The More Things Change…

Tea Book

I enjoy reading books about the time periods that are at least a few generations back. When I’m reading fiction, I really like fiction that was written a long time ago. When I’m reading non-fiction, I like reading books about historical people and events. One of the main appeals to me is not all of the differences in the people and the times, but all of the similarities. I think that because of the rapid innovation that we’ve had recently we tend to write off people from 100 or 200 or 500 years ago as completely different than us. Most of the time that’s not really the case.

Most people have the same primary concerns regardless of generation – finding a good job, pleasing their parents, falling in love, buying a nice house, etc etc. We also all do the same things for fun – reading, having drinks with friends, going to the movies (or plays), and watching and playing sports. Businesses are the same, they were trying to be as profitable as possible in 1800 just as they are in 2011.

I just finished reading For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose. The book is about Robert Fortune, an English botanist who worked for the East India Tea Company and was commissioned to go undercover in China and “steal” the secrets for successful tea making. At that time, England secured their tea via trade with China, and China secured their opium via trade with England. After several wars (remember the Opium Wars from history class?) they were looking to break their reliance on China and bring tea to British-controlled India, an ideal climate for tea growing. The majority of the book comes directly from Fortune’s copious notes.

Fortune was eventually successful. The technology that made this possible, the Wardian case (the precursor to what is now known as a terrarium) was invented only a few years prior to Fortune departing. The case allows for plants to survive long trips by enclosing them in an air-tight case, persevering an entire ecosystem. The problem that Fortune encountered was that not every botanist in the East India Company was aware of this discovery. Hugh Falconer, a veteran botanist, was the “superintendent” of the cases once they arrived in India and, knowing of the Wardian case and having a complete understanding of what Fortune was doing, he instructed other botanists along the way to not open the cases. Of course, another botanist, William Jameson was unaware of the latest science, opened the cases, destroyed the shipments wasting over a year of Fortune’s work, and then proceeded to blame everyone else in the chain for being at fault in a series of letters to management.

This is my favorite paragraph in the entire book:

Falconer simply responded by forwarding Jameson a scientific article on Wardian cases and how they worked. He copied it to Jameson’s superiors in the North-West Provinces, the the Revenue department of India at Calcutta, and to Royle at East India House in London. Even Fortune received forwarded copies of the Jameson/Falconer correspondence. Practically every man in the chain of command bore witness to the conflict between the two rival gardeners in India.

I got a good laugh out of that. Sounds like the exact same type of corporate politics that goes on today. If they just had email the whole thing could have been done in a matter of hours instead of months. CC the entire organization, include a link or attach a PDF with the supporting research, and you’re done. Happens all the time right? I know I’ve seen it happen. That was in 1849. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

5 comments on The More Things Change…

  1. Dale says:

    Ha… I guess one thing stays the same. We’re all still human.

  2. Tim says:

    Very true that humans have been and most likely will continue to behave relatively in the same fashion. As you well know my favorite author is Alexandre Dumas, he is a 19th century French author who specializes in historical fiction and adventure. His two most famous works depict periods of time earlier then they were written, “The Count of Monte Cristo” takes place from 1815-1838 but was written from 1844-1846 while this is more fiction and adventure then some of his other work there are very significant historical events that tie the story together. An interesting parallel that really changes most readers perception of this piece is that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 (the same year the American civil war ended), so it gives you a sense of where the USA was in a similar period. His more expansive and historical piece “The d’Artagnan Romances” took place from 1625-1673 and were written from 1844-1850 (with many lengthy breaks in between). In any case the point of this is that one of the items that really drew me into these stories were the parallels modern life has to life in 17th century France. As far as we have come, the goals and values of life as a whole are very similar. In particular in the case of “The Count of Monte Cristo” with some very clever updates that story could have been written last year and it would still be as relevant and brilliant. The historical aspects of “d’Artagnan” would be more difficult to transfer directly, but Dumas very interesting interpretation of that history is part of the allure to the 2700’ish page monster.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Good stuff Tim. I’ve definitely had Dumas on my Amazon Wish List for a while…eventually I’ll get to it.

  3. Rob says:

    A note on the case – “Do Not Open” or perhaps a lock would have saved a year’s work. Never assume any specific knowledge when dealing with a large workforce.

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