Tea Thieves & Plant Hunters


The development of the tea trade outside China owes much to a cunning act of bio-piracy that took place right in Moganshan’s backyard, not far from the fields where Le Passage Mohkan Shan grows its own sweet-scented teas today. Early in the 19th century, China was the exclusive exporter of tea to the West and restricted trade by demanding payment in silver bullion. Demand for the drink was growing in Europe, and England’s East India Company was keen to break China’s monopoly.

To that end, the company dispatched Scottish plant collector Robert Fortune (1812-1880) to China in 1848. His mission was to collect the finest varieties of tea in the country, and to gain easier access to China’s interior he shaved his head, leaving just a ponytail, and wore Chinese clothes. During his expedition he discovered that black and green tea derive from the same plant, and that growing methods were not nearly as complex and mysterious as Westerners assumed.

He then travelled to the tea producing regions near Moganshan. He collected plants and seeds from the best tea plantations he could find and set up nurseries in Shanghai. In the end, Fortune dispatched more than twenty thousand tea plants to India, and although China remained central to the tea industry, by 1890 India was supplying 90 percent of Britain’s domestic market.

Fortune got the plants to India using a Wardian case. Surprisingly little is known about Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868), yet the transportation case he invented around 1829 had a profound impact on botany and international commerce. Ward initially developed the case as a tool to transport delicate foreign plant specimens to Europe for scientific examination, and to enhance the collections of wealthy enthusiasts. At the time, long sea journeys exposed specimens to dangerous temperature swings and soaked them with sea sprays. Along with a lack of light and too little water, these conditions caused most plants to die en route.

But Ward discovered plants had a much better rate of survival when placed in closed glass cases, as long as there was sufficient moisture inside. The plants saturated the air with water vapour that condensed on the glass and kept the soil moist in a continual cycle. In 1854, the Royal Society acknowledged that the Wardian case had changed the face of commerce by allowing the safe transport of delicate plants. The invention eventually allowed India to establish a tea industry, and for South East Asia to establish rubber production. The same technique was used to spread banana, coffee, citrus, cocoa and vanilla to plantations throughout the world’s tropical climes.