People of The East India Company


Robert Fortune was a botanist working for The Royal Horticultural Society, who had spent much time in China. Fortune made many excursions to the northern provinces in China and encountered many harrowing adventures along the way. From angry mobs caught up in a xenophobic frenzy, to killer storms in the Yellow Sea, to pirates on the Yangtze River, he managed to survive them all.
He eventfully became proficient enough in speaking Mandarin that he was able wear local dress and move among the populous unnoticed. By shaving his head and adopting a ponytail, this rather stern Scotsman was able to blend in. So well in fact, that he was able to enter the forbidden city of Souchow (now Wuhsien) unchallenged.

Because of Fortune’s past experience in China, the East India Company sent Dr John Forbes to the gardens at Chiswick to talk with Fortune about their plan to export both the tea plants and growing techniques of China to India. Fortune was enlisted by The Company to go to China and bring back as many quality tea plants and seeds as he could; Fortune would also learn as much as he could about tea production from the Chinese. At the time China was the world power in tea production and guarded its secrets fiercely.

Fortunes efforts resulted in the shipment of well over 20,000 plants and seedlings, in Wardian cases, to the Himalayas. Thus was established the tea industry in Darjeeling and how India started its journey to be the tea super power it is today.


Elihu Yale was an official of The East India Company, and benefactor of Yale University. Born in Massachusetts, Elihu Yale was taken to London at the age of three and never returned to America.

In 1671 Yale began working for The East India Company and arrived the following year in Madras. From a fairly low-ranking position he worked his way up by 1687 to become governor of Fort Saint George, The East India Company’s installation at Madras. Elihu Yale returned to England with a sizable fortune. In London he entered the diamond trade, but he devoted a good deal of his time and money to philanthropy.

Yale made his first gift (a donation of 32 books) to the institution in 1713, when it was known as the Collegiate School at Saybrook. Later, in 1718, Cotton Mather wrote to Yale, hinting broadly that the Saybrook school—which had recently moved to New Haven—could be renamed in Yale’s honour in gratitude for another sizable gift.

Yale responded with a gift of more books, a portrait of George I, and a variety of textiles from The East Indies. The gifts were sold in Boston for some £800, and the money was used to construct a building called Yale College in New Haven. By its charter of 1745, the entire institution was named Yale University. Yale was buried at Wrexham in North Wales. On April 5, 1999, the university recognised the 350th anniversary of his birthday.


Sir Stamford Raffles is attributed with the founding of modern Singapore. The East India Company created many ports during their travels to the exotic east – including Singapore, Hong Kong and Mumbai. Captain Francis Light established one of the first ports in 1786 on the Malaysian island of Penang. He even renamed it Prince of Wales Island, a name that stuck for over 80 years! Thirty-three years later, the sultry islands of Singapore became a British Territory under Sir Stamford Raffles – and served as a key trading post along the spice route.


The true origins of Earl Grey tea remained a mystery until recent research in The East India Company archives revealed that the use of orange flavouring with tea was first observed in China in 1793 by Sir George Staunton, a company botanist. He witnessed the Chinese scenting their teas with bitter orange blossoms called Neroli.

Bergamot, commonly used in most Earl Grey tea today, is a subspecies of Citrus Aurentium, or ‘Neroli’, the original flower used in China. Sir Joseph Banks, to whom Staunton reported his findings, experimented with various flavourings, and thus the recipe was devised long before Earl Grey heard of it from Sir Banks, his friend.

Today, we use the original blossom, Neroli, together with Bergamot to create our Staunton Earl Grey, the only blend which can truly be said to authentically contain the original Chinese recipe. The Staunton Earl Grey is a tribute to the man who enabled the western world to experience this fine tea.


It was customary for the East India Company to bring gifts on returning ships for the Sovereign. In 1664, the Company was distressed to find that no provision of a gift for King Charles II had been made. Accordingly, two pounds of tea found on board were presented to the King. Not being familiar with the plant, he gave it to his wife, Queen Catherine of Braganza of Portugal (1638-1705). A lover of tea since her childhood in Portugal, she popularised tea-drinking with the English royal court – where she only was offered a pint of beer when she arrived–, and set a trend for the beverage among the aristocracy of England in the seventeenth century.


Taking Afternoon Tea is a tradition that is often attributed to being ‘invented’ by Anna Maria, Duchess of Bedford. The practice of having a light snack and tea was created to tide over her hunger during the long gap between lunch and dinner. It developed into a social occasion and soon the Duchess was inviting guests to join her for afternoon tea at 5 o’clock. By the 1860s the fashion spread and afternoon teas became elegant affairs.


The East India Company employed England’s first ‘tea lady’. A Mr & Mrs Harris were appointed to look after the Company’s Head Quarters in 1661. Mrs Harris took charge of brewing tea for committee meetings, and thus the custom of tea breaks was born!


During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries piracy was rampant in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. The East India Company hired Captain Kidd to help combat the problem as a “Private Man” and he was given a commission to command a “private man of war”.

Kidd soon recognised that he could make more as a pirate himself and did not confine himself to attacking only pirate ships and competitive foreign vessels. As the legendary Captain Kidd he sailed the high seas, terrorising and looting legitimate traders, as The Crown saw it. Kidd was hanged for piracy and murder in London on May 23, 1701. The sometimes ambiguous nature of “private mans” role is summed up by this quotation: “It was William Kidd’s misfortune to sail the seas as a privateer just when the rules changed and the privateer became an outlaw…”