Spies and Wars: The Secret History of Tea



  • Today, tea is the most popular drink in the world, with a global market outpacing all of its closest competitors combined.
  • The British Empire went to war over tea, ultimately losing its American colonies and twice defeating the Chinese in the “Opium Wars”.
  • The British desire for local tea led to botanist Robert Fortune being sent on a Hollywood-worthy mission to secure Chinese tea plants and steal horticultural secrets.

After water, tea is the most popular drink in the world. It is more popular than coffee, carbonated drinks, and alcohol combined. 84% of Britons enjoy a daily “cuppa”, but that is no more than a trifle against the Turks, who drink an average of three to four cups a day. The tea industry is worth $ 200 billion worldwide and is expected to grow in half by 2025.

Tea is so much a part of many cultures that it even has myths of origin. For example, one involves the Buddha waking up after falling asleep during his meditation. Disgusted with his lack of self-discipline, he cut his eyelids and threw them to the ground. These lids then turned into tea plants to help future meditators stay awake.

Tea really matters to a lot of people. And, it mattered so much to the British and their empire that it governed all of their foreign policy. It also inspired one of the most incredible and ridiculous spy stories of the 19th century.

A tea stain

When 16th-century European powers first traded and then militarily colonized various East Asian nations, it was impossible not to stumble upon tea. Since the 9th century, the Tang Dynasty of China had already popularized tea throughout the region. The tea was already firmly established when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to taste it (in 1557), followed by the Dutch, who first returned a batch to mainland Europe.

Britain was relatively late in tasting it, not arriving until the 17th century. In fact, in Samuel Pepys’ diaries of 1660 he referred to “a cup of tea (a Chinese drink) that I had never drunk before”. It was only after the Portuguese wife of King Charles II popularized it at court that tea became a fashionable societal drink.

After the British got in there, there was no way to stop them. Tea has become a huge company. However, as tea was monopolized by the East India Company and the government imposed a whopping 120% tax on it, an army of smuggling gangs opened up return routes to get the tea to the poorer masses. Finally, in 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger understood the popular cry for tea. To eradicate the black market, he reduced the tax on the leaf to just 12.5%. From then on, tea became the drink of all men, marketed as medicinal, invigorating and tasty.

One mug, one mug, my kingdom for one mug!

Tea became so important to the British that it even started wars across the empire.

More famous still, when the British imposed a tax of three cents per pound on all tea exported by the East India Company to America, it led to the outrageous destruction of an entire ship’s tea cargo. The Boston Tea Party was the first act of major defiance of the American colonies and ultimately led to callous and callous countermeasures by the London government. These, in turn, sparked the US War of Independence.

We know less how Great Britain went to war with China over tea. Twice.

Credit: Ingo Doerrie via Unsplash

At the time, tea was only cultivated and exported from China to British India, and then throughout the empire. As such, it led to a massive trade imbalance, where the largely self-sufficient China only wanted British money in return for its famous and delicious locally grown tea leaves. This kind of economic policy, known as mercantilism, has driven Britain really mad.

In retaliation, Britain cultivated opium and flooded China with drugs. When China (understandably) objected, Britain sent the gunboats. The “opium wars” that followed were never one-sided, and when China asked for peace, it received $ 20 million in reparations and had to cede Hong Kong to Britain. (which only returned in 1997).

The tea spy: on the secret service of his majesty

But even these wars have not solved the trade deficit with China. Attempts to make tea in British India resulted in tasteless garbage, and the British needed good things. So, they turned to a Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune, whose mission was simple: to cross the border with China, integrate among Chinese tea producers, and convey both their know-how and preference. their tea plants.

Fortune accepted the mission, even though he spoke not a word of Chinese and had barely left his native Britain. (An ancestor of 007, he wasn’t.) But not one to let those details get in the way, he shaved his hair, braided a pigtail that looked like the ones worn by the Chinese, and then embarked on his adventure.

And what an adventure it was. He was attacked by bandits and robbers, his ship was bombarded by pirates, and he had to endure fever, tropical storms and typhoons. Despite all this, Fortune not only managed to learn Chinese and travel to the Forbidden City of Suzhou and its surrounding tea-growing lands, but he also integrated into isolated peasant communities. When skeptical tea farmers asked Fortune why he was so tall, he tricked them into claiming he was a very important government official – who were all tall, apparently.

An Indian specialty tea

Surprisingly, Fortune got lucky and got away with it. During his three-year mission, he hid several shipments of new tea plants to Britain as well as the art of bonsai (previously a well-kept secret). Most of the smuggled tea leaves died from mold and moisture during transport, but fortunes persisted and the British eventually began to grow their own tea plants using Chinese tea-growing techniques in their Indian soils. colonial.

It wasn’t long before an Indian variant, almost indistinguishable from the stolen Chinese variant, began to dominate the market, especially for the huge and growing British Empire. Less than 20 years after Fortune’s remarkable mission, the East India Company numbered more than fifty entrepreneurs pumping tea around the world.

Today, things are back. China now produces not only much more than India (in second position) but more than the top ten countries combined. In total, 40 percent of the world’s tea comes from China. But it was British tea – and Robert Fortune’s incredible and unlikely mission – that catalyzed the huge global market. Without this overconfident Scottish plant lover, the love of tea in the world could be very different.

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