Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

Stealing All the Tea in China

You have underestimated the raw, gangsta talent of the 17th century British Empire.

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So I want to tell you a story of a man named Robert Fortune. But before I tell you his story, there’s something else I have to get out of the way. When I say Drug Dealer, what comes to mind?

That’s right, the English.

Music spoonful of sugar. Rue Britianna got to make that money.

This week a sordid tale of drugs and addition. Throw in a little international finance and gunboat diplomacy and you’ve got the setting for the greatest act of industrial espionage the world has ever seen.

So keep a stiff upper lip playa. And get ready to kick back with a big ol 40 of (music dead stop) well Tea.

It’s the mid 19th century and the English are addicted to Tea, drinking 2 lbs per capita — 55 million pounds imported.

Sure, the English drink 6 lbs of tea per capita, today. Roughly 385 million pounds a year. But the thing is, you could fit all that tea consumed in the UK last year on one modern cargo ship.

In the middle of the 19th century , sure, it was only 55 million pounds — but each of those pounds came to England on a sailing ship. Entire fleets were devoted to this trade. And it launched a technological arms race that resulted in the creation of the fastest sailing ships every made — clipper ships.

The other difference is, that up until the mid 19th century, the only place you can really buy tea is China.

The cultivation and manufacture of tea was a closely guarded state secret. No one else knew how to grow it or process it. Nobody was even very about what plant tea came from. The consensus of the Royal Academy was that there was one plant for green tea and another plant black tea. They’re completely wrong. It’s the same plant. They’re just processed differently.

And of course, they had no idea how tea was processed.

The other important thing to note is that tea is a drug. Oolong, Temple of Heaven gunpowder, Golden Monkey are just like Jamaican Blue, Nitro OG or Wild Sky Rider. They’re brand names for a drug. Only with tea, the drug is caffeine. But a drug all the same. And addictive. Stop drinking coffee or tea cold turkey and you’re gonna get a nasty headache at the very least.

So the British are addicted to tea. And the only thing they Chinese want in exchange for the tea is silver. So all the silver in the world is pooling up in China. This tea addiction is bankrupting the British.

Keep your stiff upper lip, Playa. For, the shit as they say, isn’t just going to “get real” it is about to become actual. As in this what actually happened next:

First, the bottom falls out of the market for Cotton.

The British have lots of plantations in India devoted to growing cotton, so, in addition to this tea problem, they are losing money hand over fist. So, the East India Company decides that the thing to do is grow opium and get the Chinese population hooked on it, so they can get the silver back.

Now here I must pause and mention that even though I am the author of a series of books entitled “How to Succeed in Evil” I simply could not make this up.

What the British do is grow the poppies, process it into opium, transport it to places like Hong Kong where dealers row out from the mainland, and buy the opium with silver.

The Emperor of China gets upset at this practice. So in 1839 the Chinese government seizes and destroys 2.66 million pounds of opium, and forbade traders to bring drugs in upon pain of death.

Fair enough you say? It’s their country, drugs are bad. Nice try Limey but time for plan B? Well, then you have underestimated the raw gangsta talent of the British Empire of the 17th century. They go to war over this. Queen Victoria unleashes Royal Navy and by the time the most powerful navy in the world laying the Alfred Thayer Mahan down, the British have the right to trade in a bunch of ports and have acquired Hong Kong as a colony.

The only word for it is Gangsta. And the British weren’t even shy about it. In 1850, six years after the first opium war had ended, Lord Palmerston, The British Foreign Secretary said this:

The time is fast coming when we shall be obliged to strike another blow in China… these half-civilized governments such as those in China, Portugal and Spanish America all require a dressing every eight or ten years to keep them in order.

This is the man who holds the highest diplomatic position in the Empire. If that’s his diplomacy, I hate to think what he was like when he loosened his cravat and really spoke his mind.

But as cold blooded and frankly contemptuous as the English are about the whole thing, it still doesn’t solve their problem.

