A Fortune in the Tea-Leaves

3D front cover of A Journey to the Tea Countries of China by Robert FortuneIt is a truth universally acknowledged (at least by gardeners of my acquaintance) that Euonymus fortunei and its various cultivars have got to be the most boring plants ever to blight the landscape. (Even the thought of the coyly named ‘Emerald’n’Gold’ causes me to cringe.) A pity, because the eponymous Robert Fortune is the least boring person you could imagine, but luckily some of the other plants to which his name is attached – Trachycarpus fortunei (the Chusan palm), a hosta, and the (relatively) dwarf bamboo Pleioblastus fortunei – are somewhat more exciting.

Yet another lowland Scot whose extremely humble origins did not hold him back, Fortune was born at Edrom, Berwickshire, in 1812 (three months after the marriage of his parents, Thomas, described as a ‘hedger’, and Agnes). He started his gardening career on a local estate, but by 1839 had moved on to the Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. He presumably came to the attention of John Lindley at about this time, as his eldest son (born in 1842) was named John Lindley Fortune, and in the same year he was appointed as superintendent of the Chiswick ‘hothouses’ of the Horticultural Society of London (which had been founded by Sir Joseph Banks et al. in 1804).

The following year, he was sent on a plant-finding mission to China, and this determined the course of the rest of his life. The first Opium War (a completely discreditable episode in the history of British colonialism, which caused the young W.E. Gladstone to declare in the House of Commons, ‘… a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with disgrace, I do not know, and I have not read of’) had resulted in a peace treaty which opened up five Chinese ports to western trade, and Fortune was one of the first scientific explorers to take advantage of the opportunity for unaccompanied travel.  He makes the point in Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China (1847) that the famous embassy of Macartney (described by Macartney himself, Sir John Barrow, George Staunton, James Dinwiddie (the astronomer to the party), and Serjeant-Major Samuel Holmes, of the XIth Light Dragoons, bodyguard), and the rather less distinguished one of Lord Amherst, had both travelled widely in the country, but only under the guidance and guard of Chinese officials, and so had had virtually no opportunity of discovering (and writing accurately about) the ‘real China’.

Fortune, by contrast, travelled widely without supervision in the areas he wished to study, and ventured inland to regions theoretically barred to westerners. He got by partly because the Chinese government was unable to enforce the letter of the law over the huge empire: apathy of officials and/or bribery made illicit activity of all sorts, from getting into and out of a walled city at night to wholesale smuggling and piracy, much easier. But Fortune also adopted disguise, wearing Chinese outfits, having his head shaved and ‘grafting’ a genuine Chinese pigtail into his own hair. His features in the few surviving images are not typically Chinese, but he claims to have averted the questions of the curious by claiming that he was ‘from beyond the Great Wall’ – still inside the empire, but territory where all sorts of weird types were known to live. And his disguise was added to by his ability to speak enough Chinese (in more than one dialect) for everyday purposes.

He is disingenuous in all the books, but the reason for the subterfuge was that he was basically involved in industrial espionage. As well as his genuinely scientific missions on behalf of the [later Royal] Horticultural Society, he was also working for the East India Company, obtaining tea seeds and plants which the Company hoped to establish in plantations of their own on the hills of India, thus grasping a share of the immensely lucrative tea trade for themselves. His second book, A Journey to the Tea Countries of China (1852) describes this expedition, and gives much fascinating detail on the tea industry, and especially the various types of toxic adulteration used to meet the demands of the (to the Chinese) bizarre western markets.

His third venture, described in A Residence among the Chinese: Inland, on the Coast, and at Sea (1857) also involved obtaining tea, and recruiting people experienced in cultivating and processing it, who would be willing to emigrate to the foothills of the Himalayas. On this occasion the various journeys were mostly carried out without the need of disguise, so one can only assume that by now either the Chinese government was less concerned for its economic interests, or even less able to prevent his activities.

Fortune is very ambivalent about the Chinese people and their culture: he has great contempt for the rascally and duplicitous inhabitants of Canton [Guangzhou] (who had of course been exposed to western ways for many years), and generally took the view that the further north one went in China, the better the people became. He is at pains to describe the many occasions on which he met with nothing but kindness and helpfulness from the people he encountered, even when he was the first the first ‘foreign devil’ they had ever seen. Similarly, he despises the manifestations of religion he encounters (he classes it all as Buddhism) and regards it as superstition and idol-worship, but has respect for the wisdom and learning of several of the priests who offer him hospitality (though he dismisses many others as apparently imbecile). He sees all around him on his travels the signs of a great empire in terminal decline: most dealings with local officials involve covert or overt bribery; many ancient walled cities, and paved roads, are crumbling and not repaired; the Chinese navy stays in harbour when it should be chasing pirates, leaving the safeguarding of the coastal waters to British, French and American gunboats.

One of the most remarkable features of the later two books is that all the journeys described in them took place during the course of the Tai-ping rebellion, during which over 20 million people are believed to have died. Fortune mentions the rebellion almost in passing; it comes closest to affecting his plans when there is a possibility of revolution in Shanghai, and when he later passes the city he is revolted by the overwhelming stench of the unburied bodies left to rot in the surrounding fields, and the destruction of so many beautiful buildings and prosperous farms. He is firmly of the opinion that the so-called ‘Christian’ leaders of the rebellion are blasphemous and/or completely mad, and that they deserve no support at all from the western nations. Indeed, he comments frequently on the apparent prosperity of the small farmers and merchants among whom he moves, and notes that even the poorest workers appear happy with their lot.

Fortune also travelled to Japan, and the fourth of his books that we have reissued is Yedo and Peking (1863), in which he compares and contrasts the capital cities of Japan and China. All the books are full of detail on the lives of the ‘ordinary Chinese’, and wonderful descriptions of the scenery through which he travels. He was clearly overwhelmed by the beauty of the country and the richness of its plant environment: he enthusiastically records specimens sent to India and on to England in the new-fangled Wardian cases which enabled them to survive on the decks of ships, and speculates on their chances of flourishing in a European climate.

Not completely coincidentally, there is a very good exhibition at the Garden Museum in London on the subject of the plant hunters sent out by the Horticultural Society (including Fortune, of course, but also Ernest Wilson, the Veitches, Reginald Farrer, and Frank Kingdon Ward). One of the items on display is a notebook from the Society’s Chiswick nursery, recording the various attempts at cultivation of the plants sent home by their collectors: the double page at which the ledger is open has ‘failure’ against every one. But this is not of course the whole story: the list of plants introduced by Fortune which are now literally part of the British landscape would fill a plant catalogue by itself.


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