Secret Agent Robert Fortune & The Great Tea Heist

Secret Agent Robert Fortune & The Great Tea Heist

Hello, Friends.

Last time we talked about gochugaru and how Korea established their own chile pepper empire.

This time, we’re looking at another empire and how one man shattered it. This is the short story of Robert Fortune and his top secret tea heist.

But first, your mission briefing on the important events leading up to this epic mission.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, China produced some of the most desirable goods in the world: tea, silk, and porcelain. How desirable? So desirable that centuries later people keep some of these goods displayed safely behind glass cabinets. You may even be fortunate enough to twirl your great grandmother’s “china” in your hands and see exactly why.

The quality and craftmanship of Chinese goods made them a main target for trade. The best part was that countries could have as much of each as they want … if they had something to offer in return.

Unfortunately for Britain, the Chinese didn’t feel the same about their woolen clothes. It may be foggy & soggy in London, but it ain’t in Hong Kong. This trade imbalance forced the Brits to buy tea, silk, and porcelain with silver, the one commodity every empire or dynasty could always use and one no local economy could live without.

Retail purchases. Wages. Business-to-business trade. Each was dependent upon a stable and constant supply of silver dollars, no different than our paper economy today.

So, with overflowing chests of silver coins rapidly leaving the local economy, and economic instability on the horizon, the Brits desperately sought an alternative commodity the Chinese people wanted. And unfortunately for the Chinese, they found what they were looking for in India.


As trade continued, Britain swam in riches, while the Chinese drowned in social and economic turmoil. And it only got worse for them from there. The Qing Emperor confiscated and destroyed tens of thousands of chests filled with opium in hopes of bringing an end to the opium trade. Instead, what he got was the British Royal Navy.

Thus began the first Opium War.

But that’s enough history. I find it all fascinating and there’s certainly more that can be said, but at this point we’ve covered enough for me to ask you the important question.

After crippling their people with drugs then proceeding to capture several coastal cities and ports as part of their victory, how likely do you think the Chinese would be willing to part with one of their prized tea plants?

I’d say about as likely as you’d wear a woolen suit in Sanya, Hainan (it’s the Hawaii of China).

So, when the Brits finally decided to start their own tea farms in order to meet the ever growing demand in England, the prospects of receiving a tea plant as a gift, like Japan and Vietnam had received centuries earlier, were iffy. That left the woolen crusaders with one option: a top secret tea heist.

All that was needed was a man bold enough to go undercover into forbidden & hostile territory.

Before Ian Fleming’s James Bond, there was the British East India Company’s Robert Fortune. A Scottish botanist and plant hunter who spent years in China collecting exotic plants – like the double yellow rose and chrysanthemums – and bringing them back to London.

As you can imagine, having such experiences and expertise would make you a great candidate for a daring mission to conduct Grand Theft Plant. Of course, there were other factors to consider.

At the time, no foreigner was allowed beyond the British-influenced trading ports into interior China. Especially not the tea-growing regions. The solution? Simple. To stroll on in and act like you belong. Which may be a little difficult when you look and sound like a Scotsman!

But there were ways around this.

First, Fortune ditched the kilt for traditional silk robes. He also adopted the local hairstyle. A shaven head with a ponytail, otherwise known as a ‘queue’. It was mandatory for all men under the Qing Dynasty so he wouldn’t get far without one.

Once he learned mandarin and studied the local mannerisms, all he needed was a backstory to complete his disguise. The simpler, the better. He was to be a Chinese merchant from a distant region, giving him the ability to explain any remaining differences in his appearance or imperfections in his accent.

That’s it. With his silk robes, story, and ponytail, Fortune crossed into forbidden territory.

For three years (1848-1851) he deceived Chinese authorities and local growers and traders. Over that time, he eventually gained their trust and got his hands on thousands of specimens. But believe it or not, that was the easy part. Transporting tea plants across hundreds of kilometers of rugged terrain & seas to India, that was the difficult part.

See, plants are fickle beings. For example, take any houseplant you’ve ever cared for.

One morning their roots are strong, their leaves are spry, and as they sparkle in the sunshine you can’t help but feel hopeful. You even cheer them on.

“Go, little plant, go!”

Ah, the future is bright. Until the next morning, when you discover they’ve uprooted themselves, their leaves are brown, and darkness has befallen all the land. All because you forgot to water it at precisely 7:04 AM. Or gave it one drop too many. Or, heaven forbid, you moved it from its favorite corner and now it receives 1-minute less of death-defying sunshine each day.

And so, they decided to bid you farewell.

“So long cruel world!”

To be fair, I tend to get a bit “ruffled” when I’m hungry or when someone sits in my rocking chair in the morning. We all have standards. And Camellia sinensis, the plant you know better as tea, ain’t any different.

If Robert Fortune was going to successfully transport thousands of tea plants down the mountains in China, up the mountains in India, and across the sea in between, he was going to need a device that would keep the plants comfortable and protected during the journey. Specifically, from two known plant-killers: changing conditions and water (both fresh & salty varieties).

Comfort and safety are reasonable demands from anyone being plucked from their native home. Demands that could only be met with a gadget from Q-Branch.

