Robert Fortune- Why Real Men Drink Tea

by Jason on August 2, 2010

in Uncategorized

Part of a blog carnival of interesting tea people.

Many people think of grandma and her floral porcelain set when they think of tea. The real story of tea is actually filled with adventure that would make Indiana Jones eat his fedora. Robert Fortune (1812-1880) shrugged his shoulders at danger to become the super-spy of the tea world.

Below are five reasons why Fortune is the Indiana Jones of tea history:

  1. Fortune developed a great cover disguise. After the First Opium War, most foreigners were labeled “foreign devils” by the Chinese and were forbidden from leaving treaty cities. In order to travel more conveniently, he shaved his head, donned Chinese clothes, and traveled in a sedan chair. Think of the risk Indiana Jones took wearing a Nazi uniform.
  2. Fortune was no stranger to adventure. He fought off 5 Chinese pirate junks at the same time- singlehandedly and while suffering from a raging fever. And he probably wasn’t afraid of snakes either.
  3. He uncovered secrets to tea-making. Many of these secrets were kept by an imperial decree of death for anyone who revealed them to foreigners.  Dear old Bob learned that the “blue tea” Europeans craved was artificially colored. Kind of odd that some current tea vendors are trying to market oolongs as blue teas.
  4. The accomplished Scot delivered plants, seedlings, and tea workers to India. Never mind that modern Indian tea production is based on the assamica varietal- he delivered on his promise and contributed to the knowledge of tea production. No holy grail, but close enough.
  5. He was a tea mercenary for the U.S. Although plantations never took off, Fortune was hired to bring tea to America. Just like the end of a Jones movie- the discovered treasure rarely gets the full appreciation it deserves.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kieran Maloy March 13, 2012 at 15:45

I had long known that Mr. Fortune was in my Family Tree. I first stumbled across printed information about him in an early 1950s edition of “Reader’s Digest Book of the Garden” many years ago. It was a great disappointment to discover that I live too far north to grow the Fortune’s Double Yellow Rose/Gold of Ophir Rose. I had no idea he was such an adventurous character!

Alex Bruner November 4, 2011 at 15:24


It seems we share a similar viewpoint in that Robert Fortune was a fascinating character. For a couple years since I stumbled across mention of Fortune in an article about the History of the British Tea Trade I’ve relayed tidbits about his adventures to customers. At one point I thought to devise an advertisement with him and a grimacing Samurai with the ad text displaying “Real Men Drink Tea”. I could also include Captain Picard in that one….

Kathy Miller August 2, 2010 at 12:46

Nice article. Up till now I wasn’t even aware of Robert Fortune!


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