Very few hill areas can boast so many foreign footprints as the Nilgiris. The European contribution is well known. But the work some Chinese prisoners did to make the hill station what it is today lies buried under the sands of time.

The first European to visit and write about the Nilgiris was a Portuguese person in 1604. The British opened the district to the outside world and laid the foundation for a modern Nilgiris in 1820. Soon after, the Scots introduced horticulture, plantations and education. German, Danish, Swedish missionaries followed. The Swiss then paved the way for a mountain railway. Gold rush brought a horde of foreigners. After Independence, the Canadians built hydro-electric projects. The French set up the first public sector unit.

There can be no better time to discover the Chinese connection than this year, India-China Year of Friendly Exchanges, Dharmalingam Venugopal, Director, Nilgiri Documentation Centre, said on Friday, World Heritage Day, calling for imaginative ways of exploiting the Nilgiris’ historical and heritage links through public-private collaboration to boost tourism.

In the 1850s, a group of skilled Chinese prisoners landed in the Nilgiris after the second Opium War that pitted the British Empire and the Second French Empire against the Qing Dynasty of China, which lasted from 1856 to 1860. They took part in the construction of Lawrence School at Lovedale, planted tea for the first commercial tea estate, which was aptly named Thiashola (Thia for tea in Chinese and shola for forest in the local language), and pioneered cultivation of cinchona to fight malaria. Of the many Chinese relics, only the cinchona factory and the Naduvattam jail remain intact, under the care of the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation.

In 1864, W.G. McIvor, superintendent of cinchona plantations and architect of the Government Botanical Gardens, asked the British government to provide 500 convicts for developing the plantations because local workers were too lethargic. The first convicts arrived in 1865 from the Straits Settlements, a group of British territories in Southeast Asia.

The Naduvattam jail consisted of two large rooms with brick walls and a zinc sheet roof, with only a small skylight for each of the nine prisoners’ quarters. Wooden planks served as bed.

After serving their sentence, the Chinese are believed to have settled at and around Naduvattam, engaged in gardening and dairying. Some married local women. The Chinese contribution to controlling malaria and initiating cultivation of tea, now the backbone of the district’s economy, deserves to be remembered and commemorated, Mr. Venugopal said.

Along with the Naduvattam jail and the factory, the hangman’s room is remains intact. The ambience of the complex is breathtaking, and its location, on the roadside, is easy of access.