Darjeeling is such a famous tea that many people assume it has as long and as illustrious a history as Chinese tea. In fact, Darjeeling tea is a relative newcomer in the world of tea, with a history dating back just over 150 years.
The history of Darjeeling tea begins with the kingdom of Sikkim, which controlled the Darjeeling area until 1849. Sikkim remained a kingdom until 1975 when by referendum it became India’s 22nd state.
In 1814 Sikkim became involved in a dispute with neighboring state Nepal. The British East India Company intervened with the result that Sikkim became a buffer state between Nepal and Bhutan. Afterwards the British maintained a presence in the area and found that the area of Darjeeling was suitable for a health resort. In 1835 they negotiated to lease the area from the king of Sikkim with plans to establish a sanitarium for British troops.
The first superintendent of the sanitarium was Dr. Archibald Campbell, who was transferred to the area in 1839. Dr. Campbell planted some tea seeds and tea seedlings as an experiment to see what types of crops were suitable for the area. The tea was from the Botanical Gardens of Calcutta, and included specimens originally from southern China and north-eastern India.
Both varieties did well, but produced an inferior quality tea. The climate of Darjeeling was obviously well-suited to tea, but a better grade of tea plant was needed to make the area commercially viable.
The best grade of tea plants were thought to be from northern China, which at that time was closed to foreigners because of military disputes between China and European countries. A peace treaty of 1842 (The Treaty of Nanking) gave the British access to certain ports of northern China, but the interior was still off-limits.
At this time, Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist who had learned the Chinese language, was commissioned by the Horticultural Society of London to collect plants from China. Traveling alone, he passed himself off as Chinese and was able to collect thousands of new plants and seeds over a 3-year period.
Fortune returned to China in 1848 on commission from the British East India Company to secure top-grade tea plants for the Darjeeling area. By 1851 Fortune had forwarded 20,000 tea plants from the major tea producing regions, and it is these high-quality teas that formed the basis for Darjeeling’s eminence in the world of tea as well as ending China’s monopoly on the tea trade.