Historical Thieves of the Tea World

In Sarah Rose’s For All the Tea in China, readers are introduced to Robert Fortune, a self-taught botanist hired by the British government to infiltrate China and retrieve tea seedlings and information in order to grow it in British India. One of the books Rose sources information from is The Great Tea Venture, and it’s here that I first started learning about other Robert Fortune-like figures in history.

This post will focus on general summaries of a few Tea Thieves through history (that is, figures who specifically stole or smuggled tea seeds, plants, information and workers from one country in order to start tea production in another country). I’d like to write full posts on each of them eventually. At the moment this list is short, and not exhaustive; I suspect I’ll find more in time. Not included here are figures such as the buddhist Eisai, who brought back tea seeds to Japan. Whether or not China approved of his actions, I guess, are lost to time.

I’d like to expand on a later date to cover figures such as Eisai and the monks before him, Kūkai and Saichō. Other interesting figures include the French missionaries who introduced large-scale tea production in Vietnam, and the rise of tea export in Taiwan following the Opium Wars (involving figures such as Ke Chao pre-Opium Wars, and John Todd post-Wars). And I’m sure there’s a story behind Russia’s tea-growing industry, but I have yet to find much in English.

A lot of this post was written based on google-autotranslated works and webpages, so I apologize in advance for misspellings, misinformation, and misunderstandings, and am open to any additional information or corrections.

Robert Fortune

Robert Fortune

“How England stole the world’s favourite drink and changed history.” Robert Fortune is a well-established figure most people learn about pretty early on when looking into tea.  Sarah Rose does a pretty good job covering his history, although filling in some of the blanks with conjecture. On top of that, Robert Fortune wrote his own books on his experiences in China.

Born in Scotland, 1813, Fortune was a self-trained botanist that came under the employ of the Edinburgh Botanical Garden and later the Royal Horticultural Society. He was known to have traveled to China for botanical specimens prior to his more famous trips, and at the behest of the East India Company, he trekked again into China’s interior to illegally procure live tea specimens, knowledge, and workmen. The end goal was to grow and manufacture tea in British India.

He also made trips to Taiwan and Japan to further collect different plants, and has lent his name to many botanical classifications and forewords, as well as written and published five of his own works detailing his travels.

Like Jacobson, he clashed with his superiors a number of times concerning credit and proper treatment of the collected specimens. Sarah Rose includes a number of his correspondents, which are rife with snippy, Victorian passive aggressiveness.

His own publications are worth a read, and easy to obtain as they’re in the public domain.

Jacobus Jacobson

Originally born Jacob Izaac (Levy) Levien Jacobson, in Rotterdam, 1799. He later changed his Jewish first names to the Christian names Jacobus Isidorus Lodewijk, and later began publishing under J. I. L. L. Jacobson, obscuring his full surname (‘Levien Jacobson’).

I first learned about him when he was mentioned in The Great Tea Venture as a precursor figure to Robert Fortune. Beginning in 1827, he made a series of trips to China on behalf of the NHM, or Netherlands Trading Society. The intent was to bring back seedlings, knowledge, and workers in order to grow tea in Java, which was under Dutch control at the time. Much like Fortune, he made multiple illegal trips into the interior of China to gain knowledge; during his sixth trip, he brought back over seven million seeds, and a dozen Chinese workmen.

Although not a botanist by trade, Jacobson was a professional tea taster, taking after his father, a coffee and tea broker. He was appointed the Tea Expert for Java and China, and there are a number of Dutch language books written on, and by him.

He was definitely an interesting person to research; I had to rely quite a bit on Dutch webpages google could translate for me, and parse the gist from it. I found a number of books, but google translate wouldn’t touch those.

Mohammad Mirza

Mohammad Mirza

Prince Mohammad Mirza was Iran’s ambassador to British India in 1890. He is credited under a few names (Mohammad Mirza Kashfas Saltaneh, Kashef Al Saltaneh, fully Mohammed Khan Qajar Ghadlova Kashfas Saltaneh), and in Lahijan, is considered the Iranian Father of Tea.

I was only recently introduced to him by a passing mention in the World Atlas of Tea. Finding English sources has been an adventure, and I again mostly relied on google translate. Many sources only list him under one name, making everything more confusing (especially to cross-reference).

Born in 1865 (1244 SH), the eldest son of Asadullah Mirza Naybalayal, in his early years he was schooled in Arabic literature, Persian, French and the sciences. At sixteen, he was recruited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he worked as a secretary; it was here that he came to be in Paris, where he learned law, and was promoted as a deputy of the embassy.

He was eventually appointed the Iranian Consulate General in India, and learned English while staying in Karbala. At the time, the British had posed a ban on teaching anyone from the Eastern countries about tea cultivation, and it was here that Mohammed used his language skills to pose as a French businessman and later labourer in order to learn the secrets of tea cultivation and production. His diplomatic immunity allowed him to smuggle samples home without incident. These were planted in Lahijan, becoming the birthplace of tea growing in Iran.

This is more of an introduction to each of these figures than anything else. I’d like to write fuller articles on Jacobus Jacobson and Mohammad Mirza in the future. Robert Fortune has many works on him already (in English at least), so that I feel there isn’t much more I can contribute.

Proper sources will be included in the longer posts, if I ever get around to them.


  1. Great. I can’t wait to read more about that.
    For the Dutch part, I can help a little but I think @bram could do much better.

Leave a Reply