Perhaps you’ve never looked deep into a steaming cup and thought, “So what’s your story, tea?” Me neither. For All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose was highly recommended by a friend years back, but a whole history on the topic didn’t sound like my kind of cup. While away I picked it up because it was there and thin and has a nice cover. I was surprised to find this true story of international espionage entertaining, but my friend didn’t tell me there are pirates.
It’s the mid nineteenth century when a plant hunter named Robert Fortune is hired by the British East India Company to steal the finest green and black tea plants from China. I’ve never though of botanists as thrill seekers, but at the time
Plant hunters were highly trained, sharp-eyed men who left home and family for the lure of adventure.
Peripheral history is not a big strength of this story (or its reader), but the focused narrative makes up for it. What we know is that England bullied a crack in China, opening a sliver of the isolated civilization up for trade at a time when aristocratic tastes placed a high value on the country’s tea and exotic plants. Merchants were in heat for the silks and natural resources, but this was a dangerous time for travelers.
As China’s emperor was deeply and rightfully suspicious of the British, foreigners were only permitted within certain port cities. To complete his three year mission, Fortune had to disguise himself and find a way to transport thousands of delicate seeds and seedlings to India by ship, pre-steam. How did a tall Scottish man pass for Chinese? This is where it starts to get interesting.
China is a vast country and at the time the Chinese were about as isolated from each other as from the rest of the world. Once Fortune outfitted himself in traditional Mandarin attire, as well as a fake wig and beard, most of the people he encountered believed that he was simply from a distant region.
Because the task was to deliver the very best tea plants from the very best regions and learn how to process the leaves, Fortune and his two-man crew couldn’t phone it in. They traveled up mountains by foot, actually his crew carried him, plants and equipment on a palanquin. Once they reached mountaintop plantations, Fortune gleamed some of China’s most valuable secrets from the families who had preserved them for so long.
At the time of Fortune’s visit the recipe for tea had remained unchanged for two thousand years…
Remember that China was not then the world power it is today, that many of these tea farmers were extremely poor and hardworking, and prepare to feel really guilty (and uncomfortably grateful) for the mass quantities of affordable tea we consume today.
After a few major fails, Fortune’s story eventually earns it’s title:
Within a generation India’s nascent Himalayan tea industry would outstrip China’s in quality, volume and price.
History is messy, and that’s part of what makes it fun to read, but even the bloodiest battle requires a skilled author to bring it to life. Sarah Rose‘s tight focus lends drama and surprising momentum to this great book. And may I remind you there are pirates.
You’ll also learn a few odd bits of trivia. For instance, Fortune confirmed once and for all that green and black tea comes from the same plant, grown in two different climates and prepared in two very different ways. Also, while the Chinese enjoyed their green tea pure, they’d taken to dying tea leaves with a form of cyanide to achieve the super green color the British preferred. This practice stopped soon after tea drinkers in the west got wind. I wonder if burnt lice are still involved.