Guwahati, April 20: India is known for its rich history in tea, but the origin of this story begins with Maniram Dutta Barua, a key player in the Assam tea industry.
The North Eastern Tea Association recently launched a year-long celebration to commemorate 200 years of Assam tea, which began with Barua’s efforts. He was an Indian and Assamese employee of the British East India Company who eventually became India’s first commercial tea planter.
Barua was born into an aristocratic Assamese family who had fled to Bengal following the Burmese invasion in 1817. Six years later, they returned home, where the British had won control of Assam during the Anglo-Burmese war.
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Barua used his knowledge of the lay of the land to lead the British army into Guwahati, and he was initially pro-British. At the time, the British Empire was trying to break the Chinese monopoly over tea.
In 1823, Robert Bruce, a Scottish naval officer, found himself caught in the battles and affairs of the Ahom kings and the Burmese. Barua is thought to have told Bruce about plants that grew wild in parts of Assam, whose leaves were brewed by the Singpho people.
Bruce met Beesa Gam, the Singpho chief, and after his death in 1824, it fell to his brother, Charles, to pursue what his brother had started.
Barua, meanwhile, progressed in his career with the British East India Company, eager to avail himself of the economic opportunities created by the new regime while retaining the aristocratic privileges of the old days.
Ten years after Bruce died, the wild plants of Assam were officially recognized as a species of Camellia sinensis by Nathaniel Wallich, superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Gardens, and the tea industry began to take shape.
In 1839, the Assam Tea Company was formed, and Barua was appointed dewan a year after the British dethroned Purandar Singh. He set up several gardens for the company but had his own ambitions. By the time he resigned in 1845, Maniram Barua owned two tea gardens, Cinnamara in Jorhat and Senglung in Sivasagar.
Barua was keen that the Ahom kingdom be restored, even if only in a titular fashion. When that didn’t happen, he joined the protests that began with the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. He was arrested and publicly hanged on February 25, 1858. His commercial success, it is said, became his undoing.
Barua was a man of ambition and enterprise who fearlessly set out to create the first commercial tea plantation by an Indian. His legacy lives on through the celebration of Assam tea, and his story highlights the complex history of colonialism and economic opportunity in India.