Sunday, 10 June 2012

Tea, tea and more

My cousin Jacob Matthew would shudder if he was to drink the first tea manufactured in the Nilgiris.  The tea leaves harvested from the experimental farm near Ketti was withered in the open and then fired in an open pan.

But the men who pioneered this experiment to grow and manufacture tea in the Nilgiris loved the brew.  Today tea manufacture is a complex affair, involving not just technology but also skill. Jacob is a purist and an expert in blends and tea manufacture.  The teas he manufactures are highly priced. 
Coming back to tea, according to Gazette reports, tea growing in the blue mountains of South India go right back to 1833. It all started with a doctor called Christie noticed an indigenous variety of Camellia grew in large quantities near Coonoor.  The flower and leaves of the Camellia were similar to tea.  He realized that tea could also be grown in these mountains.

Tea was a prized possession and at the heart of England’s trade with China.  Try as they might, the British found that the secrets of tea growing and manufacture were elusive.  It was only after the Opium War that tea seeds were taken out of China. 

The good doctor Christie ordered some tea seedlings from Calcutta.  But he died before they arrived.  So when it finally arrived in Coonoor, they had to be distributed to other growers. 

Seeds continued to be brought out of China.  In 1835, more seeds were distributed among the planters in Coorg, Mysore and parts of the Madras Presidency.
Tea plantation in the Nilgiris : Photo courtesy Jude Thaddaeus

In the Nilgiris, they were planted in an experimental farm near Ketti.  But this experiment was a failure because the seedlings were not planted properly.  Soon this experiment was abandoned and the house in the property was leased to the Governor of Pondicherry. 

A French Botanist G.S. Perrottet accompanying the Governor found that the plants were completely buried under the soil.  He replanted the seedlings and by 1838 they had grown a full four feet with fruits and leaves.

Tea was also grown in Bilikal and by 1840 the tea from Ketti and Bilikal was processed and sent to Madras where tea enthusiasts ooowed and ahhhed over it.

A few years later one Mr Mann procured good quality tea seeds from China and planted in what was called Coonoor Tea Estate.  In 1856, the tea from these plants was favorably reviewed in London.  Mann however, became very disillusioned as the Government did not allot any more jungle land to him to grow tea.

Around this time, one Rae planted tea near Sholur at what came to called Dunsandle Estate.  Tea was also planted in Thaishola Estate.  The then Governor of Madras, Sir William Denison brought in some Chinese tea makers from the North West Province in an attempt to provide some technical knowhow to the fledgling industry.

By 1869, about 300 acres of tea was planted in the Nilgiris and no less than 18 tea growers or planters as they came to be known exhibited their produce at the annual agricultural fair at Ooty.
James Wilkinson Breeks, the first Commissioner of Ooty was so impressed that he sent these samples off to England.  These samples were rated as good and very good at Mincing Lane – the hub of the world’s tea and spice trade.  Incidentally, Mincing Lane was also the centre of the English trade in opium.

Jacob tells us that tea manufacture, grading and blending have become very complex.  High altitude teas, as well as specialty tea are in great demand in the world market. Though most of the teas available in the supermarkets are blends- of Assam, Nilgiri and Kerala teas,  the tea connoisseurs would swear by single estate teas.         

Growing the Jesuit Bark in the Nilgiris

A few years ago, I had the opportunity of interviewing an interesting person, Ms Vanya Orr.  She was and still is doing yeoman service in the Nilgiris, converting small holdings to organic farming. 

Ms Orr was the first one to tell me about the cinchona plantations and how they were chopped down to make way for "industrial forestry". 

One of the areas where cinchona was cultivated was Naduvattom on the way to Ooty.  Near Naduvattom, there are large blue gum trees and I imagine that this is the area which was once populated by the cinchona trees. 

Naduvattom, a obscure little village with a few shops and a cluster of shanties was the place where quinine was manufactured.
The cinchona bark was the source for quinine and was required in large quantities to deal with the malaria fever which was rampant all over India and many other parts of the world.  Today, doctors mourn that the synthetic quinine is not very effective in the treatment of malaria, but the cinchona plantations which supplied the wonder bark are almost all gone.

