Robert Fortune

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Robert Fortune
Born(1812-09-16)September 16, 1812
Kelloe, Berwickshire, Scotland
DiedApril 13, 1880(1880-04-13) (aged 67)

Robert Fortune (16 September 1812 – 13 April 1880)[1][2] was a Scottish botanist, plant hunter and traveller, best known for stealing tea plants from China in the employment of the British East India Company.


Fortune was born at Kelloe, Berwickshire. After completing his apprenticeship he was then employed at Moredun House, just to the south of Edinburgh, before then moving on to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. In 1840 he and his family moved to London to take up a position at the Horticultural Society of London's garden at Chiswick. Following the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, in early 1843 he was commissioned by the H.S. to undertake a three year plant collection expedition to southern China.

His travels resulted in the introduction to Europe, Australia and the USA of many new, exotic, beautiful flowers and plants. His most famous accomplishment was the successful stealing of Chinese tea plants (Camellia sinensis) from China to India in 1848 on behalf of the British East India Company. In total, Fortune stayed in China for about two and a half years, from 1848 to 1851.

The remote Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province, one of the important tea regions to which Fortune travelled

Similar to other European travellers of the period, such as Walter Medhurst, Fortune disguised himself as a Chinese merchant during several, but not all, of his journeys beyond the newly established treaty port areas. Not only was Fortune's purchase of tea plants forbidden by the Chinese government of the time, but his travels were also beyond the allowable day's journey from the European treaty ports. Fortune travelled to some areas of China that had seldom been visited by Europeans, including remote areas of Fujian, Guangdong, and Jiangsu provinces.

Fortune employed many different means to steal tea plants and seedlings, property of the Chinese empire. He is also known for his use of Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward's portable Wardian cases to sustain the plants. Using these small greenhouses, Fortune introduced 20,000 tea plants and seedlings to the Darjeeling region of India. He also illegally brought a group of trained Chinese tea workers who would facilitate the production of tea leaves. With the exception of a few plants which survived in established Indian gardens, most of the Chinese tea plants Fortune introduced to India perished. The other reason for the failure in India was that the British preference and fashion was for a strong dark tea brew, which was best made from the local Assam subspecies and not the selection that Fortune had made in China. Camellia sinensis var. assamica. The technology and knowledge that was brought over from China, however, may have been instrumental in the later flourishing of the Indian tea industry.[3] [4]

In subsequent journeys he visited Formosa (modern day Taiwan) and Japan, and described the culture of the silkworm and the manufacture of rice. He introduced many trees, shrubs and flowers to the West, including the cumquat, a climbing double yellow rose ('Fortune's Double Yellow' (syn. Gold of Ophir) which proved a failure in England's climate) and many varieties of tree peonies, azaleas and chrysanthemums. A climbing white rose that he brought back from China in 1850, believed to be a natural cross between Rosa laevigata and R. banksiae, was dubbed R. fortuniana (syn. R. fortuneana) in his honor. This rose, too, proved a failure in England, preferring warmer climates. Today, both of these roses are still widely grown by antique rose fanciers in mild winter regions. Rosa fortuniana also serves as a valuable rootstock in Australia and the southern regions of the United States.

The incidents of his travels were related in a succession of books. He died in London in 1880, and is buried in Brompton Cemetery.


Fortune is credited with the introduction of a large number of plants, shrubs, and trees to Europe from China.[5]

Plants named after Robert Fortune



  • For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History. By Sarah Rose. Viking: 2010. ISBN 0670021520
  • Robert Fortune, A Plant Hunter in the Orient. By Alistair Watt. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: 2017. ISBN 1842466194


  1. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Fortune, Robert" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ "Ten Things…You Never Knew About The Scottish." Britain 79.5 (2011): 98. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
  3. ^ Fan, Fa-ti (2004), British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 82–3.
  4. ^ Cox, EM (1945), Plant-hunting in China: A History of Botanical Exploration in China and the Tibetan Marches, London: Scientific Book Guild, p. 89.
  5. ^ Bretschneider, Emil (1935), History of European botanical discoveries in China, Leipzig: KF Koehlers antiquarium.
  6. ^ IPNI.  Fortune.

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