Scot who faced danger to meet Britain's brewing demand
The Botanic Gardens' 'black sheep' and his epic quest to steal the secrets of China's tea production
When you stick on the kettle for your morning brew today, along with around 2 million other Scots, raise your cuppa to local lad Robert Fortune – the original “tea leaf” who’s Boy’s Own adventurous heist changed the future for one of the world’s favourite drinks.
The tea-lovers among you – and we know you are legion – might even consider lighting a birthday cake candle to this little-known Scottish hero today.
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International travel, disguises, danger, deception, gunshot and pirates all play their part in an epic tale that culminated in victory for the British Empire. Yes, indeed sir. The bristling moustache over the stiff upper lip rarely had more reason to quiver with pride. Even if it was all really a bit, well, dishonest.
It’s in no small part thanks to Robert that almost 100 million cups of tea are downed in Britain every day. Want to see a really big number? That’s 36,500,000,000 cups per year. And Edinburgh is a tea-drinking hot spot, with 2020 research for an energy company finding that we have the highest percentage of daily tea-drinkers in the UK, at a whopping 88%.
LEITH’S TEA PIONEER
There were other local tea pioneers of course, not least Andrew Melrose who founded the brand that bears his name in 1812 in Edinburgh as an importer. He was the first independent merchant to land tea in Britain when the clipper Isabella landed its cargo in Leith in 1835, a moment which changed the UK tea trade forever and marked the end of the East India Company monopoly on importing from China.
And in today’s Edinburgh, former lawyer Erica Moore continues to be an influential and passionate advocate of all things tea through her growing Eteaket business, while Tea Scotland is an association for the growing number of tea growers and tea producers here in our country.
But the family Fortune’s pot-boiler of a yarn began on September 16th in 1812, the same year Melrose was founding his brand, when baby Robert entered this world near Duns, in the Scottish Borders south of Edinburgh. He was born into a rural community. We shan’t dwell on his early life - mainly because we don’t know much about it, and because it seems to have been fairly unremarkable. What we do know is that something, perhaps his agricultural and horticultural surroundings, sparked in him an interest in botany and he was soon gainfully employed at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.
His subsequent journeys were to take him much further afield, first to London, and then to Imperial China and Japan, where he gained a national reputation as a plant hunter. It was during these travels that the most unusual chapter of his life was written. China, with centuries of experience, had a monopoly on the tea trade and it closely guarded the business. At that time, it was the sole supplier of tea to the west, and insisted on being paid in silver which hampered trade.
SPYING ON CHINA
Fortune had been sent, undercover, by a Britain determined to wrest control of the tea trade from China, to spy, learn and steal – seeds, plants, technology, and knowledge most of all. For example, Fortune and the world believed there were two distinctive plants, for producing green tea and the black tea the British particularly craved. Fortune hoped to source the reputed black tea gardens that he believed were guarded carefully.
Laws forbidding the Chinese to take foreigners into the interior were a barrier Fortune had to overcome, and with the help of a Chinese servant he was able to gain the trust of local mandarins and then – disguised as a local with shaved head and a pigtail wig – he made several trips and quietly gathered flowers and plants.
But his mission impossible, and he chose to accept it, was to get into the remote tea districts. Fortune and his disguise discovered the “black tea district,” the very existence of which had been denied. The tea equivalent of the mother lode. He was able to obtain a living plant, which he took to the more accessible green tea district, and was able to confirm the two plants were, in fact one. Camellia Sinensis, the one plant from which all tea is made. The secret, Fortune learned, lay in how the plant was produced, and how it was prepared.
It was time to take his ill-gotten gains and head for Blighty, via Hong Kong. Fortune chartered a Chinese junk and, in response to pirate concerns expressed when the captain surveyed the valuable collection of plants, in true British fashion he wisely decided to travel with a loaded shotgun next to his dressing gown. The first night, an attack by pirates sent much of his crew into hiding but Fortune, and his shotgun, beat them off. He set foot again on British soil in May 1846.
THE GREAT TEA HEIST
Two years later, Fortune returned to China. Working for both the Royal Horticultural Society and the East India Trading Company, he was charged by them to, ahem, “acquire” closely guarded tea plants, technology and expertise and get them out of China to be grown in India. Such an undertaking would again break China’s Imperial laws, but it would be very good for the British Empire which, after all, was the main thing in those days. And tea was big business.
