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Plantation History of Munnar - A century long story of the Kannan Devan Hills

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

‘A dream does not become a reality by magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work.’ – Colin Powell.

Plantations in Munnar have several such stories of determination and hard work. The estates and the picturesque beauty has made it the ‘Kashmir of South India,’ but how did the tea plantations come into existence here? Who were the pioneers? What was it like in the initial days? Let’s go back a few years down the lane and explore into the stories of that bygone era.

Kannan Devan Hills

The Malabar coast of Kerala was known for its spice trade for centuries. There was a port named ‘Muziris’ around 30 km North of the present day Cochin, which had extensive maritime trade relations with the Arabs, Chinese, Greeks, Egyptians, and the Romans. The trade mostly included spices like black pepper, cardamom and many other native varieties of spices in the Western Ghats and the plain lands of the Malabar Coast. The plantation history in the Western Ghats has a story that dates back to the 1750s. The British was on a mode of acquisition and had a larger plan of acquiring the whole of the Indian subcontinent. They fought with several princely states and had talks, agreements, and associations with many others so that they could rule efficiently and collect vast amounts of taxes to expand their empire and fortify their existence in India.

Tea in gunny bags

Britain was a colossal market for tea, and most of the dependency was in China, who was then the largest producer of tea in the world. Since China did not have a significant trade relationship with Britain, the Chinese were not interested in selling tea to the British for many reasons. Probably one reason could be that Britain did not have anything to attract the Chinese to get tea at a reasonable price. That led to a very complicated situation where British had to find some alternative and sowed seeds for planting tea in some of the finest soils in India so that all of that tea could be cultivated, harvested, processed and shipped all the way to England which in turn brought them a lot of money.

It was the 1760s; Tipu Sultan's Empire was flourishing at a rattling pace, and He was on a furious mode of conquering the princely states of the Malabar Coast, Canara and other parts of the Indian subcontinent. Tipu was successful in a lot of battles and had a great deal of loot with him. He carried many slaves along with him for raiding parties and freed them into the houses that intended for loot. He then moved all the loot to Mysore and used it for the growth of his kingdom and preparations for the wars to come. He mostly focused on trade routes in the Western Ghats and the Malabar coast, where an active trade had existed for centuries. He had an eye on every trading post so that he could get all of the loot very quickly and use all of it to make his kingdom wealthier and prepare himself for ambitious wars with a dream of acquiring the whole of South India.

Tipu Sulthan of Mysore

Britain as a foreign power was already in agreement with a lot of princely states and was working together under agreements. They were not very much in favor of Tipu’s aggressive movement. The governor of the then Madras presidency along with the help of local rulers started to deploy soldiers in most of the trade routes to curb the fast looting trading parties from Mysore. However, Tipu Sultan did progress in his movement in North of the Malabar Coastline, and he had multiple Indo Anglican wars fought with the British in Thalassery. Tipu refused to give up and proceeded further south and found it very difficult to cross the rivers in Bharathapuzha and Chalakudy. Finally, he camped at the banks of river Periyar in Aluva. The whole idea was to conquer the whole of the Travancore kingdom who relatively had large volumes of gold and wealth which could be looted and taken back to Mysore to support upcoming battles with the British. There were really bad defeats that shook Tipu in Aluva. An artificial flood was created overnight, and most of his soldiers, camping in Aluva Manapuram [sand banks], their arms, ammunition, and other necessities were washed away or left dormant. Many of his soldiers died due to diseases and starvation as an aftermath of the catastrophe. Tipu Sultan somehow escaped the tragedy and rode his horse all the way to Palakkad and from there to Mysore. By that time the wars ravaged Tipu and the unexpected disasters added to the wounds. Eventually Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ was killed by the British in the fourth Anglo- Mysore war at Srirangapatana, his hometown. It brought a moment of peace as the Tiger of Mysore was a horror for a lot of people towards the South West of the Indian subcontinent.

