Calcutta known today as Kolkata, is a port city on the east coast of India and was the financial hub of British Imperial India. Less than 500 kilometres north east of this power hub was the jungle region of Assam – an area that was to become the future Imperial tea gardens of the British Empire. The two, Calcutta and Assam, were to become inseparable as producer and exporter of that oh-so-British-commodity, tea.
In the early 1800’s a journey from Assam to Calcutta – a boat trip of some 1,000 kilometres – would take over two months to complete. The mighty Brahmaputra River which flows along the Assam valley, had a notorious reputation with the navigators, and even by 1826 a journey by steamer would still take some two weeks to complete.
Then mid-way through the nineteenth century the discovery and cultivation of the local Indian tea plant dramatically changed the economic, cultural, political, geographic and botanical make up of this secluded valley. Its natural defences of jungle, swamp waters, and fever, created a natural barrier which protected the area for centuries from Indian ruler’s attempts at invasion. The British first ventured into this jungle region to protect its most valuable of Indian jewels – Calcutta and the Presidency of Bengal. Assam and the hill regions had been invaded and pillaged by the Burmese for many years. It wasn’t until the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1825-26, after the British East India Company’s military intervention to protect Bengal occurred, that the Burmese retreated from Assam. The discovery of one of Assam’s secrets, the Indian tea plant and its acceptance by the botanical authorities would be championed by various British officers including: the Bruce brothers – Robert and Charles, Lieutenant Charlton, David Scott, and Major Jenkins. It wasn’t until Christmas Eve 1834, that the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta, through the Governor General of India, announced that the plant growing wild in the Assam valley was indeed the tea plant. This was to change everything!
The Assamese where now stuck between a rock and a hard place. Accept the invasion and occupation by the harsh, cruel Burmese, or accept the rule of the British who would strip the Assam elite of their wealth and land? The choice was made for them by the British. With the discovery of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis Assamica, the jungles of Assam became an Empire tea producing giant, and remained as thus for over 165 years. Throughout the British Empire the name Assam was to become synonymous with tea a perfect brew which went well with a splash of milk and sugar, the perfect colonial cuppa!
These new Empire Tea Gardens were to become the saviour of the British East India Company. Chinese tea exports had become the company’s most profitable cargo but after the British government passed the Charter Act in 1813, it reduced the company’s monopoly over global trade and only gave them a remaining twenty years of monopoly over the Chinese trade. Assam and its tea came along just in time, which allowed the company to divert great quantities of funds, manpower, military might and industrial know how, to create the new Empire tea gardens. The Assamese middle classes, who for centuries had been the administrators in the Ahom kingdom, saw opportunities to work with these new rulers and at the same time create individual wealth and power. Read 18ThirtyFours blog on Maniram Dewan.
The majority of Assamese were seen by the British to be backward in comparison to other colonial subjects. The secluded existence of many Assamese people and their lack of contact with modern European ways put them at a disadvantage. The need for labour and the opening of new railways, roads and better navigation of the Brahmaputra River, laid Assam open to an invasion of migrating workers from various parts of India. This created one of the cruellest aspects of the newly formed Assam tea industry, labour agents. They would seek out vulnerable families in desperate situations around the Indian continent then promise the opportunity of work for their family members, who would be able to send money home to help the family. Add to this famine and drought in various regions of India, and you can see it’s not too hard for these agents to convince families. Today we would probably call it people smuggling!
Hundreds of thousands of people were moved around the Indian continent in this manner, with many not surviving the journey. At various river points barges were filled with these people, packed standing so as to create no movement between them, to be shipped to Assam. Unfortunately, the barge owners were paid for the number getting on the barge and not those getting off at the other end! Loss of life was enormous, and cruel practises rife. Once they had migrated, and were now working in the early tea plantations, contact with their families was completely lost. This influx of migrants was to change the make-up of Assam in many ways. Cultural and religious changes were obvious but these forced changes were to create dramatic conflict between the various groups. The differences between groups has fuelled tensions which have flared up sporadically over the decades.
In the early days, tea gardens were owned and operated by white British owners with very little, if any opportunity for local Assamese or Indian people to own such businesses. This process of introducing European colonisation came about after the premature death of David Scott, Assam’s first colonial administrator. Scott struggled with the conversion of Assam’s economy from a non-monetized economy to a cash economy. Scott believed this could be aided by increasing production of local cash crops like opium, mustard, mulberry and Muga silk. Unfortunately his successor, Colonel Francis Jenkins, did not share Scott’s belief in the local people and preferred the investment to come from British settlers who could become Indian land owners under the new Charter Act of 1833. The land of Assam was to be termed wasteland, which allowed Jenkins to exploit and introduce his colonial tea enterprise. The British East India Company offered incredibly favourable terms to European applicants for land, but harassment and refusals to Indian applicants. An example of this was our good friend Maniram Dewan who after working for the Assam Tea Company resigned in 1845 and attempted to open his own garden. 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, and his land is home to the world’s oldest tea research establishment, the Tocklai Research Station, Jorhat.
This style of feudal management of the tea gardens continued through to Indian Independence and past. Unionization during the 1950’s and 60’s had minimal impact, and Independence had had very little effect on the way Assam’s tea gardens were managed and operated. It wasn’t until the tea industry was forcibly nationalized in the 1970’s that management styles started to change. Unfortunately this seemed to have the adverse effect of depleting the former confidence and profitability of Assam tea gardens. Then, during the 1990’s, competition from new tea producers like Kenya continued to impact Assam’s once assured position in tea markets around the world. Today the Imperial Tea Gardens of the British Empire are owned by private, national and international companies. Assam tea looks towards its future and the production of organic, fair produced teas under initiatives like the Tea Board of India’s “Trustea”, small individual artisan growers producing unique teas including green, black and white tea styles.
The early days of entrepreneurial, experimental, and opportunist young officers who forced the changes which were to create the Imperial Gardens of the British Empire, are long gone. Assam today is a far reach from that jungle bound region that for so long avoided modernity. Its people, its wildlife, its mighty jungles and its identity, has suffered 200 years of dramatic change, to produce its world changing brew which is favoured by many: Assam tea.
If you’ve enjoyed this blog and want to learn more, consider one of 18ThirtyFour’s guided NE Indian Tea Tours, which are conducted in April and October/November
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