Parts of India were perfect for tea growing, and demand for tea in Britain was booming. Fortune’s task was to bring the best tea plant varieties, Chinese technologies and expertise. He again donned his disguise and travelled with to hired servants. He again travelled to the black tea district and observed the entire tea-making process. He methodically went to work. As he would recount in his book “A journey to the tea countries of China”:
“The important objects of my mission have been brought to a successful termination. Upwards of 20,000 tea plants, eight first-rate manufacturers, and a large supply of implements were procured from the finest tea districts of China and conveyed in safety to the Himalayas.”
The Chinese monopoly was broken. India’s dominance of the tea trade was underway. While the Chinese continued to dominate the tea business far into the second half of the 19th century, by the 1890s India was meeting 90% of Britain’s domestic tea demand.
Fortune’s achievements were not confined to tea. As a plant hunter he was hugely successful, his travels in Asia introducing many species of plant, including the kumquat, to the west.
Emma Lacroix, Director of Development and Communication, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, told the Inquirer: “Robert Fortune was undoubtedly an interesting character, of a time in history encompassing significant territorial, political and cultural events. By the 1840s, after he had left his employment at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) and was undertaking deeds to take tea from China, the Garden was approaching its 200th anniversary.
“It had witnessed many key moments, many we would still condone today, others not so. Ethically, Fortune was probably not our greatest son.
“Today, at 353 years old, we are active in more than 40 countries, within a network of likeminded institutes dedicated to achieving a more just and equal society. Botanic gardens are in a unique position to protect our fragile planet and help improve the lot all living beings dependent on its natural resources. Our efforts focus on plants science, conservation horticulture, education, and public engagement.”
“While the joy to be found from of a cup of tea cannot be disputed, as an organisation we are probably happier in the 21st century being associated with local, national and international work towards creating a more just, equal, and kind future.”
But his tea legacy lives on, and how! Tea is the second most consumed drink on earth – after water. Around 3 billion cups are drunk each day. More than 13 million are employed in its production, including 9 million farmers. Production is now spread amongst several producer countries, led by China, India and Sri Lanka.
And his legacy is not inconsiderable in his homeland of Scotland. One of Scotland’s most famous business names, Thomas Lipton, founded his tea business in the late 19th century. A hugely successful business career followed, as did considerable philanthropy, a Knighthood and a Baronetcy. When he died, he bequeathed most of his fortune to his native city of Glasgow.
His company eventually became part of the Unilever empire. In the past few days, Unilever sold its tea business, called ekaterra, including Lipton Teas and Infusions and PG Tips, to private equity company CVC for 4.5 billion euros.
Scottish-born tea planet James Taylor was another tea hero, introducing tea to British Ceylon in 1852, working with one Thomas Lipton. There is a monument to him in his native Auchenblae in Kincardineshire, unveiled in 2019.
Enough of the potted history…How is the tea scene in modern Scotland. Actually, it’s thriving rather nicely. Interestingly, a small, but growing sector of tea gardens is also in operation throughout Scotland. Tea Scotland is the association of producers, growing and producing entirely Scottish-grown tea. And Beverly-Claire Wainwright runs the Scottish Tea Factory, which produces artisan teas for many of those growers as well as running courses and providing consultancy for tea growers and producers around the world.
No-one is more of a tea champion than Erica Moore, founder and Managing Director of Eteaket in Edinburgh. For her, tea is so much more than a warming cup.
“We talk about tea as a real opportunity to take a pause, in a world where people want to do everything so fast they won’t even take 60 seconds to brew a cup. We talk about taking three minutes, just to pause, breathe, think and enjoy a proper cup of whatever tea you prefer. Patience makes perfect.
“The march of supermarket teabags has seen this most popular and varied of drinks lose much of the ritual and pleasure that making and consuming tea properly brings.”
Younger Scots enjoy their tea also, she said: “We are seeing more young people trying some of the single varieties, more loose leaf. People are also interested in cold-brewing tea, which you can do with every tea, which gives you a completely different set of flavours. You can drink it like wine, with a meal. Younger drinkers are interested in the whole well-ness aspect of tea.”
Scotland’s long and strong relationship with tea also thrills her. “Fortune’s story is a really wonderful yarn, and Taylor is also something of a pioneer. We were very happy to help assist the launch of a wonderful book about Taylor’s life recently. And if you travel to almost any tea-making country, you will see that the machinery still being used was largely Clyde built.”
To complete a rather neat circle, Eteaket is now working with the Royal Botanic Garden on a project, and Erica is delighted with this serendipity. Fortunate, you might say.
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