Robert Fortune and the British Tea Heist

Feb 23, 2021

Robert Fortune and the British Tea Heist | FWIO
Robert Fortune. Image from Smithsonian Magazine.

Robert Fortune (1813-1880) was a Scottish botanist and traveller. He was employed by both the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens and the Royal Horticultural Society.

Fortune is known for his extensive travels in China and Japan, where he discovered many plants that were unknown in Britain at the time.

He collected plant specimens on his travels and introduced many new trees, shrubs, and flowers to European gardens. In total, he introduced approximately 250 species of ornamental plants. Some of these plants include Chamaerops fortunei (Chinese windmill palm), Weigela rosea (pink Weigela bush), and Jasminum nudiflorum (winter Jasmine).

He was also very interested in agriculture and manufacturing processes, and he observed silk production and rice paper manufacturing in Japan. He published a number of books about his travels, including Three Years’ Wandering in the Northern Provinces of China (1847), A Residence Among the Chinese (1857), and Yedo and Peking (1863).

Robert Fortune is perhaps most well-known as the man who stole tea from China.

In the 1800s, China was the only source of the world’s tea supply. Tea was very expensive at the time, and the British obtained it through trading opium with the Chinese. Eventually, China no longer wanted to trade their tea for opium. Since there were no longer any British products the Chinese wanted to buy, the British decided that their only option was to establish their own tea market.

In 1848, Robert Fortune was commissioned by the British East India Company to discover China’s tea production secrets and smuggle tea plants out of China. Fortune not only had to obtain the plants, he also had to obtain the knowledge required to teach British planters how to cultivate and produce high-quality tea. Since many areas of China were off-limits to foreigners at that time, this was no easy feat. Fortune faced many hardships during his mission including attacks by pirates and bandits, disease, and severe storms. On many occasions, he was even forced to disguise himself as a Chinese merchant!

However, Fortune did eventually accomplish his task of sneaking tea plants out of China and learning China’s trade secrets. The British began successfully growing their own tea in India, where there were suitable growing conditions for the plant. Some black teas from India include Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri.

Robert Fortune’s escapades allowed Britain to end their reliance on China, and had a significant impact on the Chinese tea market. Maybe next time you have a cup of your favourite tea, you’ll remember Robert Fortune, the Scot who stole tea from China and changed its history forever.