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A Thief’s Fortune

Robert Fortune’s clandestine trip to steal China’s closely guarded secrets of tea production ultimately ended the monopoly of an empire

By Lü Weitao , Zhang Jin Updated Jan.1

Robert Fortune

Demand for trade gave rise to the great geographical exploration and the first wave of globalization. However, disputes and conflicts in cross-border trade soon followed. The tea trade not only played a crucial role in many historic events, it also shaped the development of modern civilization.  

Trade in tea between China and Britain began in the 17th century. Although the Netherlands and Indonesia remained dominant players, the British started buying tea from Canton, today’s Guangzhou in South China’s Guangdong Province, as early as 1637. In the 18th century, direct tea trade between China and Britain developed, culminating in the monopoly on Chinese tea by the British East India Company. 

Brewing War 
Because China was more politically powerful than European colonies in the Americas, Africa, India and other regions, coupled with the far distances, Europeans had difficulty setting up colonies there. Instead, they established trade relations with the reigning Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). But as a closed agricultural empire, China did not have a high demand for Western industrial products. Europeans could only trade the gold and silver it plundered from the Americas for porcelain, silk and tea.  

Britain’s high demand for tea and China’s rejection of British products resulted in a huge trade deficit. Foreign traders came to purchase tea, silk, and other articles, but they paid in gold and silver, the Chinese finding little need for the industrial products of the West. Qing Emperor Qianlong even told King George III “we possess all things,” according to The Rise of Modern China by the late Immanuel C.Y. Hsu, former history professor at University of California, Santa Barbara.  

Statistics Hsu cites show that 90 percent of the British East India Company’s shipments to China was gold and only 10 percent commodities. Between 1781 and 1790, 16.4 million taels of silver flowed into China, and between 1800 and 1810, 26 million. This trend in China’s favor continued until the mid-1820s, when the exchange evened out. 

Around this same period, demand for tea in British colonies in North America was on the rise. Because of the British East India Company’s monopoly, tea smuggling became rampant and prices for Chinese tea skyrocketed.  

For Britain, demand for tea grew so much that it ran short of gold and silver to buy it. Then, in 1833, the British East India Company lost its monopoly over Indian trade. To stave off bankruptcy, they came up with measures to compete with China’s tea business – increased tariffs, transplanting Chinese tea trees and copying tea-production techniques. Around this time, the flow of gold and silver had been slipping the other way: nearly 10 million taels left China between 1831 and 1833.  

Then, Britain flipped this trade deficit through opium, which quickly took effect but severely damaged Sino-British relations. Facing Britain’s trade offensive, Qing Emperor Daoguang countered, aiming to “fight foreigners with tea” through the Anti-Opium Campaign in 1839.  

This was not a novel approach. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), emperors used economic and trade policy to deal with invading nomads.  

The Qing saw the British as just another group of invaders. Both Emperor Daoguang and Lin Zexu, the official leading the Anti-Opium Campaign, believed that cutting the supply of tea to the British would force a compromise.  

In 1839, Lin ordered British opium dealers in Humen, Guangdong Province to turn over their stock to be destroyed with no compensation. Only five crates were handed over the first day. On the second day, when Lin proposed compensating their opium for tea, the number of crates surged to 1,150. But this was far from the more than 20,000 crates that were eventually destroyed. While tea had assisted the Anti-Opium Campaign, the 23-day crackdown involved troops, lockdowns and standoffs that only escalated tensions between Britain and China, eventually triggering the First Opium War that same year. 

Monopoly Breaker 
Although the British established tea plantations in northeast India’s Assam in 1830, the quality of tea produced in India was poorer than that in China. The British East India Company engaged Scottish botanist Robert Fortune (1812-1880), director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, to make a clandestine trip to China to steal the closely guarded secrets of growing and producing tea.  

In 1848, Fortune arrived in Shanghai via Hong Kong and hired a Chinese assistant surnamed Wang. He disguised himself in Mandarin robes and a longbraided cue made of horsehair, the officially sanctioned hairstyle for men during the Qing. Fortune and Wang made their way to Hangzhou in East China’s Zhejiang Province, where they visited a green tea plantation and learned production techniques.  

Afterwards, they traveled to Wang’s hometown in southern Anhui Province, where Fortune acquired tea trees and seeds. In January 1849, Fortune sent the first tea seeds and seedlings to British-occupied India. Because of the long voyage and shoddy transplanting, only 80 out of the 15,000 seedlings survived, and none of them grew. Fortune’s first attempt was in vain.  

Undeterred, he embarked on a second expedition. His mission was to obtain black tea from the Wuyishan Mountains in southeast China’s Fujian Province, a major tea producer. This time, disguised as an official from northern China, he discovered Da Hong Pao, the highly prized Oolong tea grown in the gaps of mountain boulders that create its signature mineral taste. During this trip, he studied the differences between black and green teas, as well as tea horticulture and production.  

In February 1851, Fortune and eight master tea growers departed from Shanghai for Calcutta (now Kolkata) with 16 huge glass cabinets filled with tea seeds collected from Zhejiang, Anhui and Fujian, as well as tea production equipment and tools.  

Over the following decade, world-class black teas were cultivated in Darjeeling in the Himalayas from the trees and seeds Fortune took. China’s monopoly on tea was broken. After returning to Britain, Fortune published A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, a memoir that recounted his story of economic espionage.  

The British not only established tea companies and plantations in Assam and Darjeeling, but also touted tea produced in India as “pure” in contrast to the “poisonous” and “insidiously invasive” tea produced in China.  

British scholars even turned tea into a “purification” movement for intellectual colonization and British-Indian agriculture. They defined the 19th century as the inauguration of British writing the history of tea, declared tea as the epitome of “British values” and falsified the origins of tea from China to Britain.  

The British government sent Fortune to steal the secrets of tea production from China and plant Chinese tea in its Indian colonies to make Britain less reliant on trade with China. While glorified at the time, later generations in the UK, US and other European countries reexamined Fortune’s legacy.  

In her book For All the Tea in China, American author Sarah Rose dubs Fortune “a plant hunter, a gardener, a thief, a spy.” What Fortune did in China is arguably among the greatest theft of trade secrets in history, on a par with stealing semiconductor technology or the recipe for Coca-Cola.