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The Story of Chai — Part II: How Imperial India was Whipped into Growing Tea for the Raj

For my non-Indian readers, the ‘Raj’ is Indian colloquial for the British rule and is commonly used to refer to colonial times.

It’s the year 1833. The British Parliament has recently adopted the Slavery Abolition Act. Worried colonialists are (probably frantically) in search of new labour to replace the African slaves working for their various enterprises all over the world. Their search doesn’t go on for too long though. ‘Race scientists’ appointed by the crown identify the hardy tribal groups of Central and Eastern India as ideal contenders to replace African slaves. To facilitate the process of turning them into pliant labourers, inhabitants of the Chotanagpur and Santhal territories are subjugated into physical and economic dislocation by the British. Thus is born the system of indentured labour that replaced the British slave trade in the 1830s. Historian Jayeeta Sharma points out that the once fierce and feared tribal populations from Central and Eastern parts of India were transformed into obedient hill coolies by the ‘political and economic processes of colonialism’ and deployed to work as farm labour in various colonies.

Now, coming back to tea, the previous part of this series discussed the failure of the original scheme of employing Chinese tea growers in Assam. With the Chinese workers depleting in number, the Assam Company began scouting for labour among the local inhabitants . Local labour was inexpensive but hard to tie down. A village headman could supply labourers to plantations but he could not make them stay. Two-thirds of the population was known to be addicted to opium, which grew in abundance in Assam. It is not hard to imagine that these opium-using workers were slothful and unwilling to work. Drawing from the archives of the Assam Company, it also known that scarce population and better opportunities made the low paying tea plantation jobs unappealing to the locals. Given these circumstances, the Company realised the need to look for labour that was ‘cheap and easy to discipline’. The quest for such labour began in the 1860s.

The late 1860s saw the advent of the ‘sirdari’ system; wherein native labour contractors provided the plantations with thousands of labourers from Chotanagpur, Bihar, and eastern Uttar Pradesh regions of India. These migrant labourers came to be known as ‘coolies’. It is widely believed that the word has its origins in the Tamil language where ‘kuli’ means wages.

During this period, the British state was instrumental in creating a system of indentured labour for the tea industry in Assam. This system was sustained by harsh penal legislation where the planters had the right to ‘private arrest’. This meant that they could hunt down absconding workers and deliver punitive sentences. Although the Empire had legally done away with slavery, one can draw several resemblances between this indentured system of labour and slavery. For instance, Alick Carnegie, a tea planter, wrote in a private correspondence to his home: “We had awful work driving the coolies, we drove up and down the line and had to shove them on exactly as nigger drivers in America.”

The exploits of the British planters in Assam have been extensively documented. All these records indicate that the labourers who worked in the colonial tea gardens were subjected to the vindictive behaviour of their white bosses. Official investigations carried out in the years 1863 and 1873 in the tea plantations of Assam revealed that the labourers were not paid the minimum wage, the recruitment process was abusive, the transportation facilities were atrocious, and the poor living conditions resulted in high mortality rates. Since the planters had the right to private arrest, any coolies that would escape were subjected to severe punishment. Frequent instance of flogging a recalcitrant worker to death, sexual assault, and other equally vile forms of torture have been recorded in various archives and first-hand accounts.

In the next part of this series, I write about how tea eventually became a part of the post-colonial Indian cultural identity despite its foreign origins.


Ghosh, K. (1999). ‘A Market for Aboriginality: Primitivism and Race Classification in the Indentured Labour Market of Colonial India’. Subaltern Studies, Volume 10.

Sharma, J. (2009). ‘Lazy’ Natives, Coolie Labour, and the Assam Tea Industry. Modern Asian Studies, 43(6), pp. 1287–1324.

Butler, J. (1855). Travels and adventures in the province of Assam, during a residence of fourteen years.

Behal, R. P. (2010). Coolie drivers or benevolent paternalists? British tea planters in Assam and the indenture labour system. Modern Asian Studies, 44(1), pp. 29–51.

Behal, R. P., & Mohapatra, P. P. (1992). ‘Tea and money versus human life’: The rise and fall of the indenture system in the Assam tea plantations 1840–1908. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 19(3–4), pp. 142–172.

Tinker, H. (1974). A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830–1920. pp. 236–366.

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