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Stealing Tea from China

The East India Company planned to steal tea plants and seeds in, what Rose says, was “nothing short of the industrial espionage… the greatest theft of trade secrets in the history of mankind,” (Rose, 34). But the British were not the first to try this. The Dutch first smuggled information, tea plants, seeds, and finally Chinese workman out of China and into Java and Sumatra from 1827 to 1833 (Scott, 71). Britain watched the Dutch and learned from their failure to produce good crops. Like the British, the early efforts of the Dutch-grown tea was due to ignorance on growing methods ecological conditions necessary for growing tea (Ukers, 109).

Transplanted tea bushes from China did not thrive when moved to India, it was thought they could not grow in India at all, which pleased the Chinese, and to an extent, the East India Company. But healthy Chinese tea seeds could grow in India (Ukers, 109). East India Company was aware by now that getting seeds out of China would be diplomatically impossible, and that seeds purchased from the Chinese were usually sabotaged—they would have to steal seeds. “They needed a plant hunter, a gardener, a thief, a spy, and his name was Robert Fortune,” (Rose, 5).
Robert Fortune was a Scottish botanist, hired by the East India Company in 1848. In order to move around the country and steal Chinese tea seeds and plants, he disguising himself as Chinese and explained his strange looks and accent by claiming he was from a distant province. Remarkably, this worked. China was a large country whose people moved around very little. Fortune procured tens of thousands of tea seeds, hundreds of tea plants, and a dozen Chinese tea workers, and the necessary equipment and knowledge to cultivate tea in India (Rose, 191).
The British in India did not wait idly by for Fortune to solve their problem. Before he was even hired by the East India Company, the tea committee and the Company experimented with the native tea plant found in Assam, transplanting it throughout India. They discovered two things: many areas in India were not suitable for growing tea, and the tea plant needs to grow for several years before it produces mature leave that can be harvested.
The first batches of Indian-grown tealeaves during this trial-and-error process were poor quality (Rose, 31). The quality improved with subsequent trials, and first decent batch of tea was shipped to London in 1846. This batch of Indian-grown tea with its strong bite and hot, sooty taste, received lukewarm reviews, but London merchants and blenders recognized that more experience in cultivation and manufacture of Indian tea would improve the quality and fill Britain’s national need (Ukers, 146).
The 1840s began the end of British dependence on Chinese tea in England, and native Indian tea began to replace Chinese tea in 1860s (Ukers, 151). Once the British realized tea growers did not need to be Chinese to successfully grow and manufacture tea, and that they did not necessarily need Chinese tea seeds to produce good tea, private tea plantations and companies sprang up throughout India (Scott, 83).
Native Indian tea, and British expansion into the regions of India where it best grew, was “national right and responsibility” of the paternalistic, British government (Fromer, 51). Indian-grown tea turned out to be the most lucrative source of wealth and government revenue in the British Empire, and the industry employed more than a quarter of a million people. It took the British decades to learn how to cultivate native Indian tea to its fullest potential, but once they did, growing tea in India allowed the Britain to maintain control of the entire process of tea manufacturing, and to retain all of its profits (Ukers, 133).

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