The advent of Darjeeling tea dates back to the mid-early 1800s when India still was under the colonial rule of the British Empire. The East India Company levied huge taxes on tea imports from China and hence was a huge source of income for the British. However,in 1833 after losing the monopoly in the China Tea Trade, the Company had to look for another source of supply to keep the business afloat.
Various representatives were sent to China in 1834 to bring back plants, seeds and Chinese tea experts. The saplings from the seeds were grown at the Botanical Gardens in Kolkata and sent over to Assam and the nearby areas where tea was successfully produced, thanks largely to the Chinese counterparts. It was then shipped to England for the first time in 1838. Assam tea just helped them to maintain the tide.
In 1839 Archibald Campbell, a civil surgeon of the Indian Medical Service was transferred as superintendent of Darjeeling from Kathmandu, Nepal. He started experimenting with the Chinese tea saplings that were sent from Kolkata. In 1841 he brought seeds of the Chinese tea plant (Camellia Sinensis) and successfully cultivated tea in his Beechood Estate located below the Clock tower in Darjeeling. Thus, tea became a reality and a viable option and large number of tea planters from England started flocking in. Some succeeded while others went bankrupt.
The British at first brought in Chota Nagpur hill residents as labourers who they thought would adapt and become an obedient workforce. Notwithstanding the cold and the damp climate of the Darjeeling hills, the natives fled into the thick of the night while others who stayed and revolted for bonded slavery were later shot. The Sikkim king had forbidded his workforce to join the British and the Lepchas refused to work as they were happy to live their simple lives out of the nature. The frustrated British then set their eye upon the kingdom of Nepal, also a very close ally. Considered very cheerful and hardworking people, the British employed thousands of Nepalese for tea cultivation. As such, huge influx of Nepali workers stepped into Darjeeling. By 1856, tea estates at Tukvar, Aloobari and Makaibari got established all employing workers of Nepali origin.
Darjeeling tea was well on its course to be an enterprising industry. The workers were provided with decent housing and medical care. The planters from a group of tea gardens had respective clubs where they would gather in the evenings for a game of tennis followed by dance and dinner. Garden ownership was never given to any inhabitants from the Darjeeling region but always to British tea planters and some influential wealthy Indians willing to invest in the gardens. The British garden managers had full authority over the workers though they lacked proper knowledge of tea making.
Though tea cultivation was flourishing, it was not until 1859 that a botanist named Robert Fortune, working on behalf of the Royal Horticultural Society of London went to China and brought back 20000 tea plants and seedlings to the Darjeeling region of India, with the acid soil liked by Camellia plants. Robert a master for stealing tea plants employed under the East India Company used Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s portable Wardian cases to transfer the plants. He also illegally brought with him Chinese tea experts who later facilitated the production of tea leaves which until then were all incorrectly done. The technical knowledge paved the way for a massive boost in the tea industry. Demand for Darjeeling tea started increasing but production was low. The tea leaves were procured after a tedious and manual process. A need for mechanizing the whole process became inevitable. Eventually, the first processing factory in Makaibari was established in 1859.
Today, there are 87 tea gardens employing about 52,000 permanent workers in the tea estates of Darjeeling. Almost 200000 families are dependent on the wages of these garden workers. During the peak season (March to November) another 15,000 contract employees are hired. Darjeeling has retained its position for producing highest quality tea for well over a century. So much has been known that during an auction in 2014, Darjeeling tea was purchased at a record price of US$1,850 (around Rs. 1.12 lakhs) per KG. It has been deservedly called upon as The Champagne of teas. It is also noteworthy that Darjeeling White Tea has exceeded the price line of Rs 50000. Darjeeling tea is the first Indian product to receive a GI tag.