The Chinese, Tea and the Nilgiris

I was getting deeper and involved in a topic that I was researching on, getting really engrossed tracking the movements of medieval Chinese sailors crossing the China seas to go to places like Quilon and Calicut. The answer I was seeking was elusive and some of the books and material I had at hand were not getting me the answer, and Google results were also not too cooperative. In one of those quirky moments, it directed me to a nice blog by Nina Varghese writing tales about the blue mountains of Nilgiris. The article was about a group of Chinese convicts in Nilgiris. I recalled vaguely about the mention of these people by Edgar Thruston in one of his anthropology books and also Muthaia’s book on the planters. While the latter had been returned to the library months ago, the former was very much at hand and so with a huge load of thanks to Nina for directing me to the story she started, let me get started.

Tea – That was what it was, and just the other day, I had come across two women animatedly discussing the very subject of which Indian tea bag to buy - Tetley? Or should it be Lipton Red label or Green? Or should it be Wagh bakri? I did not quite get to the end of their heated discussion, and at home we stick to red label. Wagh bakri is nice, but then all these things are related to what you are used to. If your home brew was always based on red label, you will stick to it and not venture into some mild stuff like Earl grey (btw that is a Chinese tea which has orange oil added to it!!!) that the haute bourgeoisie imbibe. As they say, not my cup of tea, meaning each has his preference. It is a pity, some of these blue blooded (or so they think) characters believe tea drunk in the western world comes from England, while it is mostly from Ceylon or various parts of India. In America I guess some may even think chai is a Starbucks invention. Interestingly, China has only the light pale green tea whereas dark teas of the 19th century mostly originated from India. Know what, I was at the library the other day and picked up the hefty copy of the book “The history of the Indian tea industry” by Sir Percival Griffiths. The librarian took a good look at me, and at the book, then started turning over the pages with immense interest. I asked “is that the most obscure loaner you have come across?” and he said, ‘not exactly, I was a bit surprised seeing a book like this, as my research subject was Chinese tea’. I had gone through Muthaia’s planters book while researching the coffee story, but anyway this article is not exactly about tea, as you will soon find out, but sort of touches the topic, like a gentle sip off a cuppa..

The topic that Nina wrote about intrigued me, and though I had written on coffee earlier, tea was enticing me today. I set out on a tangent, forgot about the Chinese sailors and went after the Chinese convicts, to get to the bottom of the story, and I tell you, it was not easy. The search turned up umpteen results and all of them were from vested interests, plantation histories and reports which reeled out the same information. They stated authoritatively that the tea at Thiashola was cultivated by Chinese prisoners of war, captured by the British during the Opium Wars. Well, was that right? What were the Chinese doing in faraway Nilgiris?

Let’s get to the opium wars, starting with the first, though I will not dwell too much on it. There were two of them, the first 1839-1842 and the second 1856-1860, all a result of the trade disputes and quarrels between the Chinese Qing dynasty and the British. Around 1729 or so, large scale opium consumption started when the British started selling Indian cultivated opium in large quantities in Canton. As you can imagine, it was a massively lucrative trade for the English and when the Qing banned it in 1729, later in 1796 and 1800, the traders got upset, though consumption ended up increasing. In 1838, Lin Zexu decided to act and took authoritative action by destroying the opium hoards and confining the foreign traders to their homes. The stronger British retaliated heavily with their armed forces, imposed the treaty of Nanking and got Hong Kong in return. Still the situation did not turn out favorable to the British and this resulted in the second Opium war. China called it their ‘century of humiliation’. Peter Perdue in his essay explains that during the wars, a large percentage of the forces the British relied on to impose themselves in China were Indian sepoys identified in reports of the time by such phrases as “Bengal volunteers” and “Madras native infantry,” in addition to substantial contingents of Irish and Scottish troops. Both sides took captives and the impression held at the time was that Chinese often treated Indian prisoners more harshly than their white captives, but there is no proof about that. In any case, both sides engaged in abuse of prisoners, wanton plunder, and other barbarous behavior.

