Freight History: Corporate Espionage in Early Modern China

 In China, exports, Imports, International Shipping

Tea from China was introduced in Britain as early as the 1600s. It eventually became the national beverage of the British yet they were totally dependent upon foreign tea imports, specifically tea from China to assuage their caffeine addiction.

Chinese TeaMany of us can relate.

My wife drinks tea every morning. If she doesn’t, she gets a nasty, sharp caffeine withdrawal headache by 1pm. Tea is relatively cheap for us and in plentiful supply, though getting the good stuff (like Assam from Harrods) is a bit pricey and comparatively harder to find in the US than in Great Britain.

China is still a leading cultivator, consumer, and exporter of tea today. India is second in tea production and consumption, followed by Kenya and Sri Lanka. Historically however, the Chinese originally had the monopoly on tea cultivation, production, and export.

British merchant vessels were heavily involved in the import of tea to their homeland, racing other sleek British ships back to Britain from the coast of China. They raced to be the first to dock and sell the first tea of the new season in British markets.  Investors and sailors risked much to get their cargo back to Britain first so as to command the highest prices on the light but valuable import.

Read our blog on international shipping and the great tea race of 1866.

Very sensibly, the British started looking for a way to control tea production for themselves. It chaffed them to be at the mercy of the Chinese tea merchants.  They wanted to establish planting and processing tea in their Indian colonies. But to enable successful cultivation and production of the tea leaves they would need a spy, someone who could crack the ancient code of tea preparation. The process was not that intuitive and the Chinese were not about to give away their secrets of tea-leaf preparation.

In 1848, several serious investors from the British East India Company hired a Scot, aptly named Fortune, to spy out the Chinese tea production industry. He was commissioned to investigate every aspect of the product, from cultivation techniques to drying, curing, and fermentation.  They needed to know the details of tea production in order to recreate the Chinese tea plantations and productions on their land holdings in India and break their dependence upon Chinese export of tea.

You might think that making tea is not that complicated–boil water, add dry leaves of plant, steep 4 minutes, and enjoy–but it turns out there is a lot more to it than that. The ancient tea-preparation process involved picking the tea leaves and drying them for no more than a few hours in the sun. The dry leathery leaves were then “cooked”, that is heated in vast pans until the leaves soften and released some of their inner juices. Then the leaves were rolled out on tables to bring their essential oils to the surface and further soften the leaves. Then they are dried again and sorted.

Fortune, disguised in Mandarin robes, made his way through a tea factory, carefully asking questions through an interpreter and taking notes that enabled his employers to recreate the factory in their colonies on the sub-continent.

This single act of corporate espionage was one of the major factors contributing to the establishment of the great shipping corporation, the British East India Company. It also broke the Chinese monopoly on tea import and export to the west.

Smithsonian has a great online article about the British East India Company, Fortune, and the stealing of trade secrets from China called The Great British Tea Heist.

Today, China still produces much of the tea shipped world wide, but tea is an international commodity, being produced and consumed on a large scale in over a dozen countries.

Of course, China produces many products that are shipped internationally for distribution and sale around the world. Universal Cargo Management is here to help you import any product you sell that is made in China.

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  • Rachel

    The history is really interesting..Thank you for sharing!!

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