The use of the cinchona bark in the treatment of malaria and other fevers was first noticed by Jesuit priests in South America.  The story goes that the wife of the Viceroy of Peru, Countess of Cinchon (hence the name), was effectively treated for malaria with a decoction made of the bark of the cinchona tree. 
The cinchona bark was brought to Europe by the Jesuits and was called the Jesuit bark.  The demand for the bark soon outgrew the supply.  European powers vied with each other to get hold of the seedlings so that it could be planted in their colonies in Africa and Asia.  But it was only by the middle of the 19th century that the cinchona seedlings were successfully smuggled out of South America. 

By 1867, the commercial cultivation of cinchona in the Nilgiirs gained popularity. Cinchona was planted in a woody ravine on the slopes of the Doddabetta.  The species planted here was found in the higher elevation in Peru.  Other varieties of cinchona were subsequently planted at Naduvattom at the edge of the western plateau.

Cinchona was also planted in Ceylon as Sri Lanka was called then and by the Dutch colonists in Java.  As in the case of any agricultural commodity, with overproduction the price of cinchona crashed in the London market and maintaining these large plantations became unviable. 

The plantations were abandoned and planters waited to see if the trees would survive by themselves.  They didn’t.  The cinchona trees were soon choked by the jungle. 

Labour was scarce and many of the government and private plantations used convict labour to clear the jungle and to plant cinchona.   The convicts were mainly Chinese from the Straits Settlements and and some from mainland China too. After they served their time, these Chinese men married Tamil women and settled down to live in Naduvattoam; making a living out growing vegetables and from dairy farming.

The quinine manufactured here was favorably reviewed in London.   But by 1905, the quinine manufactured at the Naduvattom factory was used mainly in India.  It was supplied to the medical depots at Bombay and Madras and to other parts of India.  The quinine was made available to poor people by what was called the “pice-packet system”; no doubt a precursor to the one rupee sachets. 

Seven-grain doses was sold at three pies  a packet at post offices and other revenue offices.

By 1905, the Naduvattom factory was producing more than 17,000 pounds of quinine and brought in a profit of Rs 15 lakh.   

Making of Wanton soup in Nilgiris

You pass the small board which says “Chinese Hill” on your way to Ooty from Gudulur.  The road is long and winding with spectacular views of the Deccan plateau.  It is a road taken by those who have the time.

Present day travelers passing this way would often wonder why the place is called Chinese Hill.  It all goes back a long time, to 1860s, when Chinese convicts were brought to these hills by the British.  These Chinese were from the Strait Settlements (Malacca, Dinding, Penang and Singapore) and would most likely have been pirates.

These Chinese prisoners were brought to Madras and were used in the construction and in laying the railway lines.  By 1822, John Sullivan had started constructing Stone House, his dream house in the Blue Mountains.  The house, which is presently the Government Arts College, overlooked the Ooty valley.  By 1860s, more Britishers had decided to move to the hills to plant tea, English vegetables and fruits.

The need for labor both on the plantations and in building construction was great.  Chinese prisoners were brought from Madras for this purpose.  Some of the prisoners were assigned to the building of Lawrence School, in Lovedale, where they were lodged in temporary sheds.  

One day in 1863, some of these men, tired, no doubt, of ceaseless drizzle, damp and cold, escaped.   Imagine how they planned their escape!  Did they talk to the men who transported the building material or wood and learn about the lay of the land?   How did they figure out the route?   Making their way through the thick sholas must have been slow; within no time, these men were caught and brought back.

Were they punished?  No record of that.  Whipped, most probably! The second attempt followed soon after in July, the next year. With heavy rain lashing the hills, another group escaped the temporary sheds and made their way through impenetrable forests towards the coast.  Many police search parties set off in chase.  The convicts were apprehended near Calicut.  The weapons carried by the police were found on the Chinese.   This, together with the fact that one of the search parties did not make it, made it all the more ominous.

Sure enough!  The search for the missing policemen continued.  Trackers found their bodies, in the middle of September, half way down the Sispara Ghats.   The decomposing bodies, or what was left of them after the birds and beasts had their fill,   were in a line with the chopped off heads neatly placed on the shoulders.
Some of the other Chinese prisoners who served out their sentence, married local Tamil women and settled down near the cinchona plantations, at Naduvattom.  These men made a living herding cows, cultivating coffee and vegetables.
A distinctively Chinese looking temple near Naduvatton , on the Mysore-Ooty Road.

Today, Naduvattom is a typical village in the hills with shops lining the road.  As you pass you wonder what happened to the Chinese Tamils who once lived here.