Robert Fortune’s Less Well Known US Tea Seed Adventure

by Nigel Melican, Teacraft Ltd

It is now well known, through Sarah Rose’s 2010 book For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire And The Secret Formula For The World’s Favorite Drink And Change History” and the 2001 film “Robert Fortune: The Tea Thief” that Scottish botanist Robert Fortune was commissioned in the 1840s by the Royal Horticultural Society to research the exotic flora of China – and ended up “stealing” from the Chinese tea seed and plants with which the British East India Company established tea growing in Assam.

What is less well known, and is still in some circles disputed, is that he was chartered by the US Government to return to China for a subsequent seed hunting trip in 1858 officially intended to found the US tea industry.  This tea flourished for a while but was abandoned some 50 years later.  Some of the Charleston Tea Farm bushes are likely to be descendants of his seeds.

William Ukers’ notable 1936 work “All About Tea” alludes to his commission by the US Patents Office and the subsequent raising of bushes from these seeds in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee, but neglects to mention the shoddy treatment that Fortune received from his employers on his return.  However, a little digging in the archives turns up a 1971 article in Arnoldia – the journal of the Harvard University Arnold Arboretum – which quotes chapter and verse, letters in the US National Archives, from the US Government to Fortune requesting his assistance and his replies; and the address of the US agent in London who negotiated his recruitment.  He was commissioned, as a seed collecting agent, in the pay of the US Patents Office for 13 months including the duration of his trip to China.  His date of departure was March 4, 1858, and the terms of his employment were a £500 fee plus £700 for expenses, the same terms as agreed previously by the British for him to collect seed for Assam.  This was to be his fourth seed finding expedition to China – and I believe his last.  Fortune reported regularly from China to the US Commissioner of Patents in Washington and dispatched tea seed from Hong Kong to the USA on December 6, 1858.  Further shipments of many cases of tea and other tree seeds novel to the USA followed, the last being on February 19, 1859. A five acre US Experimental and Propagating Garden was set up in Washington under the US Patents Office to receive the seed which produced 26,000 tea plants.

On his return to Scotland from China, Fortune was summarily dismissed by the US Government, who under threat of legal action paid him 6 month’s salary in lieu of notice, and proceeded to eliminate all traces of their connection with him.  The real reason for this unexpected dismissal of Fortune without any credit after playing a key role, and for its subsequent obfuscation by the US Government is now not clear – perhaps departmental economizing, or maybe a fear that the USA would also be accused of plant stealing from China, or that the US Government wanted to distance itself from its collusion with a British agent of the East India Company that was acting as proxy for the British Government in India (at this time the infamous and bloody reprisals were being meted out by the British for the Indian Mutiny of 1867).  We will probably never know the truth – while the series of correspondence between Fortune and the US Patents Commissioner and his agent in London is held in The National Archives in Washington – the letters concerning his dismissal are conspicuously missing.

As Arnoldia comments, “but for the preservation of a number of Fortune’s letters in the National Archives, there would be little direct record of his employment by the (US) Patents Office”.

I find it fascinating that tea so often “gets into the blood”.  In researching this rather murky piece of US tea history I discovered one of Robert Fortune’s living descendants – Jem McDowall, Vice President at Universal Commodities, a New York tea brokering company.  Jem’s family records of Robert’s tea plant hunting deeds are silent about any employment by the US Government and it took him a while to believe what I had discovered.  He later told me “Family papers always regarded the 1858 trip as a commercial transaction for which he did not get paid, let alone get due credit.  I guess it was more of a “contract” than we were led to believe. The whole episode was not a good memory it seems!”

Tea celebrity Bruce Richardson, owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas, provided me a personal anecdote which touches on the story: his wife’s sister and husband once owned a new subdivision home built on the site of Dr Shepard’s original 100 acres of tea planted in Summerville, SC. The first time he visited their home – on Lipton Lane – he found his brother-in-law weed-whacking tea seedlings that were actively sprouting around his swimming pool.  These Summerville plants were related to Fortune’s 1858 collection, and to some of the plants now on Wadmalaw Island.  Furthermore, James H. Rion, Winsboro, S.C., in 1892 wrote: “In the fall of 1859, I received from the Patent Office, Washington, a very tiny tea-plant, which I placed in my flower-garden as a curiosity.  It has grown well, has always been free from any disease, has had full out-door exposure, and attained its present height (5 feet 8 inches) in the year 1865.  It is continually producing healthy seedlings. This shows that the plant finds itself entirely at home where it is growing. There cannot be the least doubt but that the tea-plant will flourish in South Carolina.”

The whole Robert Fortune episode appears to show the US Government in rather poor light and adds yet another lost opportunity for US tea growing – a chapter of lost opportunities that stretch from Andre Michaux in 1795 to Colonel August C Tyler’s American Tea Growing company in 1903.  We sincerely hope the US League of Tea Growers will learn from the lessons of history – as George Santayana said – those who do not are doomed to repeat it.



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