Robert Fortune- Why Real Men Drink Tea

by Jason Walker on August 2, 2010

in Uncategorized

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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.
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