Review: For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, Sarah Rose

Review: For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, Sarah RoseFor All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose
Published by Penguin Books ISBN: 0143118749
on February 22, 2011
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 259
Format: E-Book
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four-stars

"If ever there was a book to read in the company of a nice cuppa, this is it." -The Washington Post

In the dramatic story of one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage ever committed, Sarah Rose recounts the fascinating, unlikely circumstances surrounding a turning point in economic history. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the British East India Company faced the loss of its monopoly on the fantastically lucrative tea trade with China, forcing it to make the drastic decision of sending Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to steal the crop from deep within China and bring it back to British plantations in India. Fortune's danger-filled odyssey, magnificently recounted here, reads like adventure fiction, revealing a long-forgotten chapter of the past and the wondrous origins of a seemingly ordinary beverage.

More than a history of the British East India Company’s dominance in the tea trade, this book is really about how one man, Robert Fortune, managed to steal tea plants, seeds, secrets, and expert growers and transplant all of them to India so that Britain could wriggle out of trading with China for tea. In order to accomplish this feat, Robert Fortune committed what Rose describes as “the greatest theft of protected trade secrets the world has ever known.”

It’s an interesting story, and at the heart of it is British racism—their feelings of superiority to the Chinese from whom they stole the tea and the Indians they subjugated to help grow it in India are certainly familiar to anyone with a passing understanding of British colonial history. This act of espionage contributed in many ways, great and small, to the world around us today, and in some degree, we may owe everything from Indian independence to Chinese communism in part to Robert Fortune’s theft of Chinese tea.

Among several interesting things I learned:

  • The British East India Company basically “ruled” India until the Indian Rebellion of 1857. If I were a student in British schools, I might have learned this information in school, but since I went to American schools, I suppose it was not deemed important. Truthfully, most of the “world history” I learned was ancient history, and I learned very little about the last few hundred years in those courses. It blows my mind that a company, even one as large as the British East India Company, ruled a country.
  • In large part, the insensitivity of the British East India Company in using beef tallow and pork fat as a lubricant in the Enfield P-53 rifle, offending both Hindu and Muslim Indians, was one of the leading causes of the Indian Rebellion.
  • Wardian Cases were small “greenhouses” Robert Fortune used to transport tea plants. They actually worked pretty well, and the cases, along with Fortune’s idea to plant a few of the seeds rather than ship them unplanted, allowed them to germinate successfully.
  • There are some teas, like Da Hong Pao, that are more valuable than gold in terms of cost per ounce. Da Hong Pao costs thousands of dollars per ounce.

Rose mentions in her “Notes” that because “this is a work of popular history, not a scholarly undertaking, I have avoided the use of footnotes and tried to steer clear of mentioning sources in the body of the text.” I think this was a mistake on her part, and it’s one of the major reasons the book doesn’t earn more than four stars, for though it was entertaining, nonfiction should provide this sort of information to its readers, even popular nonfiction. And much popular nonfiction does. On the other hand, it’s the kind of popular fiction I like to read: narrow in its focus on one person’s impact on the history of the tea trade.

four-stars
Musing Mondays

Musing Mondays: December 12, 2011

Musing MondaysThis week’s musing [borrowed from an old BTT post] asks…

I once knew a man who read about WWII. He read everything he could get his hands on on the subject. He had a whole wall of books that were all about WWII. It amazed me. How could he continue to find one subject that engrossing? My mother, on the other hand, loves to read best sellers. I’ve known other people who read science fiction to the exclusion of everything else; for others it was philosophy, self-help, or history.

So, to the questions…

What kind of books do you like to read?
Why? Provide specific examples.

I consider myself more eclectic than the average reader, but my staple is historical fiction. I love history. It’s exciting to see my younger daughter turning into a history buff. My older daughter does not like historical fiction; she prefers contemporary fiction or manga. I remember how floored I was when she told me she didn’t like [amazon_link id=”0547550294″ target=”_blank” ]The Witch of Blackbird Pond[/amazon_link]. Granted, she read it for school instead of for pleasure, like I did when I read it, but I have enjoyed books I read for school, and the requirement to read it does not necessarily preclude enjoying it.

I have read 22 historical fiction books this year out of a total of 47 books. I would say that statistic more than any other shows my interest. I like to read about a variety of history periods, but one period I’m not much interested in is World War II. I know what you’re thinking: why? It’s an endlessly fascinating time period, and I get that. I happen to be more interested in Medieval, Renaissance, Restoration, Georgian, and Victorian England (so roughly 500-1900 A. D.), but I occasionally like Edwardian England, too. I have recently developed an interested in Revolutionary and Napoleonic-era France. Pretty narrow, interests, I suppose. In terms of American historical fiction, I like the Colonial era, the Revolutionary era, and the Civil War, but that’s about it.

I can’t say I have a weakness for any particular genre aside from historical fiction. I find it to be a fun way to learn more about history, and I myself have enjoyed the challenge of the research when writing it.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

I am not generally a big reader of biographies or nonfiction of any stripe, aside from professional reading, but I became interested in Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, after seeing the movie based on this book: The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is not quite like the movie, but one would expect moviemakers to take certain license with with truth in the interest of narrative. The true Georgiana who emerges from the pages of this biography is at one less sympathetic and also more interesting and genuine than the character played by Keira Knightley.

I admit I really don’t know much about British politics. Much of this biography is devoted to Georgiana’s work on behalf of the Whigs. She had several friends who were prominent in the party and used her influence to help them get elected: Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Charles Grey (1st Earl Grey). In a time when women did not wield much power, Georgiana influenced politics more than many men did. The realm of fashion, she reigned supreme.

More attention is given to Georgiana’s gambling addiction in this biography than in the movie. She borrowed money from many of her friends with promises of repayment that she rarely fulfilled. I have to admit this part of her personality was maddening to read about. The pain it caused her was acute, and it hurt her relations with her husband and friends, but she seemed unable to control it.

Lady Bess Foster, the friend who “steals” the Duke of Devonshire from Georgiana in the movie, comes off considerably less sympathetically and much more conniving in this biography. No doubt Georgiana valued her friendship, but Foreman’s depiction of her character leads the reader to believe Georgiana’s judgment in the matter to be sincerely flawed. In contrast, the Duke of Devonshire is not quite the villain he’s painted in the film.

Foreman includes the Cavendish and Spencer family trees, but I found myself wishing there was a glossary of characters, as so many similar names made it difficult for me to keep up with some of the people mentioned in the book. To Foreman’s credit, she did as much as she could to prevent confusion through repetition and extensive notes. It is clear that this biography was painstakingly researched. Foreman allows the people in the biography to speak for themselves as much as she can through primary source documents quoted extensively throughout the entire book.

If you watched the film The Duchess, you haven’t met the real Georgiana yet. The figure that emerges from the pages of Foreman’s biography is at once more compelling and more intriguing than the film hinted.