“The Stalingrad of the East… Named at the ceremony as Britain’s greatest battle, ahead of Waterloo and D-Day… The last Great Stand of Empire… The largest volunteer army in world history… Thirty of the total of 182 Victoria Crosses awarded in World War II, the highest award for valor… A million workers of whom 40,000 died in the race to build by hand the mountain roads to the railheads and airfields that kept open the supply lines… The worst flying conditions and most dangerous routes in aviation history… The two sides separated only by the width of the town’s tennis court, the defense perimeter reduced to 350 square yards… The Regiment ordered to fight to the very last man.”
This may not seem to relate to tea, until you add Assam to the names. The Stalingrad of the East was the brutal battle of Kohima in the Nagaland region of Assam (now a separate state.) Along with the Imphal campaign in the same area that buffered India from Burma, Kohima was the turning point in the war with Japan. The Japanese had captured Singapore and Rangoon and then launched a brilliant move to the north where they threatened an invasion of India and the disruption of supplies to China, in 1943-44. Kohima marked what was literally the last great stand of Empire.
It wasn’t just the military who merited the words on the memorial stone at Kohima:
Half of Assam’s tea plantation supervisors were assigned to direct the road building lifelines, handle the floods of refugees from Northern Burma, support the airlift – and send tea to Britain. A book published in 1945, appropriately titled The Forgotten Frontier, describes the context: “the height of the monsoon in one of the wettest parts of the world; [the country] was almost unknown, almost trackless; the thick jungle was infected with all the tropical plagues of mosquitoes, leeches… long steep ascents and descents; deep, swift, swollen rivers lay across the path; there were no local supplies of food.”
The Assam-Kunming road and rail links were vital and the Hump airlift operated from multiple airfields. It referred to the Himalayas, the Hump that cost the mainly US aircrews 700 planes. 500 of which have never been recovered. Flights took off every two minutes, with just a one in three chance of the pilot surviving the next 1,000 mile round trip.
The Ledo Road, also known as the Stilwell Road for the US general who commanded the theater of operations, was begun in 1942. The engineering and planning were American but it was built – 500 miles of it – by Himalayan tribespeople, in months. It linked the tea gardens of Assam to Burma and took three years to complete. After the War it was quickly overgrown by the dense rainforest growth and abandoned. The US military records describe it as one of humanity’s mightiest construction projects, “built upon death, of US Army soldiers and poor enforced Indian laborers.”
On the ground and in the air, the same cruel defensive survival struggles played out in appalling conditions. The Regiment that was ordered formally and unusually not to surrender, was the Assam Regiment, part of the 2.5 million volunteers of the Indian Army. This was, is and probably will always be the largest non-conscript force in history. It mustn’t be romanticized. Poverty, coercion, landlords, local politicians and other factors played a role in the enrolments. The troops served in Egypt, Afghanistan and across Asia. When the supposedly impregnable fortress of Singapore surrendered a few months after Pearl Harbor, 55,000 Indian troops were captured; over 10,000 joined the Japanese Nationalist Army, and 11,000 died in the prison camps.
Many Indians opposed the British imperialist control of their country and of its resources, including the volunteers, for very good reasons; the history of British colonialism is nowhere near as noble as the tourist brochures and those awful saccharine and lisp TV costume dramas suggest. During the very same two years of 1942-3 when so many Indian soldiers and laborers fought and died with British, American, Canadian and Australian troops in Assam, the neighboring state of Bengal, lost at least four million of its population of 60 million in under a single year to malnutrition, starvation and disease.
This famine was largely triggered by Britain diverting 60% of Bengal’s rice supplies and ignoring the entire problem. Prime Minister Churchill commented that starvation of “anyhow underfed” Bengalis was unimportant in comparison to ensuring “sturdy” Greek partisans: “I hate Indians: a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
The Assam region was the nexus of the defense against Japan because it provided the few pathways through the Himalayas. The Japanese invaders brought with them 5,000 mules, an indicator of the terrain. These were not enough. None survived and most were eaten; that’s an indicator of the conditions. The battles were slugfests, with very high casualties. Professional soldiers and historians increasingly recognize the critical importance of Kohima; it was they who voted it the greatest battle in Britain’s entire history.
