One reason why history was my favourite subject in school is because of the fascinating personalities that lurked between the rise and fall of nations. The history of tea is no exception, and my current favourite tea bloke from the past would be horticulturalist Robert Fortune (1812-1880). So basically, with all the drama from the First Opium War, Britain began looking to grow tea in their own colonies as back-up – namely, India. Here comes a somewhat middle class Scottish bloke, Robert Fortune (really, you can’t get a better superhero name than this) in 1848 who did all kinds of plant-based espionage (collecting tea plants and seeds, getting a peek into a tea manufacturing plant etc) in the rural parts of Fujian and Guangdong by learning Mandarin, growing out a pigtail and posing as a Chinese official.
And he wasn’t just incredibly courageous, he also had a good head about him. For one, he was the first ang moh/kwei lo to realise that black tea and green tea actually come from the same Camellia sinensis plant. When his first shipment of tea plants was botched up due to the ineptitude of certain British East India Company officials, Mr. Fortune also had the foresight to keep aside some seeds for a 2nd (and successful shipment) even though that was actually against “company policies”.
He ain’t called the Father of Indian Tea for nothing! For All The Tea in China presents an intriguing version of his biography.