In the James Bond series, Q-Branch is the department of MI6 that develops all of his gadgets from exploding pens, watches powered with armor melting lasers, or cars that can transform into a submarines. Some are realistic. Others require you to stretch your imagination. Either way, what ever tools Bond was given before he left, you knew they would be used at some point in the story. Often times to save him and the mission.

In the case of Fortune and a successful tea heist, that gadget was the Wardian case.

A glass house capable of controlling its internal environment while simultaneously protecting the plant from salty splashes and allowing light to filter through. You might think of it better as a portable ‘greenhouse’. It was the best gift any botanist/secret agent could ask for.

However, unlike some of Bonds mission-tailored devices, the Wardian case wasn’t specifically developed for this clandestine occasion. Fortune didn’t have a dedicated laboratory of creative engineers either. Just the observant and inventive minds of the British people.

The Wardian case was invented in 1829 by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, an English doctor and fellow botanist. He happened to notice how well plants in glass containers thrived when they were sealed away from the industrial London air. Nearly two decades later, the invention became a happy coincidence.

For the East India Company at least.

It was never Ward’s intention to create a device that would be instrumental in the downfall of China’s tea monopoly. It certainly wasn’t inspired by the prospect. Inspiration for its use came earlier, when the Royal Horticulture Society of London wanted to take exotic plants from around the world and put them in British gardens.

What kinds of exotic plants?

How about double yellow roses and chrysanthemums?

And who better to hunt down these plants than the plant hunter himself?

In the years before the heist, Fortune had the opportunity for a ‘test run’. He used the portable glass houses to transport these and other exotic Chinese plants, thousands of kilometers by wagon and boat, to England. And it worked masterfully.

So, with India being a hop and a skip away, you would think that transferring tea plants from one mountain to another would be a cinch.

Unfortunately, they proved to be as fragile as your grandmother’s china.

The vast majority either became moldy and perished during their journey or struggled to take to the Indian soil & climate once they arrived. Which is peculiar. Why?

Because tea plants are native to India.

Which, of course, begs one question …

Why did the British East India Company have Robert Fortune risk his neck to steal them?


It all comes back to what they wanted: to produce Chinese quality tea. And if you want to produce Chinese quality tea, then you need two things:

  1. the raw material,
  2. knowledge of how to process that raw material.

For the Brits, both were a problem.

For starters, the tea plants native to India are a different species. So different, that you wouldn’t think the two are related.

China’s tea plants grow as shrubs. India’s tea plants grow as trees.

China’s tea plants have delicate leaves that look as if they wouldn’t survive the winter. India’s tea plants have robust leaves that look as if they’re ready for hibernation.

China’s tea plants flourish in the cool climate of the mountains, 6500 feet above sea level. India’s tea plants thrive just 150 feet above sea level, in the warm, jungle-like climate of Assam valley.

And that’s perhaps where the larger problem lies.

It’s what tea farmers call the “terroir”, a fancy name for the soil composition, altitude, and weather patterns the tea plants are exposed to. It’s a vital component that contributes to a tea’s distinct characteristics. If their physical differences were any indication, the East India Company was going to have a hard time re-creating the flavors and smells of Chinese tea when they had the wrong starting materials. It didn’t, however, mean they couldn’t produce quality tea, if they knew how to cultivate and process tea plants properly. Which brings us to the second reason Fortune risked his life.

Ancient knowledge.

Processing tea is an art. One the Chinese learned to perfect over thousands of years of cultivation. So, not so surprisingly, when the British discovered India had native tea plants in 1823, their attempts to cultivate and process the leaves resulted in a product no one desired. When you lack a few millennia in experience, it tends to show.

But no matter your goals, a lack of experience shouldn’t stop you from trying. Everyone starts somewhere. Sometimes you just need a little help from your friends or a mentor … or someone who will dress up as a merchant, infiltrate hostile territory, and secretly document how tea was processed.

The Great Tea Heist was more than a heist. It was an act of industrial espionage.

For every tea plant Fortune trapped in a glass case and sent back to India, he recorded a trade secret and any nuances Chinese tea farmers took care to make.

How freshly plucked leaves were spread on racks to wither.

How withered leaves were then rolled by hand.

How rolled leaves were left in cold & humid environment to ferment.

How fermented leaves were then heated until dry.

How dried leaves were finally sorted based on size and quality.

While a few surviving Chinese tea plants was an important part of Fortune’s heist, none of it would have mattered without documenting the “orthodox” method of tea processing. In fact, it was the far more valuable secret to steal and the real reason tea farms were established in India.

If you want to break a monopoly, it’s knowledge you really want. You only need to look at the state of the modern tea trade for evidence.

Thanks to Fortune and the Wardian case, tea is now grown in over 50 countries around the world including Sri Lanka, Kenya, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Turkey, Iran, and Argentina. Each produces tea that’s unique to their country’s terroir and to the tea process they use. Better yet, the world gets to experience this explosion of creativity.

In the end, the story of Robert Fortune leads me to think one thing …

Some secrets are better off stolen.

Until next time,


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