The ‘great advantage’ of tea: a short history of exploitation, performance and protest

Cathy Turner

‘It is not necessary that I should trouble the Council with many remarks to support the abstract question of the great advantage which India would derive from the successful introduction of the tea plant…’

So wrote India’s first Governor General, William Bentinck, in 1834 (Parliamentary Papers 1939:5).

The advantage, in fact, was all Britain’s own. As Arnab Dey confirms, ‘Tea, of course, has always been an export product and added very little to the region’s economic coffers during the colonial period, and thereafter’ (2021:3). On the contrary, India was required to pay for the industry’s early losses, for the costs of resistance and suppression during the 19th century, and heavily paid with loss of life. The position of the tea worker remains one of severe precarity.

In the 1830s, the British looked at the possibility of growing Indian tea with renewed seriousness. The idea had been mooted for many years, with seeds from China successfully propagated in the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta (Kolkata) in the late 17th century. Since the first decades of the 19th century, it had also been known that in Assam, locals drank a brew made from a plant similar to the Chinese tea plant, but Wallich, at the Botanical Gardens, was tentative about identifying it, prior to observing its fruit. However, at Christmas, 1834, the Tea Committee presented the ‘discovery’ of this plant, declaring it to be ‘by far the most important and valuable that has ever been made on matters connected with the agricultural or commercial resources of this empire’ (Parliamentary Papers 1839:32).

Despite this identification, Chinese tea was initially developed as the main crop, and only gradually was the indigenous tea accepted as equivalent, and more suited to Assam. Darjeeling proved an excellent environment for quality Chinese tea. Robert Fortune, the plant collector, was sent to China to smuggle out knowledge and tea plants, along with expert assistance.

Indian tea became rapidly big business, with most of the product exported to Britain, despite a substantial local market (growing larger in the 20th century).

Such extensive planting required cheap labour in large numbers. Chinese experts were expensive, and local workers, often small-scale farmers in their own right, were without sufficient incentive to submit to the poor pay and conditions offered by the planters. In response, recruiters visited parts of the country where poverty and famine made workers more susceptible to promises of work and support. In fact, mortality could be as high as 50% in transit to the plantations, often miles from the worker’s home village. When on the plantations, poor diet and lack of clean water or sanitation again led to high mortality rates, from 20-50% in the 1860s. Some reforms in the mid-1860s improved conditions to an extent, but a compromise on behalf of the Assamese planters meant that the worker might not legally break the 3-5 year contract, and that planters could enforce arrest and punishment for such a breach. These powers were not revoked until 1908 and despite significant attempts at reform, and legislation which improved the worker’s circumstances, the system of indentured labour was not abolished until 1926.

Dakshina Charan Chattopadhyay’s play, Chakar Darpan, (Tea Planter’s Mirror) was written in 1875, following in the footsteps of the better-known play, Dinabandhu Mitra’s Nil Darpan, (Indigo Mirror), 1858-9. Both plays deal with the planter’s oppression, including sexual and other physical violence against workers and the corruption of officials. Just as the tea plantations were knowingly modelled on the indigo plantations, Chakar Darpan echoes the plot of the earlier play, in showing the decimation of lives through a central narrative of sexual violence. It also suggested that the planter was enabled in his assault on an innocent and vulnerable workforce by the collusion of high caste Indians. An anonymous author for the Indian Statesman wrote, in May 1875, describing it as:

a drama, of a most injurious character, lately published in Bengali with the evident object of creating an ill feeling against the tea-planting interest and the Government in the minds of ignorant natives… In its effect on the welfare of Bengal the growth of the great tea-industry has been purely beneficial, and the only motive for the calumnies of the author and the class he represents is the fact that it is mainly carried on by a race who, by placing the tree of knowledge at their disposal, have earned their unreasoning hatred. (Anon, 1875)

The plight of the tea workers was severe enough for unrest on these grounds alone; however, such local resentments were clearly compatible with a wider national resistance and push towards independence. Nil Darpan, though specific to indigo plantations, was written against the background of the first war of Indian Independence at the end of the 1850s, and in the 1920s, there was some, albeit limited, connection between the resistance of tea workers and the independence movement. However, the British claim that resistance was provoked deliberately by pro-independence agitators was unsubstantiated.

Chakar Darpan, like Nil Darpan, was not written by a worker based in Assam, but by an educated Bengali writer: even though he had a direct source of information from his brother, who worked as a doctor for tea plantations, we cannot get close to the worker’s own voice through plays such as this.

If we class walk outs as a form of performance, however, workers did perform dissent on many occasions. Most famously, in 1921, there was a mass exodus of tea workers, beginning in the Chargola Valley, but extending to the Assam Valley over time. Workers attempted to return to their home regions via train and steamer and the Bengal government refused to intervene with support. The ‘Gurkha outrage’ of May 21st concerned 50 Gurkhas who led an attack on workers stranded at Chandpur railway station.

A song, published in Amrita Bazar Patrika June 17, 1921, tells the story from a worker perspective:

The “Englishman1” may have his say

That we’re there very happy and gay,

But starved we were from day to day,

And God knows how like dogs we stayed.

Our daughter’s izzat (honour) was not safe,

Small fine was all in case of rape

In midst of julum (oppression) we did chafe

Like a bird in cage whose wings are clipped.

At Chandpur tho’ we stranded be,

Still have joy as we are free

From planter’s clutches, tooth and claw

And their big rapacious maw.

Shout ‘Gandhi’s jai! (Victory)’ and cheer up all,

March on, brothers, with Freedom’s call.

Indian tea still accounts for about 25% of world production and is still plucked by hand on plantations, usually by women, with men working in the factories to ferment the picked tea. While tea workers are now represented by trade unions, and their votes are courted in elections, the legacies of colonialism remain in marginalisation, low pay, outdated management practices and poor health and education.

Anon, (1875), ‘Mirror of Tea-Planting’, Indian Statesman, May 18th.

Chattopadhyay, Dakshinacharan (2021 [1875]) Char-Kar Darpan Natak, in Passage to Bondage: Labour in the Assam Tea Plantations, Ed Sanita Sen, transl. Suhit Kumar Sen. Kolkata: Samya, 1-56.

Dey, Arnab (2021) Tea Environments and Plantation Culture: Imperial Disarray in Eastern India, paperback edn, Cambridge University Press.

Parliamentary Papers (1839), No 63, Copy of Papers received from India relating to the Measures adopted for introducing the cultivation of the tea plant within the British Possessions in India. Accessed 3 Mar. 2023.

1. A reference to the newspaper of that name, hence inverted commas.