The Indian soldiers and workers were largely neglected after the War. India gained her independence in 1947 and there was understandingly no wish to praise and preserve the ethos and history of colonialism. Associations and memoirists spoke often of the Forgotten Army and the Unknown Army. Unknown seems an accurate summary. If you were to poll UK citizens, it’s unlikely even 1% would have a clue what you were asking about.
Most of the literature, marketing, advertising and popular historical work on Indian tea has little that’s Indian about it. The colonial planter perspective dominates. There are a few anecdotes about the great writer Rabindranath Tagore (“Come, oh come, ye tea-thirsty restless ones – the kettle boils, bubbles and sings, musically.”) But much of the discussion is as if India were a small suburb outside London.
More broadly but in the same vein, there has always been a social bias in the focus: high tea, Royal, teaware, etiquette and snobbery. But by far the most interesting and still relevant view of tea is respect for the poor. You get a far richer sense of the whole society by looking at, say, how critical tea became for the women of 19th century Ireland, who suffered very high rates of mental and physical breakdown through self-imposed malnutrition to ensure their husbands were fed well enough to work and their children to be if not healthy then less likely to be ill.
Tea was transformational in Asia in health impacts by freeing urban populations from the deadly scourge of water, the great killer. In Britain, it was the primary counterforce to the heroin-scale equivalent epidemic of cheap booze. It’s not at all clear what India’s ordinary people gained or lost from “English” tea: you certainly won’t find much discussion of “coolie” labor and import of “indentured” workers from Ceylon, nor the pluses and minuses of estate wages and housing and food policies.
One of the most pressing but deeply-rooted long term issues among all the nations that depend on tea for jobs and foreign exchange is that it is an industry of immense poverty, with wages below $2 a day and falling in most cases, largely because of global overproduction and mechanization. There is a rich coverage of labor conditions, many efforts such as Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance are working hard to help improve life on the plantations, and there is a much less publicized body of material in independence movements of ethnic groups, the civil strife and even armed clashes in many tea growing regions.
But this doesn’t fit the public picture of tea in society. It’s easy to ignore all these but just a little attention to the history can be a niggle or jolt. The Kohima story is really about people in a terrible situation, coping. What’s happened since? They are Forgotten. Should that remain as Ignored? What is the social context of the tea supply chain we take for granted? Is Fair Trade just a worthy gesture or part of a historical drift that we should at least be aware of? What about the impacts of social mobility on India’s tea industry? The many drives for political independence among ethnic groups?
There is no reason for tea drinkers to have any interest in its history or in any of these questions. But knowledge does add to the broad experience that makes tea more than just a drink. It carries with it so many associations. After all, if Earl Grey were called by an equally accurate name like, say, Louisiana Tanker Tea, it would be somehow “different” and were there no Jane Austen, maybe you’d feel a little less something when you sit down with friends to share a pot of tea.
Perhaps the broader interest is that history should not bore you, as it so often does at school. It’s stories that evoke pictures and feelings. They can alert and sensitize. And be fun. Tea is rich in its history. Indeed, you could play a trivial pursuit game of choose a topic and see if there’s anything tea history offers of relevance. How about tea and mathematical equations? Easy one – the Lady Tasting Tea problem in the 1920s (she claimed she could always tell if the milk or tea was poured into the cup first) that directly led to Fisher’s entire revolution in the methods of experimental design and nonparametric statistics. Try another topic: Pearl Harbor and D-Day? Answer: Let me tell you about Kohima.
The featured banner shows the bungalow at the Chota Tingrai estate. At the base of the building, if you zoom right in, are little ventilators that are part of the bunker below. Photograph by Tridib Konwar.