The British are, quite simply, bastards. This book outlines the context of one of world’s most lucrative feats of commercial espionage. Picture the British Empire of the 1800s, all empire line maxi dresses for the ladies and tops hats, tails and tight pants for the gentlemen. They have wool to sell and by God they’ll make a mint if they could just find someone to buy it from them.
Meanwhile, spoiler alert, they’ve become addicted to this drug called tea and the only place that sells it is the Chinese shop round the corner about 4,800 miles* away. What is a compromised empire to do?
Well, firstly they get the Chinese addicted to opium (and it’s not even England grown and manufactured opium, it’s stuff they steal from the Afghanis and plant in India) so they trade drug for drug for a while. Then the Manchus in the capital realise that opium, unlike Adderall or cocaine, is really not a very good drug for the productivity of a nation that’s looking to conquer the world and get rich, not necessarily in that order. They outlaw opium, which simply puts it on the black market menu so it can’t be taxed.
So the Chinese don’t want British wool (because Chinese silk is superior) and the Brits can’t officially sell them opium but the Brits still want tea. So instead of, you know, selling something the Chinese do want, the Brits decide to send their superior navy over to force the issue. The First** Opium War ensues.
The Chinese sign a treaty under duress to allow the British more access to trading ports but the Brits know this is a temporary solution so they get a Scottish botanist by the name of Robert Fortune to steal tea from China, no mean feat as foreigners were not allowed in China’s interior where all the good tea is grown and processed.
And it’s not just tea plants that Fortune is tasked to collect, but intelligence about how tea is processed because the Brits just don’t know. Until Fortune carried out his task, they didn’t even know whether black and green tea were from the same plant.
Author Sarah Rose does a great job at giving Fortune’s task adequate context without bogging it down in historical detail. She takes Fortune’s own account and marries it with documents kept by the East India Company for whom Fortune worked and skillfully weaves in the grand opportunities that awaited both Fortune and the company should the botanist succeed as well as what was at stake if Fortune failed.
If there’s a weak point in this well-paced book it’s at the end where Rose’s account turns prosaic. While the first seven-eighths of the narrative feel like a thriller cum travelogue, the last eighth is all about tying up loose ends but in a way that makes the story feel rushed.
It’s also no fault of hers that some of the accounts come across as outright or mildly racist either, but as an Australian of Chinese heritage I begrudgingly grant that most commentary about Chinese greed and their underhandedness when it came to striking deals is probably true. However, let’s put this in perspective: this is an entire book about British thieves stealing the livelihood of millions of Chinese peasants.
If you’re curious about tea or how the Indian tea industry got started, or simply have a passing interest in botany, this is a worthwhile read. Having finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things just before it, I highly recommend the pair as an interesting companion read.
For all the Tea in China by Sarah Rose (Arrow Books, 2010)
(*I use miles instead of kilometres because that’s the first thing that comes up when you Google ‘distance from uk to china’ and also because even though the Brits pretend they’re civilised enough for metric, they use miles on their speed limits and road signs and stuff.)
(**Yes, there are more than one.)