Among the three principal not-intoxicating beverages of the World, Coffee, Cocoa and Tea, the last is the most ancient and has an oriental genesis. The origin of Tea goes back beyond recorded human history to the realm of the fabulous and the fonciful China, the first tea drinking nation in the World, credits its discovery as far back as 2737 B.C., to the mythical Emperor Shen Nung who ruled China for 120 years. According to popular legends, Shen Nung was boiling water when few leaves from branches being used as firewood fell into a vessel and gave a unique flavour to the water. Those were tea leaves ! Another, Chinese legend puts the discovery of tea around 300 – 221 B.C. A herbalist of that period, with knowledge of 84,000 medicinal herbs, could teach his son about only 62,000 of these before he died. Knowledge of the remaining 22,000 plants was almost lost, but wonder of wonders, a plant that contained in itself the virtues of these 22,000 plants grew upon his grave. This plant as the legend goes – was Tea.
Japanese mythology ascribes tea’s origin to an Indian ascetic called Bodhidharma or Daruma as he is known in Japan.
Founder of the Dhyan (Meditation) or Zensect of Buddhism, Daruma once fell asleep during meditation. Being angered by his failure he tore off his Eyelids, and to his surprise, a strange tea plant with unique characteristics grew from his Eyelids – this plant killed sleep – it was Tea !
Legends are legends, these apart all evidence show that of Tea drinking existed in China in 6 B.C. basically as medicine.
The first commercial cultivation was in China and thereafter since the early ages the Chinese, through far reaching changes in their cultivation pattern, brought about a transformation in the brew. This caught the fancy of the rest of the world.
With the passage of time other neighbours of China such as Japan, South East Asian Countries, Mongolia, Tibet etc. picked up the tea drinking habit. Overland routes carried the knowledge of tea to the Middle East. The Western Nations become acquainted with the brew only in the 17th Century as European merchants through the oceanic routes carried tea, thus putting it on the world map.
Till the beginning of the 19th Century, China remained the only Tea Exporting Country of the World. The Dutch who held monopoly in the Sea routes were outcompeted by the British merchants of the East India Company. The British initially never really wanted to establish Tea locally in places such as India, due to an easy barter system of the Far Eastern Trade. However, in the second half of the 18th Century with Chinese demanding silver currency and due to political changes in China itself, there was a growing discontent between British and the Chinese traders. This forced the East India Company to look for new areas such as India to grow Tea.
In 1774, a shipload of tea seeds was brought from China to India and experimental planting was started in Calcutta. In 1778, the East India Company requested Sir Joseph Banks to prepare a feasibility report and as per his suggestion, experimental planting took place between the 26th and 30th parallels of latitude. But only as late of 1793 did the East India Company take steps to plant Tea in a Private Botanical Garden of Colonel Robert Kyd at Sibpur, Calcutta.
But the greatest impetus came from the ‘discovery’ of indigeneous tea plants growing in the wilderness of Assam in the North Eastern part of India. From time immemorial native tribes of that region, such as the Singphos and Khamtis, were acquainted with the bush, and drank a brew from its leaves. The first European to have seen an Assamese tea bush was a Scot named Robert Bruce, who had made several trips to interior Assam in search of trade. In 1823 Bruce was at Rangpur, the Ahom capital in Upper Assam where he learnt of the existence of indigeneous Assam tea from a native nobleman, Maniram Dutta Baruah, also known a Maniram Dewan. Maniram put Bruce in touch with a friendly Singpho Chief, Beesa Gam, and the Scotsman entered into an agreement with the Chief for supply of tea seeds and plants.
Robert Bruce, unfortunately, died in 1824, and it was left to his younger brother. Charles Alexander Bruce, to collect the tea plants, which he despatched to David Scott, agent to the Governor General in Assam. Scott sent some Plants to Dr. N. Wallich, Superintendent of the Kolkata Botanical Garden, who however, pronounced them to be not genuine tea spices. The indigeneous Assam tea plant had to wait for another decade before it was acknowledged as such.
It was only after the East India Company’s monopoly of the Chinese trade ended in 1833 that the British Government took firm steps towards the establishment of tea plantations in India. On 1st February 1834, Lord Bentinck, Governor General of India, set up the historic Tea Committee, with George James Gordon as its Secretary. The Tea Committee sent out a circular asking for reports of areas where tea could be grown. Captain F. Jenkins, based in Assam, replied to the circular recommending Assam as ideal for tea cultivation. His assistant, Lt. Charlton, collected samples of the indigeneous Assam tea bushes and sent them to Calcutta.
