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 The great tea robbery: How our cuppa wouldn't exist if an amazing Victorian hadn't stolen the secret from China's warlords

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Blue Belt
Blue Belt

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Registration date : 2009-01-03

PostSubject: The great tea robbery: How our cuppa wouldn't exist if an amazing Victorian hadn't stolen the secret from China's warlords   Thu Mar 05, 2009 2:37 pm

The great tea robbery: How our cuppa wouldn't exist if an amazing Victorian hadn't stolen the secret from China's warlords

Last updated at 10:47 PM on 04th March 2009

Now, in the likely event that you are at this very moment drinking tea - likely because, as a nation, we pour 150 million cupfuls down our throats every day - you might care to give a nod to the memory of a tall and lean Scotsman by the name of Robert Fortune, a forgotten hero for the millions of us who swear by the amber nectar, the 'liquid jade', the cuppa, a brew, char.

Fortune was a seeker of the exotic, an explorer and a student of plants, just like his Victorian contemporary and fellow botanist, Charles Darwin, who is much discussed at present on the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work On The Origin Of Species.

But where Darwin discovered the key to life, it was the little-known Fortune we can thank for making it infinitely more pleasurable and relaxing.

Brit favorite: Tea drinking in Britain could have died out if it wasn't for the efforts of a Victorian adventurer

Camellia sinensis - tea - was his favourite species and the closely guarded secrets of its origins were what he sought, found and then stole, to the benefit of us all.

What he pulled off, according to author Sarah Rose, in a new book that gives Fortune his proper place in history, was the greatest theft of trade secrets in the history of mankind.

It's not that there wasn't tea to drink before Fortune came on the scene in the late 1840s. There was - lots of it.

But the problem was that it was all grown in China, its sole country of origin, which had a monopoly on the trade.

For two centuries, this was not an issue. The Chinese picked the tea, roasted it, blended it, kept the best of the crop for themselves and sold on the dregs of their Pekoes and Souchongs at a handsome mark-up.

Even though they were getting an inferior brew, the Brits lapped it up. To meet this huge demand at home, tea to sell in Britain was bought from China by the London-based East India Company in exchange for opium grown on its plantations in India.

It was a fair (if pernicious) swop. Britons got their drug of choice, the Chinese theirs.

But this cosy set-up began to falter when the Chinese started growing their own opium.

The British response was tit-for-tat. It was time to smash China's hold on the tea trade and grow the plant themselves in India, in the foothills of the Himalayas which most resembled the best tea-producing areas of China.

This was easier said than done. Tea was a tricky plant and, more importantly, the Chinese had for centuries jealously and zealously guarded the intimate secrets of its cultivation, harvesting and production.

Early attempts to grow it in India were a disaster. The plants thrived but the tea from their leaves was bitter and sooty, not like the soft and perfumed liquor of China.

The directors of the East India Company, their core business under threat, knew they had to get their hands on the right seeds, the right plants and the right technology, none of which the Chinese were about to offer up willingly.

What they decided on was a bit of what today we would call industrial espionage.

Someone would have to sneak in and get what they needed, and damn the risk of being caught and flayed alive, the Chinese punishment for piracy.

The directors sent for the one man with the experience to carry this off - the 35-year-old Fortune, curator of the famous Chelsea Physic Garden.

Legacy: Botanist Robert Fortune stole the secret of tea making from the Chinese

He was already as acquainted as any Westerner could be with the vast empire run from the Forbidden City in Peking. Foreigners were distrusted but he had managed to slip in a few years earlier on an expedition for the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

He came back with a cornucopia of cuttings of plants and flowers never seen before on these shores - Winter Flowering Jasmine, Bleeding Heart, White Wisteria, the Fan Palm - all of them brightening up British beds and borders to this day.

He travelled in disguise, with a shaved head, a pigtail and the clothes of a Mandarin, making, as he said himself, 'a very fair Chinaman'.