So many prisoners were taken by the British and well had to be incarcerated. Transportation, which we talked about earlier in connection with the Andamans, was a profitable solution for the British. In China for example, it cost them about $36 to maintain a prisoner inland, for a year, and if they were transported to another colony, which took over their care, a one-time payment of $30-$60 was all that needed to be paid. So, many of these poor souls were thus transported to Sind, and to other British colonies and India. The Chinese hated it and equated it to death fearing that they will never again return to their land, and the other punishments were considered in comparison, trivial and bearable. Many committed suicide to avoid transportation. This went on for some time, till shipping costs increased. The government covered the increase with a grant, and so a trickle of various kinds of Chinese and other prisoners from Singapore, Canton and Malaysia hit Indian shores. We see mentions of them housed in Coimbatore & Madras jails and if you choose to look deeper, you will see them mentioned here and there. What their crimes were is not known, but they landed up in environs they were not used to, against their will. With a despondent life ahead of them, what could they do? The Chinese of that time either gave in, or were lost in solitude, thinking about their bad joss. Usually they would have sat like a stone and stared at the distance and infinity, with a cup of green tea in their hand, but what if they had no tea and were in Coimbatore?

One of the things you notice while traveling in China is their absolute dependence on green tea. Wherever they are, they are sipping little amounts of green tea from their thermos flasks. They have their favorite tea pouches or leaves in their handbags for any eventuality. Even in airports, where liquids are not permitted through security, they carry the flasks without tea, but with the leaves. Just after the security and before boarding, there is a counter where they handover their empty flasks, which are then topped up by a lady behind the counter, with boiling water so that they can sip their tea while boarding or on the flight. You see them sipping the liquid in the metro, in taxis and in buses. One thing they would thus have lacked in the 1850’s when they landed up in India was the tea they were used to. Coffee was perhaps available, though not for prisoners. Tea was of course being planted in the Assam regions since the 1820’s and was a popular plantation crop already, but had not found its way south.

As the hoary legend puts it, some of these prisoners were sent for hard labor to the Nilgiris where the British were trying various forms of cultivation, primarily Coffee, Tea and Cinchona. They had some seeds with them and they planted it to provide the Nilgiris tea we know of. Well, it is an interesting story really, but I did not quite believe it. The introduction of tea was of course based on seeds from China, but was first done even before the Opium wars, in the North East. How about in the Nilgiris?

Well, Let us start at the very beginning – it’s a a very good place to start – as the song went from the Sound of Music.. How did tea drinking start? Did it start with the Bodhidharma’s eyelids dropping off to the ground as a Chinese legend goes? As you can see from my earlier article, he lived in the 6th century. But then tea drinking in China may dates even further back, to the Tsin dynasty of 3AD or can more authoritatively be traced to the 4th century. The Chinese were very specific, every tea had to be matched with the water of a particular locality so as to taste correct (not like ours where kannan devan tea is perhaps mixed with the most effluent tainted water from the local river, at the roadside tea shop). By the 7th century it was very popular in China.

The English were involved in the transfer of tea growing to India after problems with Chinese sourcing, though tea could be found in the courts of Mughal kings even before that. Serious efforts started around 1793. It is explained that in 1780, Robert Kyd experimented with tea cultivation in India with seeds, the consignment of which was stated to have arrived from China. A few decades later Robert Bruce discovered tea plants growing wild in Upper Brahmaputra valley around 1823. In 1833 the East India Company's monopoly of the Chinese trade came to an end. Around this time, it also appears that a number of Chinese labor was introduced in Assam to do planting and making tea the right way. Many came on their own to these areas, due to abject poverty in China. In May 1838 the first Indian tea from Assam was sent to England for public sale. It was received with much pleasure even though it was somewhat damaged during transit. But steady supply was not easy, due to the problems in Assam with the opium smoking local labor. Their descendants were to pay a price (1962 war) though, after a century, which can be termed the most unfortunate. When I read about it, I was astounded, and so I will perhaps get to it another day and for sure invoke the ire of many a reader, for my opinion on the matter may be scathing to say the least. Anyway between this time and 1870, it became a cash crop and a tea mania of sorts happened in Assam, kind of like the Teak mania and Manjium mania in Kerala, some years ago. Speculation ran high and many lost their fortunes. But then we will leave Assam and the Chinese of Assam for now. Now let us venture south, and go higher, up the hills, unlike the plains of the Brahmaputra.

