Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fortune, Robert

FORTUNE, ROBERT (1813–1880), traveller and botanist, was born at Kelloe in the parish of Edrom, Berwickshire, 16 Sept. 1813. After education in the parish school and apprenticeship in local gardens, he entered the Edinburgh Botanical Garden, and became subsequently superintendent of the indoor-plant department in the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Chiswick. In 1842 he was sent as collector to the society to China. He visited Java on his way out in 1843 and Manilla in 1845, returning to England in 1846 after many adventures from shipwreck, pirates, hostile natives, and fever. He entered the city of Loo-chow, then closed to Europeans, disguised as a Chinaman. Among the many beautiful and interesting plants which he then sent home were the double yellow rose and the fan-palm (Chamærops Fortunei) that bear his name, the Japanese anemone, many varieties of the tree-peonies, long cultivated in North China, the kumquat (Citrus japonica), Weigela rosea, and Dicentra spectabilis, besides various azaleas and chrysanthemums. He was appointed curator of the Chelsea Botanical Garden, but had to resign in 1848 on his return to China to collect plants and seeds of the tea-shrub on behalf of the East India Company. In 1847 he published ‘Three Years' Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China, including a Visit to the Tea, Silk, and Cotton Countries, with an Account of the Agriculture and Horticulture of the Chinese.’ In 1851 he successfully introduced two thousand plants and seventeen thousand sprouting seeds of the tea into the north-west provinces of India, as described in his ‘Report upon the Tea Plantations in the North-west Provinces,’ London, 1851, 8vo; ‘A Journey to the Tea Countries of China,’ London, 1852, 8vo; and ‘Two Visits to the Tea Countries of China and the British Plantations in the Himalayas,’ London, 1853, 2 vols. 8vo. In 1853 he visited Formosa and described the manufacture of rice-paper carried on there, and about the same time paid several visits to Japan, whence he introduced the variegated China-rose (Kerria japonica), Aucuba japonica, Lilium auratum, and the golden larch (Larix Kæmpferi), with many other species now widely known in our gardens. In 1857 he published ‘A Residence among the Chinese,’ describing the culture of the silkworm, and in the same year was commissioned to collect tea-shrubs and other plants in China and Japan on behalf of the United States government. The story of this journey was told in his last work, ‘Yeddo and Peking,’ London, 1863, 8vo, written after his retirement, when he engaged for a time in farming in Scotland. He died at Gilston Road, South Kensington, 13 April 1880.

[Gardener's Chronicle, 1880, i. 487; Garden, 1880, xvii. 356; Cottage Gardener, xix. 192.]

G. S. B.