Thursday, 16 February 2017

Assam Tea, Bruce Brothers & Maniram Dewan

A Scotsman, Robert Bruce is credited with the “discovery” of tea in Assam in India. I think that it is anachronistic that 70 years after the end of colonial rule in India, we still continue to use the colonists’ ideas about discovering the world, so that if something was not “discovered” by the west, it did not exist.

And if we want to credit Robert Bruce for having “discovered” the tea in Assam, why do we forget the name of the person, Maniram Dewan, who had made it possible for him to make the discovery? (Image below: Statue of Maniram Dewan at the Freedom Fighters Memorial, Guwahati, Assam)

This is the story of two brothers from Scotland and an Indian. The names of the Scottish brothers are known for the discovery of tea while the Indian is known as a freedom fighter. I think that there were more links between them than is commonly believed. This post explores these ideas.

Discovery of the tea in Assam

It is said that in 1823, a 17 years old boy Maniram Dutta Baruah helped Robert Bruce to find the tea bushes in Assam. He took Robert to meet the chief of Singpho tribal village, who collected wild tea in upper Assam. Unfortunately, Robert died in 1824. The further “discovery” and development of Assamese tea is credited to his younger brother, Charles Alexander Bruce.

History books do not tell, how and where did Robert Bruce come in contact with Maniram and what was the relationship between them. However, later the same Maniram became an important figure in the freedom struggle of India in Assam.

Historical Background

In late 1500, Venetian merchants introduced tea from China to Europe. By 1610, Portuguese and Dutch traders were bringing Chinese tea to Europe. Tea drinking became popular in Britain in 17th century, especially after King Charles II married Catherine of Breganza from Portugal, who liked to drink tea. Import of tea from China increased and became costly.

In the 18th century, East India Company (EIC) started selling opium to China and by 1773, it was their leading supplier. By starting Opium cultivation in India and using this opium to pay for the Chinese tea, the profits of EIC increased.

In the 18th century, the British had started looking for alternate places for growing tea in their colonies. For example, Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society in London, in a letter dated 27 December 1788 to the deputy chairman of East India Company explained that Bihar, Rangpur (in Assam) and Cooch Bihar (in W. Bengal) could be suitable for tea growing in India. He suggested to EIC to “convince” the Chinese tea growers to bring tea plants and start tea plantations in India.

In 1833, the Chinese agreement with EIC about the supply of tea in exchange of opium ended. China informed EIC that they did not want to import opium as it was hurting the health of their population. The British troops with Indian soldiers attacked China, forcing them to continue to accept opium. Well known author Amitav Ghosh in his wonderful trilogy of books starting with the “Sea of Poppies” has explored this issue in some detail.

In the same year, 1833, Lord Bentick of EIC constituted the Tea Committee in Calcutta and charged it with the task of growing of tea in India.

Tea traditions in Asia and Pre-British India

Tea drinking has a long tradition in China. From China it spread to neighbouring countries. Ancient records show tea drinking in Korea in the 6th century and in Japan in the 9th century CE.

Tribal communities in contiguous geographical areas of India, China and Myanmar had known tea shrubs for hundreds of years.

The Singpho tribe which had helped Robert Bruce to find tea shrubs in Assam, is spread over neighbouring areas of Myanmar and China. They are called Jingpo in Myanmar and Xunchu in south-west China (especially Yunnan). They call themselves Jinghpaw Wunpawung. They are most numerous in Myanmar in the geographical area of Kachin (and are also known as Kachin), with significant groups in south-west China and some groups in north-east of India (in Arunachal Pradesh and Upper Assam).

The main species of the tea shrub in China is Camellia sinensis while the tea shrubs found in Assam were of its sub-species, Camellia assamica.

The Bruce Brothers and the Discovery of Tea in Assam

Robert and Charles Alexander Bruce were born in Edinburgh, Robert in 1789 and Charles, 4 years later in 1793.

Life of Robert Bruce: In 1807, 18 years old Robert graduated as an army cadet. Soon, he was part of the EIC army. It is not very clear when exactly did he reach India. For a few years, he was in the Maratha regiment and later in Bengal Artillery, for which he received a pension from EIC.

