For all the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Made History
© 2010 Sarah Rose
A love of tea is one of the great English stereotypes, at least in the United States, so I thought it might be fun to look at how that connection got started. For all the Tea in China is a popular history focused on the travels of Robert Fortune, an English botanist who was hired by the East India Company to penetrate China and discover the origins of Chinese tea and its manufacture. His journey was fraught with peril; not only were westerners not allowed into the Chinese interior, well away from the open port cities, but China’s social order was tenuous. Rebellion against the outside Qing dynasty growing, and pirates and brigands often plagued people. Adopting Chinese dress and even bracing the queue-and-tonsure mandated by the Qing government, Fortune and his hired Chinese staff made their way deep into the forbidden country, posing as a mandarin from a province ‘beyond the Great Wall’.
Tea had already become an English passion by the time Fortune sought his name in his Chinese journeys, but much about it was a mystery. Did green and black tea come from different plants altogether? How were they prepared? Was it at all possible to transplant seeds or young plants and transport them abroad, like to the East India Company’s plantations in India? Although English naturalists had begun to develop methods for preserving plants for overseas travel, the tea plant was particularly fragile, its seeds almost always arriving dead from their voyages. Fortune’s first attempt to send seeds and seedlings to India and England, for example, was a comprehensive failure: only a dismal few of the thousands of plants survived. His travels in China are divided into two sections, as Fortune first studied the green tea industry, followed by the black tea industry. He learned that the two products came from the same plant, and were processed differently. Green tea intended for export, he was horrified to learn, was given heavy and potentially poisonous additives to amplify its color. In addition to plants, Fortune also took notes on how leaves were prepared and turned into commercial tea product, and secured the tools the Company would need to begin processing in the Chinese fashion.
For all the Tea in China is an interesting mix of science, adventure, and commercial ambition. Fortune cuts a fine figure despite his initial dismissal of the Chinese, given his methodical documentation, careful searching, and inventiveness. Not only did Fortune improve upon existing methods for preserving and transporting seeds and plants for long-distance travel, finally allowing for English oaks to propagate worldwide and for Darjeeling tea to become a thing, but when intercepted by a pirate flotilla, he improvised a way to spook the maritime ne’er do wells into withdrawing. Rose supplements the main narrative with some interesting asides on the Indian Mutiny, which finished off the East India Company’s rule in India, and the attempt by DC to create a tea industry in the South. The South’s bid for independence and the war which followed put an end to that, as labor first disappeared and then became far too expensive to be a self-sustaining concern. This was a fascinating little jaunt into the early days of a global economy, at a China that was being opened to the world whether she wanted to or not.
(This was a Read of England acquisition that has lingered on Mount Doom for most of this year. Progress!)