How Theft Changed History

If it is pouring rain and windy out, and hunkering down against “the storm of the century,” what does one chose to read?  Well, my choice was something warming, historical, and well…related to the natural go-to drink in any  crisis situation.  I picked up a fascinating book called “For all the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History” written by Sarah Rose.  It is described as the dramatic story of one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage in history–the tale of the British East India Company’s struggle to break China’s monopoly on the tea trade.  The main perpetrator in this adventure is a Scottish gardener, horticulturist, and plant hunter named Robert Fortune, who goes to China in disguise to collect plants, seeds, and other specimens, in addition to the growing and processing know-how to enable cultivation in British-controlled India.  It is difficult to image a time when China held a proprietary stranglehold on the entire tea industry– a product that had become pervasive in every English dining room.  Tea’s cultivation and processing was such a closely guarded secret that the English did not know that black and green tea came from the same plant (different method of processing).   I was also not aware of the extent to which the 1-in-3 opium addition of the Chinese population at that time could be laid at the feet of the British, which brought it in from their holdings in South Asia as part of a trade balance.  The author’s proposition that the theft of tea and its re-cultivation in India changed the face of history, and she makes some compelling arguments: some involving the opening of China and mass emigration through the coolie slave trade and the development of the Enfield rifle, which brought down the British Raj.  I would recommend this book to those who enjoyed such works as Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel.”  One of the most compelling issues raised by the book was the question of whether British stole, what was then akin to China’s intellectual property–the cultivation and processing of tea.  Could such a “theft” occur in today’s global market? Food (or should I say drink) for thought.

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