An European's account of Assam

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By Carte Blanche - Arup Kumar Dutta
  • Published 5.03.12
‘Another pioneering book had been A Tea Planter’s Life in Assam (that) ... provided us with a detailed account of ... plantation life’

Recently I was given an extraordinary book — a 19th century account of Assam written, by of all people, a German national in the German language excellently translated into Assamese by Dr Salim M. Ali. The translator, who had studied and taught in Germany, had given the book the broader title of “Asom 1864” with a sub-title “Unyas Shatikaar Asomat Chah Khetiyakar Jivan Aru Samasamayik Asomiya Samaj,” roughly translating as A Tea Planter’s Life and Contemporary Assamese Society in 19th century Assam.

Because of the advent of hundreds of aspiring tea planters in the first half of the 19th century when a tea empire which could compete with China was being set up by the British East India Company in then undivided Assam, a number of accounts of tea plantation life and Assamese society written in those days are available. There, too, have been numerous monographs and treatises on subjects such as ethnic composition of the region and way of tribal life recorded by bureaucrats and travellers which afford us a fascinating glimpse of Assam during the 19th century.

One of the earliest such accounts had been The Reminiscence of a Pioneer Planter written by E.G. Foley in 1867, which provides us with amusing titbits such as the fate of one Dr Dobbs who “was struck in the jaw by a left-handed polo-player and had several teeth knocked out as well as a fractured jaw.” Another pioneering and comprehensive book had been A Tea Planter’s Life in Assam by George Barker who came as a garden assistant manager in the 1870s and provided us with a detailed account of not only plantation life and treatment of garden workers, but also how tea was cultivated and manufactured in those early days.

The most amusing account of such amateur historians would surely be The Trials of a Planter by the irrepressible Oscar Lindgren, the self-styled “founder” of Makum town in Upper Assam. Later works such as Maurice P. Hanley’s Tales and Songs from an Assam Tea Garden or A.R. Ramsden’s Tea Planting and Hunting in the Assam Jungle carry on with the tradition and provide us with additional insights into plantation life in Assam as well as prevalent customs and mores in Assamese society.

These accounts, without exception, were written by expatriates from Great Britain, be they from England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland, and invariably in the English language. To my knowledge Asom 1864, apart from being one of the earliest such writings, is also perhaps the sole one written in a language other than English. The writer, Oscar Flex, was one of the rare non-British Europeans whose adventurous spirit made him come to Assam, a region which then had been a sort of terra incognita to mainland India. From May 1864 for three years he pursued the vocation of a tea planter with the East India Tea Company till the sale of that company in December 1867, when he gave up the career and returned to Germany to live in Berlin for the rest of his days.

It was there that he wrote his reminiscence of the days spent in Assam, thereby creating an account which had been used till the end of the 19th century in German encyclopaedias in sections dealing with Assam. As his translator, Salim Ali, points out, while all other accounts of the 19 th century Assam written by outsiders were stamped with the imperialistic mindset, Flex’s account is unbiased and impartial and offers a far more balanced view of the period of British rule in the region.

The primary content of this remarkable book is depiction of the day to day life of the Assamese people those days, the topography and other aspects of the region, as also the spread of the tea-industry and plantation life. In the preface the translator give the example as to how the German author observes the prevalent gender equality in Assamese society, which perhaps impressed him because of the gender differential prevalent in his own Europe those days. The translator also refers to the depiction in the book of one courageous woman called Mriganetri, who apparently had spoken out in protest against British oppression, but who has no place in the conventional history of this region. From the very beginning, Flex sets out to give a graphic description of the geo-climatic conditions of a region which, according to him, “has remained unknown to the people of Europe”.

As an example: “The climate of this region is humid, the abundance of jungles hampers wind from blowing across and induces enormous heat. The area experiences the heaviest rainfall in India. The rains, which commence in March, continue till November, and the rivers are filled with water eight months of the year. The enormous quantity of water induces an insalubrious atmosphere causing innumerable ailments, such as fever, dysentery, malaria etc. There are huge storms during the monsoons which wreak havoc in tea gardens. The region also experiences frequent earthquakes. Winter sets in from end of November till beginning of February, which is the season of relaxation for Europeans. During winter fog sets in around every midnight and lasts till at least 11 am the next morning. Nothing is visible through the dense fog….”

From the very moment he sets foot on land at Kokilamukh after a steamer trip from Calcutta to discover that the elephant sent to meet him at the jetty and take him to his garden had not come, till the time of his departure, it is a riveting journey indeed. The steamer conveying him also carried two horses but, when he asked if he could ride on one of them and get to his garden, he was told that the animals would be transported onward to their destination by boat since so-called roads in Assam were veritable mud-traps. The best mode of travel during rainy season was by elephant, and perhaps his garden would send another one for him, probably with an elephant-cart attached. The stranded new comer had to spend a couple of nights on the river bank, sleeping upon a bed of sacks, eating boiled rice and gazing at the reeds!

“By the time I had made my decision to camp upon that mud-filled and empty stretch of the river-bank evening had fallen. The steamer had also brought in a group of tea garden labourers and I was moved to pity at their plight. They were preparing to spend the night under the open sky because their manager had not come to pick them up…. I considered them to be as unfortunate victims of circumstances as I…. they were as much strangers to this land as I was and I thought that a few words from me will serve to cheer them up…”

Such a tone of commiseration for ordinary people, no matter what their colour of skin were, which sets apart this narrative from other equally interesting ones penned by other European writers. Each page of the book is replete with interesting titbits of information about a period 150 years ago, each chapter is filled with a sense of adventure and romance. Quite expectedly there are factual discrepancies — after all, it is a tale of discovery by someone far from home and not fully acquainted with the Assamese way of life. Also, Flex’s experience is only of one small area within the broader region.

However, despite such constraints as well as the brevity of the account Asom 1864 provides the readers with a fascinating glimpse into another era even as it makes for exciting reading. Salim Ali has indeed performed a sterling service by unearthing a piece of writing on Assam of historic significance by a non-British author, translating it from German to Assamese, thereby making it accessible to ordinary readers. It is to be hoped that the publishers translate the work to English so that readers outside can partake of what it has to offer.