Robert Fortune: a Plant Hunter in the Orient

Watt, Alistair. Robert Fortune : a plant hunter in the Orient. Foreword by Professor David Mabberley. Kew, Richmond, Surrey : Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 2017. XXI-410 p. ISBN : 978-1-84246-619-3.

This is the first full biography of the great Scottish plant collector Robert Fortune, famous for working in China and Japan from 1843 until 1861. This detailed presentation of his life includes an extensive analysis of his travels, botanical and zoological collections and plant introductions, including the first detailed maps of his collecting itineraries in China. The book also explores the little known role that Fortune played in bringing new knowledge of the development of Chinese porcelain, making him relatively wealthy in the process.

Watt reveals that in order for Fortune to travel into the interior of China in search of new garden plants for the (later, Royal) Horticultural Society of London he had to adopt Chinese disguise, as it had been forbidden for Europeans to leave the confines of a few coastal Treaty ports. After the successful first expedition, Fortune made four more journeys to the Far East, including China, Taiwan and Japan in search of horticultural novelties. He succeeded admirably and very many of his discoveries are garden plants today.

Two of his major expeditions were made in the employ of the British East India Company to aid the introduction of the tea industry into India and another expedition was carried out to investigate a possible tea industry in the USA. It has been a commonly accepted theme that Fortune was in some way ‘a tea thief’ and a ‘spy’; the research in this book shows a completely different story. Using much new material Watt sets out to give a full account of how Fortune raised himself from a humble rural background to a prominent position in British botanical society, his explorations in 19th century China and the plants that he introduced into our gardens.

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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