What led to the beginning of tea planting in this area?
The eighteenth century saw the establishment of tea plants in the regions of Bangladesh and Assam. China was the source of tea’s initial introduction to the British taste buds.
In her book “A Thirst for Empire: How It Shaped the Modern World,” food historian Erica Rapport stated that by the 1830s, the British were consuming over 40 million pounds of tea annually. In the beginning, it originated in China.
However, British interest in tea began to rise even earlier. During that period, the majority of tea that was brought into Britain came from China.
Following the conclusion of the Anglo-Dutch War, the British government started looking for alternate supplies of tea when the shipment to China was halted.
After that, in 1854, the very first commercial tea garden was developed in Malnichhara, located in Sylhet. After three years, the plantation became the initial commercial tea production site.
Recruiting workers with the lure of good jobs
When the British East India Company established the first tea plantations in Assam and Northeast Bengal, they imported tea seedlings and technology from China and Chinese experts and people to operate there. These plantations were modelled after those in China. During that period, most tea plantations were established in the Sylhet and Assam regions.
Upon the outbreak of diseases like malaria and black fever, as well as the absence of any connection with the British, the Chinese experts and workers promptly departed from the site.
During this time, there was an escalating need for more labourers due to the rising number of tea plantations. After this event, the British started looking for labourers in different parts of India.
“In the late nineteenth century, white tea planters began establishing tea plantations in Assam. However, due to the shortage of local workers, they relied on the assistance of the Assam government to provide labour for the tea industry,” stated historian Sukumar Biswas in his book “Bangalore Movement and Bengali Context in Assam 947–1961.” The publication of Biswas’s work occurred in 1961. He was tasked with coordinating the transportation of numerous labourers from different parts of India.
All Hindustani tea workers who were imported from the states of Bihar, Orissa (Odisha), Madras (Chennai), Nagpur, Santal Parganas, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh were provided with accommodation and other amenities. This matter is also discussed in a distinct section that has been introduced.
The government of Assam implemented the Immigration of Labour Act during that period. “Through this procedure, numerous Hindustanis commenced establishing themselves in Assam,” he declared.
Skilled labourers from different regions were brought together in East Bengal to oversee the management of tea plantations. People from different areas, such as Dhaka, Mymensingh, Noakhali, and Tripura, started working in these tea plantations in different roles due to the government’s establishment of the railway line.
The British initially employed individuals of this nature. If that were true, there would be no need to bring them along, especially since the children of these workers are the ones who consistently secure jobs in tea gardens for years to come. Even in the following two centuries, these circumstances remained unchanged.
The British assessment states a minimal connection between them and the old society of Bangladesh, even after one and a half centuries. This statement was made regarding the modern slavery present in the tea mining industry of Bangladesh. Due to a lack of access to education or employment services, they are forced to stay on tea plantations.
Trapped within the tea farms, an invisible chain binds these individuals, their futures uncertain in a foreign land beyond the boundaries of the plantations.
Last attempt to return to the homeland
Upon departing from their homes, the tea workers found themselves in an unfamiliar setting, where they encountered fresh challenges. They must confront unfamiliar weather patterns, wildlife encounters, and potential illnesses. Numerous workers tragically lose their lives due to wild animal attacks or diseases during the process of clearing forests to establish tea plantations.
The British government enacted legislation in 1865 and 1882, granting plantation owners the authority to apprehend workers without a warrant if they escaped from the plantations. There seems to be a certain level of legal legitimacy given to acts of beating, detaining, or abducting.
The non-cooperation movement against the British government prompted the tea workers to take a stand and return to their homeland, tired of the inhumane conditions they were subjected to.
On May 20, 1921, many tea workers assembled in Chandpur, hailing from different plantations in Sylhet and Assam, to return to their homeland. They planned to travel to Goland by steamer and return home by rail. However, the European Tea Association and the local magistrate attempted to prevent their progress. Several individuals lost their lives in the chaotic rush to board the steamer. In the book ‘History of Tea Gardens and Tea Workers of Bangladesh’, Riyad Mahmud and Alida Binte Saki mention that the rest of the workers chose to remain in Chandpur instead of returning to the garden. However, there was an outbreak of cholera among them. Next, the government attempted to quell the rebellion by preventing cholera. Under the cover of darkness, Gurkha soldiers launched a surprise attack and unleashed a barrage of gunfire on their unsuspecting targets. Approximately 300 tea workers lost their lives on that tragic day.
Following that incident, the tea workers never attempted to return to their homeland. The tea plantation owners assert their authority over the other plantation workers, emphasising their ownership and provision of food and shelter.
This message, found in the books of Riyad Mahmud and Alida bint Sakir, explores the consequences faced by those who attempt to flee.
A group of recent migrant tea workers
Later, in response to the need for tea plantation workers, small groups of individuals were brought from various regions of India with the Sardars’ (leaders’) assistance.
In 1946, the final group of tea workers arrived in Bangladesh from Andhra Pradesh, India. Following the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, tea workers from Sylhet and Chittagong chose to stay in East Pakistan. Erp Their descendants continue to work in the tea gardens of the country.
These workers also had a significant impact on Bangladesh’s war for independence. The plantations served as a crucial base for numerous freedom fighters during the war, with the workers providing invaluable support in terms of food and shelter.
Following the independence of Bangladesh, they were recognised as citizens of the nation.