Tea drinking originated in China and the word tea is derived from t’e of the Chinese Fukien dialect. The Dutch introduced it to Europe. In Cantonese, tea is known as Ch’a and this is the name by which this wonderful beverage came to be known in Japan, India, Russia, Iran and the Middle East. The first authentic reference to tea was made in an ancient Chinese dictionary revised by Kuo P’o, a celebrated Chinese scholar in AD 350. At that time a medicinal decoction was made by boiling tea leaves. Use of tea as a beverage commenced towards the close of the sixth century. During the two succeeding centuries tea gained enormous popularity. The first exclusive book on tea, Ch’a Ching meaning ‘Tea classic’ by the Chinese tea expert Lu Yu was published in AD 780 in which he has described various kinds of tea, their cultivation and manufacturing in China.
However, apart from Japan, tea drinking did not spread to other parts of the world until about the middle of the seventeenth century. The opening of a sea route to India and the East by the Portuguese in 1497 facilitated large-scale trading between Europe and the Oriental countries. Other European nations soon followed the Portuguese in establishing trade centres in different countries of the East. The Dutch in Java established one such depot. They bought tea from Japan and the first consignment was transhipped from Java to Europe in 1610. This marked the beginning of the lucrative tea trade between Europe and the East. The Dutch dominated the tea trade for more than a century finally yielding to the British. China was the sole supplier of tea to Europe till the middle of the nineteenth century.
Tea gained a strong foothold among the affluent sections in Europe within 50 years of its first introduction into the continent. In about another 100 years it became an article of daily use in a large part of Europe and Britain. Tea also became popular in America, which was then a British colony.
Discovery of the Assam Tea Plant
The discovery of the Assam tea plant is attributed to Robert Bruce who is supposed to have seen the plant growing wild in some hills near Rangpur (near present Sibsagar), then the capital of Assam, during his visit in 1823 on a trading mission (Ukers, W.H., 1935, All About Tea Vol. I. Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Co., New York). He made an arrangement with a Singphow (a tribe) Chief to supply him some tea plants during his next visit, though it did not materialize due to his death. Instead, his brother, C.A. Bruce, in charge of the British Gunboat division in the war with the Burmese occupying Assam in 1824 and posted at Sadiya met the Singphow Chief who supplied him some tea plants and seeds. Most of these seeds were planted in Bruce’s garden at Sadiya and some were sent to Commissioner Jenkins at Gauhati. A few leaves of these plants were sent to Botanical gardens in Calcutta. Dr. N. Wallich, who was then the Superintendent of Botanical Gardens, identified the leaves as belonging to the Camellia family but did not consider them to be of the same species as the China tea plant.
In 1834 the then Governor General of India Lord William Bentinck appointed a Tea Committee to advise on feasibility of commercial tea cultivation in India. The committee issued a circular asking for information on areas suitable for tea cultivation and sent its secretary Mr. G. J. Gordon, to procure tea seeds, plants and workers from China. In response to the circular, the Commissioner of Assam, Major F. Jenkins, made a strong case in favour of tea cultivation in Assam where tea plants were growing wild in forest. He also collected complete specimens of the local plants and forwarded them to the Government Botanical Gardens in Calcutta. On this occasion Dr. Wallich had no difficulty in identifying the specimens as tea, and the plants were not different from the tea plant of China. Upon this, the Tea Committee recommended that the indigenous plant under proper management be cultivated with complete success for commercial purpose.
A scientific commission was constituted in 1835 with Dr. N. Wallich, Dr. W. Griffith and Dr. J. McClelland to report on the Indian indigenous tea plants and to advise on the most favourable localities for starting experimental tea gardens. The Scientific Commission visited Assam in early 1836. Mr. C.A. Bruce, acting as guide, took the members to a number of tracts at the foot of the Naga and Patkai hills as well as to a few in the river valleys where the indigenous tea plant was growing in clumps. Having seen the tea bushes Dr. Wallich expressed the view that there was no need any more to import tea seed from China, while Mr. Griffith favoured import of the China seed because a wild plant is not likely to give as good a produce as one that has been cultivated for centuries. It was finally decided that the China plant and not the degraded Assam plant should be used for the Government experiments. The Commission failed to come to a general agreement regarding the most favourable localities for establishing experimental gardens. Dr. Wallich favoured the Himalayan region while the other two favoured Upper Assam where wild tea existed. So Mr. Gordon was sent again to China in 1836 and for many years China tea seed was imported regularly into India. From these seeds, nurseries were raised in the government Botanical Gardens in Calcutta and the plants were sent to Upper Assam, Dehra Doon, Kumaon and the Nilgiri hills.
The experimental-site at Saikhowa near Sadiya in Upper Assam was not proper where many plants died. The surviving plants were shifted to a new site near Chabua about 25 kilometres east of Dibrugarh. In the Himalayan region, tea seedlings were planted near Bhimtal and Almora. Later on, experimental gardens were successfully established with China plants in Kumaon, Garhwal and Kangra districts on the Himalayan foothills. Of the plants sent to the South, a few survived in Nilgiris and a small lot in Wynaad on the western coast.
Apart from establishing experimental plots of tea with the China plants and seeds, C.A. Bruce who was then appointed as the Superintendent of Government tea plantations, raised nurseries of the indigenous tea plant also. He has also explored a large part of the territory from Sadiya to Gabru Purbat in Upper Assam and discovered numerous tea tracts inside forests. Some of these tea tracts were cleared and the leaves gathered from the bushes were manufactured with the help of workmen brought from China. The first experimental samples of tea from the indigenous plants were sent to Calcutta in 1836. The samples received favourable comments, whereupon an invoice of eight chests of Assam tea was forwarded to London in 1838, which was auctioned on 10 January 1839. This was a momentous occasion because not only did it establish the worth of the Assam tea plant but determined the future course of tea cultivation throughout the world. Today, more tea is made from the Assam type of plants than from the China type.
Mr. C.A. Bruce was awarded the English Society of Arts medal, presented through the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of Bengal, for his contribution in the discovery of Assam tea plant. Major Jenkins and Captain Charlton disputed this decision and staked their claims for the honour. Acrimonious correspondence followed but eventually both of them also received a medal each from the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of Bengal. The only person who did not receive any award was Robert Bruce who is considered to be the real discoverer of the plant. According to some sources (Baildon, 1877, Tea in Assam, Calcutta) the tea plant of Assam was discovered by a local Assamese nobleman Maniram Dewan, who later worked in the Assam Company for some time. It is possible that Maniram Dewan brought the plant to the notice of Robert Bruce during his visit to Rangpur in 1823. The role of the Singphow tribe of Assam in bringing the local plant to the notice of the outside world cannot be ignored. It was a Singphow Chief again who supplied tea plants and seeds to C.A. Bruce. Another Singphow Chief prepared 35 out of the 130 chests of tea, which C.A. Bruce sent to Calcutta in 1841. This clearly shows that the Singphows must have been familiar with the plant and were making and drinking tea from antiquity.
(These historical information have been drawn from the book ‘Science and Practice in Tea Culture” by Dr. D. N. Barua, TRA Pub., p509, 1989)