. . . as I am exposed to all weathers, and at all seasons, in these unhealthy jungles, should I unfortunately be taken off by a jungle fever (I entreat) that Government would kindly make some provision for my family, as I am an uncovenanted servant.
–Charles Bruce, writing to John Company superiors, 1 October 1836
Returning, as it is high time we should, to the history of tea itself, we left the Tea Committee of 1834 assuring the Honorable Company Tea not only could be grown but was actually growing in India. That this news took directors by surprise illustrates just how keen of hearing and swift to respond large corporations are. W.H. Ukers cites one Company scientist who’d already submitted five reports on the subject by this time. According to Ukers, tea had been successfully grown as early as the 1780’s and by half a dozen different people since, while the wild native tea of Assam had first been reported in 1815. The past was prologue: if the committee’s first act was to admit, somewhat grudgingly, that the tea plant was indigenous to Assam, its second act was to import the first commercial lot of China tea seeds, later to be called “the curse of the India tea industry.”
A John Company memorandum sniffed that Bruce “was brought up to a seafaring life and his long residence in Assam had been devoted entirely to mercantile pursuits and the command of gunboats on the Brahmaputra.” Bruce was, admittedly, neither a scientist nor a very good businessman, but he knew how to pioneer a jungle and how to win and keep the friendship of Assam’s native Naga tribes. Ingenious as Robinson Crusoe and hearty as a hog, his entire adult life was spent in a malarious wilderness where few westerners survived their first year. He explored as far as the borders of Burma and China, mapping a chain of 120 tracts of wild tea. In his memoirs he tells of finding one tea shrub that had grown into a tree forty-three feet high and three feet around, “though very few attain that size.” Bruce was positive that this was the tea to propagate in Assam and he patiently did so, creating gardens with young plants brought from the jungle.
The commissioners dispatched to Assam with Charles Bruce as guide would have none of it. Reasoning that “a wild plant is not likely to give as good produce as one that has been cultivated for centuries,” they recommended that “the China plant and not the degraded (sic) Assam plant” should be cultivated in the government-backed experimental gardens. A pioneer, by definition, cares little or nothing for learned opinions that it cannot be done. A thousand miles up the Brahmaputra from Calcutta, Bruce continued growing Assam plants on his own while the Company sought to import more and more tea seeds and artisans from China each year, a policy easier to recommend than accomplish.