Plant hunters part 3

30 September 2019 18 minute read

Innovation, individuals and empires striking out.

The Wardian cases - new tech shaping the world

The plant hunters were at the coal face, but it took more than sheer grit and determination to acquire the vast numbers of plants from all the far-flung corners of the globe, they also needed cutting edge technology.

The process of transportation was tough on the seeds and plants. Little to no light, hardly any protection from the elements and all that salty sea spray. Not to mention the ill will of the crew who were resentful of the space taken up by these leafy interlopers on their cramped ships. The result was that a large proportion of the specimens didn’t survive the journey back. Wardian cases changed everything. Not only leading to huge economic success but also success in high stakes espionage between the powers of the time. These were changes that would affect the lives of millions of people.

Such transformative tech had innocuous origins in an accidental discovery.

Back in 1829 the medical practitioner, Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was on the brink of innovation. A keen naturalist, he grew plants in his backyard, but the air was heavily polluted from the factory chimneys near St Katherine’s dock, so very few survived. He stumbled across a solution, one day he noticed a fern and a grass seedling growing in an air-tight jar and he realised they had been protected from the polluted air. This inspired him to invent a glass case to grow ferns and other plants in.

George Loddiges, whose nursery supplied Ward took, the experiment one step further by using the cases on a consignment by ship. He found that, unlike the usual trend of only one in twenty plants surviving the journey, Ward’s case ensured 19 out of 20 survived. This was revolutionary!

One of Dr Ward's correspondents was William Jackson Hooker, later director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Hooker's son Joseph Dalton Hooker was one of the first plant explorers to use the new Wardian cases, when he shipped live plants back to England from New Zealand in 1841, during the pioneering voyage of HMS Erebus that circumnavigated Antarctica.

Soon Wardian cases were being used to carry plants of all sorts from all over the world, medicinal, economic and ornamental.

This safe and boldly innovative way to transport plants was vital for the development of international trade, making it possible to pick up commercially significant plants from their native habitats and introduce them to cultivation for new countries and new markets. Wardian cases were key in helping break geographic monopolies in the production of important agricultural goods.

One of those to try out the new tech and make it work was a Robert Fortune whose daring and ambitious exploits would put both James Bond and Captain Jack Sparrow to shame! At a time when empires competed using the properties of plants, Fortune’s activities created one of those key moments in history that whole country’s fates revolve around. Read on to find out more.

Wardian cases, public domain

Politics, empire and the seeds of globalisation

Do you know that many of our staple food plants today such as potatoes, tomatoes, chillies and tea were introduced to Britain from distant parts of the world and involved all sorts of shenanigans? 

They were taken from one place and dropped in another according to the power play of the time. This shaped the world we inhabit today and the effects continue to ripple out into the future. It not only influences our diet today but the cultures and diets of many other parts of the world. Tea and chillies now so associated with India, were introduced from China and South America and went on to become deeply embedded in Indian culture because of the great political and commercial intrigues of the time.

This is a saga not just about individual adventurers but, politics and business on a grand scale. Of competing Empires. A story that reverberates around and sculpted our current economic and geographic landscape. For example, the rubber tree comes from Brazil where the majority of rubber was produced until Henry Wickham smuggled out seeds which eventually became the powerhouse of rubber production in the Far East. Partly because of this, Brazil barely registers on the world stage of rubber these days. Instead some of its biggest agricultural exports are African oil palm, coffee from Ethiopia, cacao from Colombia and Ecuador, soybeans from China, and sugarcane from Southeast Asia. We don’t usually realise what a topsy-turvy world of plant-based agriculture and economy we have now. And those early pirate adventurers were the ones to set it in motion. 

These early exploits also set the stage for the darker side of empire and exploration. A template was set for low paid or indentured workers on the plantation level. The mark-up of the products made from plantation crops were huge and the profits creamed off with little seen by workers. This was taken to extremes of human depravity through slavery on sugar cane plantations where it was the cheapest form of labour possible and drove the eye watering profits of the sugar magnates. Slavery took hundreds of years to become abolished and modern-day plantations across the world continue using a template created centuries ago, a legacy of misery. Even now rubber plantations across the world employ people called ‘tapers’ to extract the rubber from the trees, they are at the bottom of the educational scale. Many are women, illiteracy is high, pay is low. Childcare and education is rudimentary at best. Working and living conditions can be abysmal. This model is replicated across the world and produce many of our familiar products like coffee beans, tea and cacao for chocolate which are still commercially crucial. 

