Society for Economic Anthropology Book Prize, Society for Economic Anthropology
Fair trade and organic tea does not translate into fair pay for tea workers in India, says Sarah Besky, author of The Darjeeling Distinction.
Chowrasta, Darjeeling town's central plaza, is the hub of early morning activity. Up and down "The Mall," the paved circular walkway that leads in and out of Chowrasta, macaque monkeys and homeless dogs compete for scraps of food for their morning meal. Students from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute jog and practice calisthenics, dressed in matching polyester tracksuits. On clear mornings, the plaza draws vista-seeking tourists, anxious for a view of Mount Kanchenjunga, the Himalayan peak to the north and the world's third highest mountain, and the deep verdant tea plantations in the valleys to the east and west. The Mall and its bent and broken colonial-era iron fencing creates a perimeter around the Mahakhal Temple, and most mornings find older Tibetan women and men performing kora, a walking meditation that takes the form of circumambulation around a sacred site, thumbing prayer beads and quietly meditating as they make their way along the path. The word chowrasta appears in many Indo-Aryan languages, and in each, it is best translated as "crossroads." In Darjeeling, Chowrasta marks the convergence of several roads, each leading up into town along a ridge that runs north to south, roughly perpendicular to the Himalayas.
Seen from Chowrasta, the tea plantations that spread down the ridge to the east and west appear as a "natural," even beautiful foreground to the high Himalayas and the towering Kanchenjunga, a carpet of green below the blues and grays of the mountains. But the tea landscape, like Chowrasta, was formed through the confluence of multiple historical, political, and ecological factors. Scholars of the Himalayas have long acknowledged that this mountain region is a unique contact zone between Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman influences, but Chowrasta's bandstand, the paved strolling paths, and the homes that dot the roads leading out of the plaza are ever-present reminders of the colonial presence in this landscape. More importantly, the living landscape, from the tea bushes to the towering evergreen duppi trees, which were imported and planted by the British, constitutes a botanical contact zone.
Contemporary Darjeeling has emerged over, around, and within material (and lively) colonial infrastructures, from Chowrasta to the tea bushes in the valleys below. Darjeeling's potholed roads, dried-up water pipes, mildewed bungalows, overgrown duppi, and even its fields of tea bushes are what Ann Stoler calls "imperial ruins": material symbols of British colonialism for Darjeeling residents, from tea pluckers, to merchants, to planters. In this chapter, I use the imperial ruins of Darjeeling as material conduits for stories about the development of Darjeeling and its plantations, and as deteriorating reminders of the role Nepalis, British imperialists, and the climate itself continue to play in the life of the place.
At first, it might seem strange to couch tea bushes and trees as "ruins," but seen as part of what Stoler calls an "ecology of remains," we can understand ruins as anything but static. Indeed, they are "visible and visceral senses in which the effects of empire are reactivated. . . . To think with the ruins of empire is to emphasize less the artifacts of empire as dead matter or remnants of a defunct regime than to attend to their reappropriations and strategic and active positioning within the politics of the present."In other words, Darjeeling is a living and lived-in "imperial formation"-a landscape manufactured by both human and nonhuman actors and experienced as a set of material, symbolic, and social relationships.
In this chapter, I tell stories about how a few imperial ruins-statues, botanical gardens, tea bushes, and tea plantation factories-have become reappropriated and positioned in the present, using those stories to narrate key moments in Darjeeling's colonial past. Tea workers and townspeople often reminded me that the successes of the Darjeeling tea industry would never have been achieved without the British. To Darjeeling residents, this history of colonization has become visible in Darjeeling's landscape of imperial ruins, the social and material remains that Darjeeling residents were, in Stoler's words, "left with" after the colonial period.
The term landscape has two important meanings. In one sense, a landscape is a static, looked-upon, talked-about material world. In a second sense, a landscape is a moving, dwelt-in world. For anthropologists, ideas about and experiences of landscapes inform one another to produce "place." Making place means making political, economic, or social use of the landscape's past, or perhaps even inventing or revising it. In the chapters that follow, I describe several forms of such place making. As Stoler argues, some imperial ruins "are stubbornly inhabited to make a political point, or requisitioned for a newly refurbished commodity life for tourist consumption." Stoler's theories are grounded partly in her work amid the remains of Javanese sugar plantations, but her thoughts fit the ways in which Darjeeling's ruins are looked at and lived in. Tourists dostill come to the area looking for vistas of tea plantations and mountains, and Nepali political activists docouch themselves as struggling to inhabit the plantation and the entirety of the Darjeeling landscape on their own terms.
A landscape is also a living aggregation of plants, animals, people, and nonliving materials. The living and nonliving, human and nonhuman elements of a landscape come to structure one another. They, as philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari put it, "mutually become" together. That the valleys of Darjeeling were suitable homes for a monoculture of tea is as much an ecological and climatological fact as an historical one. The soils, rainfall, and altitude dosupport tea bushes remarkably well. Once established in Darjeeling, tea managed to thrive. Seen as a living legacy of the imperial moment, tea also acts as a stubborn political reminder. Like other, more familiar kinds of ruins (buildings, monuments, roads), the flora and fauna of empire blended and meshed with previous ecological forms. Tea, like those "man-made" imperial structures, was what Stoler would call both a "ruin" and an agent of "ruination," an active reminder of colonial production and a continued force of colonial destruction.
Climate and Convalescence
With the formation of the British East India Company in 1600, British trade in India grew steadily. Rural Bengal and urbanizing Calcutta became the center of the Company's Indian trade, and later, in 1858, after dissolution of the Company and the incorporation of India into the British Empire, Calcutta became British India's imperial center. With the development of trade and later Empire in British India, came increased incidences of disease. From imperial hospitals in the plains, surgeons took detailed morbidity and mortality statistics in an attempt to determine the relationship between climate and health. They kept records of temperature, rainfall, wind, and other conditions in order to figure out what influenced the death rate in their colonial territories.The sweltering climate and dense settlements of the plains, particularly in the trading port and imperial center of Calcutta, were thought to be a breeding ground for malaria and other tropical diseases. A "change of climate" became a popular prescription for those ailing in the plains.
