Story of Darjeeling Tea
One of the main revenue earnings of East India Company was by way of tax on tea imported mainly from China. By 1830, the company had actually contributed over 3 million pounds to the British Empire from taxes on tea imports alone. However, in 1833 the company lost its monopoly in China Tea Trade and realized that it had to quickly find another source of tea supply and keep it under its own control. It was too good a business to lose.
Sometime earlier one Major Robert Bruce had reported that he noticed tea bushes growing in Assam hills. So following up on that report, representatives were sent to China in 1834 to bring back some plants, seeds and knowledgeable Chinese tea cultivators.
Saplings from the seeds were grown at the Botanical Gardens of Calcutta and then sent across to Assam and other areas. With the help of Chinese experts, tea was successfully produced in Assam and dispatched to England for the first time in 1838. But that was Assam tea which only managed to keep the business afloat.
It was in 1839 when Dr. Archibald Campbell came as a Superintendent of Darjeeling, the first possibility of cultivating Darjeeling tea came up. Initially he lived in Kurseong for a short while where he experimented with the tea saplings that were sent from Calcutta.
Around the same time, a British army officer Captain Samler who had betrayed the Crown was hiding in Kurseong along with his men. They occupied the present Makaibari Tea Estate area and planted the saplings which they stole from Campbell. Samler was finally granted amnesty after he helped the British Crown during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (Sepoy Mutiny). Later he became an agent of Darjeeling Tea Company and also the legal owner of Makaibari Tea Estate.
It is said that Samler pioneered the cultivation of Darjeeling tea in Makaibari area which probably showed the real potential of tea in Darjeeling. But there is no recognition or official records to establish that. In 1859 before he died, Samler sold the garden to G.C. Banerjee, his assistant. The Makaibari Tea Estate
continues to be run by the Banerjee family, and is the only Garden in Darjeeling district which has a resident landlord.
Meanwhile Campbell after shifting out from Kurseong to Darjeeling, kept his experimentation on. In 1841 he successfully cultivated tea in his Beechwood Estate located below the Clock Tower. Darjeeling tea was now a reality and commercially viable option. Having heard of this, thousands of tea planters from England started flocking into Darjeeling to make a fortune out of it.
However they had two problems in hand. One was the knowledge of cultivating tea in Darjeeling hills and the other was the large number of laborers required in the gardens. For the first they relied on whatever information they could get hold of from other sources, sometimes even going by hearsay. Some got it right and went forward, some got it wrong and went broke.
But the real problem was to get laborers. The few Lepchas who were then living in Darjeeling refused to work. They were happy with their simple way of living out of the nature. And the Sikkim Raja in the neighboring area had forbidden his workforce from joining the British.
So the frustrated British planters decided to forcibly round up natives from the Chota Nagpur hill area. They thought the natives were from similar hills, were docile, hard working and would form a good obedient workforce. However, the Chota Nagpur natives could not sustain the cold and damp of the Darjeeling hills and ran away during the night time. Most of them went down to the plains in the forest areas and many as far as to the Dooars region. And the rest revolted to the bonded slavery, all of who were finally gunned down by the British troops.
Back to the square one, the Brits had to now entice new set of laborers. They turned to the Nepal hills for Nepali workers who were also known as cheerful and hardworking people but had to be dealt with human considerations. The Brits appointed leaders (Sardars) who were given special incentives for every worker they brought in from Nepal. And this time the plan worked.
Thousands of Nepalis started to pour in to make a new life in Darjeeling. They were given water, free medical treatment, medicines, place to stay and after all the liberty to leave anytime. Relationship between the planters and garden workers continued to improve. In most of the tea gardens, wages were given at the month end and in some at the week end. This was something unheard of during those days.
By 1856, tea estates at Tukvar, Aloobari and Makaibari came up and the tea in Darjeeling was well on its course towards getting established as an industry. In 1862, the first garden at the lower plains of Darjeeling district came up at a place called Champta (Khaprail) near the present military base. In 10 years there were 39 tea gardens and by 1905 there were 79 tea gardens operating in Darjeeling employing laborers who were all Nepalese.
Today there are 87 tea gardens spread across roughly 19,000 hectares (46,930 acres) of land area, employing about 52,000 permanent workers, and 15,000 contract employees who are mostly of Nepalese origin. The gardens collectively produce about 10 million kilograms (i.e. 22 million pounds) of tea every year.
However, until 1859 there was no factory to process the tea plucked from the gardens. They were all manually and incorrectly done. Finally a botanist named Robert Fortune went to China and brought back several Chinese tea makers who imparted the knowledge of how to pluck the leaves selectively ("two leaves and a bud") and then correctly process the tea. These Chinese tea experts were the ones who convinced the planters that there was no short cut and the whole tea plantation of seeding, growing, plucking and processing needed to go through one single chain of processes.
The manual method still continued but this time following the correct process. Gradually the demand started increasing and the need for mechanizing the tea processing was inevitable. In 1859, the first tea processing factory was established in Makaibari. Today, there are 72 operational factories in Darjeeling district.
During the early days, the gardens were segregated by seven valleys of Darjeeling district. A group of gardens would belong to a valley. And each valley had its own unique charm and picturesque settings. There was a club for each group of gardens where the planters would come in the evenings and play tennis followed by dance and dinner. A healthy competition started growing between and within the groups, and that sense of rivalry percolated down to the garden managers and even workers. This pushed them to make the best tea even better.
There is one more aspect to the story of Darjeeling tea without which I think the story would remain incomplete. It is the ownership of the tea gardens and how the tea estate managers were chosen to run the gardens.
Right from the beginning, the tea gardens never belonged to any resident of Darjeeling or to one who was born there. The only exception has been Makaibari. This is because tea plantation needed substantial investment as the tea bushes required 6 to 9 years of gestation period for maturity before they could be plucked.
So the first priority was always given to British tea planters willing to make investments. Some influential rich Indians too started getting opportunities to invest in the gardens. The first among them were G.C. Banerjee of Makaibari and Bipradas Pal Chowdhury of Mohurgaon and Gulmargh tea estates from Bengal. Initially the lands were given away as free hold purchase. However after Independence and through a land reform act, such garden lands are now given on lease for a fixed period after which it is renewed.
During the British days, only a British was allowed to be the garden manager. He had a free hand to run the garden and was paid handsomely. But why would a British come all the way from England to Darjeeling to live a secluded life? They were mostly the men who ran out of all options in life and having no where else to go, chose Darjeeling as domicile. They mostly had no knowledge of tea making, but were given the freedom to keep the garden workers under control.
Having said that, there were many British planters who did take deep interest and pain in growing the gardens and improve the life of the workers, and became the real pioneers of Darjeeling Tea.
In 1945-46 while India was on the verge of getting independence, a trade union leader Sagina Mahato started a movement in Darjeeling hills demanding rights for garden workers in line with what a Scottish surgeon first introduced in India. Mahato was eventually able to convince all planters that Darjeeling tea was the best in the world and were hand produced by the workers, and therefore workers' rights must be protected. All agreed to the demand.
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