The Great British Tea Heist and the Beginnings of Darjeeling Tea in India

Edited by: Anushka Bidani 


Tea is one of the most talked about topics in literature. Is it because caffeine addiction and writing (creative or otherwise) are seemingly in trend together? Who knows. Am I sipping on a nice cup of chamomile while writing this? Who knows. But jokes and chamomile aside, humanity’s obsession with caffeine has led to some really interesting adventure bedtime stories. Brazil, the largest exporter of coffee in the world, got its very first coffee seeds when it was stolen by Francesco de Melo Palheta from the French Guiana when he seduced the Governor’s wife and she stole him some of the plant's seeds and hid them inside a flower bouquet during his departure. Coffee seeds came to India in similar fashion when Babadudan, a sufi saint, hid them in his robes whilst returning from Haj where the Arabians had strict rules against selling seeds in order to maintain their monopoly over coffee. The introduction of tea in India and the consequent creation of the Darjeeling tea also had a similar campaign. 



Here, the role of the adventurer was played a British botanist named Robert Fortune and the tea monopolists were the Chinese. The tale takes place in 1843 when the Royal Horticulture society commissions Fortune to go into the interiors of China to not only steal the tea plant samples but also to study and learn the very intricate process of tea manufacturing. For a little bit of context to this British desperation, by this time tea had become a popular drink, especially with the aristocracy. Britain did not have well-developed trade relations with the China. Besides the Chinese were secretive about it and kept the details and nuances of tea horticulture and manufacture. Moreover, buying tea from the nation was becoming increasingly expensive to the point that the British started growing opium in India and started smuggling it into China to raise funds for China’s high demands of silver in exchange for buying tea from them. On top of this, the Portuguese were becoming the main source of tea, who were smuggling the leaves through their colony in Macau. But most of the tea from the Portuguese was not that good in quality since they had their own limitations. So finally, the British decided that they needed to cultivate their own tea. Differing from the coffee heists, the problem was not the availability of tea seeds as the British not only had access but also had been trying to grow tea in India since the 1700s. But it was not up to the mark and they really did not know much about the actual manufacturing process that comes after tea has been grown. 



But then, the First Opium War happened, followed by the treaty that ended it in 1842, The Treaty of Nanking. And it is the result of this treaty that the Royal Horticulture Society of Great Britain commissioned Robert Fortune and paid him to travel to the interiors of China to learn about tea production. 

Wu Si Shan hills, one of the places where tea was manufactured, was an area where foreigners were not allowed. As a result, Robert Fortune disguised himself in the local garb and got himself his own man Friday, Wang. Wang did all the talking for him while Fortune pretended to be an official who wanted to inspect the factory, which in this case, was a green tea factory. Fortune saw the entire 5 step process of tea making. He stayed there for three years. But his heist does not end there. In fact, the second part of his adventure comes after a year of being back home, in 1848, when he takes up employment with British India Tea Company and they send him in again. This time, to steal some good quality Chinese varieties of the tea plants. 

He is said to have smuggled 20,000 tea plants which he got planted in the Darjeeling region. It is also said that he smuggled some Chinese tea plant workers as well to ensure that the right processes were followed and the previous follies in the tea making efforts of the British are not repeated. 



Fortunately for Fortune and the British India Tea Company, the weather in Darjeeling turned out to suit the Chinese tea plants and not only did they grow well but they turned into something rather different from the tea that was originally produced by these plants. It’s quality became quickly recognized and by 1866, the area had 39 nurseries producing tonnes of teas.

Currently, Darjeeling is one of the most popular types of teas in the world, often referred to as the champagne of teas.