Wars with Nepal (1814-16) and Burma (1824-26 and 1852) quashed powerful and expanding kingdoms in close proximity to Bengal and brought these fertile mountainous lands into the subjugation of the East India Company. British settlers in India looked toward the recently annexed lands in the Himalayas separating the Indian subcontinent from the tea fields and trading ports of China to establish seasonal hillside homes. In the mountains, British settlers could escape from the heat and disease of the plains, but they would also be in striking distance of Tibet, which was closed to foreigners but presented a tantalizing source of trade.
In the mid-1820s, the East India Company set up an experimental settlement in Cherrapunji in recently annexed Assam, located in India's northeastern arm, in hopes of establishing a retreat for ailing troops to convalesce. The damp climate and misty rolling hills reminded soldiers and officers of the British countryside, but Cherrapunji turned out to be one of the wettest places in the world. The whole settlement literally washed down the hillside in one of the first rainy seasons. The Company rebuilt Cherrapunji, but continued to look for something more permanent in the northwestern and northeastern Himalayas, close to regional centers in the Punjab and Calcutta.
After the Anglo-Nepal Wars, in 1828, the East India Company dispatched army officers to the Himalayan foothills around the Dorje-ling monastery (dorje meaning "thunderbolt," and ling meaning "place" in Tibetan). This time, they went in search of a high-altitude respite for convalescing British officials. In 1829, Company lieutenant general George W. Lloyd declared that the area of Dorje-ling was "well adapted for the purposes of a sanitarium." In 1835, while arbitrating a border dispute between the kingdoms of Nepal and Sikkim, Lloyd negotiated with the Chogyal of Sikkim the annexation of a narrow strip of land, twenty-four miles long and five to six miles wide, hugging the ridge of the highest foothill in the region. The Deed of Grant specifically cited the region's climate as a reason for the annexation: "The Governor General having expressed his desire for the possessions of the Hills of Darjeeling, on account of its cool climate, for the purpose of enabling servants of his Government, suffering from illness to avail themselves of its advantages. I, the Sikkimese Raja, out of the friendship for the said Governor General, hereby present Darjeeling to the East India Company.""Darjeeling," whose name was adapted from the name of the original monastery, quickly developed into a bustling town. For a decade after the signing of the Deed of Grant, the British paid a yearly allowance for the use of the Darjeeling ridge. But British-Sikkimese relationships deteriorated through the 1840s, as the British continued to press for the establishment of a trade route to Tibet, which required passing through Sikkim.
After the East India Company acquired the Darjeeling ridge in 1835, British administrators, fearing that Darjeeling would become another Cherrapunji, settled on the ridge for nine months and took copious notes on the temperatures, rainfall, and other climatic factors. British East India Company officials deemed the ridge a favorable site for a sanitarium for British soldiers and officers suffering from tuberculosis, malaria, and other diseases, not only because of Darjeeling's climate, but also because they deemed the region to be "uninhabited." Despite a population of nomadic Lepchas, the indigenous peoples of Darjeeling and Sikkim, Lloyd determined that "there are no villages in the Sikkim hills that I have ever seen, each man or family lives in the midst of his own cultivation, but there are collections of huts in a similar style with a quarter of a mile of each other, which scattered groups are sometimes for want of a better name called villages. . . . But I must explain that the Lepchas are migratory in their habits and quit the spot they have been cultivating at the expiration of the third year and take up a new location."British officials characterized the Lepcha as happy, gentle, and candid people-unsuited for the manual labor required to build a hill station. According to the British officer L. A. Waddell, the Lepcha "represent(ed) the state of primitive man." The Lepcha were thought to live closer to nature; they knew about the local flora and fauna and served as guides to the Himalayan interior. Both nomadic Lepchas and the land under which they practiced swidden cultivation were conceptualized as "free."
The fact that Darjeeling was deemed to be "uninhabited" when the East India Company acquired it led British cartographers and administrators to categorize their new possessions as a "wasteland." As a wasteland, Darjeeling was marginally autonomous. Unlike elsewhere in colonial India, where local Rajas maintained (at least for a time) a marginal degree of control of the land inhabited and used by the British, or where outposts of provincial government controlled remote parts of the polity, the whole of the Darjeeling district was largely managed and controlled by British settlers and colonial officials. In 1865, the British solidified the boundaries of the present-day Darjeeling district and the entirety became classified as a "nonregulated area." The classification of "nonregulated" meant that the acts and regulations of the British Raj (and the Bengal presidency) did not automatically apply in the district, unless specifically extended. This categorization was generally applied to "less advanced" districts of the empire.
Under this fluid administrative setup, Darjeeling became one of several colonial mountain refuges, or "hill stations." Early on in the imperial project, hill stations served primarily as sites of leisure and recuperation. As more and more military and civil servants built homes in mountain "wastelands," these communities grew. Seen as clean and relatively empty, hill stations were sites of refuge for convalescing soldiers and British officers, and for the wives and children of civil servants. Even though they were "nonregulated," many hill stations were the seasonal capitals of imperial administrative centers. For example, Darjeeling was the summer alternative to Calcutta in Bengal, and Shimla served a similar purpose for Delhi and the Punjab. Hill stations were romantic and quaint European villages, unlike the rest of regimented India. Streets were lined with gabled gothic villas, Tudor cottages, gingerbread ornamentation, and Swiss chalets (quite unlike the standardized verandahed bungalows across the Indian plains), as well as a multitude of schools. Unlike elsewhere in India, which was largely dominated by men, as the British presence in India grew, hill stations became the homes of women and children. The Darjeeling district became a site for the education of both English and Anglo-Indian children, often the progeny of tea planters. (Darjeeling remains home to several internationally renowned English-medium boarding schools.) Hill stations were originally conceived as sites where the British could reproduce the social and environmental conditions of home. Only later did they become industrial centers for the production of commodities central to imperial expansion and British daily life such as tea, rubber, and cinchona, the source of quinine, a malaria preventative.