We have to go back to 1833 when Asst Surgeon Christie noticed that tea is similar to its cousin the Camelia that grew abundantly in the Nilgiris. So he ordered some tea plants from China, but as luck would have it, he died before they reached him. The plants were promptly distributed and planted. But nobody cared too much and it was later in 1838 that Pondicherry governor Perrotett rediscovered them and brought them to life. The hand cured tea leaves were considered excellent by enthusiasts. Next was Mr Mann who brought a large crop of seedlings from China to the Conoor tea estate. This tea was also considered excellent in London, but Mr Mann had by now got fed up trying to acquire land and so on. Efforts continued until 1869 and the arrival of Commissioner Breeks before it gained popularity. Now I guess all this must have been boring for the lay reader. What has it to do with Chinese? Were there any of them in the plantations?

Now is when the story takes its hoary turn. As the legend goes, around this time, presumably 1839 or so, there was a batch of Chinese prisoners in Nilgiris. As Sir Griffths puts it, it is an improbable legend which stated that these Chinese prisoners were responsible for instructing these planters in the manufacture of tea. Anyway from 1867, there was a steady growth in the manufacture of tea and around a few hundred thousand pounds of tea left these estates regularly. Later on, there were many issues related to workers unrest, bonus issues and so on. However South Indian tea could not quite rate up to Western and Arabian tastes, then. Later the industry was hit by the world wars, communist unrest and so on. But let us leave such discussions to those interested in the tea business and the planters themselves; let us find out what the Chinese were doing in Nilgiris.

For that we have to get to know yet another plant, the Chinchona plant. This came to India from Peru, and involved transplantation by a British subject, like the tea. It was used to produce Quinine important in the treatment of Malaria and was thus a cash plant. Again, it was well known to the Chinese. One Mr Money introduced it in the Nilgiris, around 1860.

From now on, I will thank Nina Verghese and quote from her resourceful blog. I was surprised to see the mention of Vanya Orr, whom I had come across and communicated with during my study of Collector Connolly. For now, let’s go to a place called Naduvattam, in the Nilgiris.

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. 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 Nilgiris gained popularity. Cinchona was planted in a woody ravine on the slopes of the Doddabetta. Labor was scarce and many of the government and private plantations used convict labor to clear the jungle and to plant cinchona. The convicts were mainly Chinese from the Straits Settlements and some from mainland China. After they served their time, these Chinese men married Tamil women and settled down to live in Naduvattam; making a living out growing vegetables and from dairy farming.

Specifically these Chinese prisoners were originally brought to Madras and were used in the construction and in laying the railway lines. The need for labor both on the plantations and in building construction was great. Chinese prisoners were brought from Madras for this purpose. Some of the prisoners were assigned to the building of Lawrence School, in Lovedale, where they were lodged in temporary sheds.

There are stories of them trying to escape and as the record goes, some of them escaped after killing a police posse that was in hot pursuit. These men lived in the bushed, made a living herding cows, cultivating coffee and vegetables. Ajayan in his article in the Asian age however puts it this way -

History has it that after the Opium War between China and Britain, the Chinese prisoners brought to Kozhikode were forced to trek to Nilgiris with sacks full of tea seeds. They were jailed in the Thiashola forest reserve and made to plant tea. The oldest bush is still preserved in the estate that formally began operations in 1858.

