Plantations: Coffee, Tea, Opium, Indigo, Jute

Edinburgh's contributions to some of India's agricultural exports

Scottish Indian tea companies were mostly founded in and run from Glasgow, with Lipton's being the most famous example. But Melrose’s Teas (93 George Street and warehouses in Coburg Street Leith) was a notable Edinburgh exception. Jute seems a Dundee preserve, but Edinburgh companies, and the city's sons, also played a part in commercial agriculture and the plantation economy in India. Young men educated in the Edinburgh Academy, for example,  were involved in planting and in trading in plantation products from India in substantial numbers. Over 250 former pupils went into planting businesses in India, with a further 100 working elsewhere, in a variety of plantation crops:


Jute, a big aspect especially in India-Scotland relations, is mentioned surprisingly rarely in the careers of Edinburgh Academy pupils. An early mention is of Patrick Charles Lyon, who left the school in 1837 and went to Madras, trading in indigo and later in jute.  George William Walker, who left the school in 1872, became a jute broker in Calcutta. The rest are mentions for men who deal with jute manufacture in Dundee. 


One of the most important and most controversial commodities of the colonial India trade, especially in its relations to China, was opium. Looking at its faint footprint in the Edinburgh Academy Register sheds an interesting light on this awkward issue. Seven former pupils of Edinburgh Academy are reported to have some involvement with opium. Four of them are involved in administering and taxing the opium trade. Thomas Coutts Trotter (E.A. 1824-7 & 1829-30) joined the Bengal Civil Service 1836-65, where, early on, he was Opium Agent for Behar.  Principal Assistant to the Benares Opium Agent at Ghazipur was from 1863-8 the job of Alexander Christison (E.A. 1836-43) who studying medicine at Edinburgh had attained a Gold Medal for a thesis on Cannabis Indica. George Inverarity, (E.A.1829-35), worked for the H.E.I.C.S. from 1840 mainly as a Commissioner of Customs, Salt and Opium and Alan Cadell, (E.A. 1851-6) holding various posts in N.W.P., was Commissioner of Excise and Stamps, and Opium Agent before a career which took him to the Viceroy's Council and a C.S.I.

James Deverinne Savi (E.A. 1852-5) was the son of an I.C.S. Opium Department official and married the daughter of another, although it is not recorded whether he himself had any direct involvement.

The two other former pupils did not gain their opium mentions in India. Thomas Anderson (E.A.1829-33) worked as a scientist at Glasgow on ‘The Crystalline Constituents of Opium’. Also in Glasgow, banker and politician William Charles, Maughan’s (E.A. 1845-50) interest in temperance work led to him being for thirty years the Honorary Secretary of the Glasgow Anti-Opium Society.

No one is mentioned as growing poppies for opium, but more interestingly none are mentioned as trading in opium either.  By contrast, we know that men from other Edinburgh schools such as Merchiston Castle were working for trading companies such as Jardine Matheson’s which were deeply involved in the opium trade.


Indigo has a much stronger planter footprint with 45 mentions in the records of the Edinburgh Academy. There was a wave of boys into Bengal, with Charles Philip Austin Oman (EA 1834-8) going to Muddanderry, in Jessore district as an indigo planter following his father who was already established there. 1839-60 he was already planting Indigo up in Bihar, but his father was joined by two further sons, Thomas Euler in 1839 and David in 1843.  Indigo planting seems to have been a family business on family owned plantations. Even more family involvement can be seen with the five sons of James Hills of Neechindipore, Bengal who all attended the Academy between 1848 and 1852, and afterwards in four cases went on to the Edinburgh Institution [today’s Erskine Stewart Melville] from where they all progressed to the Honourable East India Company’s college in Addiscombe (YOUNG, 1933, p. 19-20). Archibald, the oldest (born 1832) was intended for the Indian Army, but gave up that career to inherit his father's indigo factories in Bengal in 1851. A famous pig-sticker he was called by Capt. Lord William Beresford, V.C, 'the Prince of Pig-stickers in Bengal'. His younger brother Robert Savi Oman, born 1837 went out to India, 1858, and became an indigo broker in Calcutta. The fifth brother Archibald, born 1842, spent twenty-seven years as assistant and then manager of the family owned Neechindipore Indigo and Zemindary Concern. This experience he put to use for three years as manager of the Zemindary of the Bengal Coal Co. and subsequently for another seven years in the Palkabari Indigo Concern.

