Continued from The Secret’s Out: The Discovery of Tea in India – Part 1
The history of tea abounds with Scotsmen. One named Robert Bruce had ventured to explore Assam a decade before the Company appointed its Tea Committee. This adventurer had lived with the native tribes of this remote province between India and Burma and discovered they drank tea which they themselves produced from indigenous plants. Robert died but his brother Charles had specimen branches sent to the director of the Company botanical gardens at Calcutta. Coming from the last place the director expected tea to flourish, a low-lying jungle valley, it couldn’t possibly be tea, he ruled, but just another type of Camellia. There the matter rested until this same Company botanist was named secretary of the Tea Committee and circulated his questionnaire. By way of reply, Charles Bruce this time sent actual tea seed, live plants, and manufactured tea from Assam. Even the botanist could no longer deny the obvious and the Committee soon reported: “We have no hesitation in declaring this discovery . . . far the most important and valuable that has ever been made on matters connected with the agricultural or commercial resources of the Empire.”
Brave word, but it would stagger the Tea Committee, even in its wildest enthusiasm, to imagine India the world’s largest tea producer, which she is today. Her crop routinely exceeds one billion pounds, well over half of which she drinks herself, having also become the world’s leading tea consumer. India today is the home of over thirteen thousand tea estates or “gardens” or about one million acres of tea, all told, all but a fifth of it in north India. It has been estimated that tea provides employment for over two million people. India’s marked increase in production in recent decades has been achieved with only a modest increase in acreage. This enormous agribusiness was largely crated by the British in less than four generations between the Tea Committee’s report and India’s Independence from Great Britain in 1948.
In fairness, the Dutch deserve recognition for succeeding where previous experiments in South Carolina, St. Helena and Brazil had failed – in producing the first tea grown anywhere outside of China. Though this accolade has been awarded the eight chests of Assam tea sold at Auction in London in 1839, it properly belongs to the Java tea grown and manufactured in the Dutch East Indies and brought to Amsterdam aboard the frigate Algiers in 1835. Dutchmen first attempted cultivating tea in Java in 1684, well before the English ever did so in India, and in 1829 the Dutch Jacobson became the first European to penetrate China and emerge with tea plants and skilled tea makers. If such “firsts” are forgotten today, Holland’s consolation may be that the Dutch firm of Van Bees remains the largest and most profitable in the world tea trade. But it is now time to ask ourselves how the British ever came to control India in the first place.
Read next: John Company Conquers India – Part 1