Open Mike

A tempest in a teapot


By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04
Image from iStockphoto

In 1848 Scottish botanist Robert Fortune traveled to China at the behest of his employer, the East India Company. His mission: sneak into territory forbidden to foreigners to gather tea plants and trade secrets so the British could produce “liquid jade,” as the drink was known, in their own Indian Himalayas. “It was the largest act of corporate espionage ever,” says journalist Sarah Rose, AM’99, of Fortune’s quest. “The East India Company was one of the first global, multinational corporations.”

For nearly two centuries, the Chinese empire had held a monopoly, trading high-quality tea to England in exchange for opium from British-controlled India. Yet when China cracked down on merchants smuggling the drug (the emperor had officially banned it in 1729) and tensions escalated into war, the British realized the danger of their tea dependence. Rose’s book For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History (Viking, 2010) traces Fortune’s exploits—he dressed as a local in robes and a pigtail, besting pirates and other thieves along the way—to bring tea to India’s plantations.

Meet Fortune: He was a little stern and a little humorless at times. And he also was a little self-aggrandizing, but that’s a kind of Victorian characteristic. … While he thought he was doing something heroic for the East India Company and for England, he was stealing from the Chinese.

China versus England: Basically, they were two big drug cartels. England was selling opium, and China was selling tea. And they were both locked in addiction to the other’s drug. 

Job hazards: There were only four [Chinese] ports that were granted to England, America, and the European powers after the Opium War. White men were still not allowed beyond the walls of their encampments within these treaty ports. So when Fortune left unescorted and forbidden by the rules of the treaty, he was immediately at risk. … There’s piracy. There’s a rebellion. There’s a lot of unrest. There were also a lot of opium addicts, thanks to England.

On his guard: Fortune was going in utterly without protection. He didn’t speak the language fluently…and was dependent entirely on his translators and his bodyguards, who were not entirely trustworthy.

Not to mention: He also needed to bring Chinese men to India [to grow the tea]. There was an express decree from the emperor that no one was allowed to leave China. All citizens were the property of the emperor. And he was basically paying these people to leave and go to India to teach tea-making skills.

Today’s tea trade: This is an economy Robert Fortune made possible. When I have tea, I think of my guy and drink a little toast to him.


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