The Tea Thieves: How A Drink Shaped An Empire Sarah Rose's For All the Tea in China tells the story of how Britain hijacked control of the 19th century tea trade by transplanting production of the popular drink to India.

The Tea Thieves: How A Drink Shaped An Empire

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GUY RAZ, host:

By the mid-19th century, Britain was an almost unchallenged empire. It controlled about a fifth of the world's surface, and yet its Achilles' heel, its weakness, had everything to do with tea. The British public loved tea.

And by 1800, it was far and away the most popular drink in the country. The problem was that all the tea produced in the world came from China, and Britain couldn't control the quality or the price. So around 1850, a group of British businessmen set out to create a tea industry in a place they did control: India.

Ms. SARAH ROSE (Author, "For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History"): (Reading) The task required a plant hunter, a gardener, a thief, a spy. The man Britain needed was named Robert Fortune.

RAZ: That's Sarah Rose, reading from her new book, "For All the Tea In China." It tells the story of what she calls the greatest single act of corporate espionage in history, the story of how Britain sent an agent to China to steal its tea and end that country's dominance of the tea trade.

Sarah Rose is at NPR's New York studio. Welcome to the program.

Ms. ROSE: Thanks, Guy, for having me.

RAZ: So basically, you had this system where Britain was shipping opium to China. China was shipping tea back. Why did Britain feel like it had to get into the tea business?

Ms. ROSE:�The Chinese emperor hated that opium was the medium of exchange because a nation of drug addicts was being created. So the emperor confiscated all the opium, destroyed it all. England sent warships. At the end of the day, they realized that if they were going to keep pace with the British tea consumption and not deal with the Chinese, they had to own it for themselves.

RAZ: This is where Robert Fortune comes in, and he is the one who sort of guides the narrative here. Tell us who Robert Fortune was.

Ms. ROSE: Robert Fortune was a botanist, a horticulturalist, at a time when botany and the natural sciences were on the ascent in Britain. A great deal of them had university educations and were trained as doctors.

Robert Fortune was Scottish but grew up quite poor, and so he kind of worked his way through the ranks of professional botany, learning with hands-on training instead of book training.

RAZ: And by the time he reaches his early 30s, he goes on a trip to China. This is around 1845. It's a two-year trip, just in search of plants. You talk about how he then publishes a travelogue of his adventures, where he sort of fights off pirates, and it kind of captures the imagination of Victorian society.

Ms. ROSE: He was attacked by pirates, he was attacked by bandits, he encountered all kinds of disease and storms, and he also goes in Chinese disguise, dressed up as if he were a wealthy Chinese merchant.

I don't know if it captured the imagination of the Victorians, but that certainly captured mine, that notion of cultural transvestitism.

RAZ: And this book that he publishes, the sort of diary of his exploits, make the rounds, and by 1848, he is approached by a representative from the East India Company, at the time, one of the most important, if not the most important, multinational corporation in the world.

Ms. ROSE: The East India Company says to him: We need you to go back to China and hunt up some tea for us. They wanted really good tea stock from the very best gardens in China, and they also needed experts. They needed the Chinese to go to India to teach the British planters, as well as the Indian gardeners.

RAZ: So Fortune manages to get his seeds to India, and within his lifetime, India actually surpasses China as the world's biggest tea grower. I mean, it's a pretty astonishing turnabout in such a short period of time.

Ms. ROSE: It astonishes me. China has pretty much never really come back from that, certainly not in the Western markets. Now that Asia has such a booming economy, the Chinese are again pretty fierce tea producers. But it took a-hundred-plus years.

RAZ: Do you regard Robert Fortune as history's greatest corporate thief or the man we can thank for the tea we drink?

Ms. ROSE: I think he thought of himself as a China expert and a gardener. He didn't see himself as stealing something that didn't belong to him. He thought plants belong to everybody.

RAZ: That's Sarah Rose. She's the author of the book, "For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History."

Sarah Rose, thank you so much.

Ms. ROSE: Thank you.

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