Certainly, given the botanical booty he had managed to bring home - which also included the kumquat fruit and the double yellow rose - he was convincing enough to worm his way into many a private garden and bring back its secrets.

Helped by a small bunch of local servants, whom he paid handsomely to buy their silence, he had ridden his luck. He had even outwitted a gang of pirates who tried to board his junk in the South China Sea as he returned to Hong Kong from his travels into the interior.

The question was: would his luck hold up if he went back a second time and in search of China's most prized possession, the secrets of its t'cha?

Fortune decided the chance was worth taking. He was from humble origins, a farm labourer's son who started out as a gardener and learned the science through experience rather than study.

He made his name cultivating orchids for the RHS, which is why they chose him for their China expedition. But that trip, for all its successes, did not pay.

Plants were big business in the British Empire, not just as adornments for gardens but as the sources of medicines such as quinine. But it was the Society that took the considerable profit from the exotic cuttings Fortune brought back.

He was not best pleased. The deal he now struck with the East India Company was designed to make him a rich man.

For a modest salary of £500 a year for the duration of the trip (plus not inconsiderable expenses), he agreed to get them the very best tea in China. But he would keep the lucrative rights to any other plants he could hunt out while he was there. If things went to plan, he would make his fortune.

In Shanghai, he sat once more as the front of his head was scraped with a cut-throat razor and a false pigtail stitched on to the hairs at the back, hanging from his neck to his waist.

He sipped tea the Chinese way (from a porcelain bowl, without milk or sugar) and called himself Sing-Wa, Bright Flower.

His destination was the Sung-Lo mountains, the primary source of green tea and hundreds of miles deeper into the closed country than any Briton had ever been allowed to venture.

Up the Yangtze river he travelled in a flat-bottomed river junk, stopping off to roam the hills for plants and seeds to squirrel away in specimen jars and wicker baskets

To those who inquired about his strange looks and his height - he was a foot taller than the average Chinese - he said that he was a high-ranking official from a distant province 'beyond the Great Wall'.

His grandly delivered explanation brought the obligatory kowtow (a kneeling bow).

Amazingly, he was never rumbled or betrayed. At the first tea factory he came upon, he discovered an important fact that had escaped both tea drinkers and botanists back home.

Tea picking: Britain had to infiltrate the way the Chinese grew and produced tea to ensure the nation kept its favourite cuppa

Green tea and black tea were not different species, as had been thought, but leaves from the same plant differently processed, one fermented, the other not.

He also discovered, to his horror, that the tea we were drinking should carry a health warning.

The Chinese were routinely slipping coloured dye into the tea intended for Britain because they thought we wanted it greener than it was naturally.

The dye was Prussian Blue, a form of cyanide. For years, tea had been poisoning us.

Then he came to the tea slopes themselves, rich plantations up in the mountains, terrace after terrace cloaked in mists and wafting a fragrance that filled the air and the lungs.

He breathed in, and then set to work collecting soil samples, pods, plants and seeds.

These he packed carefully in boxes and crates, knowing they had a long and difficult journey ahead of them to India for re-planting.

Plants are not good travellers. His 10,000 tea seeds and 13,000 young plants needed careful nurturing to survive but he had the latest technology of the inventive Victorian age to draw on.

They would thrive, he knew, in special glass cases he had brought with him, aided by the ash of burnt rice, which soaked up excess moisture and stopped maggots and rot.

As long as no one interfered with them, they should arrive healthy and ready to grow.

His meticulous packing completed, he sent his cargo of botanic treasure on a ship from Hong Kong to India, his job safely, skilfully and successfully done - or so he thought.

In Calcutta, the capital of British India, Fortune's shipment was eagerly awaited. Once there, the sealed crates got VIP treatment as they were transferred to a steamer and taken up the Ganges to the city of Allahabad, en route to the foothills of the Himalayas and what everyone hoped would be the tea plant's new home and profit-centre.