Robert Leckie Ewing, who went to India, 1851, and became an indigo-planter in the Shahabad district is an example of a sideways move into the military, as ‘in 1857 the Mutiny broke out, all the [indigo] factories were burnt, and he lost all his property.’ He ‘joined the 84th Regt. as a guest of the officers, and was in the field about a year with it.’

The end of indigo involvement is marked by Arthur Francis Vertue, (EA 1873-5), born 1862 (probably in Madras); who after a two year banking career with the Oriental Bank in London, joined several cavalry regiments, but by then being too old for a commission, ‘until indigo failed’ was planting it in Bihar. After that, in 1903 he went to Montreal, Canada.


Coffee gets 37 mentions (more than tea) and, judging by the register, this seems to have started quite early in Ceylon and then about the mid 1850 in the Nilgiri Hills in South India. Ten years after that there were smaller scale attempts in Kerala and in the early 20th century East Africa then opens out as a new coffee area.

Several Academy boys were pioneering (but unsuccessful) in establishing coffee planting in Malaya. First was William Handyside, (EA 1859-63), born 1848; who in 1871-9 was coffee-planting in Ceylon, but then in 1878 obtained a grant of 5,000 acres in Perak from the Rajah Muda Yusuf for services in prospecting for coffee lands there. After repeated attacks of fever though, he went to New Zealand and started coal-mining.  Another example are the three Glassford brothers of Dougalston, Stirlingshire, the two older ones, Clement Gordon, (EA 1882-7), born 1869 and Oswald Gordon, (EA 1882-7), born 1870, already had experience as coffee-planters in the Nilgiris, Southern India, and subsequently went to the Federated Malay States, starting anew as coffee-planters again, where they were joined by their younger brother Lewis Gordon, (EA 1886-94), born 1876. They then changed over to being rubber-planters, with their younger brother going onto New Zealand into sheep farming.


Tea, probably the most famous Indian planation product, gets surprisingly few mentions with 25.  Early involvement with tea was mainly in trading Chinese tea, as the Indian tea growing industry only started somewhat later. The Bell brothers, Eliott Montgomerie, (EA 1857-64) born 1847 and Archibald Matthew Montgomerie, (EA 1861-7) born 1850, sons of respected conveyancing professor A. Montgomerie Bell, W.S., seem to be the earliest in the Darjeeling area, both working on or owning a tea-plantation at Simring near Kurseong, Darjeeling District, in Archibald’s case after being an engineer in a Darjeeling tea company for three years.

The move to new areas for instance is exemplified by Kenneth Dalziel Murray, (EA 1870-7), born 1860, who after being a tea-planter in the Darjeeling district for eighteen years, then came to the Assam Doars district where since 1901 he was super-intendant of the Northern Doars Tea Co.'s estates.

A good example that involvement in commercial agriculture must not always be actual planting is John Duncan Gregorson, (EA 1881-6), born 1871, who from 1901 was medical officer to several large tea estates in Upper Assam. As F.R.S. of Tropical Research and Hygiene, he even contributed several articles on best methods of combating disease among coolies on the tea estates of Upper Assam, before he was murdered on the Dihong River in Assam, in 1911.

Unlike for indigo earlier in the century, only one ex-boy, Robert Logan Logan, (EA 1889-96 and Edin. Inst. 1897-9), born 1882, proprietor of Corramore Tea Estates, Assam, and Dir. Atbaree Khat Tea Co., Assam, is mentioned specifically as being a ‘proprietor’ of a tea garden, suggesting that the others are mainly managing or engineering on behalf of managing agencies.

Legal work

Apart from the actual growing of products there was sometimes a commercial-legal side to cover and Edinburgh lawyers took up that work. Consequently 24 Great King Street, Edinburgh became the legal address of a number of Indian business concerns such as three Calcutta based jute mills Samnugger Jute Factory Company Limited 1874, Titaghur Jute Factory Company Limited and Victoria Jute Factory Company Limited (both registered in 1883)