Stealing the Secrets of Tea Built a Bloody Empire

If you are interested in a real-life 19th century collision between the West and China, I highly recommend Sarah Rose’s nonfiction work For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History. You will discover that the British Empire and its merchants were successful, because they were more ruthless and devious than anyone else on the Earth.

In fact, you also might be interested in the list of wars that involved the Kingdom of Great Britain from 1701 – 2011. Be prepared for jaw dropping shock if you don’t already know this history, because the price of empire is lots of spilled blood.

At its greatest extent, the British Empire was known as the largest in history, and it covered more than thirteen-million square miles (20,921,472 square kilometers), which is about a quarter of the Earth’s total land area, and it ruled over more than 500 million people—a quarter of the world’s population at the time.

The British Empire spread the English language—not the United States that Donald Trump wants to make great again (whatever that means)—and English is the second most-widely spoken language in the world today  According to, 1.5 billion people speak English, and Chinese, ranked second, is spoken by 1.1 billion.

But to make English the most spoken language on the planet, the British Empire became a thief and the largest drug cartel in human history.

In her book Sarah Rose wrote a fascinating story of Robert Fortune (1812 – 1880) and one of, if not the largest, acts of corporate espionage and theft in history. Her book is about how the British stole tea plants and the method of producing tea from China and successfully transplanted this industry to India.

For example, if you drink Darjeeling Tea from India, you are drinking a product that was a result of theft from China by Robert Fortune in the early half of the 19th century.

But there is much more to this story than the theft of tea from the country that may have invented it almost five thousand years ago. In fact, China is considered to have the earliest records of tea drinking, with recorded tea use in its history dating back to the first millennium BCE.

First, I want to dispel a misconception I discovered from a two-star Amazon reader review of the book that said, “I was a little skeptical about her comment in the notes ‘As this is a work of popular history, not a scholarly undertaking, I have avoided the use of footnotes and tried to steer clear of mentioning sources in the body of the text. Nevertheless, this is a work of nonfiction …’ ”

That unfair review left off the rest of Sarah Rose’s quote: “Nevertheless, this is a work of nonfiction, and anything in quotes comes from a letter, memoir, newspaper or other contemporaneous sources.

“I have relied heavily on Robert Fortune’s four memoires, his letters to the East India Company and other company documents housed in the British Library. Over five hundred books and documents were consulted in putting this project together.” (pg. 251, hardcover)

On page 227 of the hardcover, Rose wrote, “By the time the Chinese realized that Fortune had stolen an inestimable treasure from them, it was many years too late to remediate their loss. His theft helped spread tea to a wider world at lower prices.”

In addition, “Tea likewise revolutionized Britain’s capital and banking systems and influenced the rapid growth of trade networks in the Far East. It was instrumental in extending the reach of British colonialism as the empire expanded to include countries such as Burma, Ceylon, East Africa and others where tea could be grown …”

On page 178, we learn that, “It was through drug-based commercial enterprises such as the tea and opium trade that Britain became the greatest of all hegemonic empires. The British campaign to sell opium in China was tremendously profitable. … Britain’s all-conquering naval fleet was able to be constantly improved with newly minted capital from the sugar, tea and opium trades. Without opium, the India trade would not have flourished and without India, Britain’s post-Napoleonic global ascendency could well have collapsed.”

These few quotes do not do justice to Robert Fortune’s adventure in China. He successfully passed himself off as a citizen of the Qing Empire dressed in mandarin robes. He even had a queue, a braid of hair worn hanging down behind the head, sewn to his scalp and had his head shaved to match the style of the time.

“He eventfully became proficient enough with speaking Mandarin that he was able to adopt the local dress and move among the populous largely unnoticed. By shaving his head and adopting a ponytail, this rather gruff Scotsman was able to effectively blend in. So well in fact, that he was able to enter the forbidden city of Souchow (now Wuhsien) unchallenged.” Source: Planet

Besides being loaded with facts, this book is also an adventure and/or spy thriller based on a real person and his mission of intrigue—if caught, he would have been executed. To pull off the biggest heist of all time, Fortune traveled to areas of China that no foreigner had ever visited before, and his only companions were Chinese that he had bribed to work for him.

Today, tea is the most popular drink in the world in terms of consumption. Its consumption equals all other manufactured drinks in the world combined– including coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, and alcohol. In fact, China is still the leading tea producer in the world, and in 2010 China produced 1,467,467 tons (32.5% of the world’s tea) compared to second place India at 991,180 tons (21.9%). Third place went to Kenya at 399,000 tons (8.83%).

In addition, consumption of tea in 2010 grew at a faster rate than global production. In the United States alone in 2011, the US tea industry’s gross revenue through all foodservice and retail outlets was greater than $27-billion (and twelve countries consumed more tea than the US). That makes tea more popular than Hollywood, because ticket sales for the US domestic movie market were only $11.1 billion in 2015.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

#1 - Joanna Daneman review posted June 19 2014

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5 Responses to Stealing the Secrets of Tea Built a Bloody Empire

  1. […] For a comparison with European civilization, the printing press in the West wasn’t invented until after 1300 AD, centuries after China, and it’s possible that the west stole the technology for the printing press from China just like the British Empire stole the secrets of growing and brewing tea from China. […]

  2. The History of the Black Nobility says:

    […] Stealing the Secrets of Tea Built a Bloody Empire […]

  3. Debbie says:

    sounds like a great book Lloyd, I’ll put it on my wish list. thanks for the thumbs up. Another good read regarding that period of history is Julia Lovell’s ‘the Opium Wars’.

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