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Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, Where Robert Fortune Began His Career
Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, Where Robert Fortune Began His Career

Robert Fortune lived from 12 September 1812 to 13 April 1880. He was a botanist and plant collector best known for breaking the Chinese tea monopoly when he smuggled large numbers of tea plants from China to India. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Robert Fortune was born at Kello near Duns in the Scottish Borders. He began work at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh before later taking up a post at the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Chiswick in London. Following the imposition by the British on China of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, Fortune was sent to China to collect new plant species for the RHS.

In 1848, working on behalf of the RHS and the British East India Company, he set out to acquire a large enough collection of tea plants to grow the plant commercially in India, something that has been shown to be possible in the 1830s by fellow Scot, Hugh Falconer. Tea was vital to the Chinese economy, and the Chinese tea monopoly was jealously guarded. The penalty for anyone caught trying to smuggle tea plants out of the country was death. Fortune nonetheless managed to get a large number of tea plants onto a junk purchased by the British East India Company for the purpose. The result, after grafting and propagation at the RHS in London, was the plantation of 20,000 tea plants in the Darjeeling region of India. This represented the beginnings of an industry hugely important to both India and Sri Lanka: and the collapse of the equally important Chinese tea industry.

Fortune later spend time in Formosa and Japan. Amongst the plants introduced to the west as a result of his travels were the kumquat, as well as many varieties of tree peonies, azaleas, roses and chrysanthemums. Robert Fortune died in London in 1880.

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