In 1814, the 25 years old Robert was living in Bengal, where he supported one Mr Brajnath’s claim to be the king of Cooch Bihar. Both Brajnath and Robert were arrested by David Scott, agent of EIC Governor General in Assam, but Robert was given a bail.

In 1817, Burmese forces occupied Upper Assam, however this did not stop the fights between different Assamese kings. In 1820 Robert had joined the army of Purandar Singha, in Rangpur (part of present day Sibsagar in Assam), in his fight with Chandrakant Singha for the Ahom throne of Upper Assam. In 1821, Robert was captured by Chandrakant, who asked him to become part of his army. Thus Robert changed sides and became a fighter for Chandrakant Singha.

By this time, he was also the owner of a factory (probably, an opium factory) at Jogigopho near Goalpara (Assam) and he had maintained contacts with EIC.

In 1823, 17 years old Maniram took Robert to meet the chief of Singpo clan village called Bessa Gaum and showed him the local tea shrubs. Robert knew that the British were looking for indigenous tea plants for growing tea in Assam. However, before he could do anything with his new found knowledge, he died in early 1824 at the age of 35 years.

Life of Charles Bruce: Robert’s younger brother, 16 years old Charles Alexander Bruce, had left Britain in 1809 on a ship as a midshipman. In the following years, he was involved in the Napoleonic wars between Britain and France in the Mediterranean Sea. He was captured by the French navy and kept as a prisoner in Mauritius. He was freed when the British took over Mauritius. He also took part in the EIC war in Java (Indonesia).

We don’t know when exactly did Charles arrive in India but in 1824, when his brother Robert died, he was living in Assam. After his brother’s death, he sent the Singpo tea shrubs to the Botanical Garden in Calcutta.

In 1824, EIC decided to launch a war against the Burmese in Upper Assam (first Anglo-Burmese war). Charles was part of this war, responsible for a gun boat. In 1825, British were able to defeat and send back the Burmese. After the war, Charles became the Gun Boat commander at the British outpost in Sadiya to the north of Dibrugarh.

The role of Nathaniel Wallich: Meanwhile there was no news from Calcutta about the tea shrubs Charles had sent there. Nathaniel Wallich, the director of Royal Botanical Gardens in Calcutta travelled to western parts of India in 1825 and to Assam and Burma in 1826-27, coming back with thousands of specimens of plants. In 1828, he went to London with 8,000 samples of plants. Four years later, in 1832, he came back from London and informed Charles that the tea shrubs samples from Assam sent in 1824 were not the real tea plants.

In 1833, when the tea treaty with China expired, a Tea Committee was formed in Calcutta, with G. J. Gordon as its secretary. Nathaniel Wallich was also a member of the committee. Gordon was sent to China to procure the tea plants and expertise for growing tea in India. In the meantime, Gordon’s assistant, Mr Charleston sent more samples of Assamese tea shrubs to the Horticultural society, which confirmed that these were real tea plants. Gordan was called back from China while Charleston was given a gold medal for the discovery of the Assamese tea plants.

Charles' efforts to show his tea-growing expertise: Charles Bruce was based in Sadiya, and he had continued to study the tea plants of the Singpo. His expertise was recognised by the EIC Tea Committee and in 1835, he was given the tea seeds brought from China and asked to grow them. However, the results of growing Chinese tea seeds were disappointing. In 1836 Charles took the Singpo tea plants and started a cultivation in Sadiya, samples of which were liked by the tea committee in Calcutta. In 1837, Charles sent his tea to London where they reached in 1838 and were auctioned with great success in 1839. Finally Charles and his Assam tea became famous.

In 1839, Wallich and Charleston had to agree that the original plants collected by Robert and sent by Charles were the real tea plants and thus finally Bruce brothers’ contribution to “discovery” of tea was recognised by EIC.

In 1839, Wallich accompanied by other botanists visited Upper Assam including Sadiya. Following this visit, Charles was appointed as the Superintendent of Tea Culture in Assam. In 1840, he became the superintendent of northern region of the newly created Assam Tea Company.

