For All the Tea in China | Book Review

1024 768 Michael Oliver
  • Author – Sarah Rose
  • Release Date – February 5, 2011
  • Publisher – Penguin Books

For All the Tea in China begins by telling us about a time “when maps were redrawn in the name of plants [and] when two empires, Britain & China, went to war over flowers, two in particular: the Poppy (Opium) & the Camellia (Tea)”.  This time, over 400 years ago now, was unique in that respect – for whilst fighting over resources was common in the Colonialist Era, it was highly uncommon for that fight to be fought over flowers.

Book Synopsis

In 1600 AD, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth granted the British East India Company a monopoly on trading in the Far East (China, Japan, India, SE Asia etc.), including control over all things manufactured there.  In the case of China, Opium was already a popular product, so before too long the East India Company began producing Opium (for cheap) in India and shipping it to China, where the Chinese were (at least initially) more than happy to exchange their Tea ( a mind & healthy stimulant) for the much more addictive Opium on offer.

This trade (Opium for Tea) made the East India Company & their shareholders enormously wealthy, even as it turned a sizeable portion of the Chinese population into addicts, leading to death, loss of productivity, & a decline in their importance on the world stage.  When their rulers finally decided to stop things by closing ports such as Canton to Britain, the Brits reacted with threats, intimidation & the use of force.  The Queen sent her fleet of ships to “restore” trade with China, & from 1839 to 1842, the two countries fought a brief war over the issue.

The First Opium War, as this conflict became known, ended with the British actually expanding their reach, recapturing Canton as well as 5 new & additional ports, where they continued forcing the Chinese to bring them tea in exchange for Opium, despite the fact that the Chinese most definitely neither wanted nor needed such quantities of the drug.  By then, of course, Tea had become so popular at home in Britain that the East India Company had no choice but to continue to pursue the trade, under ever more restrictive & oppressive conditions, until 1853, when the Chinese pushed back again, fighting yet another brutal 3-year war with Britain, desperate now for the superior & more refined tea varieties unavailable to them in India, where Tea cultivation was centuries behind China.  Wisely, the Chinese fiercely guarded & protected their Tea plants & seeds, keeping them secret from the British & executing anyone found guilty of revealing any information on Chinese Tea to any European or Non-Chinese.

Which brings us to the book’s real protagonist, an English botanist with the fortuitous name of Robert Fortune.  World-renowned for his knowledge of plants and the many years he spent travelling in China, the British hired him to gather (steal) specimens of Chinese tea plants & their all-important seeds.  Needless to say, not everything went according to plan for Mr. Fortune, & we get to read all about his (mis)adventures in search of Tea throughout the course of this fabulous book – not just an adventure tale of a “legitimate” thief, not just a primer on tea, not just a historical look at the Opium Wars, but a treatise as well on the rise & fall of nations.

An excellent read for anyone interested in plants, drugs, history, travel in the 1800s and what happens when cultures clash, For All the Tea in China gets 5 stars.

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