Nepali Statues on an English Bandstand
Out of this wasteland, European settlers carved bungalows, gardens, reservoirs, churches, schools, and all of the other makings for the social reproduction of Britishness. The most iconic of these built environmental perturbations was Chowrasta, where settlers could gaze at Kanchenjunga and take afternoon strolls. Chowrasta was constructed during the heyday of hill station development. As an imperial ruin, Chowrasta is the symbolic center of British colonial control and the geographic center of the land that the British East India Company annexed from Sikkim. Chowrasta was once the site of afternoon concerts by the Darjeeling Police Band, a brass ensemble that would entertain British vacationers each afternoon (fig. 8).
At the north end of Chowrasta, where the bandstand once stood, there are two statutes, both commemorating Nepali culture heroes. The larger of the two statues is an imposing, gilded full-body image of Bhanubhakta Acharya (1814-68), the Nepali poet who translated the Ramayana from Sanskrit into Nepali, and who is widely considered to be the first poet to write in Nepali. The monument strikes pride in Darjeeling residents, as it is a reminder that Darjeeling-not Kathmandu-is the home of the Nepali Sahitiya Sammelan (Nepali Literary Society), which was forced to operate outside of Nepal in exile because authors, poets, and artists like Bhanubhakta were persecuted by the Nepali Kingdom for writing in vernacular Nepali, not Sanskrit. Bhanubhakta looks south across the open plaza, dwarfing and partly occluding the view of a second monument, to his countryman and contemporary Jang Bahadur Rana (1814-77), a soldier and politician who facilitated Bhanubhakta's release from imprisonment. Jang Bahadur became Nepal's prime minister in 1846, after distinguishing himself in battle with the British and consolidating political control over the country.
During the period of my fieldwork, and indeed throughout the postcolonial history of Darjeeling, these statues have been alternately venerated and desecrated by Darjeeling's pro-Gorkhaland activists. On one hand, the statues were sites of cultural and ethnic pride, to which Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJMM) politicians during my fieldwork would point during their weekend rallies at Chowrasta as monuments to "ancestors." On the other hand, these statues of Nepali heroes served as constant reminders that Gorkhas, while citizens of India, had ancestral roots outside of the country. In fact, the present Bhanubhakta statue is a reproduction of the original, which was destroyed in 1991 by Gorkhaland subnationalist activists from the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), whose leaders disparaged him as a "foreign" poet. The statues thus call attention to the complex relationship between Darjeeling Gorkhas and Nepal (fig. 9).
Both of these statues sit atop the remains of the English bandstand. The ruins-upon-ruins at the epicenter of this imperial formation remind us that there is a similarly messy stratigraphy of imperial development and domination embedded in the landscape. At the base is the fact that Darjeeling's potential as a hill station, rather than as a plantation district, drew the first major wave of Nepalis to the region to labor in sculpting a landscape in line with British ideals of leisure and the countryside.
Darjeeling has long been a site for trade and pilgrimage, particularly between Nepal and Tibet. Well before the British came to Darjeeling, trans-Himalayan traders passed through with pack animals stacked high with brick tea, jewelry, and foodstuffs. These travelers included the ancestors of contemporary Gorkhas, who came from the Himalayan foothills of what is now eastern Nepal. The story of the migration and permanent settlement from those foothills to what is now Darjeeling begins in the district of Gorkha, west of Kathmandu, in the mid-eighteenth century. Hindus, led by Prithivi Narayan Shah, from the House of Gorkha, conquered and annexed the fertile slopes east of Kathmandu, occupied by Rai, Limbu, Tamang, Gurung, and other Tibeto-Burman-speaking peoples. The subsequent consolidation of Nepal in the late eighteenth century created a kingdom that spread from the Kangra Valley in contemporary Himachal Pradesh to the Teesta River in contemporary Darjeeling.
The Gorkha Monarchy imposed a caste system on all of the people living in this territory, including Tibeto-Burman speaking ethnic groups who practices Buddhist and animist religion. This Hindu-centric caste system was predicated on the purity and power of Brahmans and Chettris. While the children of these high-caste Hindus were educated in Sanskrit medium schools, children from marginalized Tibeto-Burman groups were forced to work the land. After 1816, the Gorkha rulers encouraged their high-caste subjects to colonize the communal lands (kipat) of eastern peoples for rice-paddy cultivation and irrigation. Marginalized Nepali minorities who lived there found themselves surrounded by wealthy Hindu settlers that considered them to be inferior in every sense. At first, high-caste Hindus settled in the fertile lowlands, but they quickly expanded into the foothills, pushing minorities even higher up the slopes, into more marginal areas. Many eastern Nepalis, divested of their lands and forced to pay taxes, were conscripted into the Kingdom of Nepal's army.
Territorial rivalry between the Gorkha kingdom and the British East India Company arose over the East India Company's desire for an overland trade route to Tibet and motivated the Anglo-Nepal Wars from 1814 to 1816. During the course of the wars, the British expressed respect for Nepali soldiers, whom they called "Gurkhas." British officer Sir Charles Metcalf said of the Gurkhas: "We have not met with an enemy who has decidedly shown greater bravery and greater steadiness [against] our troops." At first, the British lost ground to Nepal's army, comprised largely of displaced farmers from the eastern hills. The British were forced to commit considerable resources to the war effort, and after two years of fighting, they eventually annexed present-day Darjeeling and all territory east of the Mechi River. They also drastically reduced the kingdom's western possessions. After the Anglo-Nepal Wars, the East India Company gave a parcel of the land annexed from Nepal, including contemporary Darjeeling, to the Kingdom of Sikkim in exchange for rights to cross Sikkimese land into Tibet.