The British House of Commons papers Vol#43 provides the copy of a letter from the Supdt Dehradun Botanical gardens to the Madras conservator of forests where he states that he has no Chinese tea makers to send to Nilgiris, but that he can send native trained people instead, on a 3 year contract. So it must have been common to move these Chinese supervisors who were in great demand. Manual labor was done by small batches of Chinese and Chinese-Malay convicts as we saw earlier to plant tea and Cinchoma.

Were these Chinese convicts used elsewhere in the tea estates? Perhaps they were used in the cultivation efforts in Nilgiris if one were to go by what happened in Maharashtra. We hear of another mention from the hill station of Mahabaleshwar. Mahabaleshwar was a jail with 120 prisoners for Chinese & Malay convicts from 1834 to 1864, and they were sent there due to health issues they had with the heat in the plains. The principal labor in which the prisoners were employed was the construction of station roads. They were also frequently employed in preparing arrow-root for the Commissariat Department. The Chinese greatly improved the station gardens; and it is owing, in great measure, to their industry, that potatoes and English vegetables have been so great a success. They also taught the inhabitants to make cane baskets and chairs. When the Jail was abolished in 1864, the majority of prisoners obtained tickets of leave, and some of these were permitted to remain on the hill, on condition of presenting themselves on the 1st of every month at the Superintendent's office.

According to planter KJ Tanna, who again restates a legend, Thiashola Estate in Nilgiris was opened out in 1859. Chinese prisoners were brought to India from China in 1859, and jailed in the Nilgiris in two camps, one at Naduvattam and one in the Thiashola Reserve Forest. A plaque still commemorates the "Jail Thottam" (prison garden) where the prisoners were housed. The Thiashola Tea Estate, where the Chinese prisoners planted tea is now mistakenly called Thaishola tea estate.

Now let us see what Thurston had to say when he encountered this peculiar Chinese Tamil descendants of the Nilgiris convicts near Naduvattam. Thurston says that while Hindu tribals asked money before they were measured or photographed, the Chinese in Nilgiris subjected themselves to his research willingly, and only wanted a copy of his photographs of them. The Chinese father was unhappy that during his conversion, he had to cut away his tail. The children were distinctly oriental in looks. According to him, the naduvattom Hoooker estate factory was built where they once had a jail which housed Chinese convicts from the Straits settlement. After the expiration of their sentence, they settled in Naduvattam and Gudalaur. According to another writer Mr Rust, they were quite muscular and energetic and were happy with the rice diet in South India and Ceylon plantations. Some were even willing emigrants from mainland China with the English.

Nina’s blog provides pictures of the remnants of these people, the locations where they lived, a temple with distinct Chinese lines of architecture and so on. Interesting isn’t it?

And I remembered my distant country cousin Appan, the tea taster and his stories, but well, I guess you have had too much of tea for today, so lest I drift away, let me make use of the sparingly used punctuation tool of rambling writers, the full-stop or as they call it in the USA, the period.


Nina’s article
Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841-1880 - Christopher Munn
Nilgiris – W Francis
“The history of the indian tea industry” by Sir Percival Griffiths
Madras presidency - Thurston
Mahabaleshwar – DB Parasnis
Madras district gazetteers, Volume 1
Coffe, Anybody?

Note: I study all these estate stories with a lot of fondness, for that is where my parents lived when I was a child. I have been in all these places during my younger days – Talapoya, Mango range, Murugali, Valparai, Conoor, Ooty, Mango Range, Valparai....and many more. That was a different world, believe me. Sometimes I envy people who live there, like Vanya, Kalyani and Nina...



kallu said...

Maddy this is such a coincidence that I am reading this post which includes such a lot of fabulous history of the Nilgiris today!
Just this evening, there was a lot of talk about history and the Chinese prisoners who were jailed in the Jailor mattom by M.R.Srinivasan at the Nilgiri Library. The occasion was the release of the book 'Merchants of Tamilakam' by Kanalatha Mukund. It was a historic occasion too because this is the first time a book is being released at Ooty! A lot of history in that book. And also present was Gurucharan Das. He is the series editor. They are bringing out a series of 15 books on the economic history of India from the Sangam ages to Independence. Im sure you will want them :-)
Thanks for a well researched and great post as usual.

