Sunday, 10 June 2012

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.   

4 comments:

  1. I take it Nina that those plantations don't exist anymore? I hope not. That would be a modern day tragedy. The coldest parts of the Nilgiris are climatically suited for Cinchona, so we were taught. We spent days in the plantations as part of our degree course at Agricultural College Coimbatore...I hope that opportunity has not been lost.

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  2. Yes John, most of the cinchona has been cut down..though i do see some tenders for cinchona bark by the forest department. I feel the TN forest department should start replanting the area with cinchona as it might be effective against the new strains of malaria. Thanks for the support John

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  3. there one cinchona factory still exists, I dont know if they produce any cinchona now - prem

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