To offset the loss of land, Nepal's monarchy pressed for further reclamation and agricultural intensification of lands in the eastern hills on the west side of the Mechi River, squeezing marginalized farmers even further. Beginning in the 1820s, often with the support of the central Nepal government, the East India Company recruited de-landed and otherwise marginalized Nepalis by the thousands to work as soldiers in specially formed "Gurkha" regiments, as woodcutters in the forests and jungles between Darjeeling and Assam, and as road builders, food producers, and graziers. Lacking the resources to pay taxes and displaced by settlers from the west, many hill people from eastern Nepal eagerly emigrated to British India, often lured by promises of agricultural land. Emigration meant an escape from financial oppression, while resettlement promised opportunities for steady wage labor and reliable supply of grains, albeit within a new system of colonial oppression.
From "Wasteland" to "Garden"
Chowrasta remains one center of urban life in Darjeeling. To get to the other, the Chowk Bazaar, where Nepalis, Bhutias, Lepchas, and other nonwhites were allowed to shop and socialize during the colonial era, you have to zigzag down Nehru Road, one of the thoroughfares that intersect at Chowrasta. Moving down Nehru Road, you walk past Tibetan women hawking shawls and hand-knit wares for tourists on your left and old colonial shops, reappropriated as restaurants, chemists, and children's clothing stores, on your right. Following the iron fencing that lines the downhill side of the road, you drop down, down, and down some more, through a maze of concrete. The dramatic incline is the only thing that orients you on the descent, as sunlight and the horizon are blocked by towering multifamily homes. In the bustling Chowk Bazaar, jeeps full of tourists and travelers going to and from Siliguri zip down the Hill Cart Road, running north and south out of town. Past a liquor store and a couple of pān sellers, behind a towering building, and down a pot-holed footpath, sit the unassuming gates of Lloyd Botanical Gardens.
The Lloyd Botanical Gardens are a veritable Secret Garden, tucked in the middle of the overbuilt bazaar. Through the gates, the sky opens up to the south-facing downslope of the ridge, and sun shines down through the antique duppi. On the ground, however, the space is vacuous, dead, and haunted. Bare bushes mark the winding paths through the gardens, while the work of long-dead colonial gardeners is rendered in labyrinths of limp, leafless twigs, unidentifiable without the antique labels that accompany them. At the base of the gardens, in a splotchy grass pitch, sits the conservatory, a replica in miniature of the famous Kew Gardens' glassy centerpiece. Inside, the musty, thick air holds dainty Himalayan orchids and lilacs, resiliently clinging to their colors-and to life itself-in suspended animation. A mass grave of broken, moldy terracotta flowerpots stacks up outside the door. This gothic scene evokes a sepia image of bygone verdant vibrancy, when children played amid picnicking families, and colonial botanists propagated exotic plant varieties for capitalist exploitation.
E. C. Dozey's 1922 tourist guide describes the Lloyd Gardens this way:
The garden is divided into two main parts, the upper or indigenous section, and the lower or exotic section. Many of the paths intersecting it are lined with the tea plant, the flowers of which are white with a pale yellow centre, reminding one of orange blossoms. The whole plot measuring 14 acres of land is neatly laid out, and contains specimens of nearly all our flora as well as many exotic plants, including the Australian Blue Gum tree (eucalyptus). There is a pavilion for use by picnic parties; while in the hot-house, which stands in the centre of the grounds, is a beautiful wisteria, a Japanese plant, and many varieties of camellia, a native to China, which when in full bloom are a revelation of colour.
It seems fitting, historically speaking, that Dozey noted both a bifurcation between "indigenous" and "exotic" plants at the gardens, and that the tea plant adorned the footpaths that traversed these two sections. Tea, as both Camellia sinensis and Camellia assamensis, was, well before the time of Dozey's writing, an "exotic" that was civilized and trained to occupy the Darjeeling landscape as if it were a native.
The act of gardening domesticated tea's exoticness. Gardening was, after all, central to British ideals of domesticity. Public gardens like the Lloyd Botanical Garden were places where English residents in India could feel English: places of relaxation and redemption. British residents could stroll through the winding paths of the garden and rest in its gazebos. From the late nineteenth century until independence, the cultivation of British domestic space exacerbated tensions and literally created divisions between the British and non-British populations. At the botanical gardens, colonial botanical taxonomies met colonial cultural taxonomies. Gardens physically and discursively separated wild plants from civilized ones. Gardens also cordoned off British space from that of the Nepalis, Marwaris, and Bengalis who lived among them.
Gardens are ways of disciplining bodies and environments through methodical manual labor and careful taxonomies, both of plants and of people. Through the introduction of new plants and animals, as well as other forms of landscape modification such as the construction of artificial lakes, the British remade the imperial landscape in accordance with their views of "nature." The physical environment was not the only part of Darjeeling that British settlers remade in their views of nature. They also constructed representations of the people who lived there as pure and worthy of a place in these Himalayan Gardens of Eden. Popular representations of the Himalayan region often include descriptions of spiritual purity, driven by a rhetoric of a retreat from the ills of civilization. Local people had to fit within the image of the recuperative garden. British officials characterized hill people, like the Lepcha of Darjeeling, the Pahari of Shimla, and the Toda of Ooty, as possessing the simplicity and purity of Rousseau's "noble savage." They constructed Lepcha as the moral antithesis to the people living in the plains, in what Edward Said calls an "imaginative geography." The romanticized vision of the hill stations' natives allowed colonists to view their own effect on local people as a part of an "improvement" scheme accompanying their alterations to the landscape.
