Thursday, March 18, 2010
"For All the Tea in China" by Sarah Rose
At last! For years I've read in tea history books that Scottish plant hunter Robert Fortune disguised himself as a Chinaman when first sneaking tea plants out of China in the late 1840s. I knew that he worked for the East India Company but little else about him, and yet I always read that bit and thought "You know, there's got to be a story there." Yes, there is, and Sarah Rose tells it superbly in the book just released today, "For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History." I know it's only March, but I simply can't imagine a better and more important tea book will be published this year, it's *that* good.
A "tea history" book for those who don't like history, this book reads like a novel and will take you on a rollercoaster of a ride from first page to last. It begins innocently enough: Robert Fortune, born of humble means, first learns about horticulture from his farmworker father before earning a certificate in horticulture himself. An ambitious man eager to advance in English society, he accepts an offer to explore China in search of plants at the request of the Royal Horticultural Society. Successful on that mission, he is then hired by the East India Company, which wants to grow tea in the Indian Himalayas. They hire Fortune to, as Rose puts it, "enact the greatest theft of trade secrets in the history of mankind."
The tea-making industry in China was so secretive, so safe-guarded, that the East India Company knew it would have to steal the plants and the tea-making technology if they were ever to grow their own tea in India. Fortune was apparently the ideal candidate for the job, and he was willing to dress the part. He had a coolie shave the front of his head and weave a ponytail extension to the nape of his neck just so he would be more likely to fit in. We know that Fortune was successful in his efforts because we drink the fruit of his work today. What we might not know, however, is how very perilous his journey was, how he faced betrayal by his Chinese assistants, the dangers stemming from the opium dens, the occasional threats to his life and, most significantly of all, the many threats to the plants and seeds for which he risked such a journey.
While the book is a fast read and quite an entertaining one, it also manages to educate the reader on tea cultivation, history and customs. Gardeners will enjoy learning about Fortune's other contributions to plant life in the West, such as his discovery of the bleeding heart, winter-blooming jasmine, white wisteria, corsage gardenia and Fortune's Double Yellow tea rose. We also have Fortune to thank for first relaying to the East India Company that black tea and green tea are grown from the same plant, and for unearthing the secrets of their preparation. The author quotes from Fortune's own writings about his travels in China, and he comes across as a man of humor and grace as well as of much tenacity.
When the press release described this book as a "thrilling narrative (which) weaves together the larger historical, geographical, and scientific stories of this unique adventure" about "one of the greatest corporate thefts of all time," I frankly had doubts the book could live up to such a claim, but it did. Sarah Rose deserves much praise for such an outstanding addition to the tea literature available today.