Tea story

Back to the outrageous exploits of Robert Fortune. According to Sarah Rose who researched and wrote about him, "he was attacked by pirates, he was attacked by bandits, he encountered all kinds of disease and storms, and he also goes in Chinese disguise, dressed up as if he were a wealthy Chinese merchant,"

Unlike many plant hunters who had university degrees and were trained as doctors, Fortune, who was Scottish, grew up poor.  He worked his way up through the ranks of professional botany, learning with hands on training rather than book learning. Perhaps it’s this life experience that later enabled him to achieve what many others tried and failed to do. Fortune began his botanical career at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. In 1843 he was commissioned by the Horticultural Society to travel to China to collect plants. After travelling extensively through China and Japan, he introduced more than 120 species to English gardens. 

A bolshy character, he published a travelogue about his exploits and daring do which caught the imagination of the Victorians. It brought him to the attention of the East India Trading company. At the time they were one of the most important multinational corporations in the world. The company recruited Fortune for his most dangerous escapade yet, smuggling viable tea plants and the closely guarded secrets of tea production from China’s interior, an area forbidden to foreigners.

Fortune was not the first to try this and all previous attempts had failed. His venture required years of toil up China’s rivers by boat to places where no Westerner had gone before, overcoming illness, pirate attacks and untrustworthy associates in the quest for tea seeds and plants that could be grown in India. 
So why all this effort for a bit of tea?

In the mid-19th century, Britain was an almost unchallenged empire. It controlled about a fifth of the world's surface, and yet its weakness had everything to do with tiny leaves soaked in hot water: tea. By 1800, it was easily the most popular drink among Britons.

The problem? All the tea in the world came from China, and Britain couldn't control the quality or the price.

The Chinese government guarded tea very closely (on pain of execution, in fact) because they were well aware how valuable the secrets of tea potentially were for foreigners. The British had difficulty paying for the huge imports they were buying from China (largely tea, back then). The Chinese insisted on being paid only in solid silver which the British had to buy, at high cost, from other western countries. So Britain had a problem balancing its trading account.

The British responded in a number of ways to this difficulty. Growing tea in their Indian colonies didn’t work, largely because of a lack of Chinese expertise. Another – highly immoral – strategy was to grow huge quantities of opium in India to sell to China in exchange for tea. Unsurprisingly the Chinese emperor hated this, because a nation of drug addicts was being created. So the emperor confiscated the opium and destroyed it. The two ‘Opium Wars’ around this period were largely a reaction to these commercial tensions. Gives a whole new meaning to ‘storm in a teacup!’

Quite simply, the East India Company and Britain dreaded the prospect of China cultivating its own opium before it could grow its own tea in India. If that had happened, the East India Company would have gone bankrupt almost overnight. At the end of the day, they realized that if they were going to keep pace with the British tea consumption and not deal with the Chinese, they had to own its production themselves.

This is where Fortune came in. He eagerly accepted the £500 per annum on offer from the East India Company, which was five times his existing salary. He was also granted the commercial rights to any plants he may acquire along the way, which would have been a valuable perk, allowing him to service the lucrative market among England’s aristocratic elite for amateur horticultural collections and exotic gardens. The company was only interested in tea and time was of the essence.

The company wanted really good tea stock from the very best gardens in China, and they also needed experts. They needed the Chinese to go to India to teach the British planters, as well as the Indian gardeners. How could Fortune accomplish this mission impossible?

This is an excerpt from For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favourite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose.

“With [his servant] Wang walking five paces ahead to announce his arrival, Robert Fortune, dressed in his mandarin garb, entered the gates of a green tea factory. Wang began to supplicate frantically. Would the master of the factory allow an inspection from a visitor, an honoured and wise official who had travelled from a far province to see how such glorious tea was made?

The factory superintendent nodded politely and led them into a large building with peeling grey stucco walls.”

By September 1848, Fortune was travelling from Shanghai via Hangzhou to the green-tea regions of Zhejiang and Anhui. It was an arduous three-month trek southwest by river junk, sedan chair and foot, accompanied by two trusty servants, Wang and a man referred to only as “the coolie” in Fortune’s published account of the trip. On their recommendation, Fortune had his hair shaved off, had a faux queue attached to the back of his head and donned the apparel of a local nobleman or wealthy merchant.

“I am Chinese from a distant province beyond the Great Wall,” he would assure local folk in faltering Chinese.

In October, he inspected a green-tea factory, witnessed the enigmatic 2,000-year-old manufacturing process and was able to reveal that local producers were doctoring their product with toxic additives to make it look more attractive for the export market. He explored three other green-tea regions, collecting samples and making copious notes before returning to Shanghai in January 1849. From there he was able to update his paymasters in London by letter.

“I have much pleasure in informing you that I have procured a large supply of seeds and young plants which I trust will get safely to India,” he wrote from the headquarters of Dent & Co, his temporary home in Shanghai.

Fortune had collected 13,000 plants and 10,000 seeds but it was now winter and the fragile and vulnerable tea seeds had to be transported to the upper reaches of the Indian Himalayas via Hong Kong and Calcutta. Although this presented his biggest challenge, Fortune thought he may have a hi-tech solution to the problem: our friend the Wardian case.

