| TOKYO, June 7
TOKYO, June 7 (Reuters Life!) - Robert Fortune was a
scientist, a botanist and, in some ways, an industrial spy. But
he is best known as the man who stole tea from deep within China
and took it to India in the mid-1800s, changing history.
His venture required years of toil up China's rivers by boat
to places where no Westerner had gone before, overcoming
illness, pirate attacks and untrustworthy associates in the
quest for tea seeds and plants that could be grown in India.
For much of his second journey, he dressed in Chinese
clothes, a fake queue of hair down his back.
"People had tried to do what he had done, people had tried
to sneak it out via the treaty ports, people had tried to
appropriate tea seeds and take them to India, and it ended in
failure," said writer Sarah Rose, who spent weeks tracing
Fortune's trail through China.
"The plant hunters were the R&D men of the (British) Empire.
They took raw materials and said, what can we do with this, and
created an entirely new world. And he was one of the very last
guys to do that."
Rose's efforts resulted in a book, "For All the Tea in
China," that chronicles Fortune's journeys, which finally
enabled tea to be grown in India and broke China's monopoly on
the beloved beverage for good.
The son of a Scottish farm worker, Fortune's knowledge of
plants and science came from practical experience, not higher
education. His low social station meant he was only grudgingly
provided with weapons by the Royal Horticultural Society, which
sponsored the first of his plant-hunting journeys.
Though most of the delicate tea seedlings died due to
shipping mishaps on his first try at sending them to India, his
experiments with a special case to transport them meant that a
later attempt was more successful.
Besides this, Fortune was the first to determine that black
and green tea actually came from the same plant. He also
introduced many trees, shrubs and flowers to the West, including
varieties of roses, tree peonies and azaleas.
For Rose, who stumbled onto Fortune's story thanks to a
comment from an ex-boyfriend, the years she devoted to his life,
travelling in China and in the stacks of the British Library,
then writing, were both joyful and frustrating.
"At some points I found him very unlikeable -- that kind of
haughty Victorian notion of the West, a superior race, and the
East as an uncivilised, wild place that they could dominate,"
"At the same time, I would have to locate him in the who he
was and the world he came from, and out of that he was
extraordinary. He was so full of daring -- gone from the entire
world that he knew for three years at a time, leaving his family
behind, to explore this wild place."
Though she began working mostly from Fortune's own papers
-- "he's not a very joyful writer" -- she had exciting moments
when, combing through handwritten documents in old,
leather-bound books, she discovered stories behind what Fortune
himself knew, rounding out the overall drama.
In the end, she also came to feel that Fortune's life and
experience may hold a message for modern times.
"There is still a kind of espionage between China and
America, there is still so much mutual suspicion," she said.
"I think I might say there's a lesson that when both sides
sow so much suspicion and the stakes are so high, somebody has
to step down and trust or you are going to get a lot of stealing
of national secrets."
(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)