Adventures of India's tea planters: How a desi won equal pay with the British

[Book extract] Nuggets of history on the business of making the subcontinent's favourite brew.

 |  5-minute read |   25-05-2016
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Forbes, Ewart and Figgis (FE&F) of Cochin is a firm of brokers and a pioneer in tea auctions in South India. AI Kurian, popularly known as Royce Kurian, joined the Company in 1965 and became a director in 1976.

Kurian initially joined FE&F as a trainee in 1959. He had been recruited on the basis of his father's reputation as a leading banker in Kottayam. AV George, a friend of Royce's father, took the young man to meet RG Peirce, who was the founder of FE&F.

cover-office-chai_052516055327.jpg Office Chai, Planter's brew; Westland Books; Rs 799 

Oommen Thomas was next in line at the firm at the time.

No ill-will against the British

After a short stint of tea-tasting for four months, Kurian went to England to work at J Lyons & Co., dealers in tea and coffee, and later with Priory Tea and Coffee Co. He came back and joined Stanes & Co in Cochin.

The profession of a tea-taster was new and unknown in South India in those days and Royce's marriage prospects were met with strange queries. His prospective bride, Sara, later his wife, wondered who or what a tea-taster was?

Kurian joined FE&F as a covenanted assistant in 1965 when a vacancy arose with a senior executive being transferred to Coonoor.

In 1965, Oommen Thomas acquired most of the shares of the company and became a major shareholder. The company had three expats in 1962 and when they exited, they were replaced by Oomen Thomas, Dharmaraj, and AI Kurian.

After the departure of the British, the company carried on in the working style they had established. A distinctive feature of the company was to work closely with local buyers, a trend it continues to this day.

Kurian recalls that despite the required professional hierarchy, there was no obvious discrimination by the British. The Cochin Club was the hub of expat social life.

It was known infamously during those times as the club that blackballed Robert Bristow, the famous builder of Cochin port, on account of his wife's ancestry.

It was from 1958 that it opened its membership to Indians based on the companies they worked for or on account of their sporting abilities.

Looking back, Kurian says that the British officers were gentlemen and behaved with utmost propriety. Having dealt with them at very close quarters, he found respect and appreciation from them for the work the Indians did in the company.

Kurian, a Freemason, says that many of the British were Freemasons and the minutes of the meetings are "clear proof" that there was no ill-feeling between the expats and Indians.

Even in Coonoor Club he remembers the interaction with the English as cordial and free from undertones of prejudice and other such negative feelings.

Most British families had a butler, helpers, maidservants, who referred to the man of the house as "Master". The house staff was looked after well and many continued to receive letters and gifts from their "Masters" after they left Cochin.

A transparent affair

Coming to professional work, leaf auction was held on Tuesdays and dust tea was sold on Thursdays. The open cry system of auction had all the romance and charm of expressions and tones provided by the voices of bidders, sellers/producers.

The sound of the gavel on desk, the excited voices in the room and the cheers and leers made the auction process a most fascinating feature of the colonial tea trade.

It was also a most transparent system.

FE&F interacted with plantation companies, many of which began as managing agents for small proprietary tea estates left in the hands of families after the demise of the planter-owner. In such situations it became unviable for the spouse to manage the affairs of the estate.

Peirce Leslie introduced management based on-commission-on-turnover, not on profit. There were Peirce Leslie and Aspinwall in Cochin, Harrisons Crosfield in Quilon and Darragh Ismail in Alleppey, to name a few. James Finlay was managing agents for Kanan Devan Hills Produce Co.

Wage parity with expats

Most visiting agents and number ones on the estates were expats till the early 1980s. When they left for "Home" on leave, their posts were handled by their Indian assistants who needed to take permission for all decisions they took in running the plantations.

An Indian planter once decided to do "weeding" while his boss was away in Leeds. He wrote a letter seeking permission and asking for a certain budget for the job.

The English planter wrote back, "You must realise that the company's policy is to have weeding done only in the month of July." Not to be put off, the Indian planter replied "I am aware of this but the weeds are not aware of company policy."

In 1965, Forbes, Ewart & Figgis decided to enter the rubber auction. Dick Paylor, the Number One of Harrisons and Crosfield, requested Forbes to send an executive and Kurian was given the assignment.

Royce recalls that he learnt on the job and that expat planters were happy to share their knowhow with a novice. He did not at any point of his exchange with them feel any sort of discomfiture on account of their behaviour.

Nevertheless, there were questionable practices in the plantation sector. One of the first Indian covenanted assistants in a British company (Stanes) was Ariez Kotawala.

A probationary recruit received confirmation after six months of service. On confirmation, the assistant's wages would be Rs 400 as basic and an allowance of Rs 150.

He could use the company car for official duties. The expat assistant received Rs 600 as basic, several perks and a four-month furlough every two years.

Kotawala, after receiving orders to join, took up the matter with his superior and spoke about wage parity and asked for the higher basic.

When asked to explain, he said, "Sir, if I don't look after myself, how will I look after the company?"

Impressed by the argument, wage parity between expats and Indians was introduced.

(Excerpted with publisher's permission.)


S Muthiah and Ranjitha Ashok

S Muthaiah is a senior journalist and prolific writer of non-fiction; Ranjitha is a Chennai-based freelance writer and columnist.

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