Robert Fortune: The Man Who Stole China’s Tea Secrets

If we should pick one person who influenced the history of international tea trade the most, that person is without doubt Robert Fortune. As a botanist and adventurer from Scotland, was sent by the British East India Company on a journey to the interior of China in 1848. At this time, china was forbidden to foreigners. The goal of Mr. Fortune’s mission was to steal the techniques for the manufacturing and horticulture processes of tea. This Scotsman committed a daring act of corporate espionage by donning a disguise and travelling into the hills of Wuyishan and the Yellow Mountain. Robert Fortune’s story reads like something out of fiction, but it’s very real, and it’s an impressive accomplishment that helped shape today’s world of tea consumption.

Robert Fortune’s First Trip to China

After spending four months at sea, Fortune arrived in Hong Kong on July 6, 1843, and immediately began searching for plants to fill his Wardian cases. This rather gruff Scotsman shaved his head and wore his hair in a ponytail to blend in. From the book “Three Years in China” by Robert Fortune, he took numerous trips to China’s northern provinces and experienced several terrifying misadventures. He was able to survive everything, including xenophobic mobs, killer storms in the Yellow Sea, and pirates on the Yangtze River.

He eventually attained fluency in speaking the local language, allowing him to dress like a local and blend in with the crowd largely unnoticed. In fact, he performed so well that he could enter Wuhsien, a forbidden city, unopposed. Throughout the three years of his first mission, Fortune shipped several items back to England. Robert Fortune published his journals in the book “Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China” after he arrived in London in May 1846.

His memoir captured the interest of Victorian society, and a representative of the East India Trading Company—at the time, one of the most significant multinational corporations in the world—got in touch with Fortune. To smuggle tea out of China, the company hired Fortune to visit the country once more.

Second Trip: An Unknown Foreign Inland China

By the middle of the 1800s, tea had ultimately captured England’s and Europe’s hearts and minds. The British Empire planned to establish its first tea plantations in India shortly after the first Opium War and the resumption of trade with China. But lacks the essentials, such as good tea and expertise in producing green and black tea.

In September 1848, Robert Fortune had his head clumsily shaved by a hired servant while floating in a boat harbour in a canal outside of Shanghai. He then removed his European clothing and put on traditional Chinese garb after having a long braid of dark hair sewn onto the nape of his neck.

Fortune was a six-foot-tall Scotsman who was pretending himself as Chinese. He wasn’t a spy, but he was on a mission to steal a state secret by entering the unmapped forbidden interior of China. The Middle Kingdom and the West at that time had very acrimonious relations. Beijing forbids any Western travel inland, but they have been able to force the presence of 5 counters on the nation to encourage trade. To avoid attention during his two trips, Mr. Fortune disguised himself as a Chinese person by wearing a long plait in his hair, speaking Mandarin, and leaving his guides to inform curious onlookers that he is actually the lord of a far-off nation beyond the Great Wall.

Robert Fortune Visit to a Tea Factory

Robert Fortune entered the gates of a green tea factory while his servant Wang walked five paces ahead to announce his approach. Wang frantically started pleading. Would the factory owner permit a visit from a respected official who had travelled from a distant province to observe the production of such glorious tea? The facility manager nodded courteously before guiding them inside a sizable structure with deteriorating grey stucco walls. Courtyards, open workspaces, and storage areas were located beyond it. It was warm and dry, crowded with people producing the final crop of the season, and the earthy aroma of green tea permeated the atmosphere. This factory served as a place where tea was prepared for export via the significant Canton tea distributors and the expanding Shanghai tea market.

Although making tea is not at all intuitive, the basic idea is straightforward: dry leaf is infused in hot water. For two thousand years, the tea recipe had not changed, and Europe had become addicted to it at the time of Fortune’s visit. However, few people in Britain’s colonies had knowledge of how tea was produced before it was put into a pot. The directors of the East India Company and Fortune’s London-based contemporaries in horticulture believed that tea would reveal its secrets if exposed to the open-minded scrutiny of Western science.

Learning the process of making tea was one of Fortune’s tasks in China, and it was undoubtedly as crucial as providing Indian tea gardens with the best nursery stock. There was a lot of factory work, from the picking to the brewing, including fermenting, rolling, firing, and drying for black tea. The East India Company gave Fortune clear instructions to learn as much as he could: “Along with gathering tea plants and seeds from the best regions to send to India, it will be your responsibility to take advantage of every chance to learn about Chinese tea manufacturing methods, tea plant cultivation methods, and any other topics that might be useful for those in charge of overseeing the tea nurseries in India.” The tea’s recipe, however, was a strictly kept state secret.

