It was an industry off and running by the time George Williamson retired from Assam in 1859. Scores of private entrepreneurs had learned the best tea to plant and the right way to grow and harvest it. The Honorable East India Company had surrendered its Indian prerequisites to the Crown the year before, forcing all manner of subalterns and junior officials to look for something better than poverty or an office job back in England. Many decided tea planting would be the simplest, pleasantest, most lucrative and gentlemanly possible alternative. One wrote at the time: “To those (and the class is numerous in England), who, possessing but a moderate sum of money, wish nevertheless to maintain the position in life to which they have been educated, to whom trade and the professions are obnoxious, who having no military tastes or nautical tendencies are still anxious to use the energy and enterprise which are said to belong to the British – to such tea-planting offers particular inducements.”

Inducement enough that vast new acreage was planted, mostly in Assam but also around Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas and around Ootacamund, a similar hill station in the Nilgiri mountain area of the south. Everyone was sure of getting rich – the estate managers who didn’t know a tea plant from a cabbage, the highly paid boards of directors in Calcutta and London with their still more highly paid secretaries, and, of course, all the investors – rich as Croesus! As a doctor in Assam was later to diagnose the mania: “Although tea has the reputation as a beverage that cheers but does not inebriate, its cultivation in new districts exercises the most strangely intoxicating influences on those engaged in it, equaled only by the sanguine dreams of gold explorers.” Greed and tea had met once again to produce a repetition of the youthful follies of the Assam Company, but on a vastly greater scale. Millions of pounds sterling were squandered in the name of tea, and by 1865 the very word had become a stench in the nostrils of the investing public. It took another five years for the young industry to recover from the tea mania and the resulting financial disasters. By then the tea men who survived had learned their business and the old established estates that had escaped the speculative blight were flourishing. The future was, in fact, rosier than any of them suspected.

To be continued in The Advent of Machinery – Part 2