Gardening also shifted the function of the hill station from convalescence to capital accumulation. Lloyd Botanical Gardens was a space of experimentation and a site for the propagation of commercial plant varieties. During the colonial era, officials at the gardens not only distributed plants, seed, and bulbs for home gardens and personal consumption, but also tested tea, cinchona, rubber, and other potential commercial crops to see if they would flourish in the climates of newly annexed territories. Colonial botanists and agricultural specialists, along with teams of Nepali laborers, grew out saplings of these plants for interested settlers.
In his discussion of governance in colonial India, Thomas Metcalf argues that by the mid-eighteenth century, a discourse of "improvement" was consolidated into an ideology of imperial governance, inspired by the ideals of British liberalism. As part of "improvement," colonial governments needed to understand the florae, faunae, and geologies of these new colonies so that they could be integrated into commercial use. Imperial botanical gardens aided colonial powers in their resource extraction and disseminated information on plants that would be "useful to the mother country." Kew Gardens in London was the center of a network of British imperial botanical gardens and regulated the flow of botanical information from periphery to core and back again. Decisions made at Kew had far-reaching implications for colonial expansion. As the botanical gardens succeed in aiding resource extraction, botanical scientists working in the gardens or with trading companies became important colonial officials. These scientists had a major role in turning the colonies into profitable agricultural enclaves. They answered important questions, like where to find plants that would fill current demand; how to improve plants through species selection and hybridization; how to implement new methods of cultivation; where to cultivate plants with cheap labor; and how to process these plants for a global market.
The imperative of "improvement" drove early tea development. The British viewed the indigenous tea variety (or jāt) of Assam, much like the region's native inhabitants, as "wild" and "uncivilized." Colonial botanists deemed this association to be so problematic that they hypothesized that it would be wise to temper the Assam jāt with the nonnative, but more delicate, controllable, and civilized Chinese jāt. Assam tea was often referred to as "jungli stock." Jungli, meaning "wild," was also used to refer to the native inhabitants of the region and later to adivāsi ("tribal" or "aboriginal") laborers who staffed Assam plantations. Essentializations that framed adivāsi laborers as exceptionally apt for jungle clearing and the more menial forms of labor (jungli labor) were cultural idioms that played a critical role in the staffing and organization of Indian tea plantations. Botanists deemed it necessary to push for the controlled cultivation of Assam and its indigenous variety of tea. Indigenous, wild-growing Assam tea could only be useful to the empire if it was controlled, and as historian Jayeeta Sharma argues, improved upon through the application of both Western science, in the form of colonial botanists, and Chinese skill, in the form of imported Chinese labor.
The development of tea in contemporary India's northwest in the Kangra Valley and Kumaon, and in the northeast in Assam, coincided with the appointment of Lord Bentinck as governor general of India in 1828. Bentinck saw agriculture as a key part of his mission. In 1834, Bentinck formed the Tea Committee for India, led by the then-director of the Calcutta Botanical Garden, Nathaniel Wallich, and comprised of influential Calcutta merchants, opium traders (valued for their contacts in China), and various colonial officials and scientists. The first objective of the Tea Committee was to dispatch officials to evaluate colonial lands in India for agricultural potential. Committee members believed that they could cultivate a tea that would surpass Chinese tea in quality, flavor, and most importantly, efficiency of production. British traders were generally contained to Canton in early years of the tea trade with China, and by the time the Tea Committee had formed, Sino-British relationships had completed eroded. To find out about tea production and acquire the material necessary for successful propagation in India, The Tea Committee also sponsored the surreptitious acquisition of tea seeds and saplings from China, most notably by Robert Fortune, a London-based bio-prospector who brought them to India for cultivation in Kangra and Assam.
Tea had been observed in India well before the formation of the Tea Committee. In 1823, two colonial officers, Charles and Robert Bruce, while on an expedition to the Assam-Burma border, observed that a native tea plant grew in abundance in the forests of the region. Singho and Khamti tribes used it primarily for medicinal and ritual purposes. Unlike elsewhere in Asia, where tea consumption was common, these groups were some of the only peoples observed drinking tea in India. No one ever validated the Bruces' observations, and the "jungle" tea bushes of Assam remained a myth for several more years. Over a decade later, an army officer, Lt. Andrew Charlton, observed local consumption in the same area and sent leaves and seeds to the newly formed Tea Committee. Botanists from the Calcutta Botanical Garden were quickly dispatched to Assam to strategize the propagation of the indigenous Assam jāt of tea.
Tea cultivation quickly took off, first in Assam and then in the Northwest Provinces and the Punjab. The first shipment of Assam-grown tea was a success in London, but not because of the tea's taste; connoisseurs deemed it to be merely acceptable. The first Assam-grown lots of tea auctioned in London at twenty times the price of an average lot of Chinese tea. These high prices were credited mainly to patriotic zeal and excitement over empire-grown teas. By 1839, large-scale production of tea in Assam had intensified, and within a year, the industry privatized into a single corporation, the Assam Company. The Company hired Robert Fortune as well as George Gordon, an opium trader and Tea Committee member, and Reverend Gutzlaff, a China-based missionary, to secure a continuous supply of labor and botanical matter from China.
