A Fortune of Tea
Today is the birthday of the Scottish plantsman Robert Fortune who was born on this day in 1812.
Robert Fortune's name is inextricably bound to China and tea and the tea plant, Camellia sinensis.
For centuries, China had a monopoly on tea. They, alone, grew the plants. They made black tea and green tea, and the rest of the world had no idea how they did it.
By the 1700s, the British had started enjoying exports from China: porcelain, silk, and yes, tea. But China was not interested in goods from Britain.
The lop-sided relationship was a problem.
This is where Robert Fortune enters the scene. By the early 1800s, he was a trained botanist learning at the hem of some of England's most exquisite gardens, and he gets hired to go to China by the Royal Geographic Society, the RGS. At the time, China was off-limits to foreigners. So, in order to collect plants, Fortune figured out a way to blend in: he shaves his head and wears clothing like the locals, he picks up some of the Mandarin languages, and he learns about China more than any other westerner at the time. China is vast, and Fortune stayed for three years before returning home to England.
When he returned, Fortune wrote about his time in China, and he drew the attention of The British East India Company. They were serious about obtaining tea plants from China. And, they were desperate to learn how to make tea. So, they wisely select Fortune, with his unique combination of botanical and Chinese expertise, and they send him back to China.
This time Fortune was on a much more specific mission, and he knew what he needed to do to. He went to China incognito, dressed like a Mandarin. He had shaved the front of his head. He basically had extensions sewn into the hair on the back of his head, so he looked like he has this amazingly long ponytail. He looked 100% the part. Then, he hired guides to do the talking for him, and since there was no national language, it all flew under the radar.
Once in China, Fortune immediately began visiting tea plantations. He learned the methods and ways of harvesting tea plants to make tea. He learned that green tea and black tea come from the same plant; it's just the processing method that makes them different. Thanks to the Wardian case, Fortune was able to get live plants to India. All told, Fortune managed to smuggle out 20,000 tea plants and ships them to India. He even managed to get some of the Chinese tea farmers with their tools to leave China and help set up tea production in India.
Sara Rose, one of the authors who has written a biography on Fortune, said that what Fortune accomplished was no less than the most significantsingle act of corporate espionage in the history of the world.
Today, China is still the top tea producer with over 2.4 million tons of production. Followed by India at a little less than half and then Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam make up the next spots. So, tea being grown outside of China is a direct result of Robert Fortune and India, as the number 2 tea producer in the world (behind China) was a feat that was accomplished in less than two centuries. And, again, it wouldn't have happened without Robert Fortune.