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Celebri-Tea Spotlight: Robert Fortune

The James Bond of Tea

This week, we’re throwing the spotlight on a real tea celebrity. Forget martinis—Robert Fortune is the James Bond of tea. His story’s a fascinating one, complete with poison, disguises and some serious facial hair…

The Secret Life of Plants

Born in 1812 to a working-class family in Scotland, our man Robert wasn’t what you might expect from a secret agent. More interested in aster flowers than Aston Martins, he worked as a botanist, first at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh and then at the Horticultural Society of London. Before long, he found himself packed off to China with a list of plants to find and send back to England.

Fortune survived pirates, storms and bandits over a course of three years in China, and sent back a vast number of plants. So many, in fact, that he was entrusted with a special mission. He was told to disguise himself as a Chinese tea merchant, infiltrate a tea factory, and steal the ancient secrets to Chinese tea.

It wasn’t going to be an easy task. Fortune could speak Chinese, but he didn’t look Chinese; and he knew almost nothing about how tea was processed. He was also well aware that if he was caught, the penalty was certain death. Hoping for the best, he put on a Chinese outfit, grafted a pigtail onto the back of his head, and shaved the rest—including his rather dashing whiskers.

Accompanied by a servant and interpreter, Fortune was introduced at the gates of a green tea factory as a wise official from a distant province of China. The disguise must have worked, because moments later he was inside, and busy making mental notes on the complex processes of drying, firing and rolling that he saw going on around him.

Poison! Scandal! Espionage!

Fortune discovered the secrets to Chinese tea, secrets so closely guarded that no westerner had ever before seen what he had. But he also uncovered something else.

In the very same factory as Chinese workers were processing tea, they were also producing two rather different products. In an enormous mortar at one end of the factory, Fortune discovered a man endlessly grinding down a blue substance—he also noticed that many of the workers had fingers which were stained blue. The substance was Prussian Blue, a pigment used in paint.

Prussian Blue is harmless in small quantities—it’s actually used as a medicine to treat radiation sickness. However, Fortune also found a bright yellow powder being roasted over the factory’s charcoal fires. This was gypsum—used in making plaster, it’s poisonous enough to cause memory loss, headaches and dizziness over a long period of time. What did gypsum and Prussian Blue have to do with the price of tea in China?

Go to your local fishmongers and you’ll get a clue to the answer. Just as fishmongers dye fish to make it more attractive, the Chinese tea workers were dying their green tea to make it sell at a higher price. And it had been working—but now the secret was out. Fortune quietly stole samples of the poisonous dyes, thanked the factory superintendent, and left—taking with him knowledge that would lead to the first processing of tea in India, and the end of China’s monopoly on tea.

Robert Fortune Blend

Want to relive Fortune’s adventures, but don’t fancy shaving your head and learning Chinese? Fear not. Our Robert Fortune Blend mirrors the botanist’s travels with teas from India, China and Nepal—and a delicate scattering of white Camellia tea flowers. We think it’s perfect with scones as part of afternoon tea.

Fortune Favours the Brave

Tea hero or thieving scoundrel? Either way, there’s no denying that Robert Fortune was a pretty remarkable character.

On the one hand he stole an ancient part of Chinese culture for the notorious East India Company. On the other hand, he saw tea as a universal gift, something which should be available to everyone. If it weren’t for Fortune, there would have been no Indian tea plantations—not to mention the revelation that Chinese tea was being dyed with hazardous chemicals.

We’d love to know what you make of this extraordinary figure from the history of tea. Comment below with your verdict!

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