It was in 1841 at his Beechwood Cottage, near the site of the Lloyd Botanical Gardens, that the first superintendent of Darjeeling, Archibald Campbell, a self-styled naturalist, medical man, and up-and-coming British civil servant, planted tea seeds in his garden. Campbell and other officials and settlers had seen how Chinese tea bushes thrived in the Northwest Himalayas and that Assam was rapidly developing an efficient plantation industry. Campbell believed that Chinese tea bushes, or Camellia sinensis, could be industrially cultivated in Darjeeling. He and other early settlers in Darjeeling pointed out that Darjeeling was more climatically similar than Assam to the prized tea-growing regions of Southwest China. Shortly after his arrival in Darjeeling, Campbell arranged for Chinese tea seeds to be sent from Kangra. In Kangra, East India Company officials had recently made Chinese tea bushes profitable, with the help of experienced tea laborers recruited from China. With these seeds, Campbell began to experiment with tea in his backyard garden. Like many British consumers at the time, Campbell believed that the Chinese jāt of tea was superior in flavor and quality to the blacker, maltier teas produced from the Assam jāt. While his experiments were not totally successful in his backyard garden, high up on the cold and windy ridge, Campbell and others hypothesized that the valleys below Darjeeling town could afford better sun and soil and warmer temperatures and that the fickle Chinese jāt would flourish there.
By the time the Darjeeling hill station was founded in 1835, tea drunk with sugar was rapidly becoming the fuel of working-class British culture. Through colonial botanical garden networks, the Darjeeling municipality began to distribute tea seeds to interested settlers in the early 1850s, including Darjeeling civil surgeon Dr. Whitecombe, civil engineer Major Crommelin, and two German-speaking Moravian missionary families. By 1856, individual experimentation and cultivation by Campbell these other settlers had led to the establishment of a few commercial gardens in the warmer and sunnier valleys below Darjeeling. In a January 2, 1862 correspondence in the Friend of India, a visitor returning from Darjeeling attests to the rapid development and sophistication of the Darjeeling industry: "Tea Planting in Darjeeling is not a mere 'experiment or amusement of gentlemen fond of a quiet life.' It is true one or two military officers conducted the first experiments, but at present time but two officers continue to be engaged in the occupation, all the rest of the planters are the same class as have settled in Assam and Cachar and it is a serious enterprise, i.e. is being conducted with as much energy and determination as characterizes the operations in the eastern districts."By the end of 1866, there were thirty-nine gardens covering an area of ten thousand acres and annual production of 433,000 pounds of tea.
"Go Down, Go Down!"
Below the conservatory, there is a tiny antique iron gate tucked into a chicken-wire fence strung through a grove of duppi trees, marking the perimeter of Lloyd Botanical Gardens. Crunching on the dry, brown needle-covered soil, you duck and curl through the creaky egress. On the other side, the slippery underbrush gives way to a pitted concrete path that hugs the hillside. After traversing over a wide gully (jhorā), clogged with garbage from the Chowk Bazaar, and through a settlement clinging precariously to the hillside, the path arrives at Kopibari Tea Estate's gudum. A gudum is a tea-processing factory and the center of a plantation. On most plantations, contemporary workers must "go down, go down" the steep slopes of the plantation, just as the colonial planter sahibs demanded of their ancestors, to carry green leaf to the gudum for processing.
The gudum revolutionized the tea industry in India and enabled the creation of an economy of scale. In the early nineteenth century, tea was rolled by hand and was sourced from small-scale Chinese manufacturers (via urban Chinese distributors). Today, each Darjeeling tea plantation is still organized around its gudum. The smell of a tea factory is wonderfully pungent. A sweet earthy particulate-ridden fog brews inside. In the monsoon season, when bushes are their most productive (and in the case of Darjeeling, when production is in its least lucrative flush), the factory bustles with energy. Male factory workers roll empty wooden tea boxes in (often constructed from Himalayan duppi), and later roll them out filled with tea and stamped with lot numbers and dates. The tea machinery too, churns, burns, and shakes, sometimes twenty-four hours a day. These coal-powered machines, often embossed with the trademark of Britannia, the once-prominent British manufacturer of tea equipment and other mechanical implements for resource extraction (e.g., jute manufacture and road construction), are part of Darjeeling's landscape of imperial ruins.
Elsewhere in South Asia, tea factories have switched to diesel or electric processing equipment (some even use tea bush cuttings and waste for fuel), but Darjeeling manufacturers maintain that coal-fired machines are essential to the taste-the smoky "muscatel" flavor-of Darjeeling tea. Coal too, was of course crucial to powering the building of empire across South Asia. Tea workers have been "left with" piles of coal (and its relative cheapness, thanks to the colonially forged mining industry) to fuel the postcolonial tea industry. And these imperial ruins have been the focus of labor agitations in the postcolonial era. For some workers, there was no way in which to productively inhabit them, and they presented an obstacle to future advancement.
The machinery that rolled, dried, fired, and sorted empire-grown tea was not introduced until 1873. In Darjeeling, by 1870, there were fifty-six gardens on eleven thousand acres, employing eight thousand Nepali laborers and producing 1,708,000 pounds of processed tea. But just one year after the introduction of machinery, in 1874, there were 113 tea plantations employing almost twenty thousand laborers. By the end of the century, the plantation labor force rose to sixty-four thousand on about the same number of plantations. This labor force constituted one-third of the population of the whole district (including the market town of Siliguri). Ninety-six percent of the tea workers in Darjeeling were Nepali. The explosion in plantation development between 1870 and 1874 was due partly to mechanization. But like other imperial ruins, the factory hides a deeper and more complex history. The technology to process tea at scale did not automatically lead to a growth in the industry. People and land had to be made further governable and garden-able.
Despite the fact that tea cultivation in Assam and Kangra began some twenty years prior to the founding of the first Darjeeling plantations, thanks to the mechanical innovations in tea machinery and expeditious road and railway construction linking Darjeeling to Calcutta, Darjeeling tea production quickly eclipsed that of Kangra and became competitive in scale and, for many, superior in quality, to that of Assam. Planters credited this rapid growth to three forces: climate, which I discussed above, as well as free land and available labor, which I will discuss in the remainder of this chapter.
