Tea is many things to different cultures. In the West, it’s the second most popular beverage next only to water. In the East, its medicinal applications have kept it integral to everyday life for over 6,000 years. China now exports most of the world’s tea, and the story of how the country was, stopped being, then regained its status as the world’s largest exporter of tea is a wild one – with self-taught Scottish botanist Robert Fortune at the center of the international tea drama.
It’s a story that begins with the Opium Wars. For a time, Britain sold opium to China in exchange for tea. This created a tremendous opioid addiction crisis among the Chinese to which the Emperor responded with decrees banning the drug and limiting British payments strictly to silver. Britain couldn’t sustainably honor that demand and thus began bringing in opium in secret.
This set off trade wars that concluded in treaties that did not work in China’s favor. Later known as the “unequal treaties,” these had terms deemed unfair including opening up previously closed ports of trade and passing Hong Kong over to the British. Chinese merchants were reasonably disappointed with their government’s quick yield to Britain’s demands, causing civil unrest among the commoners.
This is about as far as history lessons go, ending short of perhaps the most thrilling (and impactful) trade heist in history. Diplomatic relations between the two countries hit the mud and China braved what it would look back on as a “Century of Humiliation.” Cue in Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist who became pivotal to the global tea trade and the colonial West’s economic sabotage of their Asian competition.
Fortune, ironically, was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He became a botanist by practice, and not through formal study. But this wouldn’t keep him from becoming one of the most impactful people in his field. His legacy? Europe’s introduction to several plants once endemic to Asian ecosystems and the collapse of China’s economy.
Britain wanted to topple China’s tea monopoly by growing tea themselves in their nearby tropical colony, India. To do this, the East India Trading Company sent Fortune on a three-year mission to steal China’s tea plants and transport them to the colony. A risky job, the company sweetened the deal by offering to quintuple his salary from the Horticultural Society of London. It was a deal that, as history would have it, he did not refuse.
His 1847 book recounts how he had tricked port-security into thinking he was a Chinese merchant by cutting his hair the traditional male Chinese style and dressing in the local garb. His tea heist left no tea plant unplucked, bringing with him over 20,000 species and seedlings of tea plants, farming tools, tea processing tools, and even tea farmers themselves all the way to Darjeeling.
The trade theft steered the course of the global tea trade and plunged China into a steep valley in its economy and tea production. While the British and later the Dutch and Americans enjoyed the growing availability of tea and the sudden boom in their commerce, China’s tea production dipped to 41,000 tons and were left with only 9,000 tons to export.
It would not be until over a century later that China would reclaim its spot as the largest tea exporter in the world — earning $1.5 billion out of its $15 trillion GDP in 2018 alone.