Writer: Kareem Wright
In the 1840’s a British gardener infiltrated China and carried out one of the most profitable heists in the History of the world. A heist that propelled the British Empire to dizzying heights and fuelled the furnaces of the industrial revolution His name: Robert Fortune, the object of his crime: TEA.
Fortune was a Scotsman of humble origins who entered the gardening profession at a young age. He had very little formal education, but worked his way into the ranks of Britain’s botany elite. In the 1800’s botany was the subject of cutting edge science, and China had many fascinating plants waiting to be discovered. In his early 30’s Fortune was recruited by the British Horticultural society to explore the northern provinces of China and bring back examples of exotic plants. The journey was long, arduous and highly illegal. Somewhat unbelievably the 6ft Scot managed to disguise himself as a Chinese man, shaving his head in the typical ‘Queue’ style and donning Manchu robes.
His initial trip lasted three years; and saw him fighting for his life on multiples instances, fending off pirates, storms and bandits. Despite the many dangers he encountered poaching China’s flora and fauna, the wily Scotsman survived and made it home to London with thousands of Chinese plants and seeds in tow. In true corporate form the plants and seeds made a fortune for the British Horticultural Society, but Fortune himself didn’t see much of the profits. In order to fill his pockets he set about documenting his journeys in a very well received book.
The book caught the eye of the British East India Company, who were looking for a sneaky individual with an excellent knowledge of Chinese plants to slip into China and steal its most prized plant: Tea. Fortune was the perfect man for the job; in fact, he was probably the only man for the job. So after making sure that this time he’d receive a decent paycheque at the end of it, Fortune set sail once again for Chinese shores. Upon arrival he hired a Chinese guide who also acted as his interpreter and servant to assist him on his mission. In Shanghai he once again donned traditional Chinese garb and shaved his head in the Manchu style. Fortune was probably only able to pull off his disguise as he had managed to learn Mandarin on his first expedition into China, and he would frequently describe himself as a “Chinese Lord from a province beyond the Great Wall”. An excellent cover story, as alongside his servant he also hired a whole retinue of Chinese servants and tea experts, who he would describe as his “entourage”.
Wearing his disguise and his team assembled; Fortune slipped into China under the radar. He travelled to the northern tea provinces, stealing not just the physical tea plants themselves, but also the genius behind its cultivation and production. After many months of labour, he had collected over 13,000 tea plants and 10,000 seedlings, and had carefully documented the entire production of consumable tea. These seeds and plants packaged in special containers and shipped to India. But disaster struck. An inexperienced scientist who had been appointed to travel with the containers opened them and ruined almost the entire batch!
Undeterred, Fortune renewed his quest, journeying deep into China’s south. This time he sent his Chinese “tea team” to accompany the tea from China to India. The Chinese experts ensured the crop was planted successfully, and within some 40 years British India was the biggest major producer of tea in the world. Fortune stole China’s last great secret, and along with it her major source of Imperial wealth.
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