Land tenure rules in Darjeeling and the Northwest Himalayas were quite different. As one manual for planters explained: "In Darjeeling the native cultivators have no saleable rights in the soil. . . . In Kangra the natives dispose of their surplus land or sell their homesteads at simply ridiculous prices (. . . and they almost invariably squander the money as soon as they get it)."In other words, planters who wanted to open tea plantations in Kangra had to purchase land from local people. The fact that British colonial administrators in Calcutta classified Darjeeling and the surrounding foothills as a "wasteland" presented opportunities for entrepreneurial British men interested in extractive industries and agriculture. In Darjeeling, leases for farming and the improvement of "wastelands" were exceptionally favorable for settlers. The various permutations of Wasteland Rules (in 1859, 1864, 1882, 1898) made tea cultivation a financially lucrative venture. Wasteland rules granted ninety-nine-year renewable lease periods and rent-free settlement for large tracts of uncultivated land (the 1882 Darjeeling Wasteland Rules specifically granted rent-free tenancy for tea cultivators). These leaseholds were granted only to individuals who vowed to "improve" the land. Under the later rewritings of the Wasteland Rules, property rights to a leasehold became transferable between individuals. This enabled settlers to sell their land tracts (and the materials on top of the land) and transfer their leases to new "owners." This ability to transfer leaseholds and sell property enabled the development of the Darjeeling tea plantation landscape.
In Assam, although planters founded the industry in the image of Chinese tea production, this mode of production was deemed "inefficient" not only in its lack of mechanization but also in its organization of labor. First, Chinese laborers refused to perform any labor not associated with the cultivation and manufacture of tea, such as clearing forest or portering tea and supplies. British planters attempted to attract native peoples, particularly the Nagas, who would perform such manual labors, and as an added bonus for British capitalists, worked for shells, beads, rice, and occasional feasts. Nagas were nomadic and came and went freely from tea labor. The British then deemed it imperative to cultivate a settled labor force and recruit from more sedentary groups of people. By the 1860s, the recruitment of Chinese men had stopped, and planters looked to identify an alternative workforce that would be cheap, disciplined, and sedentary.
To Assam planters, it became clear by the 1850s that the model of producing tea with an imported Chinese labor force was unsustainable. Enticing the relatively small populations of nomadic groups within Assam to work for multiple seasons in succession was not working well for British East India Company officials and planters either. To answer what they called the "Labor Question," planters in the Northeast looked to Chotanagpur, in the famine-ridden plains of Central India, to "recruit," or more accurately indenture, adivāsis to work on tea plantations. Coercing and maintaining the cooperation of adivāsi "coolies" was a violent and costly process. Indeed, the Indian Tea Association (ITA), founded in 1885 arguably for the purpose of solving the Labor Question, would struggle for decades to devise labor recruitment codes, laws, and regulations for keeping the labor force in Assam in the fields and healthy from season to season. Recruiters often swindled adivāsis by requiring them to pay excessive amounts for recruitment fees, and British officials and planters often turned a blind eye to this practice. It was in the context of labor conscription and environmental perturbations that tea planters in India and across the colonial world came to refer to their burgeoning, mechanized, and labor-intensive plantations as "gardens."
Plantations in Kangra mimicked the Chinese model of family-based cultivation, featuring smaller production plots for green leaf with a centralized location hand rolling and packaging. This mode of production was called a zamīndārī system by some planters, as local zamīndārs (elite landowners) oversaw the manufacture of small batches of green leaf and organized its transport to government-run processing rolling and drying centers. By the late 1800s, the zamīndārī system had been deemed inefficient by the Indian planter community. Still, Kangra was slow to integrate mechanized production. For decades after Assam planters began using indentured labor, Kangra plantations continued to produce tea in small batches by hand rolling, often by Chinese laborers imported for that purpose. Vocal planters in Kangra and throughout the Northwest penned letters to one other and back to officials in London and Calcutta, calling for the construction of centralized factories so that the green leaf did not need to be transported long distances to processing centers, only to be transported again for shipment back to England, which was often out of the ports of Calcutta on the other side of the Indian peninsula.
To staff their tea plantations, Superintendent Campbell and British planters in Darjeeling looked toward eastern Nepal and the Gurkha soldiers who had nearly defeated them in the Anglo-Nepal Wars. Unlike Assamese people, Nepalis were not considered jungli laborers, and their history of army service and disenfranchisement at the hands of their king spoke to their ability to be productively controlled. They were not nomadic like the Lepcha or Bhutia of Darjeeling or the Nagas of Upper Assam. On the contrary, they were settled agriculturalists, which made them desirable recruits for tea plantations. By the time Darjeeling tea production began in the late 1850s, British administrators and settlers drew upon a cultural taxonomy of labor, which categorized Nepali migrants as industrious, loyal, and easy to control. Gurkha soldiers, associated with endurance, strength, and loyalty, were seen as good soldiers and workers. The fact that British managers differentiated among "coolies" through cultural taxonomies was not unique to Darjeeling. Chatterjee describes the distinct price indexes paid to labor recruiters for different jāts of workers in Jalpaiguri and the Northeast. In the plantations of the plains, jungli or adivāsi labor fetched a higher price than did local labor, because the British saw indigenous peoples from Chotanagpur as more suited to manual labor and the tropical tea environment of Northeast India.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Nepali, or Gurkha, soldiers had also become integral to British strategies for empire preservation. As one turn-of-the-century travel guide to Darjeeling explains of the Gurkhas: "They are a plucky lot, and none dare insult them with impunity; it is fortunate that they are not a quarrelsome race, for they can use their 'kookries' (or curved knives) with all the skill and adroitness of a Spaniard with his stiletto. The Ghoorkhas, which is the name of the ruling race and dynasty, make splendid soldiers, and many of them are enlisted in the British Imperial Service. They are short and slim, but wonderfully active and enduring, also brave to a degree."The British maintained a friendly relationship with Nepal and by extension, a favorable opinion of Nepalis themselves, to ensure the sustainable recruitment of Gurkhas into their armies and plantations.
