Sarah Rose's For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History, is like the very best cup of tea: elegant, delicate, and perfumed. Far more than just a long history, the book speaks more than anything to the astonishing power of real world stories. That Sarah Rose was able to write the story of Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist and gardener who also worked as an industrial spy and who was integral in one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage in history, is remarkable. Robert Fortune's wife burned all his personal papers after his death, and I wonder what secrets they hid. After all, his professional life was nothing short of astonishing.
In 1848, Fortune was appointed by The East India Company to secretly infiltrate forbidden Chinese territory and find information about the growing practices and manufacturing of tea. Having lost the monopoly on the tea trade, The East India Company was desperate. They realized that their only hope for continued success was to work to establish their own tea plantations in the Himalayas of British India.
Fortune was a logical pick for a job laced with danger and deception. He had recently returned from a trip to China where he spent three long years collecting the Orient's most beautiful botanical treasures. Despite any misgivings he might have had about the dangerous and dishonest job, Fortune said yes.
What came next was an odyssey. Fortune traded in his identity as a white man and disguised himself as a Chinese Mandarin. With a troupe of occasionally unfaithful men, he traveled into the interior of China, battling pirates and thieves to reach the epicenter of Chinese tea production—the beautiful but remote hills of Wu Yi Shan.
The masquerade worked. Not only did he discover that in the green tea regions of Zhejiang and Ahui workers were using poisonous additives and dyes to make the tea look more vibrantly green than it naturally was, he pilfered enough seeds, plants, and insider secrets to make his quest successful. Rose reports that by the time China realized the loss of their tea growing secrets, it was much too late. Robert Fortune had already succeeded in helping The East India Company have the resources to become serious tea-producing competitors. Fortune's theft "helped spread tea to a wider world at lower prices. He democratized a luxury, and the world has been enjoying it ever since." Had I only known the colorful history hiding inside my warm afternoon cup.
This is a marvelous book—engaging, smart, and very well written. I only wish there was more of author Sarah Rose in the book. I'm aching to know how she discovered Fortune's story and would love to hear more details of the travels, extensive research, and occasional mishaps it took to complete this tale.
Sadly, the tea leaves have dictated that I be left with the information contained within the bounds of the book itself. And that's ok—For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History—is ultimately wonderful just the way it is, not unlike the finest cup of tea.
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.