ROBERT FORTUNE - BOTANICAL SPY: A NOT-SO-BORING BOTANIST SERIES

April 23, 2016: When one thinks of industrial espionage, which if you're like me is not very often, you probably have an image of high tech or industrial formula theft, not something as mundane as tea. But one of the greatest cases in history of industrial espionage involved tea and how a crusty Scottish botanist, Robert Fortune, stole it and its processing secrets from the Chinese.

By the mid 1800's, the tea drinkers of the British Empire had been enjoying that beverage for a couple hundred years. It came at a very heavy price for tea and how to process it was the sole monopoly of China. Furthermore. the Chinese were very particular in how they would be paid - by silver. No checks, no cash, no byte coin, not even debit cards. British tea importers had to first buy the silver to buy the tea, which was expensive.

The prime British tea importer, the British East India Company, came up with the idea of introducing and selling to the Chinese opium grown in British India in the mid-1700's. They sold it for silver and turned around and bought Chinese tea with it. This worked out well . . . for the British, until some Chinese emperor saw that having an opium addicted populace wasn't all that good a deal and prohibited under severe penalty the usage and trade of opium.

The British, much like their former colonial Americans, became highly insulted by this cavalier act of restricting free trade and proceeded to go to war with China in what was called the First Opium War (1840-1842). Britain won, they forced China to resume trade in opium and they got the port of Hong Kong to boot.

Robert FortuneRobert FortuneEnter Robert Fortune. The British East India Company thought it would be a great idea if they could just bypass the whole Chinese tea connection by growing tea in India. The problem was no one had tea plants nor the knowledge of how to process tea, which, surprisingly, is quite complex. China closely guarded its tea secrets. So in 1846, they sent botanist Robert Fortune to the newly acquired Hong Kong to infiltrate the Chinese tea trade.

Fortune had already been to China three years before on a plant collecting trip. He had developed the art of blending in by adopting Mandarin dress and speech, complete with shaved head and queue (pigtail). Feigning that he was a official from a far off province, Fortune and his interpreter were admitted to tea factories where he observed how green tea and the more highly processed black tea were made. While observing he noticed that the Chinese added two curious components to their tea for export - a chemical called Prussian Blue and gypsum, the major component of plaster. Both of these chemicals were added as colorants to make the green tea look green. The Chinese felt really green green tea was much more marketable to western barbarians. (I wonder if this is the start of our modern day food additive industry?). Both of these chemicals are toxic to the nervous system in lower concentrations over time causing dizziness, confusion, memory loss and irritability and perhaps, dare say I, the proclivity to go to war over the slightest provocations.

Fortune ended up successfully smuggling out the Chinese tea processes, 20,000 tea plants in Wardian cases (miniature greenhouse-like bell jars) and several Chinese tea techs to India, where a thriving tea industry was built that, to this day, produces more tea than China.

You would have thought that once the British Empire got their own tea the trade troubles would have ended. Not so. In 1856, the Second Opium War erupted this time with Britain, America, France and Russia demanding China open up to more free trade and the legalization of opium in the country. They won. Who'd have guessed that a century and half ago there had been a "war for drugs" instead of the current war against them.

Robert Fortune continued with plant collecting trips to Formosa and Japan and introduced to Western gardens such now common plants as chrysanthemums, tree peonies, several species of azaleas and others. In botanical nomenclature, the species name of "fortunei" appears a lot indicating yet another plant introduced to us by the Scot who dressed in Chinese drag.

For more on this, I highly recommend reading the book "For All the Tea in China" by Sarah Rose. There is even a novel written, "The Secret Mandarin" (which is on my to-read list) with Robert Fortune as a major character.

Chinese opium partyChinese opium party
English tea partyEnglish tea party
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F & P