. . . altogether a fairer judgement would be that the Assam company undertook all the risks of a new venture and that the experience so dearly bought by them was of great value to those who began later.
-Sir Percival Griffiths, KBE (1898 – 1992), The History of the Indian Tea Industry
Charles Bruce was the first to prove you did not have to be Chinese to grow and manufacture tea. Because of him, in 1839, England had its first small sip of tea that had not come from China. Due to its novelty value, it brought unheard of prices. The second lot of his Assam tea – ninety-five chests – again brought high prices in London in 1840. It moved the venerable firm of R. Twining & Co., Ltd. to pronounce a cautiously understated bit of prophecy: “There seems no reason to doubt but that increased experience in the culture and manufacture of tea in Assam may eventually approximate a portion of its produce to finer descriptions which China has hitherto furnished.” It also moved a number of investors to set up the Assam Company. This was duly approved by the directors of the east India Company, whose Government of India had annexed the previously independent Assam. Most experimental gardens therein were turned over to the new enterprise rent-free for the first ten years. Charles Bruce was appointed Superintendent of Tea Culture.
The comedy of errors that ensued was compounded of poor soil one place, insufficient labor another, bad cultivation elsewhere, and rampant ignorance from top to bottom. It was in part a battle of vegetation in the jungle, “stiff with tigers,” in which creeping undergrowth spread almost a foot a day and reclaimed its space with magical rapidity. It was likewise a battle with disease, even the Assam Company doctors dying in their tracks. The directors of the John Company – “a corporation of men with long heads and deep purposes” Macauley had called them – saw the writing on the wall by 1845. In an effort to forestall further losses, they sought to force the Assam Company to buy their holdings outright, deceitfully writing their India government that since “. . . the article may under proper management be cultivated at a real remunerative price . . . we accede to your proposal that the Government should withdraw from any further connection with . . . tea in Assam.”
To be continued in The Assam Company – Part 2