. . . In short, her scandalous reputation/Has shocked the whole of the Hellish nation; / And every turbaned Chinoiserie, / With whole we should sip our black Bohea, / Would stretch out her simian fingers thin / To scratch you, my dears, like a mandolin; / For hell is just as properly proper / As Greenwich, or as Bath, or Joppa!

-Dame Edith Sitwell, from Facade

Cover page of the Robert Fortune book

It was difficult, even with Chinese law enforcement breaking down, to obtain tea seeds of good quality. Even when you found a merchant willing to wink at the law and sell you some, the chances were he’d boil the seeds first to prevent their germinating. Seeds and plants sold in good condition would arrive mysteriously moldy, diseased, or dead. The only solution was for somebody sufficiently daring and intelligent to penetrate China’s forbidden interior and procure the goods himself. The Tea Committee’s secretary G.J. Gordon and the Dutch J.I.L. Jacobson both made successful attempts in 1834, but far the most remarkable of all these remarkable men was Robert Fortune, who made his first journey into China barely a year after the First Opium War. Fortune’s Chinese was hardly good enough to pass unnoticed, but he allayed suspicion by claiming to be a traveler from a distant province of the Empire, “beyond the Great Wall.”

Although Fortune was always aware of being on an adventure, the most striking things his books reveal is that for him the adventure was discovering and collecting things. He might have written almost as well if he had lived a more conventional life, for the difficulties and dangers he endured were incidental to him. One gradually realizes that he found it perfectly natural to be touring China’s forbidden hinterland or coastline disguised as a Chinese. As with Sir Richard Burton or other such contemporaries, he was an educated Victorian gentleman absorbed in his collecting who was occasionally forced by “tiresome difficulties” to put “a bold face on it,” and for him, that was that.

These “tiresome difficulties” are so liberally sprinkled throughout Fortune’s accounts that it is hard to choose just one as an illustration. He describes in his Wanderings through China, published in 1843 how he came down with a fever and arranged to be carried, along with his most valuable specimens, to a treaty port down the coast in a small passenger vessel. It was attacked and fired upon by pirates, five junkfuls of them. The captain and other passengers hid their valuables in the ship’s ballast and put on their worst clothes, so as not to look like they were worth much ransom. Roused from his bed of pain by the commotion, Fortune appeared on deck armed with a pair of pistols and a ferocious blunderbuss. “The pilot, an intelligent old man, now came up to me and said that he though resistance was of no use; I might manage to beat off one junk, or even two, but I had no chance with five of them. Being at the time in no mood to take advice or be dictated to by anyone I ordered him off to look after his own duty.”

Title page of the Robert Fortune book

The nearest pirate junk fired a broadside that fell short but cleared the deck of everyone except the helmsmen, whom Fortune kept at their post by threatening them with his pistol. A second broadside was followed by a third from about thirty yards range; it splintered the wood around the men left on deck. “The pirates now seemed quite sure of their prize and came down upon us looking and yelling like demons,” writes Fortune. “This was a moment of intense interest . . . I raised myself above the high stern of our junk and while the pirates were not more than twenty yards from us, hooting and yelling, I raked the decks fore and aft with shot and ball from my double-barreled gun . . . They could not have been more surprised. Doubtless many were wounded and probably some killed. At all events the whole crew, not fewer than forty or fifty men, disappeared in a marvelous manner.” He dealt with the second junk in the same fashion and all five of them turned away. “The fever which I had scarcely felt during all this excitement now returned with greater violence and I was heartily glad to go below and turn into my own bed,” Fortune remarked after a similar set-to against six junks the following afternoon. Here was a man.

Illustration of a tea field from the Robert Fortune book

Occasionally even Robert Fortune enjoyed moments of serenity. His second visit to China was at the behest of the East India Company. He was to bring back seeds, plants, and experienced hands from the finest tea districts of northern China. In disguise and in and out of “tiresome difficulties” as usual, he became the first Westerner to learn that green tea comes from the same plant as black and is only manufactured differently. He learned the secret of keeping seed alive through the winter in baskets filled with damp sand. And at last he reached the heart of the Wuyi mountain district, “considered by the Chinese to be one of the most wonderful as well as the most sacred spots in the Empire” and home of the best pekoes and souchongs in the world. He went up to a temple atop a thousand foot peak and, as with all he met in peace, made friends with the monks. To quote his Visit to the Tea Districts of China: “The High Priest . . . drew out of his tobacco pouch a small quantity of Chinese tobacco, rolled it for a minute between his fingers and thumb and then presented it to me. I lighted my pipe and began to smoke . . . He called the boy and ordered him to bring us some tea. And now I drank the fragrant herb, pure and unadulterated on its native hills.” That must have been one of the finest moments of Robert Fortune’s life. When China’s government put a price on his head, he only just escaped to arrive back in India in 1851, with quantities of seeds and tools, a highly skilled team of Chinese workmen, and twelve thousand plants.

This article has been reformatted and updated from the original April 2008 publication.

Images are from the Robert Fortune book Visit to the Tea-Districts of China and India which is in the public domain