Exploring the historical geography of the Nilgiri cinchona plantations

The discovery of the anti-malarial properties of the bark of the cinchona tree and its transfer from its native South America to British India and the Dutch East Indies in the mid nineteenth century is relatively well known (Headrick, 1981, Honigsbaum, 2002 and Rocco, 2004). The cinchona tree is often described as a commodity that has ‘changed the world’ as it was after the successful introduction of quinine as a prophylactic, it has been argued, that colonial conquest became a feasible or at least attractive option for the European powers.

Figure 1: Map of India, showing the chinchona plantations and the lines of rainfall, from: Clements R. Markham, Peruvian Bark: A Popular Account of the Introduction of Chinchona Cultivation into British India, 1860-1880 (London: John Murray, 1880), Wellcome Library, London.

Much less has been written about the geography of the production of cinchona within the plantation system. My research journey explores the historical geography of the Nilgiri plantations in southern India by following the story of William Graham McIvor.

Born in Dollar, Scotland in 1825, the son of a farmer, McIvor trained at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh before working as a gardener at Kew from 1845, and being appointed Superintendent of the new Ootacamund Horticultural Gardens (later Government Gardens) in the Nilgiri Hills in 1848. The agricultural potential of the hills struck many of the Nilgiris’ early visitors and European residents, sparking ambitions for large scale experiments in ‘acclimatization’.

In 1859, under the leadership of India Office clerk Clements Robert Markham, the British government launched an expedition to procure cinchona plants and seeds from their native South America. Fears regarding the reliability, quality and price of cinchona bark had been mounting steadily for some time, especially as the cinchona producing countries successively gained their independence. Although others had recommended cultivation in the Bengal presidency, Markham declared that it was the Nilgiris that would be the best home for the cinchonas (Figure 1). The first plants arrived on the Hills in October of 1860 (upon which time McIvor assumed the title ‘Superintendent of Cinchona Plantations’) but in a poor condition and were quickly lost. More plants  arrived in April 1861, signalling the start of the experiment proper (Figure 2). McIvor knew little of the natural habitat of the cinchonas, so at once put them under the protection of glass, thus placing them in an artificial climate where he could modify moisture and temperature, in whatever way appeared desirable. He quickly improved rates of germination and propagation, and provided instruction and advice on design of propagating houses to those who were to lead the parallel planting of cinchona in Darjeeling.

Figure 2: ‘Chinchona-plants at Ootacamund, in August 1861 (from a photograph). A flowering branch of Chinchona in the foreground,’ frontispiece of Clements R Markham, Travels in Peru and India (London, 1862).

The land McIvor selected for the first plantation and experimental nursery at the highest peak Dodabetta (and for the vast majority of all government and private cinchona ventures opened subsequently), was shola, needing to be cleared of trees, as well, often, of members of the indigenous hill tribes, before a plantation could be laid out. Demonstrating an awareness of the importance of using cultivation techniques that were adapted to the local conditions of the Nilgiris, rather than strictly following the Dutch model (the Dutch experiment in acclimatising the cinchona to Java was several years ahead), McIvor resisted government attempts to interfere in his experiment. He lived on the Dodabetta plantation, and so was close at hand to care for the plants (Figure 3), planting trials quickly underway under a variety of environmental conditions.

Figure 3: McIvor’s House, Dodabetta M.P.D.A., April 2007 (L. Veale)

The first cinchonas were permanently planted out by the Governor of Madras, Sir William Denison, on the 30th August 1862 on the Naduvattam plantation, around seventeen miles from Ootacamund, an event that was celebrated in the Illustrated London News and that provides the only known image of McIvor (Figure 4). McIvor who himself invested in private cinchona speculations, was able to offer plants for sale from January 1863 and played an important role in marketing the new cultivation among private planters (difficult with a crop that would need nine or ten years before any return would be seen). Although relatively small in number, these private planters were experienced and prominent society men. Many had military backgrounds, some had connections to government, and most appear to have had some prior knowledge of planting – usually coffee.

By 1866 there were around 30 cinchona plantations on the Nilgiris. Chemical analysis of Nilgiri bark had already provided essential information for both McIvor and the private planters, and it was decided that the time had now arrived for a Quinologist (John Broughton) to be appointed on site at Ootacamund to support and advance the analyses performed in London by the chemist J.E Howard. By 1871, the government’s Nilgiri plantations covered an aggregate area of 1,200 acres (the amount originally fixed as the limit) divided into four plantation sites, Dodabetta (375 acres), Naduvattam (450 acres), Pykara (300 acres), and Mailkoondah (75 acres), and regular consignments of government and privately grown bark were being sent to the London market.

