THE GRAND INDIAN TEA JOURNEY : A Tea Theft, Rare Photographs, and More!
For a Tea lover like you and me, the first cup of tea decides the tone for the day. Is it going to be day full of bold choices like a robust cup of Assam Tea? Or will it be a easy-going one, like our breezy spring cup of Darjeeling Black Tea? We all agree that a great cup of tea is what sets the daily rhythm of our lives. But how often do we look beyond our cup of tea?
Of course, as conscious urban consumers of tea, we know where our tea is being sourced from. More than half of the tea being consumed globally is harvested and sourced from India. So, on the occasion of India’s 71st Republic Day, the day on which the world’s largest democracy had its constitution in effect ; we take a look at how India went on to become the second global leader in Tea production. We’ll try and keep this fascinating history lesson short and with some incredible archival photographs of the Indian Tea industry.
So hop on the Reminisce Express!
THE GRAND INDIAN TEA INDUSTRY
The Indian Tea industry, being more than 170 years old, has truly have had a majestic past. Presently, the tea industry in India is the second largest employer of manual labor in the country, providing means to more than 3.5 Million people in the country to earn their daily bread. We are also the country that leads in global consumption of Tea, and its true! Indians can’t imagine starting their day without a cup of Tea. Be it in their homes or at the millions of 4x4 tea stalls that one might encounter at every nook and cranny of this vast nation.
HOW DID TEA COME TO INDIA ?
Let’s just say that India wasn’t on the map of tea before the 1800s. We owe that to the Britishers. The native tea plant, Camellia Sinensis , has always have had native roots in India as well, but it grew in the wild here and no one really knew its worth. Tracing back its roots, the tea plant was mainly native to East India and a few indigenous tribes, the ‘Singhpo’ and the ‘Kamti’, are known to consume it in some form since the 12th century. But having said this, all the mythological instances and even the first documented use of Tea in the world has been in China. So how did India go on to become one of the leading producers of premium Tea?
The story begins with a grand theft.
THE GRAND TEA THEFT
Most of the tea that is grown today in the misty Himalayan hills of Darjeeling or the plentiful plateaus of Assam is a gift to this country by famous Scottish adventurer and Botanist, Robert Fortune. In this colonial era, China held the powerful monopoly of growing and exporting Tea to the world. China was known to keep the creme-de-la-creme of the produce for their personal consumption and sold the inferior harvest at high markups to the world.
Source : Smithsonian Magazine; The Granger Collection, New York.
Britain saw a huge demand for tea back home and to meet this ever-increasing demand for this beverage, the East India Company was tasked with the responsibility of buying it from China in return for the Opium being grown in India. Britain knew that for China to have such a powerful global monopoly in trade was not good news. Moreover, China started to grow its own Opium, thereby cutting the demand to import it from India.
To fix this monopoly situation, Britain decided to grow tea by themselves in India, especially in the Himalayan region which seemed to share a similar topography to China’s tea growing regions. Many attempts were made to commercially grow the wild variety of tea that was found in India, but they didn’t match up to the taste and quality of the tea that was sourced from China. Finally, the East India Company put plans together for the biggest trade espionage ever in the Colonial era.
The East India Company tasked the Scot Botanist, Robert Fortune, to don a disguise and to infiltrate China’s prime tea-growing regions to steal the native tea plants, learn of tea horticulture techniques and industrial manufacturing.
Sent to infiltrate the interior regions in China, Fortune was sent in disguise as a ‘Chinaman’ as a part of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). On his first visit, he brought back several exotic varieties of plants and flowers, like the Winter Flowering Jasmine and the Fan Palm.
On his second visit, Fortune’s destination was the Sung-Lo mountains in China where they grew a variety of Green Tea. This is where he learnt of the then-unique fact that both Green and Black Tea originated from the same mother plant - Camellia Sinensis. He is known to have collected many pods, seeds and soil samples which were carefully wrapped in glass cases to be sent back to India from Hong Kong to Calcutta, the main trading port of India. But unfortunately, due to mishandling of the plants, only 80 out of the 13000 plants survived the long and arduous journey! Evidently, the mission had failed.
But all this while, Fortune had already embarked on this second mission to procure some Black Tea from the Wu Yi Mountains in Southern China. This journey was riddled with far more dangers of encountering pirates, emperor’s guards, and local looters. But the Wu Yi mountains also were a slice of heaven, like he revealed later. He kept collecting wild samples of tea buds and plants along the way. It was finally when he encountered the monks in a temple who taught him everything that he needed to know about good quality tea, harvesting techniques and also how to brew them perfectly. It is here where Robert Fortune bought ‘Da Hong Pao’ variety of Tea, which was the most premium quality and also the most expensive tea in all of China. He knew that these plants, with their buds and seeds, are strong enough and will yield great results. He potted most of the plants in soil and enclosed them in glass cases, essentially making a great micro-ecosystem for the plants to make the long journey to India and still thrive.
Fortunately, the plants reached in perfect condition and were sowed in the foothills of the Himalayas, where they soon started to sprout and flower. These teas turned out to be of much better quality and this is what laid the foundation stone for the great Indian Tea industry!
On the other hand, a wild variety of Tea was also discovered in the meanwhile which was being dried, smoked in bamboo, and consumed by the indigenous tribes in Assam. These were sent for quality testing in Calcutta and hence were given the name ‘Assamica’ for Assam Tea. At first, the Chinese tea seeds that were smuggled were planted in the Assamese plains but somehow the terroir of Assam turned out to be unsuitable for the seeds to flourish. These were then grown in the high-altitude Himalayan foothills in Darjeeling and Kangra, Himachal Pradesh where they grew to perfection and yielded an incredible harvest.
INDIA’S RUN TO BECOME A GLOBAL TEA LEADER
The first tea estate, established by the East India Company, was based in Chabua in Assam in the year 1837. While in Darjeeling, a tea plant nursery was set up and the hilly town got its first tea garden, the Tukvar Tea Estate in the year 1850. Both the teas, the Darjeeling Tea and the Assamica variety, started becoming a major hit with the masses in Britain and word spread out.
By the year 1853, more and more tea gardens started propping up all over Assam. In another 16 years, the number of plantations in Assam grew by 26 times and there was a 12-fold increase in Tea production.
Following a few mishaps and abrupt turns in tea trade, the 19th century was the golden period for the Indian Tea industry. Overall Tea production rose of 206 Million Pounds by the year 1903 and tea was also being cultivated in places like Nilgiris in Southern India and in Punjab in Northern India. This brought up the total tea export which were reflected in the year 1903, when India became the leading tea exporter to UK.
THE INDIAN TEA LABOR RIGHTS
The next few decades although proving to be the glorious years of tea production also saw rampant exploitation of cheap labor. Starting from 1857, the tea laborers were paid meagre wages of Rs. 2 .50 per month, which only rose to a mere Rs. 6/- per month by the year 1906. There was undernourishment, no medical facilities, and hardly concessions given to the worker’s families. After much back and forth, the Plantation Labor Act was finally laid down in 1951 which finally regulated working hours, work conditions, labor facilities, and laid down strict rules for the plantations to provide accommodation, cooking fuel, education to the growers’ children, and medical attention to the workers.
On the occasion of India’s 71st Republic Day, let’s raise a toast to this incredible, arduous, and inspiring journey of the Indian Tea industry. Post its independence from the British, this country worked tirelessly to add more value to its industry, rising to a position where both Darjeeling and Assam were awarded its own Geographical Indicators (GI) on the map, which gave them elite status in the world of Tea.
We sincerely hope you enjoyed the ride on the reminisce express with us!
Until next time,
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