Robert Bruce - The Man Behind Assam Tea
Every cup of Tea starts with a story and this one is about Mr Robert Bruce. Some are the product of hard work and determination, of intricate processing methods and the most elaborate of techniques.
Others come about through sheer luck. Yet sometimes it takes only an individual, or perhaps two or three, to change the way we look at our morning brew. Such is the case with Assam Tea.
Indeed, it was but one man and his brother, Robert and C.A. Bruce, who kicked-started India’s now thriving Tea industry. The article below will explore how their endeavours proved to be so fruitful, so iconic, and what impact it ultimately had.
Assam Tea Before Robert Bruce
It’s important to recognise that Assam Tea, as well as Indian Tea as a whole, only came about through colonialism. Because so many Britons were worried by the adverse balance of trade with China, the home of Tea, an alternative was deemed necessary. As a result, in 1764, the first efforts were made to smuggle out Chinese Tea plants for growing in British India.
It wasn’t an immediate success. Nor, for that matter, were these efforts particularly active or robust. In 1788, the celebrated Naturalist Sir Joseph Banks reported that it was quite practical to produce Tea in India.
Years later, in 1795, Lord Macartney successfully brought seeds to Calcutta’s Botanic Gardens for nurturing. However, there wouldn’t be any especially constructive steps to start an Indian Tea industry for some decades. The key to success, it turned out, would come about in the following century.
The early 1800s were a time of great upheaval in the Indian state of Assam. Tensions between the locals and their colonial masters were reaching a breaking point. Soldiers of fortune, meanwhile, were introducing modern firearms to the area, thus further increasing pressure. It seemed as if conflict was all but a certainty, yet other endeavours were also taking place.
Robert Bruce Discovers Indian Tea
Robert Bruce, a Scottish explorer, merchant and ex-Major in the Bengal Artillery, first arrived in Assam in 1822. It was during this time that he raised a force of irregular banditti to capture and occupy the town of Gauhati.
What Bruce was doing trading and fighting in India when such activities were expressly forbidden to unauthorised Britons by the East India Company remains unknown. Yet it was also this twist of fate that saw the Scot emerge as a Tea pioneer of almost unparalleled renown.
In 1823, Bruce travelled to Rangpur, the capital of the Ahom Kingdom in Upper Assam. Although he had visited previously, this particular excursion had a very special purpose. His intention was to meet Bessa Guam, the chief of the Singpho, one of the principal tribes of the region. Most importantly, his reasoning for such a venture was to learn more about the area’s indigenous plants.
Vital information provided by a native nobleman named Maniram Datta Barua had prompted the journey. Upon his arrival, Robert witnessed the Singpho tribe consuming leaves from an unknown specimen that bore an uncanny resemblance to China’s Camellia sinensis var sinensis. If proven to be a variety of Tea, Robert Bruce realised, then Britain’s needs could be made with far greater ease than initially imagined.
C.A. Bruce Clarifies The Findings
Charles Alexander Bruce had, similar to his brother Robert, been fighting in India when he received the news. An avid herbalist, it was up to him to clarify Robert’s findings at the Botanic Gardens in Calcutta.
Following a thorough examination of the leaves and seeds brought to C.A. Bruce, the evidence was unmistakable. A variety of Tea grew naturally in India, later dubbed Camellia sinensis var assamica.
Yet tragedy struck soon after when, in 1824, just one year after the discovery, Robert Bruce passed away. Sadly, it seemed as if the Tea pioneer, the figure who began it all, would never see the fruits of his labour. However, Charles Alexander Bruce continued his legacy, later establishing a nursery at Sadiya consisting entirely of native bushes.
After much trial and error, Charles managed to quietly dispatch a small sample of manufactured Assam Tea to the newly-formed Tea Committee. It was ultimately deemed to be of exceptional quality, thus prompting another consignment of 46 chests worth of Assamese leaves.
By 1838, the first shipment of Assam Tea was auctioned in London. One year later, in 1839, the Assam Company was officially founded, bringing about a new era of Indian Tea.
Assam Tea History (1840-Today)
The Bruce brothers played an incredibly significant role in Assam Tea, as well as India’s Tea industry in its entirety. Yet the story didn’t stop there. From Darjeeling to Nilgiri, and several regions in between, Tea became one of the most vital commodities of the country.
In 1871, C.A. Bruce received the gold medal from the Royal Society of Arts for his work. He died aged 78, and was buried in Tezpur alongside Robert.
As calls for independence from Britain reached fever pitch in the 1940s, however, Tea became a symbol of colonial oppression. Famously, Mohandas Gandhi discouraged Indians from drinking it in part due to fears that such practices legitimised a British presence in the country.
This, of course, changed post-1947 when the likes of Assam and Darjeeling Tea went on to bolster an independent Indian economy.
Today, Assam Tea is, undoubtedly, one of the most popular types of Black Tea in the world. Best known for its distinctly malty taste, it has long adorned the cups and mugs of casual drinker and connoisseurs alike.
Yet without Robert and C.A. Bruce, the industry might indeed look very different. Here at The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company, we owe much to their outstanding contribution.