The Great British Tea Heist

Botanist Robert Fortune traveled to China and stole trade secrets of the tea industry, discovering a fraud in the process

Among botanist Robert Fortune's tasks in China was to learn the procedure for manufacturing tea, as shown in this 18th century tea plantation. (The Granger Collection, New York)

In 1848, the British East India Company sent Robert Fortune on a trip to China's interior, an area forbidden to foreigners. Fortune's mission was to steal the secrets of tea horticulture and manufacturing. The Scotsman donned a disguise and headed into the Wu Si Shan hills in a bold act of corporate espionage.

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This is an excerpt from For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose.

With [his servant] Wang walking five paces ahead to announce his arrival, Robert Fortune, dressed in his mandarin garb, entered the gates of a green tea factory. Wang began to supplicate frantically. Would the master of the factory allow an inspection from a visitor, an honored and wise official who had traveled from a far province to see how such glorious tea was made?

The factory superintendent nodded politely and led them into a large building with peeling gray stucco walls. Beyond it lay courtyards, open work spaces, and storerooms. It was warm and dry, full of workers manufacturing the last of the season’s crop, and the woody smell of green tea hung in the air. This factory was a place of established ceremony, where tea was prepared for export through the large tea distributors in Canton and the burgeoning tea trade in Shanghai.

Although the concept of tea is simple—dry leaf infused in hot water—the manufacture of it is not intuitive at all. Tea is a highly processed product. At the time of Fortune’s visit the recipe for tea had remained unchanged for two thousand years, and Europe had been addicted to it for at least two hundred of them. But few in Britain’s dominions had any firsthand or even secondhand information about the production of tea before it went into the pot. Fortune’s horticultural contemporaries in London and the directors of the East India Company all believed that tea would yield its secrets if it were held up to the clear light and scrutiny of Western science.

Among Fortune’s tasks in China, and certainly as critical as providing Indian tea gardens with quality nursery stock, was to learn the procedure for manufacturing tea. From the picking to the brewing there was a great deal of factory work involved: drying, firing, rolling, and, for black tea, fermenting. Fortune had explicit instructions from the East India Company to discover everything he could: “Besides the collection of tea plants and seeds from the best localities for transmission to India, it will be your duty to avail yourself of every opportunity of acquiring information as to the cultivation of the tea plant and the manufacture of tea as practised by the Chinese and on all other points with which it may be desirable that those entrusted with the superintendence of the tea nurseries in India should be made acquainted.”

But the recipe for the tea was a closely guarded state secret.

In the entry to the tea factory, hanging on the wall, were inspiring calligraphic words of praise, a selection from Lu Yu’s great work on tea, the classic Cha Ching.

The best quality tea must have
The creases like the leather boots of Tartar horsemen,
Curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock,
Unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine,
Gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr,
And be wet and soft like
Earth newly swept by rain.

Proceeding into the otherwise empty courtyard, Fortune found fresh tea set to dry on large woven rattan plates, each the size of a kitchen table. The sun beat down on the containers, “cooking” the tea. No one walked past; no one touched or moved the delicate tea leaves as they dried. Fortune learned that for green tea the leaves were left exposed to the sun for one to two hours.


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