Tea Industry in Darjeeling Hills 1856 - 1921

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The Tea Industry in Darjeeling

The establishment of the tea industry in Darjeeling is due to the enterprise of Dr. Campbell, who was appointed Superintendent of Darjeeling at a time when attention was being attracted to the possibility of starting and developing the cultivation and manufacture of tea in the territories under the East India Company. In 1834 the Governor – General, Lord William Bentick, had appointed a committee “for the purpose of submitting a plan for the introduction of tea culture into India.” This committee was apparently ignorant of the fact that in 1821 Major Bruce, and in 1824 Mr. Scott, had discovered the tea plant growing wild in Assam; and much expense and considerable delay were consequently incurred in bringing plants and seed from China, and importing Chinamen to teach the people of India how to grow the plant and manufacture tea. Satisfied that a great future might lie before the industry, Government itself under too the formation of experimental plantations in Upper Assam and the districts of Kumaon and Garhwal; in 1839 private speculation took the field, and the Assam Tea Company was formed.


In 1840 Dr. Campbell was transferred from Kathmandu to Darjeeling, and there started the experimental growth of tea. It was soon found that the plant throve readily at this altitude, and others began to follow Dr. Campbell’s example, seed being distributed by Government to those who desired to cultivate the plant. Writing in 1852, Mr. Jackson says in his Report on Darjeeling - “I have seen several plantations in various stages of advancement, both of the Assam and China and the seeds are full and healthy; the plant, and I have found the plants healthy and vigorous, showing that the soil is well adapted for the cultivation. In the garden of Superintendent, Dr. Campbell, in Darjeeling, in the more extensive plantations of Dr. Withecombe, the Civil Surgeon, and Major Crommelin, of the engineers, in a lower valley called Lebong, the same satisfactory result has been obtained: the leaves, the blossom and the seeds are full and healthy; the reddish clay of the sides of the hill at Lebong seems to suit the plant better than the black loam of Darjeeling. This has been the result at and about Darjeeling itself, at a height of 7, 000 feet; but the opinion of the Dr. Hooker and of others competent to judge seems to be that there is too much moisture Dr. Hooker and of others competent to judge seems to be that there is too much moisture and too little sun at Darjeeling to admit of the cultivation on a large scale becoming remunerative: this objection, however, does not apply to the lower sites of Pankhabari and Kurseong, where a plantation of both tea and coffee has been established by Mr. Martin, and the plants are now in a highly-thriving condition. In this tract of country, between the Morung and Darjeeling, every variety of elevation and aspect is to be found, and there seems to be little or no doubt that tea cultivation in that tract would answer.”


These plantations appear to have been merely experimental plots, but by the year 1856 the industry began to be developed on an extensive scale, especially on the lower slopes, as it was believed that the elevation of Darjeeling was too high for the plant to be very productive. According to the account of a contemporary writer, tea plants had been sown and raised by the end of that year at Takvar to the north by Captain Masson, at Kurseong by Mr. Smith, at the Canning and Hope Town plantations by the Companies attached to those locations, by Mr. Martin on the Kurseong flats, and by Captain Samler, the Agent of the Darjeeling Tea Concern, between Kurseong and Pankhabari. At the same time, Government endeavoured to supplement the efforts of these pioneers of the industry by distributing several maunds of tea-seed among the native cultivators. The writer doubted, however, whether the erratic disposition of the Lepcha would allow him to wait four years before he reaped the fruits of his labour; and the event has proved the correctness of his judgement.

The year 1856 may accordingly be taken as the date at which the industry was established as a commercial enterprise. In that year the Alubari tea garden was opened by the Kurseong and Darjeeling Tea Company, and another on the Lebong spur by the Darjeeling Land Mortgage Bank; in 1859 the Dhutaria garden was started by Dr. Brougham; and between 1860 and 1864 four gardens, at Ging, Ambutia, Takdah and Phubsering were established by the Darjeeling Tea Company, and the gardens at Takvar and Badamtam by the Lebong Tea Company. Other gardens which were started at this early period were those now known as the Makaibari, Pandam and Steinthal tea estates. All these estates are situated in the hills, but about this time the planters bean to turn their attention to the Terai (Tarai), where experimental plantations had already been started. Here, in 1862, the firsts garden was opened out at Champta, near Khaprail, by Mr. James White, who had previously planted out the Singel estate near Kurseong, which is still one of the largest gardens in the district. Others followed suit, and by the end of 1866 more gardens had been opened out in the Tarai.