He returned to Shanghai later that autumn, only to discover the terrible news from India that just 1,000 of his first batch of seeds had survived the journey and most of those were covered in fungus and mould. An overzealous official had decided to open the Wardian cases to inspect the young plants, so most of those were dead, too.

Undeterred, the botanist decided to experiment with the Wardian case. He wondered whether he could place the seeds in soil inside the case and allow them to germinate and grow en route. The results were highly encouraging and precious black tea seeds were successfully shipped to Indian plantations controlled by the East India Company.

Fortune then oversaw the recruitment of experienced tea growers and producers who would manage production in India. When Fortune left Shanghai for Hong Kong in February 1851, with his mission accomplished, he was accompanied by a team of Fujianese black-tea farmers destined for a new life in the Indian Himalayas.

Besides this, Fortune was the first to determine that black and green tea actually came from the same plant. He also introduced many trees, shrubs and flowers to the West, including varieties of roses, tree peonies and azaleas.

Fortune’s success had a seismic impact on the world stage. According to the Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong, when Fortune embarked on his expedition, the amount of tea in production in China was about 50,000 tons a year, of which 19,000 tonnes was exported. By 1886, the amount of tea produced in China had increased to 250,000 tonnes, with 134,000 tons exported. Tea accounted for 62% of all China’s exports.

The Chinese have been drinking tea for more than 2,000 years, until 170 years ago, the only serious producer and exporter of tea was China.

Chinese tea gardens became deserted after the Dutch and Americans followed Britain’s lead and made their own raids into tea country, to start their own industries. According to the Museum of Tea Ware, by 1949, the amount of tea produced in China had fallen to 41,000 tons, of which 9,000 tons were exported. The nation synonymous with tea had been marginalised and Britain adopted tea as its national drink, albeit polluted with cow’s milk and white sugar.

Production in China did not recover until the 1950s and the nation only recently, over a hundred years later, won back its ranking as the world’s biggest tea exporter.

“It’s an historic moment when the Chinese tea monopoly was broken. Tea changed the role of China on the world stage...The tea trade gave birth to the colonial territory of Hong Kong – tea drove economic expansion of the British empire in the Far East and Britain’s economy became dependent on tea.” Explains tea history author Sarah Rose.

A sad legacy lives on in the lives of the modern-day tea workers.

Today’s workers, most of them women employed as pluckers, are in many cases direct descendants of the bonded labourers brought into the gardens more than 100 years ago. Their living conditions are no better than those of their predecessors. Housed in isolated colonies lost amid the plantations, workers depend upon their employers for almost every kind of service, from food rations and water to health facilities, schools and electricity. They own no property – the houses they inhabit belong to the companies – and whole families can be evicted if a worker retires and no relative takes their place.

In some cases, tea gardens have closed overnight, leaving workers with no wages, food or water. According to local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), more than 2,000 destitute tea workers have died of malnutrition over the past 15 years.

With their endless rows of perfectly trimmed, dark green bushes, punctuated by tropical trees, tea estates exude an air of tranquillity few other plantations can match. Women work silently, plucking the upper, golden green leaves and placing them in net bags hanging from their heads. Managers still dress in Bermuda shorts, in homage to old British customs, and their whitewashed residences wouldn’t look out of place on postcards.

“There are so many tears behind the tea we drink every day,” says Victor Basu, the leader of Dooars Jagron, an association assisting tea workers in West Bengal, from which 25% of Britain’s tea comes from.

Sarah Rose believes that Fortune, "thought of himself as a China expert and a gardener. He didn't see himself as stealing something that didn't belong to him. He thought plants belonged to everybody. The effects of actions carried out a hundred years ago ripple on. 
Wardian cases and other plant hunters surfed and caused many such waves of history that had far reaching effects. Wardian cases meant that seedlings of the rubber tree of Brazil were shipped successfully to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the new British territories in Malaya to start the rubber plantations. 

It meant that cinchona trees from South America could be taken to British colonies in Asia to treat malaria. It meant all the different types of foods, wood, plant material could be transported around the world and created the globalised world we know now. 

All these instances were motivated by political and commercial concerns and for the benefit of imperial ambitions. It’s hard to imagine plants being at the heart of hard-core espionage between countries, as political gambits or as valuable assets like diamonds or crude oil are today, but that is how it was and Wardian cases were an important bit of tech that made it happen. Their legacy is with us every time we go for a soothing wander in our local green spaces. “There is no park in London without a plant that hasn’t travelled in Dr Ward's Case.”

The concluding part of plant hunters will delve deeper into the story of the cinchona tree from which quinine was made. And forwards into the twentieth and twenty first century to current plant hunters who are adventuring from darkness to light and trying to work in non-exploitative ways. Join us for more swash and buckle and a more hopeful future in the final episode.

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