The planter sat on the verandah watching the sun go down behind the mountains, and the lights came on in the plains far below. A chill wind rose and with it the moon; the fragrance of the raat ki rani, which old man Clyfford had planted long ago, filled the air. The planter didn’t quite like the smell…he found it too strong and it tended to give him a headache, so he lit his cigarette and inhaled deeply. It was going to be a long night and he planned to be awake.  

The coffee berries were ripe and he wanted to make sure they were there on the bushes the next day, ready for plucking, not in some thief’s gunny bag. Fortified by a cup of coffee, the planter made his way through the tea bushes down to the coffee fields, the moon lighting up the hillside as if it was day. It was a still night, not a leaf stirred.

The planter sat perched on a small rock and looked around; nothing so far. The hands on his watch moved slowly. It would be midnight soon. A cloud sailed past the moon and it became colder. The watcher on the rock shivered. He felt a presence. To be safe, he picked up his double barrel and was comforted by its smooth cool metal. He waited, making no sound. He was barely breathing. A sharp wind arose and blew the clouds away. The planter had a clear view now.

It was then that he saw an old man walking between the tea bushes.  Dressed in dungarees, that were patched at his knees, a tweed coat with elbow patches and a trilby jammed low over his forehead.  A worn-out leather satchel hung waist high diagonally suspended from his shoulder. Every now and then, he bent down to pick up something which he put in his bag. The watcher on the rocks wondered what it was the old man was picking up. Was it pebbles? The temperature dropped further and he shivered. As he watched, the old man disappeared behind the rocky outcrop down the path to the lower fields.  The planter leapt up and ran along the ridge to get a view of the pathway down to the coffee field. But there was no one there. 

Suddenly, the still of the night was broken by gun shots and screams. The planter changed course and ran towards the sounds. He found his watchmen had apprehended the coffee thieves – a couple of young fellows from the village nearby.

“But where’s the old man?” he asked the supervisor and other workers. No one knew.

The mystery was eating him up. A week later, Kittu Maistry, an old hand on the estate put him out of his misery. On hearing the tale, he laughed.  Indeed!

Clyfford it was, who planted the estate with coffee. He was a miserly old Quaker who picked up the ‘fermented and washed’ berries lying on the ground. Fermented and washed, incidentally is how coffee is processed, yet in this case it was processed by the monkeys – eating the ripe berries and then passing them out. Clyfford washed and dried the berries, and shipped them off to England in wooden chests with a stencilled marking that read “Monkey Brand Coffee”. This coffee found a niche market in England and Clyfford made his pile, literally.  The story goes that on moon lit nights, the old man still picks up the monkey berries and puts them in his satchel, as he did a century ago. 

The coffee in the upper fields were uprooted when blight attacked the plants sometime between 1869 and 1880, long after old man Clyfford was six feet under. This was the time when most of the coffee especially on the western slopes of the Nilgiris was uprooted and planted with tea. N. B. Athbey, coffee planter and member of the India Coffee Board in an introduction to coffee planting in the Nilgiris writes, “King Coffee held the field wherever plantations were opened till disease, uneconomic prices or unseasonal conditions, or the gold rush forced coffee out to be replaced by tea, rubber, potatoes or abandoned mine shafts.” 

When coffee plants rub shoulders with tea bushes. Photo courtesy Manoj Archibald
When coffee plants rub shoulders with tea bushes. Photo courtesy Manoj Archibald

The Nilgiris, like most other planting districts in South India, had both tea and coffee plantations. The planting areas are classified into two natural tracts: Nilgiri-Wynad and Coonoor-Ootacamund.

The first coffee plantation in the Nilgiri plateau was started in 1838 by one Dawson followed by Cockburn (pronounced Coburn) and others; coffee was planted both on the western and eastern slopes of the Nilgiris, getting a start on tea.  Old planters’ tales tell of the fertility of the virgin shola soil; apparently all one had to do was to throw some seedlings into the ground and poke it with a stick for it to take root. The raging controversy at that time was the superiority of the eastern slopes over the western ones. While the coffee plants grown on the western slopes were more plentiful, the coffee from the eastern slopes had more flavour.

But all that went out of the window when the coffee plantations in the Nilgiris were hit by blight which wiped out large areas. The first of these was a coffee leaf disease and the estates on the lower slopes were the worst hit. In the early years of the 20th century the green bug wiped out large tracts of planted coffee especially those grown without shade trees. Planters noticed the connection and when they replanted the coffee they also planted shade trees which developed a fungus which in turn controlled the bug. The reward for this was the boom years between 1926 and 1929. 

In 1898, H. O. Newport, an amateur entomologist introduced and released the Australian ladybird in the Nilgiri hills to check the mealy bugs on coffee. The ladybird was a natural predator of the mealy bugs and soft scales (another bug) infesting many plantation crops and ornamental plants. According to the National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources, this is “perhaps the first natural enemy deliberately introduced into India”. 

However, coffee continued to be under attack, if it was not the bugs, it was the overproduction in South America which crashed the prices, or it was the gold rush in the Nilgiri Wynad.

That there was gold in the Nilgiri-Wynad area is common knowledge. Even today, if you venture into the forest you will see tribal people panning for gold near the streams.

The gold rush in the Nilgiri Wynad was during the years 1879-1882, when planters uprooted the coffee to mine for gold. The gold rush, a story in itself, was soon over; leaving the hillsides pitted with mining shafts and the forests with rusting machinery. Years later, the plantation owners filled up the shafts and replanted the area with tea.

All over the Nilgiris, coffee gave way to tea and slowly the area under tea grew, assisted by subsidies. A Tea Board survey reveals that in 1976 the total area under cultivation in the Nilgiris was 23,879 hectares.  Today, the total area under tea cultivation is 66,175 hectares and the annual production is 135 million kg.  

The majority of the land under cultivation is held by Badagas, the local people, who switched from vegetables to tea and thereby increased the number of small holdings in tea. One report on small holdings says that only 30 per cent of the tea produced in the Nilgiris is from large plantations; the rest are by small growers who typically own less than one hectare each. Along with the growth in the number of small growers, is the increase in the number of ‘bought leaf’ factories, that is, standalone tea factories.  

Cherian P. Matthew, a third generation planter says that there was yet another reason for the shift to tea. He says that coffee has an annual cycle where the berries are harvested once a year, while tea has a weekly cycle. So the small growers were able to get money every week. Maintaining labour also became a problem for coffee estates as a large labour force was required only during harvesting while on a tea estate, there was work around the year.

Today, coffee is almost all gone; ladybirds have mostly been wiped out with the indiscriminate use of pesticides and the young planter who sat on the rock is just a memory. But Clyfford still walks on moon lit nights, when the fragrance of the raat ki rani hangs heavy in the air, wending his way through the tea bushes searching for monkey berries to make his speciality coffee.  

Featured banner of the Nilgiris by Mahesh Bhat

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1 Comment

  1. Kalyani Davidar Reply

    Never knew coffee-biography had so much to it! Very interesting and edifying as all Nina’s blogs are…

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