Joseph and the Chinese in Naduvattam

My blog on the Naduvattam Chinese caused a few pleasant ripples and was followed by more stories exploring the very same subject.  Recently, one reader, Mr. Mano Archibald did some ground level investigations in Naduvattam and ‘discovered’ the old jail buildings which initially housed the Chinese prisoners.

Photo courtesy: Mano Archibald. 

Naduvattam is a nondescript small town on the Gundalpet- Coimbatore National Highway 67 cutting through the hill towns of Gudalur, Ooty and Coonoor.

The old buildings, most likely the jail and the cinchona factory, are now with the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation (Tantea). Over the years, the buildings have been ‘modernized’ and ‘renovated’ with no attention to its historical worth. This is unfortunate but not surprising as it is the general trend; this national disregard for things historical and environmental seems to have grown to epidemic proportions.  Many readers have written in asking for more information of the Chinese in Nilgiris. So here goes. The information available online about these Chinese prisoners is vague.  But it is quite apparent that some of them were prisoners taken after the second Opium War (1856-1860) and transported to British colonies as was the common practice. Another lot were Malay Chinese from the Straits Settlements, convicted for either piracy or some other crime in Singapore or Malaya. According to a rather well researched blog, “Maddy’s Ramblings”, the Chinese prisoners were sent to the Nilgiris because of the overcrowding in Madras (prison).
There were two camps, one in Naduvattam and the other in the Thiashola reserve forest. According to legend, the earlier attempts to plant tea failed, so the Chinese prisoners were forced to teach the pioneer British planters the right method to grow tea and later how to cure and dry it.  Thiashola Tea Estate was opened in 1859 and was partly planted by the Chinese. Tea was also planted in Kotagiri by one Miss MBL Cockburn.
This brings me to Chinese Hill Estate, the name that so intrigued me and what set me on this search for the elusive Chinese.  I don’t know if the Chinese were used to plant this estate too. This estate, which has a spectacular view of the Mysore plateau, was owned by the Wapshare family and later changed hands.  Legend has it that a lady armed with a shot gun used to patrol the estate on a horse at night. If anyone made the mistake of wandering into the estate, she would shoot in their direction and yell out, “This is a warning shot, the next one is for you.”  But that is another story altogether.  The Hindu reports that in 1864 W.G McIvor, the man who designed and planted the Government Botanical Garden and who was also the superintendent of the cinchona factory in Naduvattam, asked the government to provide 500 Chinese workers for the cinchona plantations in Naduvattam as the local people were too lethargic.In the years that followed, some of the Chinese prisoners tried to escape from this malaria ridden forests; some of them, when they completed their prison term, settled down and married local low caste women.  Many years ago, there used to be a gardener called Joseph who tended the gardens in Nenagh. He had very distinct features, flat nose and slant eyes. I wonder now, if he was from Naduvattam.
Edgar Thurston, the superintendent of the Madras Government Museum and the author of the “Castes and Tribes of Southern India” (7 volumes) writes about the Naduvattam Chinese. He had done extensive research in anthropology and ethnography. During one of his anthropological expeditions on the western side of the Nilgiri range and right in the middle of the cinchona plantation, Thurston heard about this colony of Tamil Chinese, who lived between Naduvattam and Gudalur.These people were growing vegetables, a little bit of coffee and rearing cows for their living. Thurston writes, “An ambassador was sent to this miniature Chinese Court with a suggestion that the men should, in return for monies, present themselves before me with a view to their measurements being recorded. The reply which came back was in its way racially characteristic as between Hindus and Chinese. In the case of the former, permission to make use of their bodies for the purposes of research depends essentially on a pecuniary transaction, on a scale varying from two to eight annas. The Chinese, on the other hand, though poor, sent a courteous message to the effect that they did not require payment in money, but would be perfectly happy if I would give them, as a memento, copies of their photographs.” He goes on to describe a specific family: "The father was a typical Chinaman, whose only grievance was that, in the process of conversion to Christianity; he had been obliged to 'cut him tail off.' The mother was a typical Tamil Pariah of dusky hue. The colour of the children was more closely allied to the yellowish tint of the father than to the dark tint of the mother; and the semi mongol parentage was betrayed in the slant eyes, flat nose, and (in one case) conspicuously prominent cheek-bones."Joseph?

Must be the old cinchona factory

A old trap door. All nicely painted!

A new fitting on a old pump..

All photos courtesy Mano Archibald


  1. Lovely, especially the "Cut him tail off" ;)

  2. Nina, this is very interesting. Max Cocker, who studied in the Lawrence School, Lovedale, between 1931 and 1939, wrote an interesting book on his school life. Very few copies of the book were printed in a litho press in Sivakasi in the early 1990s, with innumerable typos. Cocker mentioned about the main building at Lawrence being built by Chinese prisoners. I later realised that Cocker was quoting from a copy of the Nilgiris District Gazetteer published in the later decades of the 1800s.

    The story that Cocker and the Gazetteer tell is interesting. During the construction, a group of prisoners escaped. A posse of soldiers led by a British officer was sent to search for them. The posse did not return. A second posse was sent in search of the escapees and the earlier posse. Near Sispara Pass, the second posse found the bodies of the first one, laid out in a row on the grass, heads removed from the torso. The Chinese blended into the population in the plains and were never found.

  3. Dear Nina, very recently I came to know about the history of Nilgiris. I read your articles in Teabox. Those are really amazing. I read, your grandfather worked in Tea Estates at 1914. Please make an account about the labours who suffered a lot by the Madras Plantation Act 1902 and about the people who migrated from deep south Tamil Nadu who forced to work at the estates. I wish you had written about the Indian Tamils who sent back to India from Sri Lankan estates. Simply, you are one of the reasons behind the respect I have for people in Hills..

    1. Thiya Smiles, This is an interesting suggestion. Will try to follow up..

  4. Hello Nina, hope you are fine. I am a grand son of Mr Paul Chinnappan who was the owner of the Chinese Hills, just 2 km from Naduvattam. I could remember his face and my grandma, Arokia Mary. My mother, Elizabeth (no more) had told me many stories about her childhood. My grandpa was a big landlord having 100s of cows, and Horse for riding. He used to come to Naduvattam along with my kid mummy for purchase along with bullock cart. .... and so on.....

    I was studying in Naduvattam in 1965 to 1971 in Government High School stayed in St Mary's Hill at St Sebastian Church hostel. I used to meet Mr Easwaran ( he was studying in 6th std) who was the son of the foreigner Bab sir (I even saw him).. He was the person who bought the Chinese Hill from my Grandpa.. and so on.....

    OK, how the name Chinese Hill came.. My grand father's grand father and six more persons had around 60 acres of land and lived the place which is still called Chinese Hill (yes all of them are from Burma I suppose or from China). But my grand father was tall with big round nose. He was a pukka hunter and used to go with Bob sir (I am not aware of his clear name) and one more person named Ulli Collins from Coonoor. He was interested to buy the Chinese Hill land from my grandpa who had promised to do so. But he did not keep up his word and sold to Bob sir, by which Collins got annoyed and was trying to shoot my grand pa... and so on... stories go like this...

    Happy that you went down deep in the history of Chinese hill at Naduvattam. In case of any clarification, kindly get in touch with me: I am presently a retired person in living in Palakkad. Thanks and best wishes

    1. Robs is an amazing information.Iam also deep interested in the history of Naduvattam.

  5. Neena Madam,It is very interesting

  6. Dear ma'am , Im a PhD scholar who has chosen to do research work on these Chinese community and would love to gater what ever information you have acquired to write this blog. Would you please reply to me over here? thank you


Post a Comment

Popular Posts