Tea, Espionage and Secret Mandarins


The discoveries of Robert Fortune

In the matter of minutes it takes to make your daily cup of tea, have you ever stopped to think about the journey it has made to your mug?

For centuries people have travelled to far-flung pockets of the globe, fuelled by their love affair with the tea leaf, to unearth the finest teas and share their experiences with others. I find the history of tea, its link with industrial espionage and the fact it help to fuel the great expansion of the British Empire and the East India Company in the 1800s fascinating.

The concept of a cup of tea is simple – brewing dry leaf in hot water. However, the manufacture of tea is much more complex and back in the 1800s Great Britain was buying most of its tea from China. They would much rather have been able to produce it in British-occupied India so they could cut out the middleman (and associated costs). The problem was a simple one though; Chinese tea tasted better but no-one quite knew why.

This leads me on to the story of one of the earliest pioneers to travel to the East; Scottish botanist and entrepreneur, Robert Fortune. Fortune was sent by the British government to ‘appropriate’ the secrets of growing and manufacturing Chinese tea and then to transport the tea plants from this unexplored land to India. The problem was that in 1848 foreigners weren’t allowed into certain regions of China. The ingenious Fortune (a very white man with a broad Scottish accent) dressed up as a Chinese Mandarin and travelled into deepest darkest China. He arrived in Shanghai, disguised in Chinese dress and sporting a shaved head save for a pigtail. His aim was to travel to Tong Mu Guan in the Wuyi mountains of northern Fujian province to illegally acquire plants, seeds and the knowledge of tea production (which he secured in the form of eight Chinese tea masters who travelled with him to India to train farmers there). In his memoirs he describes fighting off Chinese pirates and the problems of pretending to be a Chinese Mandarin at risk of execution if exposed. His mission was successful: he learned the secrets of tending to tea plants and the processing and oxidising required to make tea. Very importantly for the tea industry, he was the first westerner to discover that green and black tea comes from the same plant.

One of Fortune’s most critical tasks was to learn the procedure for manufacturing tea. There is a great deal of work involved between the picking and the brewing: drying, firing, rolling, and, for black tea, fermenting.  Although the Chinese guarded their tea secrets closely, Fortune was able to fully observe tea manufacture. He also observed that the Chinese were colouring their tea with poisonous dyes.

There was a widely held belief in Britian at that time that the Chinese may have been engaging in some underhand activity like bulking up tea leaves with sawdust or even passing off their used tea leaves as fresh tea. Fortune most definitely became suspicious when he noticed some of the tea workers had blue fingers. He was able to confirm that the Chinese were actually chemically dyeing tea for the benefit of the foreign market. The blue powder was apparently iron ferrocyanide, a substance also known as Prussian blue. Although cyanide can obviously be very dangerous, fortunately this form was harmless to humans due to the complex molecules. Then he noticed a man preparing a bright yellow paste with a terribly offensive smell. This turned out to be gypsum (a common component of plaster) – generally not recommended for human consumption either.

Fortune estimated that more than half a pound of plaster and Prussian blue was included in every hundred pounds of tea being prepared. The average Londoner at that time was believed to consume as much as one pound of tea per year, which meant that Chinese tea was effectively, if unintentionally poisoning British consumers. The additives were not included maliciously; the Chinese simply believed that foreigners wanted their green tea to look green. However, this revelation really gave weight to Fortune’s mission and there was a real consensus that it was high time the British started manufacturing their own tea.

Thanks to the success of Fortune’s mission, tea industries became well established in India and Sri Lanka and in due course these countries superseded China as the principal exporters of tea to Europe and America.

I have been lucky enough to work with Edinburgh author, Sara Sheridan, over recent years since the publication of her novel The Secret Mandarin, which tells Fortune’s story of adventure, danger and love. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have explored China to source tea for eteaket. Things have obviously changed significantly since Fortune’s escapades in the 1800s – it took him 6 weeks of sailing through treacherous waters to reach China whereas my flight took a mere 12 hours. However, particularly in the remote tea regions in Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces, it was common not to see any non-Chinese people for days at a time. Thankfully though in 2012, I didn’t have to attempt a disguise.

As regards tea manufacturing, on one level it is still exactly the same as it was in Fortune’s day with lots of small family gardens using mainly non-mechanised methods. On the other hand, there are some Chinese tea producers that are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum – where their facilities look more like space age science stations. China is most definitely a land of contrasts and, intertwined with the history of tea, it’s a country of endless fascination and possibilities for adventure.



  • Sara Sheridan: The Secret Mandarin – fiction 2009
  • Sarah Rose: For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History – non fiction 2008

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