The English still can’t get tea anywhere else but China. They don’t have the plant — and more importantly, they don’t have the process by which tea is made — It’s a highly processed food after all. So they still have to deal with the Chinese.

And, the interesting thing is that this is a drug war both ways. We all think of opium is a drug, but people drink tea because of the pharmacological effects of caffeine. Which is also addictive. If you’ve ever tried to go off caffeine cold turkey, you know what a headache that can give you.

So, they send A Scotsman named Robert Fortune.


In addition to having one of the greatest surnames for an adventure in the history of the world, Robert Fortune was a Botanist. And, on his first trip to China, he was charged with learning all he could about tea. He lands in Hong Kong, learns the language, shaves his head leaving only a long pony tail and makes journeys into the interior of China posing as a quote Chinaman — foreigners leaving trade ports was expressly forbidden. The Ching dynasty doesn’t seem like it’s got that much on the ball — it’s an imperial rule in decline — but still, getting disappeared for this is not out of the question.

But Fortune’s solution for this is brilliant. When anybody asks where he’s from, and why he talks so funny, he basically says, “I’m from the other side of China.” It’s the kind of thing that, in a movie would be revealed by a shrewd inspector asking one of those, oh yeah, did you eat at Turtle Shell in Ulan Bator? And there is no such restaurant in Ulan Bator.

But whatever, it’s such a brazen gambit that he pulls it off. If I was a more fearless narrator, this is where I would attempt to speak Chinese with a Scottish Accent. But since you are such a talented and sensitive listener, just imagining such a thing should be enough to make you chuckle.


So on his first trip, Fortune learns a lot.

He discovers that all tea comes from one plant, and learns a great deal about it’s manufacture. And as he’s doing this, he discovers that the tea prepared for export to England is, in effect, poisoned. Let’s say, lightly poisoned, but poisoned all the same.

He noticed that a number of the Chinese workers had fingers that were, “quite blue.” It was, iron ferrocyanide, a dye known in Europe as Prussian Blue. In another place in the factory, the Chinese were adding gypsum, which produces hydrogen sulfide as it breaks down in the body.

Now it should be obvious that anything that has the word cyanide in the ingredients, should be avoided. But the blue dye (which was used to make the tea appear a more spectacular shade of green) was fairly harmless. It’s was the gypsum that especially bad.

It’s an irritant; that, inflames the throat, causes nausea, shortness of breath, and fluid in the lungs. And with long-term exposure, it gets really fun. Fatigue, memory loss, headaches, irritability, and miscarriage.

Evidently, Gangsta shit abounded in the 17th century. I’m sorry, that sentence makes me giggle, so I must now say it again.

In the middle of the 17th century, gangsta shit abounded. The British regularly engaged in sail-by shootings. As yellow fought back with poisonings most foul.

Fortune returns to the England with all information and samples of the tea additives. In 1851 at London’s great Exhibition, all of this is shared and the popular case for the British manufacturing their own tea was made.

They send him back with a new mission. Which is, to steal tea plants, tea masters, tea farmers, really everything and anything he can get his hands on, so it can be transplanted to the East India Company plantations.

Fortune heads into the interor and disappears. They here nothing from him for years. I believe they gave him up for dead. But it’s not all that dramatic, because, remember it’s not like he stopped responding to text messages. There really wasn’t any form of communication he could use. But then, he shows up in Hong Kong with the entire tea industry in China packed up into Wardian cases.

In short, he pulled off one of the greatest feats of industrial espionage in the history of the world.

So the next time you enjoy a cup of tea, remember, whatever the civilized backdrop of British Empire may lead you to believe, Earl Grey was a gangsta.


If you want to learn more about Robert Fortune, Sarah Rose does a very good job of making it all accessible and fun in her book “For All the Tea in China”, and you can find all the books that Robert Fortune’s himself wrote in the internet archive:

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History

Robert Fortune’s books online

A lovely podcast about clipper ships and the tea trade from Futility Closet

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