Map of India

Most of the resistance in the South for the British East India company came to an end after the decline of Tipu Sultan. In the year 1805, Sir George Everest was assigned the task of conducting a geographical survey of the Indian subcontinent. The survey started in 1806 and was completed in 25 years. The highest peak in the Himalayas, Mt. Everest was named after him, as an honor for the completion of the Great Indian Trigonometrical Survey. It was such a short span of time, which was supposed to be a concise period during those times. During the survey, the border allocation of the Madras presidency and the Travancore kingdom was also going on. Lt. Warne and Lt. Kernel was involved in the border marking procedure which also had assistance from the Travancore Maharaja. It was during this time that the two names, the Kannan Devan hills, and the Annamalai hills were first recorded in the history of the land, and that was how the name of Munnar and the associated hill ranges of Kerala came to be known as the Kannan Devan hills. However after many years, following numerous expeditions, people came to an understanding that the high ranges of the Western Ghats, the Peerimedu hills, the Annamalai hills, and the Kannan Devan hills provided ideal conditions and nourishing grounds for extensive tea plantation. The very first expedition among them was the one that was initiated by the then collector of Coimbatore, John Sulivan to the Nilgiri hills. One of those pilot surveys finally planted a lot of coffee in the Yercaud hills of the present day Salem in Tamil Nadu. The reason why they decided to plant coffee and not tea in Yercaud was primarily because coffee had just one harvest in a year and it was easy to procure, process and ship it to the UK. Which was convenient and comfortable business, tea, on the other hand, had an entirely different process. Late after 40 years, under the British initiative, young planters with a lot of ideas came to the Nilgiri hills and ventured to plant tea on a large scale. All these ideas found a way to South from a place called Darjeeling in the North East of the present day India. Many planters came to Darjeeling and experimented tea plantations which came out to be a great success, and all of the processed tea sent to the UK was sold out like hot cakes. There was a considerable demand for tea and UK was the only market. When Darjeeling became a success story, a lot of planters and investors went on for extensive expeditions to find ideal places for tea plantations, and that was how they ventured into the Nilgiri hills. They started to plant tea on a larger scale, and around 40 years later, tea was introduced into the Kannan Devan hills which is the present day Munnar.

plucking tea leaves

The plantations in Munnar have stories of adversity and hardship. In the past, these hills were covered with dense forest and venturing into the forest in search of good environment and soil for tea, and then initiating it with great infrastructure was not a bed of roses. Investors and individual planters began it with the support from British India. The initial phase of planting tea in the Annamalai hills and Kannandevan hills was an arduous task. In this scenario, planters had a tough time to maintain the plantation business. It was then, Mr. Finlay Muir was visiting Cylon, the present day Sri Lanka. A plan was mooted to invite Mr. Finlay to the Kanan Devan hills to show him around the place so that he would become a prospective investor to the Kannan Devan hills. Finlay accepted the offer and sailed to Tricorn, the present day Thoothukudi. From there he traveled all the way to the foothills to the Ammayanayakanur railway station and further to Bodinayakanur by bullock cart, and the next day he started climbing the hills from the eastern side of the Western Ghats and reached Devikulam where he camped that evening. He had around 40 porters to take care of him and his belongings. Mr. Fletcher Knight was the protocol officer who was assigned to receive Senior Finlay from Ceylon and bring him all the way to the Kannan Devan hills. The next day Mr. Knight along with his wife went for a morning walk, enjoying the beauty of the hills, his wife told him "if I die here, I should be buried here." Those words came to reality just after two days as she succumbed to cholera. As per her last wish, she was buried in Munnar, and that was the beginning of the Christ church in Munnar town center.

