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Stealing Tea from China to Grow in India

Source: scientificillustration.tumblr.com
Camellia sinensis, the tea plant
Source: findagrave.com
Robert Fortune stole tea seeds and plants so Britain could grow tea in India
Source: Nigel Dalziel
Growing tea in India was the only way to satisfy high demand for tea in England

The British demand for tea outpaced what they could buy from China. Britain needed a supply of tea they could control. They needed to grow their own tea, and for that, they needed large amounts of land for tea plantations, a supply of tea seeds, and the knowledge China had kept to itself for thousands of years.

One major advantage the Chinese had over the British was  centuries of experience with tea. Chinese tea was grown and produced in isolation and in strict secrecy.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain supported worldwide scientific exploration and the quest for botanical knowledge. This exploration, and searching for land on which to grow tea, influenced imperial expansion. Any land that boasted resources Britain could benefit from was of great interest.

If Britain could find adequate territory to grow tea, they would acquire it. They found this land in India, much of which was already under British control. Many regions on India were similar, geographially, to tea regions in China.

Native tea plants were discovered in Assam, but they did not yield the type and quality of tea England had grown to love. The first crops of this Indian-grown tea hit London in 1846, but were considered to have a "hot and sooty" flavor.

Britain knew it needed more experience to cultivate and manufacture tea before it could fulfill the national need for tea.

While gaining control of the necessary regions of India, the East India Company planned and implemented an astounding plot to steal tea plants and tea seeds from China.

"They needed a plant hunter, a gardener, a thief, a spy, and his name was Robert Fortune," Sarah Rose. Become a plant thief!

Scottish botanist, Robert Fortune was hired by East India Company in 1848. Under disguise, he traveled throughout China and stole tens of thousands of tea seeds, hundreds of plants, and encouraged dozens of Chinese tea workmen to return with him to India.

Chinese seeds flourised in Indian soil, and tea plantations in India began to thrive.

By 1860, Indian tea, whether grown from native Indian tea plants or seeds stolen from China, began to replace Chinese tea. Britain was finally able to satisfy their national demand for tea from tea grown within its own borders... and China's economy greatly suffered from the loss.

Industrial Revolution
Source: industrialrevolutionresearch.com

Britian could satisfy the high demand for tea if they could apply principles of the industrial revolution to tea growing, such as economies of scale and scientific production, but they could never achieve this while relying solely on Chinese-grown tea.

Britain needed to control the tea-growing process from seed to cup.

The urgent need for British-grown tea was a threat to the East India Company and their remaining monopoly on the Chinese tea trade.

Growing Tea in India
Source: William Ukers

India is a large, diverse country with many geographic regions similar to the tea-growing regions in China.

The British were not the first to steal tea from China. The Dutch smuggled tea plants and Chinese workmen into Java and Sumatra 1827-33, but these plants did not grow into good crops.

Transplanted tea plants failed to grow in India, but healthy tea seeds thrived.

Once Britain discovered that many areas in India were ideal for growing tea, they learned tea plants needed several years to grow before the precious leaves could be harvested.

Incentive to Steal Tea Seeds
Source: William Ukers

China sabotaged Britain's efforts of growing their own tea by selling seeds that were spoiled, moldy, diseased, or dead, and by boiling seeds beforehand so they did not germinate.

Chinese trickery, and British need, gave the British the incentive to steal tea seeds, tea plants, and the knowledge required to grow their own tea.

British explorer, Charles Bruce, discovered native tea in Assam, India, in 1823, but it was first considered too "sooty and hot" for English tastes accustomed to fine Chinese tea.

Big Business for Britain
Source: mellowmint.deviantart.com

After monopolizing the tea trade, smuggling tea into England, and selling opium to pay for tea, Britain stole enough tea seeds from China to launch a thriving tea industry in India.

It took the British only decades to learn to grow tea, and turned out to be most lucrative source of wealth and government revenue in British empire.

In 1866, imports of Chinese tea into England was 97 million lbs. and imports of Indian tea was 4 million lbs. In 1896, in a mere 30 years, imports of Chinese tea was down to 24 million lbs. and Indian tea was up to 122 million lbs!

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