One nosey official and an ill-informed botanist wrecked everything. Eager to find out what was so special about this mystery cargo attracting so much high security, the official couldn't stop himself taking a look. He broke the seals and peeked inside.

He reported later that, from what he had seen, everything was fine with the cargo. But by the time the crates were properly opened on the East India Company plantation in the mountains, the whole consignment was a shambles.

Only 1,000 of the 13,000 young plants had survived and even they were full of fungus and mould. Just 80 of them were healthy enough to take root.

Every one of the 10,000 seeds was rotten. It turned out that on the last leg of the six-month, 5,000-mile journey, a scientist accompanying the plants in their now unsealed crates had watered them and kept them in the shade.

It was the last thing he should have done. The glass cases were designed to be self-contained and self-sustaining.

All the plants needed was to always be in direct sunlight. Once they were opened, the ecosystem inside collapsed, overwatering did the rest and the plants turned to mush.

Fortune had failed. The attempt to transplant tea from China to India was a flop. The future of tea drinking as Britain's favourite pastime was on the brink.

Fortunately for us, back in China, the industrious explorer had not let the grass grow under his feet.

After sending his first consignment, he had headed by boat and sedan chair for the Wuyi mountains in the south, where black tea was produced. It was an even more arduous journey than the one before and fraught with dangers.

This was an area beset by warlords and peasant uprisings against the Emperor. All he had to protect himself with was a small rusted-up pistol and a surfeit of brass neck.

But he kept going, filling his sedan chair with clippings and cuttings from every hillside until eventually there was no room for him and he had to walk alongside his grumbling porters. He didn't mind.

The land, with its dramatic peaks, bamboo forests and spectacular waterfalls, thrilled him. With its profusion of temples, he felt he was truly in heaven.

It was in one of those temples that monks in orange robes introduced him to more secrets of tea - to the importance of water on the boil but not over-boiling, of using prewarmed cups and larger leaves for better flavour.

He plucked and dried the leaves with them, noted their rituals, learned the ways of the tea planter, tea taster and tea maker.

Finally, he bought from them plants of the Da Hong Pao variety, the tea of gods and emperors, the most rarefied and expensive in the world, worth more per ounce in its purest form than gold.

All he had to do now was transport this purloined treasure of plants and know-how to India, a daunting prospect given that he had just learned of the abject failure of his first consignment.

He brought all his years of gardening experience to bear on the matter. Instead of shipping seeds in sacks, he layered them in soil like a trifle and encased the whole lot in glass.

The result was a triumph this time. Thousands upon thousands of germinating tea seeds sprouted on their way to India and were ripe for planting as soon as they arrived.

The young plants also made it intact after Fortune issued a stern instruction that they should not be watered and this time his orders were obeyed.

Soon they were flowering and reproducing in the Himalayas. What was more, these were the finest teas in the world, not the dregs.

But Fortune's plundering of China did not stop there. He also brought away jasmine and bergamot plants, with which the Chinese flavoured their teas, as well as the ovens, woks, spatulas and rolling tables used in the processing.

And he smuggled out eight Chinese tea experts on fat contracts to help grow the fledgling tea industry in India.

China's expensive monopoly was broken. Within a generation, says author Sarah Rose, India's Himalayan tea industry would outstrip China's in both quality, volume and price.

As a result, tea would not just be for the rich. It could be and would be everyone's cup of tea.

As for Fortune, he lived up to his name. His skills were now highly prized. The East India Company sent him back to China on more forays.

The American government hired him in an attempt to start a tea industry in the United States. On his own initiative, he smuggled himself into Japan, another closed Oriental empire, and came back with more exotic (and expensive) flora for British gardeners to delight in.

As a result, the man who stole the jewel in China's imperial crown and carried it off to become the jewel in India's died a wealthy man in 1880.

His good fortune was ours too, his legacy one that we continue to sip and savour.

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