In his new role as the tea expert, Charles made different suggestions to the EIC. For example, in his report to the Tea Committee dated 10 June 1839, he suggested to them to involve Indians in running the tea plantations and to bring labour for the tea plantations from other parts of India. He was against the production of opium in Assam and recommended to levy taxes on opium import because opium caused misery and opium addicts were not fit to work in the plantations.

His suggestions were not accepted by EIC. In 1845, Charles Bruce was discharged from Assam Tea Company and he retired to Tezpur where he died in 1871. His wife Elisabeth, continued to live in Tezpur and died in 1885. Both Charles and Elisabeth were buried in the old cemetery of Tezpur.

Dewan Maniram Dutta Baruah

Maniram was born in 1806, his family was employed by Ahom kings in Rangpur. In 1817 when the Burmese occupied Rangpur, Maniram was 11 years old. His family left Rangpur and took refuge in Bengal.

In 1823, 17 year old Maniram accompanied Robert Bruce to Bassa Gaum village of Singpo tribe along the Burhi Dehina river (today it is called Dihing river and is north of Sivasagar town). At that time, Bruce was part of the Chandrakant Singha army.

Initially, in 1825 the British were reluctant to administer the vacuum left behind by the departing Burmese in Rangpur. Wars between the rival factions of Purandar Singha and Chandrakant Singha continued for some years. However, Assam was divided by EIC into two Zilla (districts) – Senior and Junior Khunds. In 1828, Maniram was appointed by David Scott of EIC as the Tehsildar and Shrishtidar of Junior Khund (Upper Assam). He was based in Rangpur, the site of Ahom kingdom.

Due to the wars Maniram was not able to exercise his role of Tehsildar properly and revenue collection for the EIC was not satisfactory. Therefore, at the beginning of 1832, finally Purandar Singha was nominated to be the ruler of Upper Assam and was asked to pay an annual tribute of one hundred thousand rupees to EIC. Maniram became his Borbhandar (Prime Minister).

However, Puruandar Singha did not pay the annual tribute to EIC. In 1838, EIC decided that they needed to control Assam if it was going to produce tea for Britain. Thus they instituted an enquiry. The British claimed that “tribute was not paid because of general system of corruption encouraged by Purudar Singha”. They also claimed that his subjects were oppressed and misgoverned. Thus in 1838, the British deposed Purunder Singha and exiled him out of Assam on a small pension. Upper Assam was then annexed by proclamation. Thus the entire Brahamaputra valley from Cachar in the south Assam to Sadiya in the North came under British control.

In 1839, Maniram was nominated the Dewan of Assam Tea Company (ATC) under Charles Bruce and placed at a tea plantation in Nazira, to the east and south of Rangpur. It is said that he was not fluent in English. However he wrote in Assamese - he had written about history of Assam (Buranji Viveka Ratna). English translations of his writings on the art of gold-washing in the rivers of Assam and on the cultivation of Assam silk were also published.

In 1839 a group of Indian entrepreneurs including Radhakanta Deb, Dwarkanath Tagore and Prasanna Kumar Tagore created the Bengal Tea Association and proposed to take over the Government tea plantations. Later this was merged in the British dominated Assam Tea Company.

In 1841, a letter by an ATC official William Princep praised the work of Maniram. In 1842, the chairman of ATC praised Maniram for having opened new tea gardens and for having increased the income of the company.

In 1845, when Charles was removed from ATC, Maniram also resigned and started his own tea plantations, first at Cinnamara near Jorhat (on the road from Jorhat to Mariani) and then in Singlo near Rangpur. While British plantation owners received concessions from EIC for receiving land, Maniram started his plantations without any EIC support. However, the British planters did not like it and in 1851 his plantations were taken over by the East India Company. (Image below: An abandoned hospital at a tea garden in Cinnamara near Jorhat)

In 1852, Maniram presented a petition to the Sadar Court in Calcutta, where he argued for bringing back the Ahom kingdom by giving back Upper Assam to the descendants of Purundar Singha. He also asked the British to reduce the taxation and to stop the opium cultivation. His petition was rejected by the court.

