By Ranjan Kr. Padmapati
Three mes are generally associated with the discovery of the local tea of Assam -Charles Alexander Bruce, Maniram Dewan and Beesa Gam Ningrula. It is generally believed that the habit of drinking tea has been there amongst the Singpho Tribals of Assam for over the last 1,000 years. The Khamti tribals also are believed to have been drinking tea since very ancient times. ‘The Nidaa’, an ancient scripture written in Sanskrit, mentions tea leaves as ‘Samapatra’ and its liquour as ‘Samapaani’. It is perhaps from this that the me ‘Chah’ on ‘Cha’ has been derived. It is, however, a Chinese Emperor who had made tea popular as a drink over 5,000 years ago. There is a story in this connection which states that emperor Chen Nung was one day heating water sitting under a tree when suddenly some tea leaves fell in the water from above. Having drunk this water, the Emperor became thrilled and it was called ‘tee’ in Chinese Language which means heavenly drink. Thus this plant came to be known as ‘tea’ and at present it is one of the most popular drinks all over the world. Although there are many opinions regarding the discovery of tea in the jungles of Assam. Alexander Bruce was undoubtedly a pioneer in the history of the discovery of tea and known for successful tea cultivation in Assam.
Although the wild tea plants were discovered in the jungles of Assam in 1823, it took a long time for it to be commercially successful. One of the reasons was that the British had earned plenty of money by planting and producing tea in Chi. It was only in 1833 when Chi repealed its trade protocol on tea with the English that they started considering other altertives for tea cultivation.
CA Bruce was born in Scotland on 11 January 1793. Alexander Bruce spent long 60 years in Assam and learnt Assamese language thoroughly. When he was only 16-year old in 1809, the ship called Windham, by which he had sailed for India, was struck at by the French and Charles Alexander was incarcerated in an island. Later the English faught the pillagers and by defeating them set him free. During the time of David Scott he came to Sadiya and settled there as the commander of the val artillery. He also moved around looking for the large number of wild tea plants around. Later in 1837, CA Bruce was appointed the Superintendent of Assam Jungles. His responsibilities were to set up tea nurseries, study the systems of growing and production of tea, to grow the Chinese type of seedlings and compare its standard of Assam type of seedling etc. For this purpose, Bruce along with two other men ventured into deep jungles. That time, Assam was covered with dense forests. The entire area was covered with forests and reeds and others of 10-15 ft tall aquatic grasses. It was almost impossible for human beings to penetrate into those deep jungles. As per the available descriptions of this jungle, there were more ferocious animals rather than human beings. Besides, it has also been recorded that since the villagers deserted their habitation because of pestilence and epidemics, large number of desolate homesteads, abandoned tanks and prayer houses were also found down on the dumps in the middle of melancholy landscapes.
Bruce was wandering around in such areas as Birakulam, Terapani, Kunji, Ningo, Rangagara, Tingi etc, in search of tea plants. He also developed friendship with the Singphoes in exchange for opium. The Singphoes had initially refused to show him tea plants. But he cleverly maged to learn from them the art of the making.
Physically Bruce was a man with a body of steel. He had tremendous physical strength and an unyielding mind. Hundreds of miles of hills and plains he travelled on foot. Having studied the ture of tea plants he had also prepared a hand book. Bruce had proved that the quality of Assam tea was far superior to those of Chi. In 1837 Bruce had manufactured five boxes of tea and sent the same to England and became assured of its quality, and in 1839 became the Superintendent of Government Tea Company of Assam. But for various reasons he was relieved of this responsibility later.
After his retirement from tea he joined the Church of England at Tezpur and dedicated himself to the spread of Christianity Probably between Circa 1834 to 1845 James T. Gardon along with his colleague C.A. Bruce, set up a Missiory Centre on the Hillock at Ganesh Ghat now known as old missiory compound Bruce having dissociated with the tea industry assumed the charge of looking after this Anglican Mission. The house located here is known to have been constructed by Bruce. It was not built by any funds from the government. It was built with the persol contribution from Gordon. Jenkins, British soldiers and Bruce. At present this centre is known as Father Wyld Retreat Centre. The building has been very carefully maintained.
The story of the discovery of tea in Assam having dazzled people eyes, the evangelistic other part of the story was not widely known. But Bruce was fond of the Assamese people. Although he had gifted opium to the Singphos to coax them to let him know about tea making, he was opposed to the use of opium. He has written “Opium has taken the Assamese people down to be cowards and useless people amongst all Indians. If our conscious government can stop this evil practice to save Assam, can there be any other act more blissful than that?" Bruce himself had used opium only as ploy to make friends with the Singphos who had refused to let him have the where about of the tea plants. And also had predicted that because of the outsiders coming to Assam, the Assamese would lose the balance of their language and indeed Assamese was ousted from schools and the court, and was replaced by the Bengalis who had come from Bengal. He wrote: “And the redundant population of Bengal will pour into Assam as soon as people know that they will get certain rate of pay as well as land for support of their families." His prediction came to true later.