For quite some time now tea and tea culture have been considered a rather genteel sort of pursuit, whether it be the tea parties favored by ladies of a certain age or the quiet meditative pursuits of Asian-style tea drinking and ceremonies. But when it came to the pioneering efforts of certain key tea pioneers, it was another story entirely. It’s not for nothing that one of these pioneers, Robert Fortune, has been likened to an “Indiana Jones of tea,” a result of some of the wild and wooly situations he sometimes found himself in.
Ditto for another pair of important tea pioneers. Like Fortune, they played a key role in seeing that tea flourished in British controlled territories in India, thus weakening the hold the Chinese had on the tea trade at the time. They were the Bruce brothers, Robert and Charles, who hailed from Scotland. It was Robert, the eldest of the pair, who was the first to make efforts toward initiating tea production in the Assam region of India, by opening relations with local chieftains and obtaining plant and seed samples for further study.
Shortly thereafter, in 1824, Robert Bruce died and his younger brother became one of the key figures in continuing his efforts to establish a tea industry in India. Though Charles also sent samples of the indigenous Assamese tea plants to Calcutta for study, they were deemed inadequate to the task and a representative was dispatched to obtain seeds from Chinese plants.
Which was not a wise decision, as it turns out, since the Chinese plants didn’t exactly thrive in Assam. However Bruce was among those who made native plants part of his backup plan and by 1838 the first chests of tea from these plants had made their way to London, where it was very well-received. By the middle of the nineteenth century tea production had fanned out through India to Darjeeling and Nilgiri, but output there would never rival that of Assam. And while China still leads the pack when it comes to worldwide tea production, India – thanks mostly to Assam – is never far behind.
For more on the Bruce brothers and the early days of tea in Assam, look here. Also worth a look, this 1840 report from Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, of Scotland, that provides an interesting look at Charles Bruce’s involvement with Assam tea from a contemporary perspective.
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