Saturday, February 19, 2011

For All the Tea in China

How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History
Sarah Rose

This is the first book by food and travel writer Sarah Rose. Rose has written pieces for Travel and Leisure, BRIDES Magazine, Men's Journal and Endless Vacation. She also appears in the Sundance Channel series Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys. Sarah keeps a blog, in which all her various activities and articles are listed and For All the Tea in China is endlessly flogged.

The East India Company had, for a couple of centuries, been trading opium, produced in Inda, to China in exchange for it's tea, which was shipped home to England. The profits bor both these products were enormous for the Company. It was as if the Cali drug cartel was shipping it's cocaine to the US and bringing back shiploads of Lipton's and Red Rose in exchange.

Rose speaks of both opium and tea as drugs, though. A cup of tea contains a rather mild dose of caffeine. Opium, of course, is the source material from which morphine and heroine are made. It is hardly a fair exchange. Rose says that one in three Chinese adults were addicted to opium by the time described in the book. Of course, it could be argued that almost every person in the British Empire was addicted to tea. Tea became the most common beverage in the Empire, improving the health and extending the lives of Brits everywhere, mostly through the process of boiling the rather sketchy water they were drinking, reducing the incidence of cholera and other diseases.

In the mid 19th century the East India Company sent a wee Scotsman named Robert Fortune to China on a mission of industrial espionage. His assignment is to disguise himself as a Chinese person, travel to the tea growing areas in China and steal tea plants, seeds and processing methods. China had a monopoly on tea production at the time and the Company planned to break that monopoly by growing tea in the Himalayan mountain regions of northern India. For All the Tea in China is the story of how Fortune succeeded in stealing China's tea.

For All the Tea in China reads like a novel. It is fast paced and has a series of plot twists. It is filled with interesting characters which Rose has filled out, imaginatively. I am sure that the original source materials she had to work with, letters to and from the East India Company, invoices and shipping records, were a bit more dry. Fortune made several trips inland from Shanghai.

Rose gives most attention to his first collecting trip, accompanied by a translator named Wang, to a region famous for green tea. On that trip Fortune discovers that Chinese tea manufacturers have been adding poisonous blue and yellow pigments, common ingredients in paint, to green tea, to give it a more green color for export. This may be the first documented example of a Chinese company adulterating an exported product with toxic substances. It also the reason why black tea is more widely used in the western world than green, even today.

In the end, because of Robert Fortunes efforts, tea grown in India, using Chinese expertise, overtakes that of China in both quality and volume. Unfortunately, the monopoly given to the East India Company, and it's government of the subcontinent, are dissolved by Parliament not long afterward and the Company collapsed.  I guess they were not too big to fail.

This post is in the 64th
Book Review Blog Carnival

Published at The Book Frog.


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