In 1835 the Tea Committee appointed a Scientific Commission comprising of Dr. Wallich, Dr. W. Griffith and Dr. J. McLelland, to select favourable sites for planting tea. The Commission visited Assam, found the area suitable and recommended planting. Unfortunately, however, it decided that the China plant, and not the ‘degraded Assam plant’, should be used. The Tea Committee’s Secretary, Gordon, had in the meanwhile returned from a trip to China and brought back tea seeds, which had been used to raise nurseries in Calcutta. Saplings from these nurseries were dispatched to Assam and Charles Alexander Bruce, who was appointed Superintendent of Tea culture in Assam, used them to start a number of plantations including Jeypore and Chabuwa. The Chinese plants proved to be commercial failures, cross pollinated with the native jat, thereby producing a hybrid that tormented planters for many years to come.
The resourceful Bruce, aided by Chinese workmen procured by Gordon, managed to dispatch a small sample of manufactured tea to the Tea Committee in 1836 itself. The first samples were approved by the Viceroy, Lord Auckland, and pronounced as good quality tea by experts. In 1837 Bruce dispatched another consignment of 46 chests of tea, made entirely from the leaves of the Assam Jat, to the Tea Committee. After removing the portion that had been spoilt in transit, 350 pounds in 8 chests were sent to the London Auctions on May 8, 1838. This historic consignment was auctioned in London on January 10, 1839 and created great excitement and patriotic fervour.
With Bruce having demonstrated the feasibility of cultivating and manufacturing tea in Assam, the ground was laid for private enterprise to step in. In 1839, the first company for growing and making tea in India, The Assam Company, was set up. Shares worth $ 500,000 were floated, and such was the euphoria generated over Indian tea that these sold immediately. In 1840, the Government handed over to the new company almost all its tea holdings. The Company also leased large tracts of land on a 25 year no rent basis under the Assam Wasteland Rules of 1838.
The year 1847, also marked the turning point in the fortunes of the Assam Company and with it that of the tea industry in India. It was in that year that two men, Henry Burking Young at Calcutta and Stephen Mornay in Assam, took charge of the Company’s affairs. They tightened the management and brought in improved methods of cultivation and manufacture, and within five years converted what may have been a historical failure into an outstanding success. Under their management the company made a profit in 1848, opened up closed properties by 1849, settled all debts by 1850 and paid the first earned dividend of 2 ½ percent in 1852.
The Assam Company had at last proved that growing tea in Assam could be a profitable venture. Others could now reap from its experience and experimentation. From that point onward there was no looking back for the Indian tea industry. New companies were formed and proprietorial gardens were opened. By 1859 there were 51 tea gardens in Assam. The next few years saw unprecedented expansion in which the number of tea gardens rose to 160 in 1862, and production to 1,250,000 lbs.
The success of Tea cultivation in Assam gave the requisite impetus to the industry, and the decades that followed saw more areas in other parts of the country come under tea planting. While the Assam experimentation had kept the spotlight on this area, experimental plantings were being carried on elsewhere in the colony. Seeds and Saplings brought by Gordon had been planted in Kumaon and Garhwal regions and a small sample of tea made there had elicited favourable comments form Mincing Lane as early as 1842. By 1856 proprietorial gardens had been opened out in Kumaon, Dehradun, Garhwal, Kangra and Kulu. In May, 1855, indigeneous tea bushes were ‘discovered’ in the Cachar district of Assam, and the very next year properietorial gardens had been set up there. By 1870, Cachar had 80 gardens. Tea cultivations was also started in the state of Tripura adjoining Cachar, Sylhet, which then was a part of undivided India, had its first full-fledged garden in 1856, and a little later plantations were set up in Chittagong district too.
Experimental tea planting in Darjeeling, which produces a unique tea renowned for its exquisite aroma and flavour, had begun quite early. In 1841, Dr. A Campbell had brought China tea seeds from Kumaon and planted them in his house in Darjeeling town. But commercial cultivation began only around 1852-53. By 1874 there were 113 gardens in Darjeeling district. The success of the Darjeeling tea gardens inspired tea planters to begin cultivation in the Terai regions. James White set up the first Terai Plantation, Champta, in 1862. Planting was then extended to the Dooars, the narrow strip of land connecting Assam to West Bengal. While the Chinese variety was found suitable for Darjeeling and the Terai, the Assam jat proved better for the Dooars. Gazeldubi was the first Dooars garden and by 1876 there were 13 plantations in that region.
The Assam success percolated down even to South India, where experimental planting had been undertaken as early as 1839. But commercial cultivation began in the south only from 1859. Plantations were opened out in the Nilgiris in Tamilnadu, and Wynaad district in Kerala. However, for a long while the South Indian Tea Industry stagnated, picking up only from the beginning of the 20th Century.
The second half of the 19th Century witnessed a phenomenal expansion in the Indian tea industry. By the year 1900 an area of 211,443 hectares had been put to the cultivation with a produce of 89.5 million kilograms. The gradual domination of Indian tea in the World market coincided with the decline of China’s predominance, with Britain, from 1889, importing more tea from India and Sri Lanka than from China. Production in the year 2016 is around 1239 million kilograms.
Despite many vicissitudes of fortune in the 20th century the Indian tea industry has never lost the momentum generated in the second half of the 19th century.
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