Opium Wars and the Chinese convicts’ contribution to the Nilgiris

At Naduvattam stands a monument that testifies to the complex history of the hill district. The sub-jail was used to intern Chinese prisoners captured by the British. The prisoners helped the colonial administration establish tea and cinchona plantations 

January 20, 2023 01:01 am | Updated January 27, 2023 03:02 pm IST

The jail was recently renovated, with murals depicting the conditions in the jail. A sum of ₹74.9 lakh was released
under the Special Area Development Programme for the project. There are plans to open the jail to visitors. 

The jail was recently renovated, with murals depicting the conditions in the jail. A sum of ₹74.9 lakh was released under the Special Area Development Programme for the project. There are plans to open the jail to visitors.  | Photo Credit: SATHYAMOORTHY M

Watch | This Nilgiris jail once held Chinese prisoners
| Video Credit: Reporting: Rohan Premkumar Voiceover: Gopika K P Production: Reenu Cyriac Videos : M. Sathyamoorthy

Tucked away in the nondescript town of Naduvattam in the Nilgiris is a wonderfully preserved monument whose story encapsulates the complex history of the picturesque hill district. The injudiciously named “ancient sub-jail” that lies off the national highway was used to intern Chinese prisoners captured by the British during the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th Century, and stands almost forgotten among the stands of tea that surround it today.

The Prisoner of War (POW) camps, like the one in Naduvattam, provided the colonial administration with a supply of cheap, indentured labour, which it utilised to establish tea and cinchona plantations across the district. The prisoners helped to rake in revenue for the Empire through tea cultivation; they also helped in the manufacture of quinine to help treat malaria, a significant cause of mortality among the colonists.

Under TANTEA control

Today, the camp at Naduvattam is under the control of the State-run Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation (TANTEA). Around the camp were workers tending the tea plantations. Among them was Sumathi (name changed), 35, a Sri Lankan repatriate, who has spent her entire life working on the TANTEA estates. “We don’t really know much about the history of the jail,” she says, adding that local residents speak of Chinese prisoners having been housed in the building, and today, the premises serves as a drop-off point for tea leaves harvested from land adjoining the prison.

The POW camp is believed to have been operational in the middle of the 19th Century, and would have been surrounded by virgin rainforests that still cling to pockets of Naduvattam, though they are highly threatened by expanding agriculture, including tea cultivation.

Two large rooms

In a statement to The Hindu, Venugopal Dharmalingam, honorary director of the Nilgiri Documentation Center (NDC), said, “The Naduvattam jail consisted of two large rooms with brick walls and zinc sheet roof with only a small skylight for each of the nine prisoner quarters. Wooden planks served as beds and each prisoner was provided with ‘one rug and two cummlies’.”

The jail still has a hangman’s room, though it remains unclear if it was ever used. Of the many Chinese relics, only the cinchona factory and the prison remain intact in the care of TANTEA. In 1864, W.G. McIvor, superintendent of cinchona plantations and earlier the architect of Government Botanical Gardens, asked the British government for 500 convicts to develop the cinchona plantations. He had found the local tribal workers too lethargic. The first convicts arrived in 1865 from the British Straits Settlements, said Mr. Dharmalingam.

P.J. Vasanthan, a local history enthusiast from Coonoor, said the prisoners captured during the Opium Wars by the British were used as convict labour. They were involved in not only the planting of cinchona trees at Naduvattam but also tea cultivation at what is now known as Thiashola in Kundah and the construction of the Ootacamund Lawrence Asylum that later became the Lawrence School at Lovedale.

Mr. Vasanthan said a group of such convict labourers even made a daring escape on July 28, 1867, while they were constructing the asylum.

“A group of 12 such convicts effected an escape taking advantage of the stormy conditions that prevailed that night, and parties of armed policemen were sent to scour the hills. They were arrested a fortnight later, at Malabar, and as they had in their possession police weapons, and as one of the police parties sent after them had disappeared, the coincidence appeared ominous. A thorough search for the missing policemen was launched, and on September 15, their bodies were discovered halfway down the Sispara Pass, neatly laid out in a row with their severed heads placed on their shoulders. It appears that the escapees, on being overtaken, had pretended to surrender before overpowering the party and killing them with their own weapons,” he said.

Boers, too, came 

Mr. Vasanthan said that around 1,000 prisoners captured during the Boer Wars by the British were also sent to the Nilgiris. They were lodged in a camp at Ketti. “Unlike the Chinese, the Boer prisoners were given more freedom; they were even allowed to walk the ghat road and Wellington Bazaar, but had to obtain special permission to enter Udhagamandalam, Coonoor and Wellington,” he said.

Not much is known about what had happened to all the Chinese prisoners after their release. Local experts state that following their release, they managed to assimilate themselves into the local population, with some setting up businesses in the Nilgiris, while the others moved to neighbouring districts.

Though the POW camp remains closed to members of the public, TANTEA officials said it was recently renovated with funds under the Special Area Development Programme (SADP) at a cost of ₹74.9 lakhs. “The renovation, including murals depicting the conditions in the jail, will help to ensure that the story of the jail is told to future generations,” said an official of TANTEA. The official added that there were plans to open the jail to visitors in the near future.

Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.