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For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose

By Samantha | Books | January 21, 2011 |

By Samantha | Books | January 21, 2011 |

I love tea. Don’t get me wrong, though: I’m not a tea snob. I actually find loose-leaf to be rather a pain in the rear, and sometimes I really just love a cup of Lipton’s finest. But I drink a cup of hot tea nearly every morning, and when the weather’s cold, I’ll probably have more than one cup throughout the day. My point is, I’m a tea-drinker as opposed to a coffee-drinker, so when I heard about a book about the history of tea (sort of), I was pretty interested, and sure enough, this book does not disappoint.

For All the Tea in China describes a period of about 4-5 years in the mid 1800s, during which a naturalist by the name of Robert Fortune was hired by the East India Company to essentially “steal” tea from China. You see, England and China traded extensively in those days. England provided China with opium, grown in India; China provided England with tea. The East India Company, though, felt that if they only had the raw materials and the know-how, they could produce tea out of India instead. The problem was that the best tea all came from China, and the Chinese tea growers were the only ones who truly knew how to make it good. Thus, Robert Fortune, disguised as a Mandarin, went deep into the Chinese interior, to the best green tea- and black tea-growing areas of the country, and stole tea plants, seeds, and any information regarding the production of tea that he could glean. Once he had the materials, he had to get them back to the coast, onto ships, and safely sent to India. He was also responsible for finding tea-makers and convincing them to go to India in order to grow tea for the East India Company. He was, ultimately, successful.

Sarah Rose’s history mainly tells the story of Fortune’s travels through China; stories that can be read in his own published memoirs. Also of interest, though, are the descriptions of the economic goings-on, the botanical innovations of the time, and the history that evolved out of these activities. The fact that England provided China with opium, for instance, was a fascinating realization to me. They actually fought wars over the stuff! And Mr. Fortune, in addition to bringing tea to India, was also responsible for bringing countless other types of still-popular flora to the Western world. He successfully proved that green tea and black tea come from the same plant (European botanists were convinced that they were merely cousins), and provided evidence that the Chinese green tea producers actually were poisoning their tea by adding Prussian blue and gypsum, which gave the tea a richer green color. He also revolutionized the way that plant life was transported by making important changes to Wardian cases (sealed glasses compartments, kind of like terrariums).

History is often dry stuff, even when a topic of interest is being discussed. By focusing primarily on Robert Fortune, Ms. Rose is able to provide a readable narrative of one man’s “adventures,” while providing the historic and economic context alongside it. Overall, an interesting read; I would have thought that corporate or industrial espionage was a fairly new concept, but it doesn’t really come as a surprise to learn that the East India Company (the world’s first global corporation) was engaging in it during the Victorian era. Also, even though I’m not much of a plant person, learning a bit about the economic importance and high aesthetic value of flora was equally interesting.

The verdict? Worth a read, and not just for tea-lovers. If you’re looking for something easy and non-fiction, give it a try!

For more of Samantha’s reviews, check out her blog, The Blog of Eternal Stench.

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