This is the story of intellectual property theft. The care and cultivation of tea plants was a closely guarded secret in China as recently as the mid-19th century. Dissatisfied with their existing trade agreements, the British East India Company dispatched a botanist-turned-spy Robert Fortune to steal tea plants and transport them to India for the development of new plantations.
In addition to industrial espionage, this account also describes key technological and policy changes that allowed Fortune to be successful. One was the reduction in the Glass Tax that allowed greenhouses to become widespread, supporting the transplantation of flora from more moderate climates to Britain. The transport of those plants also depended on a newly-designed Wardian case which enabled the spread of plant specimens beyond just the hardy varieties that could survive a trans-equatorial trip in the open air of a ship’s deck. This in turn developed new industries across the British Empire, such as rubber plantations in South Asia.
Tea also inspired manufacturing improvements. Before tea was popular, English ceramic cups could not be used to hold boiling water. After the drink became commonplace, high-quality porcelain (still known today as “China”) was necessary.
Even transportation was impacted by the tea trade. Over the course of a decade in the mid-19th century, the time to travel between London and China was reduced by a full month. This was largely the result of the entry of America into the tea trade, using faster ships known as “tea clippers.”
“For All the Tea in China” is interesting and engaging throughout.