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Maniram Dewan – A Man of Foresight

Maniram Dutta Barua, – know by many as Maniram Dewan, was born on the 17th April 1806. A man of foresight, entrepreneurship, with a love for his King and country, he was also a man who helped with those early steps when Indian tea was in its infancy.

His family had migrated to Assam from Kanauj, Northern India in the 16th century. They were well- educated people who held high office in the courts of the Ahom Kings. His family were Kayasthas (or record-keepers) and with this came nobility and respect under the Ahom King’s reign.

In 1823 Robert Bruce, an ex-British Army officer and businessman, was investigating opportunities in the North Eastern region of India. While in the upper reaches of the Assam Valley, Robert Bruce was offered tea by the chief of a local tribe called the Singpho. This strong native tea known as fanap, interested Bruce and upon being shown the wild tea trees; his interest grew even stronger. Unfortunately Bruce became ill but before he passed away, he was able to give his information about the wild tea trees and the Singpho tribe to his brother Charles Bruce.

Charles contracted the services of Maniram; to facilitate a meeting with the Singpho chief; his brother had talked about. Maniram introduced Charles to BeesaGam, the Singpho chief in 1925, and the beginning’s of his long connection with the establishment of the Assam tea trade began. With his understanding of how the British did business, his education, entrepreneurial skills, and help from Bruce, he was able to climb the ladder of official posts easily and successfully.

At first the British were reluctant to enter into the control of the upper Assam region; initially not understanding the true value of this area and not wanting to get involved in a prolonged vicious conflict that had been raging between Myanmar (Burma) and the Assamese. However the confirmation in 1834 of wild Assam tea plants; growing in these upper reaches changed their minds. Added to this, the difficulties Great Britain were experiencing with the Chinese over trade, the decision to commence tea cultivation in upper Assam was easily made. By 1839 the decision had been a fortuitous one as the first of the Opium Wars with China commenced.

After some disagreement over the re-establishment of a native Assam government, the local king was deposed. Maniram fought vigorously for the rights of his King and country but this unfortunately damaged his reputation and relationship with the British. The need for tea swept all local matters to one side. After this, Maniram resigned from many of his posts, and with them went the privileges. It is said this didn’t daunted him but such a fall from grace must have had some effect on him. Maniram turned to his entrepreneurial skills and with his understanding of how the British machine worked, realising that tea was the industry of the future. He could see how lucrative it could become, but lacked an understanding of its manufacture. This seems to have been the motivation behind Maniram’s taking up employment in 1839 with the first tea company in India; the Assam Tea Company. His position was that of Dewan or land agent, and is where he adopted the name; he was to become known as Maniram Dewan.

In 1845 having acquired the skills needed to successfully cultivate and manufacture tea; he resigned from the Assam Tea Company to open his own tea plantation. This did not go down well with the white; British planters and consecutive obstacles were put in his way in an attempt, to prevent the opening of a native owned plantation. Finally, after a great deal of cost and persistence, Maniram was able to open Cinnamore at Jorhat and Selung in Sibsagar- the first native owned tea gardens in Assam. Today Cinnamore Tea Estate still exists but his land is also home to the world’s oldest tea research establishment, the Tocklai Research Station, Jorhat.

In 1853, Maniram’s frustration took the better of him and he wrote to the British authorities, trying to point out the problems and issues being faced by the local people in Assam. His petition fell on deaf ears, but alerted the British to the discontent, and Maniram was noted as rebellious administrator. Most of India around this time had a simmering under tone of discontent with British rule. Then in May 1857, while Maniram was visiting Kolkata, rebellious unrest broke out in Central and Northern India. Maniram recognised an opportunity and encouraged his dethroned King; Kandarpeswar to rise up in rebellion with help from the sepoys. The sepoy were native Indian soldiers who operated under instruction from the British East India Company. A mutiny by the sepoy in the town of Meerut; spread to various parts of India and became known as the “First War of Indian Independence”. Manirams plot was to create an uprising and to re crown his King during the festival of Durga Puja, but they were betrayed to the British and 30 individuals were arrested. Maniram was identified as a ringleader, and the conspiracy case was heard by Captain Charles Holroyd, the District Officer. The trial was said to be a farce based on hearsay, dubious witnesses and no real hard proof of evidence.

On the 16th February 1858, Maniram – along with a colleague, Peali Barua – was hanged at Jorhat jail. Locals gathered at Manirams property after the hangings to mourn the loss, while the authorities rejoiced. His lands, including two tea gardens, were to be confiscated and auctioned off, as a warning to locals – especially those with entrepreneurial or rebellious ideals. The white British masters were in charge and should not be tested.

Recently a tombstone was erected at the site where Maniram and Barua’s bodies were buried after the hanging. This was arranged by an American lady from Kansas City, who while visiting Cinnamara Tea Estate was shocked that the site lacked a monument. The stories and myths of Maniram Dewan and the rebellions of 1857; have been and will continue to be told; but how many of us consider this man as we enjoy our delicious Indian teas?

Maniram Dewan – 1806 – 1858

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