In the meantime, however, the development of the industry in the hills had been even more rapid as the suitability of the soil and climate to the growth of tea became apparent; Government offered land to investors on favourable terms; and the industry rapidly developed. By the end of 1866, i .e., only ten years after the establishment of the industry on a commercial basis, there were no less than 39 gardens with 10,000 acres under cultivation, and an outturn of over 433,000 lbs. of tea. In 1870 there were 56 gardens with 11,000 acres under cultivation, employing 8,000 labourers and yielding nearly 1,700.000 lbs.; and in 1874 the number of gardens had increased to 113, the area under cultivation to 18,888 acres, the outturn to 3,928,000 lbs., and the labour force to 19,000 souls. In other words, between 1866 and 1874 the number of gardens under tea was almost exactly trebled, the area cultivation increased by 82 per cent, while the outturn of tea was multiplied nearly ten times. Since that time the industry has progressed steadily until no less than 50,600 acres, or 79 square miles are under tea cultivation. The following table illustrates the advance which has been made during the last 30 years : -

Year Number of Gardens Area under cultivation in acres Out turn of tea in lbs
1874 113 18,888 3,927,911
1885 175 38,499 9,090,298
1895 186 48,692 11,714,551
1905 148 50,618 12,447,471

From this table it will be seen that during the last ten years there has been but little extension of cultivation owing to the fact that all the land available and suitable for tea within the area reserved for it has now been taken up, while the number of gardens has been reduced in consequence of the amalgamation of several estates. Of the 148 gardens now in existence, 71, with an area of 25,800 acres under tea, are situated in the Darjeeling thana, which includes the Kalimpong hills to the east of Tista (Teesta). The latter portion of the district is however almost entirely closed to tea, both because the greater part of the tract is a forest reserve, and because most of the remainder has been reserved for native cultivation. Nearly 30 square miles have been reserved for tea, but the land, as a rule, is so barren and precipitous, and so unsuitable for the growth of the tea plant, that notwithstanding the eagerness for grants of tea lands, little of it has been taken up, and the few gardens being worked, which are on the lower slopes adjoining the Duars, comprise only 10 square miles. Of the remaining tea gardens, 46 with an area of 16,900 acres under tea are situated in the Kurseong Thana, i.e., on the lower hill slopes; and 32 estates with an area of 7,900 acres under tea lie within the Siliguri thana i.e., within the Terai (Tarai). The development of the industry in the latter portion of the district has had to contend against serious drawbacks. It is an extremely unhealthy tract, it has suffered severely from blights, and it has been further handicapped by having it labour drawn away to the Duars. The result is a tendency for the Tarai tea estates to fall into the hands of native managers and owners, while elsewhere the industry is almost entirely under European supervision and management, and is supported by European capital.


In addition to the 50, 600 acres actually under tea, which in themselves constitute one third of the total area under cultivation, the tea estates in the district include 49, 300 acres which have been taken up by planters but have not been planted with tea. The total area occupied by the land leased out to the various tea estates is thus approximately 100, 000 acres or a little less than one-seventh of the total area of the whole district. The industry is now the staple industry of Darjeeling, and its importance may be realized from the fact that no less than one-third of the entire population reside on the tea gardens and that the manufacture and cultivation employ a labour force amounting, according to the census of 1901, to 64,000 coolies. At the same time, there is not much more room for further extension, as in the area reserved for tea cultivation almost all the land capable of being planted with tea has already been taken up. The only extension possible appears to be that gradual slow extension which goes on from year to year within the areas of the different gardens wherever labour and land are available for clearing an additional few acres. It is true that the district contains large areas on which tea could easily be grown, but they are either covered by valuable forests or are in the possession of native cultivators; and the land occupied by the latter has been so improvished and bared of forest that it would require a long rest before it would be suitable for tea.


Since the year 1897 the industry has undergone a period of severe depression; the prime cause being overproduction, which was brought about by reckless extensions to India, Ceylon and java, following upon a time of high prices and great prosperity. Other factors have united to render the position more acute; notably the depreciation in the value of the rupee since he standard of exchange became fixed, and the crushing increase in the duty on tea which has been imposed in Great Britain, though considerable relief has laely been given in regard to the latter. The natural expamsion of the tea trade, the opening of new markets on the Continent, and the steady supplanting of the Chinese article in the Australian, American and Russian markets has now resulted in the demand having overtaken the rate of production, so that the prospects of the industry are distinctly favourable. The most promising feature in the situation is that in future the crop from Ceylon is likely to show a decrease, rather than otherwise, because much of the area under tea in that island is being rapidly inter-planted with rubber trees.