Later Finlay explored all of those places and was very impressed with the whole scenario. There were very few individual planters then who had already been in the hills managing small plantations. None of them were doing well because it required massive investment and infrastructure for the plantation and the factories. Finished and exported products would take time to reach the market and more time was required for the money to come back. Finlay arrived with an irresistible financial package for all of them. He decided to take acquire the plantations and gave the existing planters an offer to either join him as managers of his estates or withdraw from the whole project and move back to their home country. Most of them gave their land, and with all of the money, bought larger plantations in the North East of India and settled there. Finlay became the single largest owner/planter of the Kannan Devan hills.

The primary reason why most of them gave up their lands and left the Kannan Devan hills was that it was already around 15 to 20 yrs since they started the plantations and it had not picked up in the initial years. It was taking a longer time than expected. The larger impression was that it would take much more time for the plantation to come up in the Kannan Devan hills successfully. The financial offer for the planters was like a much-awaited relief.

The first motorcycle in Munnar

In those days Coimbatore was a big town. For anything and everything related to the plantation, all purchases, anything for that matter, one had to come to the town of Coimbatore. So the route to Coimbatore was very much essential. Finlay acquired the whole of the Kannan Devan hills and had solid support from the British East India Company and the British India Raj. Finlay relied on six top officers of the Coimbatore regiment to help him find a route to the Kanan Devan hills from Coimbatore and requested to give an estimation report about the required infrastructure. Everybody expressed that they were least interested in the project and as a solution for this, Finlay wrote their names on a paper and took lots. There was indirect pressure on the officers as it was mooted largely as a requirement of British India. The lot fell for Officer Tobby Martin. He arrived in the Kannan Devan hills via the Bodinayakanur and started off his expedition to find a route to Coimbatore. In three days time, he along with his wife and porters reached Manpetti, the plains after the foothills of the Western Ghats, after Chinnar on the present day Munnar-Coimbatore road. Toby Martin was an adventurous conservationist and a passionate hunter. Hunting worked more of a self-defense mechanism to keep themselves away from the wild beings of the forest. The biggest Indian Gaur known till today was hunted down by Toby Martin is still stuffed and hung in the high range club in Munnar.

Establishment of that road was like a pebble thrown in the water creating a lot of ripples. It brought about many positive changes and gave way to large-scale progress to the plantations. Infrastructure development, building bungalows, and factories were executed at a very fast pace. Almost, all routes in the Western Ghats, especially the Kannan Devan hills or for that matter any forest route or track that was discovered was essentially an elephant track. Munnar - Coimbatore route was one such Elephant track, that paved things easier for Toby Martin. Even the traditional trade routes in the Cardamom Hill Reserves of Kerala were mostly elephant tracks. So elephants were a common sighting for a long time in all of these routes in the Western Ghats.

Tea roller machine in Munnar installed during the Colonial era

With all the developments that came with the establishment of the road, Munnar naturally developed a plantation ecosystem, and many workers were brought from Tamil Nadu to work in the Tea Estates. That was how the plantations of Munnar grew up at a rapid pace and produced one of the finest Tea found in the south of India, which was then shipped all the way to England. Today, most of Munnar is carpeted with tea plantations, and when you look back, the vast estates are a result of grit, perseverance, risk, time, money and hardship. Carl Perkins rightly says it; ‘If it weren’t for the rocks in its bed, the stream would have no song.’

This article was sourced from Siby Munnar who is a living encyclopedia of Munnar. He is a well-researched gentleman about the plantation history of Munnar, an eco conservationist, and a nature lover.

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1 Comment

Joseph Konn
Joseph Konn
Jul 24, 2023

There is a lot of misinformation in this article. For a starter, Sir Muir's first name was John, NOT Finlay. He was the majority stock holder and the senior partner in the Finlay & Company. Finlay was the last name of James who started the James Finlay Cotton company. John Muir first came to Calcutta to explore Cotton plantations there and came upon Tea estates in Darjeeling. He was dead against the British East India Company's monopoly on trade from India. He diverted his attention to the Nilgiri Hills and Beyond. -------

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