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“Hello, China? Yes, that’s right: ALL the tea.”

Few things have sparked such passion for large-scale acquisition as the tea plant. The British obsession with it grew more and more powerful since their very first contact with the beverage.

Time for a history lesson, my tea people. Gather round. We begin our tale in the seventeenth century.

From around 1684 onwards the British East India Company had exclusive trade clearance for tea purchase from China, the birthplace of tea and sole tea-producing nation at the time. They did not have to go through Dutch traders any longer, as was the previous method of acquisition. Tea madness only continued to grow…

Almost a century and a half later, pressure from other traders nullified the exclusivity of tea trade. The East India Company now had to compete with other merchants to buy up BIG and cheap – as much as possible before every other trader. It was pretty cut-throat.

The Chinese understood the immense value of their finest export. A trade deficit was apparent between China and Britain. The Chinese would accept only silver for tea leaf. They had no need for, or interest in, other exports from Britain. They were incredibly protective of the secrets behind the production of this valuable plant and guarded their knowledge carefully.

ENTER ROBERT FORTUNE.

His was a tale of espionage, of disguises and subterfuge. I bet you never thought tea could be so 007, no?

Not a trained spy, nor a hit-man, nor a diplomat. He was a Scottish botanist. (Scottanist?) The year is 1848 and Robert Fortune cruises around Fujian Province, a notable tea-growing region (many famous white and green teas are produced here), DISGUISED (somehow convincingly?) as a Mandarin businessman. He investigates tea growing methods, takes cuttings, seeds, and has major pow-wows with Fujian tea masters. His memoirs and diaries list among some of his adventures: fighting off pirates. So, not a tame walk in the garden as per your everyday botanist. Not only does he bring back physical specimens and the know-how to cultivate said plants, but he brings with him tea specialists from China to aid the production of tea in British India. His fabled and successful journeys earned him the title of “The Tea Thief” – a documentary now exists by the same name.

His stolen Chinese variant of the camellia sinensis thrived in the ideal terroir of Darjeeling, but failed miserably in the available colonised spaces in the Assam region of India. Brits begin freaking out as tea bushes in Assam continue to yield disappointing results. But oh, what is this? THERE’S A TEA PLANT VARIETY GROWING WILD AND PERFECT IN ASSAM.

Nice one, Britain. You had your own tea plant virtually the entire time.

The Knave of Cups xx

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