History of Tea Cultivation

Tea Research in India – The Perspective

Organised research in tea started in India as early as 1891 when a Joint Committee of the Indian Tea Association (ITA) and the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of Bengal appointed Mr. M. Kelway Bamber, a Chemist. Till then all important contributions towards growth of tea industry were the results of the untiring personal efforts of a few pioneers who had to struggle against heavy odds. Mr Bamber initiated work on chemistry of tea, soils and manures in an effort to understand the chemical basis of tea quality. The findings of this work were published in his book “The Chemistry and Agriculture of Tea including Growth and Manufacture” in 1893. The ITA then assigned Dr.George Watt, Entomologist, Govt of India the task of investigating the subject of Tea Blight and the potential of the plant Adhatoda vasica as an insecticide against tea pests.

Dr. Watt extensively toured the tea areas of Assam and Naga hills in 1895 and was convinced that the investigations could only be accomplished by conducting a series of long term studies. He published the findings in the book “The Pests and Blight of the Tea Plant” in 1898. Dr. Watt impressed upon the planters on the need for proper cultivation of the tea plant as well as protection from pests and diseases. He dealt with all aspects of tea cultivation like, plucking, pruning, manuring, drainage and even advised pipe drainage. Following his report, ITA proposed for appointment of a Scientific Officer for research on chemistry, cultivation and manufacture of tea. According to Dr. Watt, the proposed investigations were to include (1) study on the influence of environmental factors like soil, climate, moisture, topography
of the land, shade, proximity to jungles, etc., on the character of the tea leaf (2) chemical aspects of tea plants in relation to disease resistance, manure requirement, yield and quality improvement and (3) all stages of manufacture and also its relation with field operations. For this Dr. Watt suggested that the concerned scientist should have a strong Botany and
Chemistry background and should be supported by a local laboratory in addition to the Central Laboratory in the Calcutta Museum. However, the proposal could not be put into immediate effect for want of fund. In 1899, ITA with financial support from the Governments of Assam and Bengal appointed Dr Harold H. Mann as the Scientific Officer. He joined in 1900 and this heralded a new era in scientific research on tea in Northeast India.

Dr. Mann started work in the laboratory of the Government Reporter on Economic Products in the Calcutta museum. His work became so impressive from the beginning that both planters and Agency Houses appreciated it and made a concerted effort to augment research for the benefit of the Industry. In 1902, on the advice from ITA, Dr Mann prepared a project for expansion keeping the Calcutta laboratory as the Head Quarters. He suggested establishment of an Experimental station in the Central part of the tea districts, preferably in or around Jorhat as it was well connected by rail and river, the main means of communication at that time.

The station was to be like American Experimental Station with about 20 hectares of land to carry out experiments on methods of planting, manuring, plucking, pruning, etc., and their effects on the tea bush and quality. It should also be near to a factory and manned by an officer who should primarily be an agriculturist and organic chemist and supported by an entomologist and a mycologist.

Finally, the project received support from the Governments of India, Assam and Bengal and with contributions from ITA and various Tea Planters Associations, one station was established at Heeleakah Tea Estate, about 20 km south of Jorhat in 1904. The station was put under charge of Mr. Claude Hutchinson. The Scottish Assam Tea Company provided a bunglow, some old tea area and land for extension. By 1905, the station had 13 ha of land where experiments on (1) manuring method on quality and yield, (2) green manuring plants and (3) pruning, plucking systems were laid out. A chemical
laboratory was also set up in the station. The experiments also included studies on effects of temperature on fermentation and quality, mosquito blight and red rust. These studies could establish (1) importance of Dhaincha as green manure (2) efficacy of oil cakes and (3) no adverse effect of manures on tea quality.


Dr Mann studied the tea soils of Northeast India. He observed that tea plants grew in acid soils and responded well to manuring with oil cake and cattle manure. In many places he observed that tea roots suffered from waterlogged condition as a result of which microbial activities were impaired and the plants deprived of nutrients. He emphasised the need for proper drainage.

His work on fermentation showed that fermentation at 77-82°F temperature produced the best tea. He found that rapid withering or prolonged withering for more than 24 hrs yielded inferior tea and the flavour deteriorated if fermentation was carried out more than 3 hours. High temperature interfered with the desired reactions. He also devised a chemical method of measuring certain important elements in tea quality.

In 1906, another laboratory was opened at Kannykoory in Cachar where Mr. C. B. Antram joined as Entomologist and started work on three serious pests of tea. After the appointment of Mr. Claude Hutchinson, Dr Mann became the Chief Scientific Officer and continued up to 1907. The findings of Dr Mann were published in 34 pamphlets and reports. With Dr Watt, he has also revised the formers book on Pests and Blights of Tea Disease in 1903. Mr Hutchinson succeeded Dr. Mann in 1907 and Dr. G. D. Hope took over charge of Heeleakah station in the same year and became the Chief scientific Officer in 1909 on retirement of Mr. Hutchinson. Mr. P.H. Carpenter was appointed as Asstt. Scientific Officer at Heeleakah.

Research during this period contributed significantly to the enrichment of knowledge of tea soils, manuring, cultivation, plucking, pruning, green manure plants, tea seed nursery disease, red rust, blister blight, red slug caterpillar, bark eating borers, thrips, mosquito-blight, ferment and fermentation, taints on the packed tea, foundation of modern agricultural methods of soil management in tea besides focussing attention on major pests and diseases and manufacturing processes.

Towards the end of the decade, more attention was given for dissemination of the generated information amongst the tea planters. For this, officers during their visits delivered lectures at convenient centres.

The Government of India also provided manpower in some of these investigations. L. de Nice’Ville, Entomologist, Indian Museum participated in the study on tea mosquito blight and in fact, died of fever contracted during a visit to Terai for investigation. The Imperial Economic Mycologist investigated the canker of tea and another tea seed disease. The Mycologist, Government of Madras in 1910, contributed an article on blister blight in Darjeeling.

However, as continuation at Heeleakah seemed impossible primarily for want of labourers, ITA had to look for another site for the station and a final report on the work at Heeleakah was published in 1910.

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)