The movies tend to portray scientists as naïve fools/hapless pawns or villains. There is a little bit of truth in these portrayals, at least for the villains, as Sarah Rose’s new book about Robert Fortune, For All the Tea in China, makes clear.
Previewed in an article by Jenara Nerenberg on Fast Company, the book lays out the means by which the British government got its hands on the tea plant and secret to producing to tea. From the article,
Sarah Rose is the author of For All the Tea in China, which tells the true story of how tea and industrial espionage fueled the great expansion of the British Empire and the East India Company in the 1800s. The book focuses on one central character, Robert Fortune, who was a scientist sent by the British government to literally steal the secret of tea production from China, plant the Chinese tea in Darjeeling, and thus make the British Empire less reliant on trade with the Chinese and more self-sufficient by harvesting its own tea in colonial India.
Rose, in response to a question about contemporary as opposed to 19th century industrial espionage had this to say (from the article),
The vast majority the microchips for computers in America are manufactured in China–including those for the U.S. military. This creates a ridiculously high risk of espionage. Those circuits are just too small for us to know how really bad it might be, but from what I understand from the defense and trade communities, it’s a top worry. Meanwhile, the US’s relationship with China is thoroughly interdependent, as was Britain’s in the 19th Century. China owns a lot of our debt, so it loans us the money to buy the stuff China needs to export as it manufactures its way out of the poverty cycle. The two countries don’t necessarily like each other, but they need each other. When each player is so suspicious, it multiplies the competitive advantages of espionage and secrecy.
Most of the article is about tea and Robert Fortune who apparently dressed up as a Chinese Mandarin and fought off pirates in his pursuit of the plant. The focus for the book is on an adventure story and I haven’t seen any mention yet of the ramifications this theft might have had on China’s (nor for that matter India’s) economy and subsequent history.
The Wikipedia essay on Robert Fortune offers a far less colourful story,
Robert Fortune (16 September 1812 – 13 April 1880) was a Scottish botanist and traveller best known for introducing tea plants from China to India.
While the essay goes on to mention his exploits and makes it clear that he obtained the tea plants illegally, it stops short of accusing the British government and Fortune of theft and industrial espionage.
If you’re interested in Rose’s book, there’s a video trailer where she describes the story,
There’s more at Rose’s website.
This all reminds me of a course about technology transfer taught by Pat Howard (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada). We spent a fair amount of time talking about agriculture and seeds which surprised me mightily as I expected to be talking about computers and stuff.
Amongst other tasty tidbits, Pat mentioned that the Dutch burned out islands they didn’t own so they could destroy specific species of plants and retain control of the trade in spices that grew in their own territories.