Even as the Nilgiris district celebrates the bicentenary of the first colonial expedition that made its way up the hills successfully, led by British administrator John Sullivan, there’s another contribution that Sullivan made, that remains relevant even today: his role in introducing tea in the hills.
A Tea Committee was constituted by Governor General in Council Lord William Bentinck in 1834, to introduce the cultivation of tea in India. The Committee focused mainly on Assam and its surrounding regions. With Sullivan’s initiatives however, the Tea Committee was directed in March 1835, “to extend the experimental cultivation to other parts of India, and to forward a portion of supply of tea seeds…. to the superintendent of the Nilgherrie hills”, said D. Venugopal of the Nilgiris Documentation Centre.
After a year of trial in the Ketti Farm in the Nilgiris, the then Commanding Officer of ‘Neilgherries’, reported to the State Governor in 1836, “From my observation of the plants, the growth of them appears to be very slow, and I doubt if they will ever attain the proper size”.
Following this the Governor of Madras wrote to the Government of India that, “the experiment has almost entirely failed, and that with the exception of a few plants on the Neilgherry hills, the rest have withered away”.
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Tragedy struck Sullivan in August 1838, when his wife and first daughter died within weeks of each other in Ooty. Before leaving the Nilgiris for Madras, Sullivan gathered a few withering plants from the Ketti Farm and personally took them to the Agri-Horticultural Society in Madras stating, “I send a specimen of tea, made from leaves gathered at Kaity and Bellicul; they were gathered at intervals, exposed to the sun in a cloudy day, and dried in a frying pan; but I think, notwithstanding these serious errors and disadvantages, the specimen is sufficient to warrant the hope that, with proper apparatus and manipulation, we might produce as good tea as is furnished from Assam. And as the plants are flourishing here at a considerably higher elevation, we have reason to conclude that the whole region of hills is applicable to the growth of this plant.”
Later, Sullivan wrote to the The Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1841 that “though from long neglect the plant was nearly lost in Nilgiris, it was in June 1839 growing in such a state of luxuriance as to leave no doubt that if extensively propagated, the manufacture of tea might be carried on with great success, perhaps even greater than in Assam.”