Figure 4: ‘Peruvian Bark Tree Plantation in the Neilgherry Hills, India: Sir William Denison, Governor of Madras, Planting the First Tree in a New Plantation’, The Illustrated London News, December 6th 1862: 592, Wellcome Library, London. McIvor is the man holding the spade.

Harvesting the cinchona bark was a labour intensive process requiring great skill. McIvor‘s initial idea had been to encourage the trees to branch as near to the ground as possible, and then to cut off alternate branches from year to year, allowing the tree to throw out fresh shoots, but a major drawback of this system was the lower prices attained by quill bark (that obtained from branches) compared to trunk bark. Accordingly, he came up with a new technique, which became known as ‘mossing‘ whereby alternate strips of bark were removed from the tree, which was then wrapped in moss to protect the wounds and encourage the bark to regenerate. Howard found McIvor’s mossed specimens in excellent condition, their commercial value comparing favourably with the barks of South America. Others proposed alternatives such as coppicing (the leading proponent being quinologist Broughton) or shaving (practiced in Java), leading to strong and bitter debate. The dispute was partially resolved, on the Nilgiris at least, when the government concluded that Broughton‘s ‘amorphous quinine’ was being produced at a considerable loss and ordered its abandonment, upon which time Broughton immediately resigned and disappeared without explanation, eventually turning up in New Zealand in 1881.

In a letter to the District Commissioner from 1875 McIvor wrote, ‘The promulgation of this discovery [mossing] in 1866, raised against me a storm of opposition, which has blighted my prospects ever since.’ He signs off ominously, ‘I feel that this is probably the last exertion I may be able to make in the interests of an undertaking, in which I have laboured so zealously and to which I have devoted the best years of my life.’ True to word, this did prove to be one of McIvor‘s last exertions, as he died on June 8th 1876, leaving the Nilgiri plantations, and the South Indian cinchona industry without a Superintendent. They passed through the charge of a chain of District Commissioners, and the Forest Department before Marmaduke Lawson (Professor of Botany at Oxford) accepted the Superintendent position. His comprehensive survey revealed that instead of the supposed 1,190,458 plants in the Nilgiri government plantations, there were in fact only 569,031 – had McIvor deliberately exaggerated his success? Or had the intervening period of neglect taken a severe toll?

In contrast, private planting had expanded. As a result of climatic stress and failed harvests in neighbouring districts (famine struck much of southern India in 1877), labour was plentiful and cheap, aiding the fortunes of the Nilgiri planters. The South of India Observer noted in May 1877 that, after a slow start, ‘everybody is going in for this cultivation,’ and a manufactory came into production in the 1880s. In 1890 packets of quinine sulphate began to be sold through District Collectors, and in August 1893 the measure of using Postal Department officers as an agency for their sale was approved by government, a scheme which continued into the 1930s. Yet, not all planters could afford the 10 year gap between investment and return, the number of suitable and available sites was also restricted, the bark prices far from stable, and private planters soon had strong incentives to abandon cinchona cultivation in favour of other crops promising higher rewards, notably tea. It is tea which features most prominently in the Nilgiri plantation literature, and which dominates the plantation landscape today. Yet evidence of the cinchona plantations remains (Figure 5). My personal experience of the hill climate and landscape, although much changed since the early years of cinchona, enabled an understanding of the fascination the Nilgiris held in the European imagination during the latter half of the nineteenth century, and the geography and topography of the plantations.

The cinchona experiment brought together individuals who in most cases had not previously known each other. Cinchona became their common interest, and friendships and rivalries developed. In its brief period of prominence, cinchona plantation science had a distinctive regional character, the Nilgiri plantations pitched against those in Darjeeling and elsewhere in the British Empire. The Dutch cinchona experiment ultimately proved to be far more commercially successful, largely owing to the chance arrival of a high quinine-yielding variety of cinchona, cinchona ledgeriana to Java. It appears that the Dutch also took more care to prevent hybridisation of species and, after a short period when Ceylon bark flooded the auction sales, by the 1890s Dutch bark dominated the world market.

Figure 5: Cinchona trees line the boundary of the Naduvattam tea plantation, April 2007 (L. Veale)