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The Tea Thieves: How A Drink Shaped An Empire

Mar 28, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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By the mid-19th century, Britain was an almost unchallenged empire. It controlled about a fifth of the world's surface, and yet its weakness had everything to do with tiny leaves soaked in hot water. By 1800, tea was easily the most popular drink in the country. The problem? All the tea in the world came from China, and Britain couldn't control the quality or the price. So around 1850, a group of British businessmen set out to create a tea industry in a place they did control: India.

For All the Tea In China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History is Sarah Rose's account of the effort to control the tea market, what she calls the "greatest single act of corporate espionage in history."

"The task required a plant hunter, a gardener, a thief, a spy. The man Britain needed was Robert Fortune," Rose writes. Fortune was the agent sent to sneak out of China the plants and secrets of tea production.

Before Fortune, England engaged in trade with China, sending opium in exchange for tea.

"The Chinese emperor hated that opium was the medium of exchange, because a nation of drug addicts was being created. So the emperor confiscated all the opium [and] destroyed it," Rose tells NPR's Guy Raz. "England sent warships. And at the end of the day, they realized that if they were going to keep pace with the British tea consumption and not deal with the Chinese, they had to own it themselves."

Enter Robert Fortune, a botanist in an era when the natural sciences were on the ascent in Britain. Think of botanists in mid-19th century England as research and development scientists in 1970s Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) — the company that developed the Ethernet and many other computing technologies, says Rose.

Many of these 19th century botanists had university degrees and were trained as doctors, but Fortune, who was Scottish, grew up poor.

"He kind of worked his way up through the ranks of professional botany, learning with professional training instead of book training," Rose says.

Around 1845, when the young botanist was in his early 30s, he took a two-year trip to China in search of plants. Upon his return, he published a travelogue in which he described his adventures.

"He was attacked by pirates, he was attacked by bandits, he encountered all kinds of disease and storms, and he also goes in disguise, dressed up as if he were a wealthy Chinese merchant," Rose says.

His memoir having captured the imagination of Victorian society, Fortune was approached by a representative of the East India Trading Company, who asked him to return to China, this time to smuggle tea out of the country.

"They wanted really good tea stock from the very best gardens in China, and they also needed experts. They needed the Chinese to go to India to teach the British planters, as well as the Indian gardeners."

Fortune succeeded. He managed to get seeds from China to India, and the impact on the tea trade was immense. Within his lifetime, India surpassed China as the world's largest tea grower.

"It astonishes me," Rose says. "China has pretty much never really come back from that, certainly not in the Western markets. Now that Asia has such a booming economy, the Chinese are again pretty fierce tea producers. But it took a hundred-plus years."

So was Fortune history's greatest corporate thief, or the man we can thank for the tea we drink?

Rose says that to understand his role in the history of tea, it's useful to think of Fortune — who considered himself a gardener and China expert — in the terms of the market in which he existed.

"Today we have Monsanto, and there are patents on everything. But in those days, even the notion of a patent or intellectual property was just being articulated in legal systems. So he didn't see himself as stealing something that didn't belong to him. He thought plants belonged to everybody."

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