Maddy said...

Thanks Kallu..
That is certainly a coincidence. So kanakalatha released a new book? I have her 'trading world of the tamil merchant'. should get my hands on this. she is a meticulous writer.

Nina Varghese said...

Hi Maddy, thanks for your interest. you keep saying `hoary'. does that mean that you don't quite believe that there were chinese prisoners in the nilgiris? my reference was mainly the imperial gazette, which i see that you have also accessed.
the first batch of prisoners seems to be from the Straits Settlements and would most probably have been pirates and captured during sea battles - maybe you could throw more light on that..the chinese prisoners from the opium wars came later.

Maddy said...

Thanks Nina..
I meant Hoary as in 'ancient' and time worn. There is no doubt that there were Chinese prisoners in Nilgiris, but the point was their connection to tea as some of the planters sites mention. We do know of their connection to Cinchona, but their bringing seeds and planting tea is not quite right, I believe.
Also the straits settlement prisoners were sent to Madras due to overcrowding. Then they were moved for gainful work to all these places. The assumption is that they were malay chinese. I did read about their possible connection with piracy, but it is more likely that they were in for some crimes committed in Singapore & Malaysia. Alternatively it could have been following the first Opium war.

Bernard said...

Nicely done!. This reminds me of Sarah Rose's book- "For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History".

Maddy said...

thanks bernard.
am in India for a couple of weeks
have not read Rose's book. is it good?

Calicut Heritage Forum said...

A great post, indeed! Well-researched and lucid. One wonders why the Straits Chinese could have been transported to India. Apparently, there was a cleanup of the crime scene in Singapore around the last quarter of 1800 and they might have been shifted to India. However, we need more clarity on this.
Your mention of Naduvattom took me back some 40 years in time to the wonderful time I had in this small hamlet whose only redeeming feature was the Medicinal and Essential Oils Factory, a little away from the bazar. There used to be a Nambiar hotel (the only place one could get any meal) and the walk back from the hotel to the Medicinal Plant in the dark and fog laden evenings would send shivers down one's spine - having heard of the resident ghost hovering around a big rock formation. But, Chinese - one never was told of these. One must get back to Naduvattam (30 kms. before Ooty while travelling from Calicut)and discover the Chinese of Naduvattom. Thanks for a very interesting post!

Rajesh Thomas said...

A very interesting article. Regarding the Name of Thaishola estate, it is also said that some areas of Thaishola were opened using the workers from the Thia Community brought from Kerala, Hence the name Thiashola which later changed over time to Thaishola. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this story, but more than one person has said the same.

I see from the places you mention where you grew up you father would have worked in the erstwhile CWS ( Now Parry Agro) I also grew up in the Annamallais. My father planted with BBTC Limited. Which year did you live in the Annamallais.

Bernard said...

Rose's book was worth reading, especially if you are Botanically inclined, you will like it.

Maddy said...

Thanks CHF. Initially teh straits prison housed the Chinese and Chinese Malay prisoners. When it became crowded, they shipped a FEW to India.

It was a hallowed spoy perhaps!! BTW in the MT book Nalukettu, the protagonist goes to Wynad right?

Maddy said...

Thanks raj,
It was a long time ago, the early to mid 60's. Am not sure about Thiashola

Maddy said...

Thanks Bernard,
will check it out

Nikhil Narayanan said...

Maddy - off topic: Please have 'Like'/'Share' buttons, no? Convenient when I have nothing to add, but want to express a 'Thank you'. :)

sandeep said...