Inspirational calligraphic words of praise from the classic Cha-Ching, a great work on tea by Lu Yu, were hung on the wall at the tea factory’s entrance. After entering the already deserted courtyard, Fortune discovered fresh tea being dried on sizable woven rattan plates. Tea was “cooked” by the sun’s direct impact on the containers. While the delicate tea leaves dried, no one passed by, touched or moved them. Fortune discovered that the green tea leaves were exposed to the sun for a period of one to two hours.

The sun-baked leaves were then brought into a furnace room and placed into a very large iron wok-sized pan. Men were slaving away in front of a line of coal furnaces, emptying their pans’ contents into an open hearth. The intense heat caused the crisp leaves to be vigorously stirred, kept moving constantly, and turned wet. The cell walls of the leaves are destroyed when stir-fried in this manner, just as vegetables are when heated to a high temperature. The cooked leaves were then dumped onto a table and rolled back and forth over bamboo rollers by four or five workers. They were continuously rolled to release their essential oils, which were then wrung out as the green juice collected on the tables. Fortune recalled, “I cannot explain this operation better than by comparing it to a baker working and rolling his dough.

To sort through the leaves and remove any stem fragments, the workers sat at long, low tables. Along with small stones and grit from the factory floor, they also searched for any insects that might have contaminated the batch. One of the reasons Chinese tea drinkers customarily toss the first cup from any pot is that tea was not a clean product in any sense, even with some quality control. The saying among connoisseurs goes, “The first cup is for your enemies.”

Fortune cleverly took a few poisonous dyes from the factory, bundled them in his cloth sacks coated with wax, and hid them in the roomy folds of his mandarin costume. He wanted samples for analysis as a scientist, but he most wanted to send more samples back to England. These materials would be prominent at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. All of Britain’s industrial, scientific, and economic might—including the green tea dyes—was on display to the world in the glimmering Crystal Palace. Tea, the national beverage of Britain, was brought into the light of Western science and insight at the time of this open-to-the-public exhibition. Fortune exposed unintentional Chinese criminality and offered a convincing defence of British-made tea.

Through his efforts, more than 20,000 plants and seedlings and 8 Chinese tea workers were transported to the Himalayas until 1851 to supervise tea cultivation in the foothills of the Himalayas. These efforts lead to the establishment of the Tea industry in India.

More Adventures of Mr. Fortune

You may be wondering what happened to Robert Fortune after he completed his daring tea mission. Well, as it turns out, he left an incredible legacy behind him. After learning the secret formula of tea in 1851, Fortune travelled to China on two more trips (1853–56, 1858–59), as well as once to Japan (1860–62), and is credited with bringing more than 120 different plant species to Western gardens.

His endeavours and adventures

Robert Fortune wanted to expose China’s trade secrets in tea by bringing back seeds, planting tea trees, and hiring Chinese labourers in India. The Wuyi Mountains in Fujian and the Yellow Mountains (Huangshan), which are well known for their green tea region, are then mentioned as the two main destinations. Chinese labourers and all of its samples joined Uttar Pradesh’s plantations in 1850.

Robert Fortune contributed to the advancement of tea culture and tea manufacturing in a rapidly growing British Empire in addition to the success of his expeditions. He first appeared in Darjeeling’s first tea plantation in 1856.

He travelled to Japan and Formosa (modern-day Taiwan), where he wrote about the production of rice and the silkworm culture. The cumquat, a double climbing yellow rose called “Fortune’s Double Yellow”, and numerous varieties of chrysanthemums, tree peonies, and azaleas are just a few of the plants he brought to the West.

Most of the Chinese tea plants Fortune introduced to India’s north-western provinces didn’t survive, with the exception of a few plants that persisted in older Indian gardens. The British preference and fashion for strong dark tea brews contributed to the failure in India as well. These brews were best produced using the native Assam distinct species (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) rather than the choice that Fortune had made in China. However, the technology and knowledge that were brought over from China were essential to the later success of the Indian tea industry in Sri Lanka and Assam. Mission accomplished more than satisfactorily for this Queen’s servant!

Among his publications are the following:

  • Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China (1847)
  • A Journey to the Tea Countries of China (1852)
  • A Residence Among the Chinese’ (1857)
  • Yedo and Peking’ (1863)

After his 1862 return from Japan, he retired, returned to Scotland, and started farming in East Lothian. Many plants, shrubs, and trees that came from China to Europe are attributed to Fortune. He made enough money from his books to live comfortably. On April 13, 1880, Mr Fortune passed away.

Robert Fortune’s story is one of determination, ingenuity, and bravery. He was a true pioneer in botany, and his work helped bring two of the world’s most popular beverages to billions of people. He was a man who faced many challenges and overcame them all through hard work and determination. Today, tea is enjoyed by people all over the world, and it is hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t widely available. But this beloved drink may never have made it out of China without Robert Fortune. Thanks to his daring explorations, we can all enjoy a cup of tea whenever we please.

No Comments

    Join or start a conversation!