This fascinating map provides an extremely detailed overview of several of Assam’s finest tea gardens. The map covers a key section of the Darrang District, in the Behali area, located between the Brahmaputra River (in the south) and the Daphla Hills (in the north). Executed to large scale of 1 inch to a mile, the map provides a stellar depiction of land use in the heart of best tea country in India. Forests and tea gardens are coloured in green, while farm fields are coloured in yellow. The named tea gardens of Rangagarh, Barbil, Ketela, Monabari, Berhal, Bedetti, Barguli, Singli, Helem are depicted. Importantly, the various facilities and infrastructure of the various gardens are depicted, including the ‘Factories’, ‘Coolie Lines’ (residences of the tea workers); while a “bungalow” on the Barbil estate is noted in manuscript.
Additionally, the map labels the two short narrow-gauge railways that were built to transport tea and equipment between the Rangagarh and Ketela Gardens and the Barjuli and Behali Gardens. The map also labels numerous villages; areas of huts; roads; post and telephone offices; as well as ‘Steamer Ghats’ (places along the Brahmaputra where vessels could be laded for transport downriver, often to Dacca).
The map, while separately issued as standalone work in and of itself, is part of a large-scale sectional survey, this being sheet no. 83 F/5. It is predicated upon advanced surveys undertaken in 1914-15 and was published by the Survey of India at their headquarters in Calcutta in 1917.
The survival rate of such maps produced for active use in the field India is very low. The present map is extremely rare – we cannot trace a reference to another example.
A Brief History of Assam Tea
For the last 180 years or so, the Indian region of Assam has been world famous for producing some of the world’s finest teas; with the Darrang District being the heartland of production.
Assam is one of only two parts of the globe (the other being Southern China) where tea trees are native, being home to the Camellia sinensi var. assamica variety. The ultra-high-quality black tea produced by the trees thrived on the fertile Brahmaputra lowlands, which were generally well-watered, and nourished by the annual monsoons. The indigenous Jingpo people had long brewed tea from the assamica trees, although this source remained unknown to Europeans until relatively recently.
Tea was one of the great cash crops of the early modern era. The British East India Company (EIC) had for generations gone to great expense and effort to import tea to Europe from China, although supply was at the mercy of the Middle Kingdom’s tempestuous internal affairs.
In 1823, the Scottish adventurer Robert Bruce encountered assamica trees growing in the wild in the Darang area, and made contact with the Jingpo chief Bess Gam, who introduced him to the tea brewing process. The Jingpo gave Bruce samples of seeds and leaves. However, Bruce died suddenly later that same year and his discoveries remained on ice.
Shortly thereafter, the EIC conquered Assam from Burma during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-6) and was given title to province by the Treaty of Yandabo (1826). While the British were long established downriver in Bengal, they knew very little about Assam, and numerous merchants, soldiers and explorers fanned out across the region to gain knowledge of what was a lush and magnificent land.
In the meantime, Bruce’s brother, Charles, was able to acquire the tea samples that had been collected by the late adventurer. He dispatched them to Calcutta where experts at the Botanical Garden discovered that the samples were of a variant of the Chinese tea tree, hence called the variant assamica. Further scientific testing in London recognized the tea brew’s stellar quality, with its malty, brisk flavour and bold, bright colour.
The EIC constituted a panel of experts, the Tea Committee (1834), to figure out how to best exploit Assam’s tea. It was decided that cultivating trees that were of a hybrid of the Chinese and Assamese varieties would create the best product. In 1839, the colonial authorities placed the tea industry under the control of the Assam Company, which in turn rented land to private planters. The British used the ‘Wasteland Acts’ to confiscate land in eastern Assam (including in Darrang) from the local peoples for the creation of tea gardens under the dubious premises that if the land was not already cultivated by European standards, it was therefore ‘wasted’ and needed to be redeemed. This caused immense resentment amongst the local peoples, many of whom refused to cooperate with the tea industry, creating a shortage of labour. The British decided to import Han tea workers from China, but they did not adapt well to their new environment. Eventually, the tea planters imported Indian labourers from other parts of the Subcontinent, but that also presented challenges.
While the tea industry continued to expand over the next two decades, with new gardens opening every season, the plantations were not especially productive, due to poor infrastructure and variable, often poor, growing techniques. A capital-intensive enterprise, many tea gardens folded after only a few seasons. The planters also treated their labourers horribly, as little better than slaves, and this hardly helped to improve efficiency.
In 1861, the tea industry was reformed and individual planters could buy land and tea gardens. This led to improved external investment and a greater sense of responsibility and discipline on the part of the planters, who quickly assumed great local power, and came to be known collectively as the ‘Planter Raj’. It was only beginning in the 1870s, that new technologies and improved infrastructure allowed the for much improved production, on more uniform, high standards. In 1888, only two years before the present map was made, the region’s tea planters united to form the Indian Tea Association, a powerful lobbying group that would formalize the Planter Raj’s status for the rest of the colonial era.
The Assam tea industry, backed by heavy global demand and continuously improving production, surged and eventually eclipsed China as the leading tea producer in the world. Today Assam’s tea estates collectively yield approximately 680.5 million kg of tea per annum.
References: N / A – No other examples traced.