Thursday, December 15, 2022

History of tea in Assam, India

The discovery of this native tea plant in 1815 was a huge boon for English trade in British-colonized India. Conflict between China and India as well as shipping and trade competition with the Dutch made it harder and harder for the English to keep up a successful tea trade. When the British were looking for suitable lands for tea plantations, Robert Bruce went on an expedition to Assam, in 1823.

Scottish adventurer and botanist Robert Bruce is said to have confirmed the discovery of India’s native tea plant in 1823. In 1823 Bruce was on a trading mission. Bruce was reportedly directed by Maniram Dewan to Bessa Gam who was the local Singpho chief. Maniram Dewan was the first Indian to start planting tea in Assam. He was a Dewan (chief administrative and financial officer) of Assam Company until he resigned in 1841 to start his own tea estate.

Bessa Gam, the Singpho tribe chief showed Robert Bruce how local tribesmen brewed the beverage from leaves of the wild tea like plants. The Singpho tribe is indigenous to the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra valley and the foot of the Himalayas and were the first in the whole region to use wild tea-like plants for their beverage. Bruce was convinced he had discovered an alternative and the monopoly that China had over tea.

Bruce made an arrangement with the tribal chief to give him samples of these tea leaves with seeds, as he planned on having them scientifically examined. Robert Bruce died shortly after sending some tea plants for testing even before the plant was properly classified.

Charles Bruce, Robert’s brother, took over the research when his brother died. Bruce explored the wild Assam tea plants growing across the region and learned that local tribes had been using tea for centuries as both food and beverage. In early 1830, Robert Bruce’s brother, sent a few of these leaves to a botanical garden in Calcutta to be properly examination and it was then that this plant was officially classified as a tea variety and named Camellia sinensis var. Assamica.

By the 1830s, Bruce figured out how these plants could be propagated and cultivated to create what ultimately became a British-dominated tea industry in India. The discovery of tea plants in Assam enabled the East India Company to develop a trade, which China had hitherto monopolized for a long time.

The then Governor-General Lord Bentick set up the Tea Committee in 1834. It issued a circular about the locations where tea could be grown, and ultimately Assam was considered ideal. The first consignment of twelve boxes of tea manufactured by the Singphos of Arunachal was shipped from Calcutta to London in 1835.

Charles Bruce was later appointed as the superintendent of the tea forests of the government of Great Britain. In 1836, Charles Bruce, on his initiative, set up a tract of land in Sadiya, Assam, as a nursery and planted it with indigenous tea seed plants. The plants survived and, with the help of Chinese workers, Charles managed to quietly dispatch a small sample of manufactured tea to the Tea Committee the same year.

The first company that was set up for growing and making this tea was the Assam Tea Company, started in the year 1839. It expanded steadily and by 1862, the business comprised over 160 gardens, all owned by 5 public companies along with 57 private players.

Assam was the first Indian tea region to gain global recognition, which the British built by developing the estate model.
History of tea in Assam, India