For all the Tea in China

Robert Bickers on the story of a Victorian plant hunter

Author: Sarah Rose
Publisher: Hutchinson
Reviewed by: Robert Bickers
Price (RRP): £18.99

The naturalist Robert Fortune was everywhere in mid-19th-century China, and in the Victorian understanding of China. You arrived at your post, after months of arduous travel, and there he was, filling the doorway.

And if before leaving home you sought for a book to help you understand the country that Britain had fought two wars in and against, there was Robert Fortune, filling up the shelves with his travelogues. And of course, in China he secured plants and seeds, aided by the new Wardian Cases (constructed of sealed glass), that made the shipping of specimens across the globe a matter of routine. So Fortune was everywhere too in Victorian gardens, and his name is firmly and officially fixed to a number of the plants that he first scooped up and brought back – such as the fan palm (Chamaerops fortunei).

Sarah Rose has written a very Robert Fortune kind of book, for here he is, as he most liked to be, importantly centre stage, a spy in disguise in the heart of the empire of China. Rose ventures to fix him as the lynchpin in the development of the Indian tea industry, sneaking in disguise into the Chinese interior to effect “the greatest theft of trade secrets in the history of mankind”, stealing tea seeds and expertise too.

But this “spy” was so hopeless that he even forgot that the Chinese used chopsticks (and so went hungry for days at one point). This is all as unconvincing and exaggerated as Fortune’s books are still highly readable (such as Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China, first published in 1847). Read them instead. 

Robert Bickers is professor of history at the University of Bristol, and author of Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai (Penguin, 2004).

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