How The British Stole Their Way Into The Tea Business

“Tea’s proper use is to amuse the idle, and relax the studious, and dilute the full meals of those who cannot use exercise, and will not use abstinence.” —Samuel Johnson, Essay on Tea

In A Nutshell

For years, England got their tea from China. With the end of the Opium Wars, though, one of their major trade venues had been shut down. They needed another way to get tea, and they needed to know China’s secrets to do it. They sent in Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, to tour tea factories, discover just how it was prepared, and steal some seeds—which Europeans had never seen. It worked, and he brought tea seeds to India to start their rise to the top of the tea-producing world, after he found that the compounds the Chinese were applying to tea to turn it green was a slow-acting poison.

The Whole Bushel

When you think of tea, chances are you picture it as being a very British thing. Tea was first imported from China, though, and it was only with the help of a Victorian-era corporate spy that the English discovered the ancient recipes for tea-making that became their own.

Originally, when England imported all their tea from China, they paid for it with opium. Problems started popping up when opium popularity skyrocketed, along with addiction. China began cracking down on the possession of opium in order to stem the tide of addiction, and that left England without their major export and no way to keep up with the demand for tea on their own soil.

So they sent in Robert Fortune. Born in Scotland in 1812, Fortune was a botanist who probably didn’t know he was going to change the face of the world’s tea trade when he secured a position within the Horticultural Society in London. As the Society’s Collector for China, he set off to the Far East to collect samples of plants and seeds to bring back to Europe.

On his first trips to China, he didn’t speak the language, was unfamiliar with the culture, and had his ship attacked by pirates more than once. Not one to give up easily, over the course of several years he picked up the language until he could speak Mandarin fluently, took on the name of Sing Wah, shaved his head, grew a ponytail, and learned how to blend in with everyone else.

His skills came in handy.

In 1848, he was sent into the heart of China, an area that forbade the presence of outsiders. The goal was a green tea factory, where he wanted to learn the secrets of tea production so he could take them home to England. He played the role of a visitor from a distant province, and was immediately—and courteously—shown into the tea factory.

Article Continued Below

Just how tea leaves are prepared is a surprisingly complicated process, and it’s a recipe that Chinese tea producers had perfected and kept secret for generations. Posing as a Chinese visitor, Fortune got to see what no other Westerner had been allowed to see—and it was a little horrifying.

Essentially a sanitary process, workers sorted through tea leaves picking out bugs and dirt, removing them from the stems, and trying to get out any rocks or bits that might have snuck into the batch. He also noticed that further down the factory line, workers had their fingers stained blue.

At this point, no one in Europe had even seen a tea plant, or knew anything about how it was grown or what the raw product was. There were all kinds of accusations, though, that China was keeping the best product for itself and shipping the dregs, as it were, off to Europe. It had long been thought that they were dying their tea to make it more presentable. That turned out to be true.

Factory workers were using iron ferrocyanide, a chemical compound also used in paints, to dye their tea leaves. Cyanide is, of course, a poison, but the way the compound was prepared turned it into a more complex molecule that rendered the poison inert.

Chinese exporters had long thought that their target audiences wanted their green tea to look green. The blue color came from the iron ferrocyanide, but what about the yellow that was needed to make green?

That was gypsum. Gypsum breaks down into hydrogen sulfide, and when it’s ingested it effectively poisons every part of the human body; mild doses can lead to headaches and nausea, but prolonged exposure can lead to fluid build-up in the lungs, memory loss, and miscarriages.

Fortune managed to get tea seeds and some of the poisons out of the factories. The English took their tea plants to India, where production not only surpassed China, but where England could control just what was—and wasn’t—going into their tea. He then continued his work, bringing a number of different plants from roses to rhododendrons back to Britain, before dying in 1880 at 68 years old.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: The Great British Tea Heist
NPR: The Tea Thieves: How A Drink Shaped An Empire
Dunse History Society: Robert Fortune

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!