Maddy - great reading. Long ago, I had heard that chinese prisoners were involved in building Lawrence school, Lovedale(I'm an alumni) but I never believed it. Thanks for doing the research and confirming!
While in school, we did notice a small chinese population in and around Ooty (Shinkows restaurant, shop owners etc) but never had a clue of they emigration.
I enjoy reading your history pieces on Calicut and Malabar. Keep up the good work!
PS I'm also a Kozhikodan in the US (Maryland)

Maddy said...

thanks nikhil..
where have you been?
will try & add that, need to work out the facebook like code, i saw some hints somewhere..

Maddy said...

thanks sandeep
glad to get your inputs and good to hear you liked this.. keep in touch

James Ajoo said...


After researching few internet based information on the same chinese who came to South India, I ended up in this page mentioning of Sir Griffith and Muthaia's book on Tea plantation. I am more of personal researcher of this indepth origin of the tea cultivator who migrated to India or were brought here to India for a certain purpose such as for tea cultivation.

If you have read both the books, then you would have noticed a name of that chinese tea maker who is infact a great great grand father of mine, John Ajoo.

Please do write to me if you have more and promising informations and we could share some history that we were handed done and the ones the books talk about.

James Ajoo

I have plenty to do with my research and may be write a book about my ancestors from the tea district of China (Hoo)

James Ajoo said...

Do you have a copy of the following books:

Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841-1880 - Christopher Munn
Nilgiris – W Francis
“The history of the indian tea industry” by Sir Percival Griffiths

If so, could I ask you for a favor.


Maddy said...

thanks james,
nice hearing from you.
will write to yous eparately

Sam said...

Great Job Maddy, I was doing to some research on the Chinese Convicts of Mahabaleshwar
Good work
Do have a look at my blog
Thanks again

Maddy said...

thanks sam,
welcome to my blog..
glad you liked this
will check out your articles as well

Unknown said...

amazing one and i loved it ... thanks maddy

CeylonTeas&WorldTeas said...

Hi! MAddy. Nice writing. I like to invite you to come and write some good tea artices for Social TeaV. We are in Tea Journalism and TeaTV to educate the general public and everyone about teas. Love to see your stories and history facts. You can contact me at www.SocialTeaV.Com And thanks Manoj for posting this.

Indianature said...

Very interesting and informative write up.

I always thought that Thia was a spelling mistake for Thaishola!

I am a regular visitor to the Nilgiris, Anamalais and Mahabaleshwar. On my last trip to Mahabaleshwar I noticed a Tea Research Institute for the first time, though I am sure it was set up in the British days. There is a Cinchona area in Valparai too.

Maddy said...

thanks manoj
glad you liked it

thanks ceylon teas,
i will get in touch when i do the next tea article

thanks indianature..
years ago, my dad spent some time as a doctor in anamalais, valparai and so on...

Himlynx said...

Thanks Maddy. "Some of the prisoners were assigned to the building of Lawrence School, in Lovedale, where they were lodged in temporary sheds."

I'm also an alumni and find this interesting. Yes, we know about the Chinese prisoners. Chinese coins were used in our time. We considered them inferior money because they could not be used outside Lovedale. Obviously, some of the later staff and students realised their value and have kept them.

Didn't realise the connection to Shinkow's. Still the favorite joint of the alumni.

Prem Rao said...

Enjoyed reading your blog post as an alum of The Lawrence School, Lovedale. Good of you to share so much detail about the Chinese. On the face of it, "Chinese prisoners at Naduvattam" sounds strange but as they say, history has a plausible explanation for every event!

Unknown said...

is it true that "tea could be found in the courts of Mughal kings"

Maddy said...

Thanks manoj
Yes it is mentioned so in a few sources.
Also an independent source of that period mentions
The earliest reference to tea in India was made by a German traveller in 1638. He writes that Indians (both Muslim and Hindu) “use tea as a drug to cleanse the stomach …” Eraly writes that tea was not grown in the region till the mid-19th century and whatever tea there was in India before this came from China.

Unknown said...

A very interesting article. Nicely done. Devans