How British “stole” tea from Chinese and spread it worldwide
It is hard to imagine that 200 years ago, everyone drank tea from China, but no one knew the secrets of its cultivation and production. Until one day in England, it was decided to “steal” technology from the Chinese and make it world-wide.
Why did the British decide to grow tea themselves
By the mid-19th century, England had become one of the most important powers in the world, controlling almost a fifth of the land through numerous colonies. However, any giant has its own Achilles' heel, and tea was the main weakness of England. By that time, they could not imagine their life without a cup of a fragrant drink brewed based on dried leaves of Camellia sinensis.
This continued until the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune arrived in China in the forties. During his three-year research expedition sponsored by the Royal Society of Gardeners, Robert also has studied tea bushes. And on his return to London, he collected all his notes in one big story. This unusual work, entitled “Three Years' Wandering in the Northern Provinces of China” (1847), included not only botanical descriptions but also fascinating notes about Robert's adventures. It is not surprising that his memoirs soon became very popular in England and caught the eye of representatives of the famous East India Company. At that time, East India was going through hard times - China had just refused to barter tea due to the new anti-drug policy.
The question of supplies to Britain arose very sharply. The British understood that it was urgent to find a way to avoid total dependence on the Chinese, who could now dictate any conditions and prices. There was only one way out - start growing tea by themselves. The British already had such an experience, and it ended unsuccessfully: the first plantations created in India in the 20s gave a completely unsuitable tasteless crop. So now the East India Company needed to not only export the best samples of tea bushes from China but also “steal” the technologies of further cultivation and production.
Pigtail smuggler who "created" Indian tea
For help, the British turned to Robert, as an experienced botanist and conqueror of China in one person. Moreover, since in his picture of the world, plants could not belong to a particular country but were part of the whole world, Mr. Fortune did not experience the slightest remorse, gathering himself in a new, this time openly “spy” expedition. After shaving his hair in a Chinese manner and leaving one pigtail, he changed into a merchant's suit and came up with a simple legend for himself.
Over the next few months, Robert managed to do what seemed almost unthinkable. Gain his trust within Chinese tea farmers and collect a vast collection of Camellia sinensis samples for further transportation to India. Furthermore, he managed to get all the most vital information regarding the cultivation of tea in new lands and its subsequent processing. It is notable because the Chinese government directly forbade its subjects to share the secrets of tea production with foreigners, and so much the more so to sell tea bushes.
Today we don’t know how Robert, with his European appearance, managed to "blend in", but he succeeded with this task. It is only known for certain that he explained his high growth to the Chinese, as he had a high position in government, and the Chinese were delighted with this argument. Alas, Robert's magnificent work was completely ruined during the transportation of samples and seeds. Almost all of them died due to moisture and mold.
Probably others could give up, but not Fortune. At one time, he achieved respect in the higher botanical circles of England. Although he did not even have special education, being self-taught. Such a man could not give up halfway. A few months later, Robert completely repeated his heroic path and re-restored the "gold reserve", intended to create a new tea empire. By the way, he again could not resist traveling notes. In 1952 his book “A journey of the Tea countries of China” was published.
Several years have passed. On tea plantations in India, new bushes obtained thanks to the British "spy" were magnificently greened. When the first crop was harvested, the British were finally able to exhale with relief - the resulting product was as close as possible to the usual Chinese quality. Very soon, Indian tea gained significant importance in the world market, forever replacing Chinese with its centuries-old pedestal. The name of Robert Fortune remained in the history of tea as the name of the person who made this drink available to all segments of people.
Do the Chinese still have any tea secrets?
It is noteworthy that today in China, there are still many secrets of growing and processing tea.
No less labor and acquaintances will be needed for a person who wants just to purchase a ready-made tea of high quality. So, if you do not have time for an expedition to China, in this matter, it is best to trust the professionals.