The Greatest Tea Heist: Unveiling the Mysterious Plot

The Greatest Tea Heist: Unveiling the Mysterious Plot


The Greatest Tea Heist

That altered the fate of tea in India

The Plot

It was in 1843, Robert Fortune, a Scottish horticulturist, set out on a mission to study China's tea plantations. Funded by the Royal Horticultural Society, Fortune aimed to extract valuable plant samples and botanical intelligence following the Treaty of Nanking.


Meanwhile, the British East India Company was facing a major challenge in breaking into the fantastically lucrative Tea trade with China. China held a virtual monopoly on tea production and export, making it difficult for the company to breach the market.


Upon his return to Britain, Fortune published a book detailing his travels, called "Three Years’ Wandering in the Northern Provinces of China". This caught the attention of Dr. John Forbes Royle, who recruited Fortune on behalf of the East India Company for the purpose of performing the great British tea espionage. The mission was simple- he wanted to steal tea plants and seedlings and gather information on tea cultivation and processing methods.


Being a man of modest means, Fortune eagerly accepted the £500 annuity offered by the Company, which was five times his previous earnings. He was also given commercial rights to smuggling out any other horticultural specimens, opening up a lifetime opportunity to exploit the thriving market for exotic botanical specimens among the English elite.


Little did they know, but Fortune's actions would soon bring about a change in the fortunes of the British tea industry. The Greatest Tea Heist was in motion, and the tea industry would never be the same, especially for India.

The Theft

In the autumn of 1848, Robert embarked on a daring mission to penetrate the heart of the Chinese tea industry. Accompanied by his faithful servant, Wang, who was referred to as a "coolie," Fortune disguised himself as a mandarin and made his way to the interior tea plantations of China such as Zhejiang and Anhu that were barred from any foreigners in those days. He travelled through several tea-producing regions of China, studying the plants and the methods used to cultivate and process them. He also managed to steal samples of tea plants and seedlings, as well as samples of tea leaves and detailed descriptions of the production methods. The three-month nail-biting journey of espionage was gruelling but proved to be fruitful.


Upon his return to Shanghai, after inspecting the 2,000-year-old tea manufacturing process in the Chinese highlands, Fortune wrote to his employers in London. “I have much pleasure in informing you,” he wrote, “that I have procured a large supply of seeds and young plants which I trust will get safely to India.”


However, he also claimed to have made a shocking discovery - the Chinese were adding ferric ferrocyanide (Prussian blue) and gypsum salts to their tea exports to Europe in order to achieve the desired green tea colour. Fortune also made the revelation that black and green teas both come from the same species of shrub, Camellia sinensis, with the only difference being that black tea is fermented for a longer time period.


Despite the risks involved, Fortune managed to smuggle out approximately 13,000 tea plant samples and 10,000 seeds through Hong Kong and Calcutta. This allowed British planters to establish their own tea industry in eastern India and eventually led to the flourishing of the Victorian tea industry.


With these new plants, British planters could dig their feet firmly into the home-bred tea industry in eastern India. Firms and advertisers in London began branding the teas in tandem with sugar from the plantations in Caribbean slave colonies.


In addition to the tea plants, Robert Fortune also pilfered samples of harmful tea dyes, which he concealed in his cloak. According to Sarah Rose in "For All the Tea in China," the display of these samples at the Great Exhibition of 1851 marked the transition of tea from being a mythical and mysterious drink to one that was scientifically understood and accepted in Western culture. Or did it?

The scars it left on India

First of all, it replaced the indigenous ancient Indian Herbal Tea culture with an addictive Caffeinated drink. Secondly, the British East India Company's monopoly over India's tea industry had a detrimental effect on the local economy and led to the exploitation of Indian workers.


In the mid-nineteenth century, the first tea estates were established in the Indian state of Assam, using tea plants stolen from China. But just like sugar, growing tea is very labour-intensive and the obvious thing would have been to staff them with slaves. But in 1833, slavery was banned in the British Empire.


East India Company needed to come up with a breach - and they did.


Instead of slaves, tea estates used indentured labourers, free men, and women who signed contracts binding them to work for a certain period.


But the truth is conditions for these workers weren't much better than for slaves. What is more shocking still is the fact that many of the practices and traditions established way back when the estates were first planted continue even on estates that supply some of the world's favourite brands, as discovered in an investigation for BBC News. 

The joint investigation by Radio 4's File on Four and BBC News in Assam, north-east India, found workers living in broken houses with terrible sanitation. Many families have no toilets and say they have no choice but to defecate amongst the tea bushes.


Living and working conditions are so bad, and wages so low, that tea workers and their families are left malnourished and vulnerable to fatal illnesses.


Comes Blue Tea

Blue Tea came in as a much-needed disruption in the Tea Industry and a respite for the farmers in India. With Blue Tea’s own network of the farmer community, the farmer families have incurred an income growth of 5X. Blue Tea is on a mission to bring back the indigenous drink of India- the Ayurvedic Herbal tea and spread it to the world. It is already among the world leaders in the Flower tea category, expanding its business to 12 countries. In the wake of this stressful environment, Blue Tea wants to make these ancient Ayurvedic herbs more and more accessible to every household worldwide.

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