In 1839, following an economic conflict, Great Britain declared war on China. The main issue concerned the exchange of Chinese tea for opium, coming from India. Following the Chinese government’s prohibition on opium, English warships were sent to the bay of Canton, one of the most important opium trade ports in the country. The British forces won, compelling China to ratify some treaties, making further exploration of China possible.
In 1842, the Royal Horticultural Society engaged Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, for a three-year mission (1842-1845) aimed at collecting various plants for export to Great Britain.
The British, fearful that China might decide to legalize opium, thus ending their monopoly and disrupting the balance of trade that had existed between the two countries for more than 200 years, decided to introduce tea in India.
To complete the project successfully, they first needed to gain the necessary botanical knowledge and collect high-quality tea plants, so they appealed to Fortune. In 1848, he began his journey from the city of Hong Kong, attended by two Chinese coolies, who knew the routes leading to the plantations. His mission, quite complicated because of tensions directed at foreigners, required that he disguise himself as a mandarin from a distant province.
Before long, he reached the province of Kiang-nan – more precisely, the district of Hieu-ning. It is here where green teas had begun to be manufactured, and the first tea plants were discovered.
Aiming to improve his knowledge of tea processing, Fortune visited a tea factory and then moved on to Sung-lo country (in the province of Anhui), where he and his entourage stayed with the Wang family. Heavy rainfall forced them to stay in the poor cottage for a few days, but soon thereafter, Fortune collected seeds and obtained information regarding the cultivation and manufacturing of green tea.
In this way, he collected tea seeds from the bushes producing the finest green tea. At the same time, and with the help of his coolies, he procured a new species (the new Berberis) to introduce in Great Britain.
Fortune visited many tea factories, trying to coax manufacturers to yield their secrets. His research led him to realize that green and black tea came from the same plant.
He was able to use the grounds of Dent’s factory to seed or replant what he had found. Following Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s technology, plants didn’t need to be watered, but did require access to sunlight when stored in “Ward’s cases”.
Although Fortune was well received at the Calcutta botanical garden, he had bad luck with the plants he brought. An official had opened the cases that contained the seeds and saplings, thus contaminating them. The success rate reached only 3% because of fungus and mould.
Before beginning his second mission (for black tea), Fortune decided to go to the gardens near Canton (province of Guangdong) to learn about seed preparation. He was surprised by the simplicity of the process: gather the seeds, put them in small bottles, and cover them with burnt rice to protect them from worms.
From Canton, Fortune sailed to the northern province of Folkien (the main city is Foo-chow-foo). There Buddhist monks received him and served him one of the best teas he had ever drunk, made from wild bushes.
To procure tea plants from the Bohea Mountains (Woo-eshan), Fortune preferred sending his two coolies, promising them a reward if they did their job correctly. However, in the end, he decided to go there himself to be sure of his tea plants’ origin.
At this point, he hired a new servant (Sing Hoo). During their walk, leading them to the mountains, they passed by many trade cities, including Yuk-shan and Hokow, also called “the emporium of the black-tea trade”.
Arriving in the wonderful city of Woo-e-shan, Fortune took up residence in a Buddhist monastery, where the monks paid more attention to tea cultivation than to prayers. Roaming in the region, he analyzed the soil, sending samples to two colleagues.
At the end of his mission, Fortune was able to explain the two methods of treating tea during the manufacturing process.
To get a green tea, the first step was to dry out the leaves (“on a flat bamboo tray”); the next step was to throw the leaves in roasting pans (loss of moisture); and the third step was to roll the leaves. The last step consisted of passing the tea leaves through sieves of different sizes.
1. The leaves were allowed to wither (before oxidation).
2. After rolling, the leaves were exposed to moist air for a few hours.
At this period, there was a growing taste for black tea in England, which was often drunk with sugar, contrary to green tea.
In October and November 1849, Fortune’s plants were brought to Shanghai to be sent in India. During the following summer, he heard that his collections had arrived safely in Calcutta (at the botanical garden) and then at the gardens of Saharanpur. To keep the seeds in good shape, Fortune sowed them in “Ward’s cases” soon after they were gathered. The first Indian tea was cultivated in the plantations of Saharanpur, a temperate and hilly region.
Fortune’s last mission was to find and engage Chinese manufacturers from the best tea districts and send them to India.
After his return to India, Fortune inspected the gardens, accompanied with Dr. Jameson, and pointed out some problems – the system of irrigation (not used in China), too early plucking, and flat land (in China, most of gardens were on the lower slopes of hills). According to Fortune, the most suitable areas for tea cultivation were Almorah, Kumaon, and Darjeeling.