed. A year’s worth of work had gone to waste. But on the way back from the black tea regions, Fortune had been thinking about the Wardian cases. Specifically, he was thinking that plants don’t just survive in the cases, they thrive. Why wouldn’t seeds do the same?
So instead of hemp sacks, he packed up a second batch of seeds in Wardian cases. When they arrived in Calcutta, Falconer was delighted to find that the seeds had not only survived the trip, they had actually germinated! Fortune then sent a second batch, which also arrived in Calcutta in perfect condition.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Fortune’s plants were successfully transplanted into Indian soil, and over time they were bred with Assam tea to make some of the finest teas the world has ever seen. Britain was no longer dependent on China for their tea supply, and Britons all over the world were able to enjoy their cups of tea any time they wanted.
As for Fortune, he went on to Formosa and Japan, and brought samples of plants, seeds, and fruits from all over Asia back to Britain. Although he could have come home and made a fortune selling his rare plants, it seems that his thirst for both knowledge and adventure kept him constantly on the move. Fortune would write several books about his journeys – including A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, which is available from Google Books here.