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

Sunday Post #41: Books and Tea

Sunday Post

I haven’t finished any books this week, but I’ve been making progress on several. After I finished reading Between the World and Me last weekend, I started Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. So far, I like it but I don’t love it. I like Oskar, but I’m still reserving judgment. I don’t really like the sort of postmodern opposition to making sense. It’s like the book is trying and failing to be charming (or worse, deep). But I don’t hate it, and I’ve read a bit too far to quit. Now I want to find out what happens. As Oskar would say, “Anyway.”

I am also progressing slowly through Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. That one is just going to take me a long time. In addition to being extremely long, the pages are big and the print is small. It’s one of those books that would probably be much easier and satisfying to read on Kindle. I don’t think it’s available on Kindle.

One of the things I started in my classes before winter break at school is independent reading. Students can read whatever they like. They figure out how many pages they can read in two hours, and their goal is to read two hours a week, which is a pretty doable proposition for high school students. It’s going very well so far. I give students ten minutes at the beginning of class to read, and I read at the same time. It’s been a nice way to begin class, and I think the students are enjoying it. It’s interesting to see the variety of choices they make. Without my suggestion, some have even picked up rather difficult classics. I only have one student who is chronically forgetting his book.

I found a short article (I think—it may have been an ad) in my last issue of Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine for Jane Austen Tea sold by Simpson & Vail as part of their Literary Teas line. They have so many delicious-looking teas that it was hard to choose, but rather than dear old Aunt Jane’s blend, I opted for their Brontë Sisters Black Tea Blend and their Charles Dickens Black Tea Blend. I had a chance to sample both this weekend, and let me tell you, they were excellent. I will definitely be trying more. I know all you book lovers (and tea lovers) will want to check them out. I want to try the Jane Austen Black Tea Blend for sure, but also the Fyodor Dostoyevsky Black Tea Blend. Perhaps some of the others as well. It’s tough for me to resist teas named after my favorite authors, and Simpson & Vail seems to have picked a lot of them, but I’m not at all sure I’d like a floral-tasting tea. Black tea is pretty much a known quantity. I’m not a big green tea or herbal tea fan, either.

This weekend I also watched It Might Get Loud again. Love watching that film. In all honesty, Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White actually are my three favorite guitarists. There is a really transcendent moment near the end of that film when all three of them play “In My Time of Dying” that I can’t watch without a huge grin on my face.

Right now I’m trying to learn to play guitar again, and as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I realized a dream I’ve had since I was about 16 of owning my very own electric guitar after getting one for Christmas. I have been taking Introduction to Guitar, offered by Berklee College of Music through Coursera. It is mostly a refresher so far, but I have learned a few things. I took a guitar class in high school where I learned most of the basics, and then I took classical guitar in college (one course). I didn’t keep up with it very well for a variety of reasons, but I have a passion for music.

I was also able to catch up a bit on work this weekend as I proctored the SAT for students at school yesterday. My grades and comments for first semester are all done, and I can start grading some of the early assignments I’ve collected for second semester. I have a few things I need to finish up before bed (and Downton Abbey to watch in between). I had the best weekend listening to music, making a batch of soap, and doing logic puzzles. I hope you had a good weekend, too.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme. Image adapted from Patrick on Flickr.