Nepali labor recruiters, or sardārs, were pivotal in cultivating a resident labor force in Darjeeling. While in Assam and other Northeast gardens the solution to the Labor Question came in the form of adivāsi indenture, in Darjeeling, there was a surplus of labor due to the steady stream of migrants from Nepal. Unlike in Assam, Nepali laborers were not indentured. Tea planters frequently spoke about how to maintain workers on a Darjeeling plantation:
It is easy to make a garden liked by coolies. Particularly if there is plenty of native cultivation on the estate or waste land they can make use of. Always pay and advance on a fixed day, never varying, and never try to make them do extra work on their holidays. It is not good if you do, as they hear other garden's [sic] gongs go and do nothing or else purposely do bad work. Make them always do a fair amount of work, that is, look at the ground they are to hoe and if it is in jungle or the ground very hard, reduce the ticca, if easy work, increase. Do not try to make them do an extravagant amount, as if you do, the coolies will prefer to work until 5 o'clock and do less work. Whereas, if by working until 3:30 they can finish their task, they will work their hardest to do it and get away.
Even before the formation of the tea industry, a gazetteer reported that by 1852, "the system of forced labor [had] been abolished, and labour with all other valuables [was] left to find its own price in an open market." During the colonial era, Nepalis steadily migrated to Darjeeling. Over ten thousand Nepalis had resettled in Darjeeling by the time the first tea plantations opened, escaping oppressive conditions in Nepal to work as wage laborers in the construction of the hill station.
Linguistic Ruins: The Plantation as Garden and Kamān
In this chapter, I have argued that in order to understand Darjeeling plantations as spaces of global market production, we must see them simultaneously as part of a larger historical project of improvement and cultivation on both local and imperial scales. Stories about Darjeeling always seem to be stories that attempt to reconcile the uncomfortable, visible material proximity of leisure and colonial production. But they are not just stories about spaces of production; they are stories about landscapes, particularly landscapes of imperial ruins.
The duality of industry and leisure is encapsulated not only in the landscape of material ruins but also in linguistic ruins, in the words commonly used to refer to Darjeeling's tea plantations. In my fieldwork, I noted a complex linguistic dynamic, between the Nepali word for "plantation," kamān, used by workers to describe their workplace, and the English word garden, used by planters, government officials, and international tourists and tea buyers to describe Darjeeling tea plantations. Kamān is of disputable linguistic origin, derived from the English words command or common, or perhaps even colonial British planters' use of "Come on, Come on!" to communicate with tea plantation workers. For women workers, kamān evoked the oppressive aspects of plantation life: the repetitive plucking, pruning, and maintenance of a commodity crop. The use of kamān reminded my interlocutors of the plantation land tenure system: that rich men "own" plantations (though plantations are actually leased by these "owners" from the state government, in the case of Darjeeling, from West Bengal), while they are staffed by thousands of low-paid wage laborers of Nepali origin, who live in cramped villages (busti) amid the sweeping fields of tea (fig. 10).
The word "garden," on the other hand, used most frequently by people from outside of the plantations, framed tea bushes as extensions of domestic space, with aging plants in need of familial "care" by women in order to remain productive. The garden also framed an externalized "nature" as the product of human improvement. The use of "garden" reminded consumers and producers of Darjeeling's origin as a British hill station, a refuge from the heat and disease of the plains and a site of social and environmental reproduction. The garden was an Anglophilic vision of the landscape, which framed tea plantations with simulacra of English domestic and public space-Victorian finishing schools, parks, and house-lot gardens (complete with celery, broccoli, and other plants brought from England).
At the beginning of this chapter, I identified two anthropological connotations of "landscape," as both looked-upon and lived-in. The image of the plantation as "garden," seen from Chowrasta, fits the first connotation. The understanding of the plantation as kamān, which emanates from down the hillside, amid the fields of tea, fits the second. In the next two chapters, I discuss the plantation in both its kamān aspects, which I will elaborate in chapter 2, and its garden imaginary, which I will describe in chapter 3.
The view from the ridge of Darjeeling town-the green swaths of tea plantations in every direction speckled with laboring Nepali women, or of the duppi groves protecting Victorian bungalows with gingerbread ornamentation-is a result of a distinct cultural, environmental, economic, and geopolitical process. Darjeeling's imperial ruins capture the contradictory history of the place itself-its history as both site of extraction and site of refuge. On the plantation, these ruins embody the binary of kamān and garden.
By the time planters organized the Darjeeling Planters Association in 1908, the scale of tea production would increase, tea would become more industrialized, the labor pool would grow, and the tea industry in Darjeeling, according to workers and planters, begin a slow decline from its productive golden age. The construction of Darjeeling was so successful that Darjeeling ceased to be a "wasteland" by 1910, when it was incorporated into the Province of Bengal, when a partition solidified district borders in the Northeast and integrated marginal districts into the governmental and bureaucratic structures of British India. The turn of the twentieth century saw the development of tea industries in the Dooars, Terai, and South India, as well as the extension of tea cultivation into Sri Lanka and Kenya. By 1940, there were 142 Darjeeling tea gardens under 63,059 acres of land, producing 23,721,500 pounds of tea. The market for empire-grown tea expanded, so much in fact that in the 1920s, British tea promoters looked to expanding the tea market into the Indian middle and working classes. Darjeeling, however, remained not just a predominately exported crop, but also an Anglicized one that was readily associated with exclusivity and luxury.
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