He joined the son and grandson of Purundar Singha in a bid to install them at the Rangpur throne. On 6th May 1857 he presented another petition asking for reinstatement of the descendants of Purundar Singha as the legitimate heirs of the Ahom kingdom. Four days later, on 10 May 1857, the revolt against the British rule broke out in different parts of India. Maniram made contacts with other Indians fighting against the British and participated in making plans for an attack against the British in upper Assam. However, these plans were not successful.

Maniram was caught by the British at the end of August 1857 and hanged in Jorhat on 26 February 1858. (Image below: Freedom memorial in Jorhat depicting tea planters and the freedom struggle)

Relationship between the Bruce Brothers and Maniram Dewan

Robert Bruce was a mercenary fighting for Ahom kings while Maniram’s family worked for the same kings. Probably that was where they had met and that is why in 1823, Maniram had accompanied Robert to the Bessa Gaum to meet the Singpo chief.

After Robert’s death, while Charles went to Sadiya, he had continued to visit the tea shrub areas. In 1828, the 22 year old Maniram was made the Tehsildar of Rangpur. This must have provided them opportunities for meeting regularly. In 1839, both Charles and Maniram held important roles in ATC and worked closely. In 1845, Charles was removed from his post, soon after Maniram resigned.

The recommendations of Charles Bruce to the EIC in 1839 and the petition presented by Maniram to the Sadar Court in Calcutta in 1852, were very similar. Both touched on similar issues and used similar language.

Even though there are no documents about any links between Charles and Maniram, I think that there was a close relationship between the two. Perhaps, Charles had advised or inspired Maniram to start his own tea plantations. Descendants of Dewan Maniram Dutta Baruah, who have access to his papers and family stories can confirm if they have more information on this issue.


It sounds a bit funny to me to read that tea was discovered by Robert Bruce. I think that the term “discovery” should relate to new knowledge. In this case, the knowledge about tea plants was known to persons like Maniram who had taken Robert to the Singpo village. The Singpo tribals had known the tea plants for many centuries.

Instead of saying that the Bruce brothers discovered tea in India, it would be more appropriate to say that Bruce brothers and East India company played a key role in setting up of tea plantations in Assam and in the commercialization of tea.

History books mention only the name of the Bruce brothers while the role of Maniram is limited only to as someone who had accompanied Robert Bruce for his first meeting. In reality, the role played by Maniram was much bigger.

The spread of tea plantations in Assam and West Bengal also had a negative aspect, about which so little is known - millions of indentured labourers, who were told lies and brought to work in dismal conditions in the tea gardens from other parts of India. This exploitation lasted almost a century.

Unfortunately, even Independent India did not stop this exploitation of tea garden workers and even today, the conditions of many of the them continue to be very dismal. But then, that is a completely different story. (Image below: Tea garden workers doing maintenance work in a tea garden near Tezpur)

Note: Though I consulted a large number of documents to piece together the different parts of this story, I would specifically like to acknowledge the following: An account of the manufacture of the black tea as now practiced in Suddeya in Upper Assam, by C. A. Bruce, Calcutta, 1838; Tea in Assam and the Bruce brothers, by Derek Perry; Impact of Bengal Renaissance on Assam 1825-1875, by Amalendu Guha.



  1. congrats sunil for a great piece. Thanks for the info.

  2. Great to read, Thanks for sharing.

    1. Rupam, your appreciation from Assam means a lot to me. Thanks :)

  3. Buy Loose Leaf Tea, Earl Grey Tea, Royal Masala Chai, Assam Tea offer finest flavor & health benefits

  4. Great effort in joining all the facts together.For the first time I got a detailed lucid illustration
    about "discovery" of Assam tea.

    1. Thanks Shyamal for appreciating the effort. I had spent a couple of months researching the documents of this story in 2015-16 while I was based in Guwahati, and it was very satisfying to write it. :)

  5. Very interesting, superbly researched and well presented. A fascinating insight into the development of the tea business in India which most often focuses on the role played by Robert Fortune in smuggling tea plants out of China.

    1. Thanks Geoff for your appreciation. I deliberately didn't touch on the story of Robert Fortune, which has been subject of a couple of very nice books. :)

  6. बेहतरीन जानकारी

    1. आप को सराहना के लिए धन्यवाद


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