How Scientist Robert Fortune Fueled Britain's Expansion by Stealing the Secret of Tea

Sarah Rose, author of a new book about how tea forged historical relations between China, India, and the West, says that industrial espionage in the 1800s shaped the world much the way it does today.

Sarah Rose

Sarah Rose is the author of For All the Tea in China, which tells the true story of how tea and industrial espionage fueled the great expansion of the British Empire and the East India Company in the 1800s. The book focuses on one central character, Robert Fortune, who was a scientist sent by the British government to literally steal the secret of tea production from China, plant the Chinese tea in Darjeeling, and thus make the British Empire less reliant on trade with the Chinese and more self-sufficient by harvesting its own tea in colonial India.

How did you choose the subject of industrial espionage and tea?

An ex-boyfriend said to me, "I heard one guy stole tea from China. You should look into that…" Reading plant hunter Robert Fortune’s memoirs, he describes fighting off Chinese pirates and traveling into the interior of Imperial China while dressed up as a Chinese Mandarin. Pirates? Traveling in Chinese drag? The greatest theft of trade secrets in the history of the world? I can work with that, I thought. When we say "for all the tea in China," it expresses inestimable value, tea was everything to the British Empire.

What would you say are modern, comparable examples of industrial espionage?

The vast majority the microchips for computers in America are manufactured in China—including those for the U.S. military. This creates a ridiculously high risk of espionage. Those circuits are just too small for us to know how really bad it might be, but from what I understand from the defense and trade communities, it’s a top worry. Meanwhile, the US’s relationship with China is thoroughly interdependent, as was Britain’s in the 19th Century. China owns a lot of our debt, so it loans us the money to buy the stuff China needs to export as it manufactures its way out of the poverty cycle. The two countries don’t necessarily like each other, but they need each other. When each player is so suspicious, it multiplies the competitive advantages of espionage and secrecy.

What challenges do modern tea producers face in making their products sought after?

Tea is having a good run right now; it’s still the world’s most popular drink and has great PR for all kinds of health and connoisseurship reasons. There are more tea drinkers, more tea-related products and better teas than there have probably ever been. The downside of course is that tea fights for space in an increasingly crowded and confusing beverage marketplace.

You tweet a lot about the ups and downs of being a published author. What have some of your highs and lows been since publishing the book?

Hearing from readers, getting emails and letters, is the single most gratifying experience I’ve ever known. Someone spent a few nights of their life, an airplane flight, engaged in a project that consumed me for years—and then they took the time to tell me about it. It continues to astonish me. Nothing else I do will ever have the same impact as a book. As for the lows? I have the same concerns all authors have, there’s a limited amount of readers, increasingly limited real estate for reviews, limited marketing budgets. And, um, marginal profits-writers don’t get paid very well, which concerns my credit cards very much.

For All the Tea in China has a decidedly enterprising tone, echoing the time in which the book is set. Will the world ever see another period like that?

I think we’ve seen Robert Fortune’s kind of improvisation and pluck in very recent memory—the geeks at Xerox PARC were just as independent and their technology was just as world-changing. We’ve also seen massive multinational corporations brought down by overconfidence and over-extension, just like the East India Company.

[Top image courtesy of Paul Nathan; center image courtesy of Sarah Rose]

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  • John Karavitis

    John V. Karavitis Wow! What an incredible idea! I never would have thought that the British would have had to steal tea and tea technology from China in order to expand their empire. It's great to stumble across books like this, and even more astonishing to learn that history has yet another "untold story" to give us. This book is really very relevant in today's world, as the author reminds us, that our relationship with China today is very similar to the relationship between China and the British Empire in the 19th century. Kudos to this author, I can't wait to read her book! John V. Karavitis