Previous in series: The Assam Company – Part 2

A tea man stood at the Pearly Gate,

his face was worn and old.

He meekly asked the man of fate

for admission to the fold.

What have you done, St. Peter asked,

to seek admission here?

I ran a tea estate on earth for many and many a year.

The gate swung open sharply as Peter

touched the bell.

Come in, he said, and take a harp –

you’ve had enough of hell.

-quoted by Arup Kumar Dutta, Cha Garam!The Tea Story

An overlooked hero of India’s tea saga is the Assamese Maniram Dutta Barua. He was the man who first called the native tea plant to the attention of the brothers Bruce and aided them in other ways. He was Assam’s wealthiest nobleman and served her Raja as vizier. Following the East India Company’s annexation of Assam in 1839, he joined the newly-formed Assam Company as Dewan or land agent. The Dewan understood economics as well as he did English and, realizing that tea was tobe Asam’s future, he was determined to stake his share in it. He joined the Assam Company to acquire the rudiments of tea cultivation and manufacture and once he had them he resigned, in 1845, to establish tea plantations of his own. He immediately encountered undisguised hatred from the European planters, an ungrateful Charles Bruce included. Over vehement objections, he imported Chinese tea makers through Calcutta and “dared” set himself up as the country’s first private planter near Jorhat on Cinnamora Estate, so-named because Cinai-mora locally means “Chinese-made.” He prospered and his white colleagues stewed.

Their chance to teach this native upstart his lesson came at last in 1857 when the Sepoy Rebellion panicked India’s colonial masters. Maniram, now master of two producing tea estates, was in Calcutta at the time representing his old friend the former Raja of Assam before the East India Company Governor-General. On the transparently trumped-up charge that he was leading a conspiracy to oust the British from Assam and restore the Raja, he was arrested, sent back to Assam and, after a travesty of a trail, hanged on 26 February 1858. It is a measure of the whites’ hatred that the planters of the Assam Company, led by George Williamson, recommended that the police officer, who arrested the Dewan should receive a reward from the government! For themselves, they demanded his properties, which were duly confiscated and auctioned off at throwaway prices to the Anglo hero George Williamson. A descendant of the Dewan’s, Arup Kumar Dutta, tells the rest of the story in Cha Garam!:

He did not enjoy the fruits of his ill-gotten acquisition. So unpopular did he become after purchasing the Dewan’s property that he found it impossible to run his gardens. All the laborers, including the Chinese tea-makers left, so that no tea could be manufactured in the 1858-59 season. Finally he was forced to sell Cinnamora to the newly formed Jorehaut Tea Company, and Singlo to another purchaser, at a very cheap price. The realization of the injustice that had been perpetrated brought about a sea-change in George Williamson from then on. From a businessman he metamorphosed into a philanthropist. He donated the entire proceeds of the sale of Cinnamora and Singlo to the people of Assam. He set up libraries and educational institutions . . . (and) finally left India and dies in England in 1865.

The Barua family plays a prominent role in Assam tea today, but the fate of their ancestor was intended as a warning to India’s entrepreneurs that European colonialists would tolerate no competition from them. Pioneer tea planters number a few Indian names like Bipra D.P. Chaudhuri and B. Rai in Darjeeling and others elsewhere – but very few. Indians remained on the fringe of their country’s tea industry until after Independence in 1948. Such were the realities of colonialism.