For all the Tea in China

This week, in a break from our usual programming: not a tea review, but a book review! A book about tea. A book entitled “For all the Tea in China” (Sarah Rose, £8.99 – I borrowed it from my local library).

For all the Tea in China

The story of tea might not be something you’d think of as an exciting adventure – but this section of it definitely is!

From the blurb: “ROBERT FORTUNE was a Scottish gardener, botanist, plant hunter – and industrial spy. In 1848, the East India Company engaged him to make a clandestine trip into the interior of China – territory forbidden to foreigners – to steal the closely guarded secrets of tea.” (from the blurb)

This book is a great read – whether you’re interested in the origins of tea-growing in India or not. For me, it was very interesting to learn about how the British Empire depended on tea – not in a “ahh, tea is so comforting” sort of way, but in a cold hard cash sort of way. Britain grew poppies and manufactured opium in India, which it sold to China; China grew and processed tea, which it sold to Great Britain.

“Nearly one in every ten pounds sterling collected by the government came from the import and sale of tea – about a pound per person per year. Tea taxes funded railways, roads and Civil Service salaries, among the many other necessities of an emergent industrial nation.” (p1-2)

(As an aside: I wonder whether tea, then, was important in a way somehow analogous to how oil is important now? Or perhaps tobacco taxes would be a better thing to compare?)

I could definitely see this being made into a film … there are a lot of themes that are very “current” – globalisation, monopolies and the power of big business, espionage, culture clashes, an underdog-made-good* story – and then also classic adventure. Being attacked by pirates, and defeating the baddies by using his wits! All whilst being awesome, Victorian, and Scottish. Will he manage to find the right plants? (Only the best will do). Will he manage to collect them safely? Will they all die on the journey to India? What about his wife, left in Britain? Of course we know that in the end he was successful in his mission … but it’s a pretty amazing (and hair-raising) journey along the way!

*Fortune’s father was a hired farm worker, and he had no formal education beyond parish schooling.

In summary: Great book – ripping yarn, as you might say. And you’ll probably learn stuff along the way. Top marks!

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