Most of the area in Darjeeling has been planted with the China variety which was for many years considered the only kind suited for the production of fine tea. Some planters of experience still hold to this view, thought it is now a very rare thing for the pure China planted to be planted. Of late years the variety known as the “Assam indigenous” has been much in favour, and it is certainly capable of producing the very finest tea; but it is very delicate and with anything like rough treatment soon becomes so weak as to be unremunerative. A good hybrid from these two varieties, and gives a good yield, but the tea produced is almost invariably coarse and rank in flavour. These three are the principal varieties of tea at present cultivated; but recently a distinct variety has been found in Formosa, of which some specimen plants are now being raised.


The most important factors in the production of tea of good quality are soil, weather, [wiki:blight]s and management. Being a mountainous district, Darjeeling contains many varieties of soil, but that which has proved most suitable for the growth of tea is a loamy soil well supplied with nitrogen. Those estates which produce the finest quality have almost invariably, at least some fields which contain a chocolate coloured ferruginous soil, which, on analysis, is found to contain a high proportion of phosphoric acid and potash.

The rainfall varies greatly in different parts, owing to the configuration of the district, raning from 150 inches a year on slopes facing the plains to 70 inches in some of the valleys about 20 miles north. There is a similar difference between the temperature at different elevations, tea-fields at the bottom of the valleys having a tropical temperature like that of the plains; while it is only 2 degrees above that of London at the height of 7,000 feet, which is within the zone of hte plant. Other things being equal, the tea at lower elevations produces the larger crops. There is a great profusion of leaf in the hot damp heat of the lower valleys and the Terai, but, on the other hand, though the crop is smaller at higher elevations, the quality is distinctly better.

Darjeeling tea is famous for its perculiarly fine flavour; but the quality produced varies greatly in different parts of hte district, and varies also remarkably at different seasons of the year on the same estates. It is indeed not uncommon for teas produced on the same estate two months later or earlier, as the case may be. The finest teas are usually produced from the second growth, just before the advent of the monsoon rains, and again at the end of the season, when the growth has become slow and the sap thick. It is a generally recognized fact that the teas produced during the rainy season are watery and poor.


As regards the pests and blights which attack the tea plant, their name is legion; and it will suffice to mention only the red spider, the mosquito blight and the green fly. The red spider first appeared in 1876 in the dry hot valley of Little Rangit, but is now general in the Terai and the Hills. Nowhere has it been eradicated, but an effectual remedy is found in the application of sulphur. The mosquito blight has long done serious damage in the Terai and the Mahanadi valley, and of late years has carried its ravages into the hills. The green fly is looked upon with some favour, because although it reduces the crop to some extent, its action is such as to produce conditions favourable to the development of good quality in the tea.


It is a well known fact that when plants of one variety are raised in the immediate neighbourhood of an inferior class, the seed of both becomes more or less hybridized, owing to insects carrying pollen from one flower to another during the flowering season. For this reason, it has been customary to establish special fields for seed trees, in remot places by themselves, where the finer class of plants are supposed to be out of reach of hybridizing influences. The seed trees in such cases are not used for producing leaf, but are allowed to grow naturally, without pruning, so as to yield the largest crop of seed possible. Some planters, however, have objections to this plan, chiefly because the Assam indigenous grows to a heigh of 25 to 30 feet, and when attacked by blights is very difficult to treat; while the blights are almost certain to be communicated to their progeny by means of the seed. When the seed trees are kept to a moderate height by pruning and plucking, the crop of seed is very small, but it is proportionately good. The importance of selection, in the case of both seed and transplants, cannot be overrated. The seed from plants which have proved to be not only high class, but also blight resisting, is sure to give the best results; and this is the only seed fit for propagation.

1. Darjeeling, by the Revd. T. Boaz, LL. D., Calcutta Review, Jan 1857.
2. Selection from the Records of the Bengal Government, No. XVII.
2. L S. O Malley – Bengal District Gazetteers – Darjeeling 1907, “I am indebted to Mr. Claud Bald of Takvar for the account of the manufacture and cultivation of Tea. For further details, Mr. Bald’s monograph “Indian Tea” (Calcutta, 1903) may be consulted.
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