Nasim & Bonnie Anwar

 August 29 2012 



1872 - 1938


Nasim Anwar

The actual methods of paying labourers varied considerably from garden to garden. In early days labourers were often paid by the sirdars under whom they worked, and who had in many cases recruited them. Some gardens paid monthly, others weekly, and yet others daily, and until the third decade of the twentieth (1900s) century many gardens issued daily tokens.

Many gardens in Sylhet paid their workers daily, each morning brass/tin tickets (tokens) were issued for the work of the day before, the shape of the tea garden tokens varies for a whole hazree, a three-quarter hazree and half hazree. These tokens are cashed once a week, but naturally have always a money value on the garden. The system was very popular on most gardens. The token system of payment daily has many advantages  specially in the case of newly imported labourers. The labour knew day by day exactly what he/she was earning, disputes are settled on the spot, and he/she is encouraged to turn out and work by the feeling that his/her reward is immediate.

In many gardens in the Surma Valley (now Bangladesh) it was a practice, at morning muster (gunti) to pay for the previous day's work with brass tokens of different face value, once a week the gardens cash the tokens or pay commission to a shop keeper. These tokens to a large extent take the place of current coin in neighbouring shops and bazaar (Source: pages 301 & 302, The History of the Indian Tea Industry - by Sir Percival Griffiths 1967).

In the early days of tea, there was a huge increase in the number of workers flocking into the gardens from other parts of the then India. At the same time, there was a dramatic shortage of small currency  change. How were the tea gardens to pay their steadily increasing workforce. The novel idea of using tokens to pay workers became accepted custom in Cachar (India) and Sylhet (Bangladesh) which were all Surmah Valley Gardens then. Tokens were readily accepted as payment in the estate store but, more importantly were regarded just as good as currency in the local bazaars. Considering all the difficulties in procuring coins, it is small wonder that the larger tea gardens overcame their shortages with tokens.

Tea garden tokens were ordered through the agents in Calcutta (Kolkata), in fact, many appear to have been struck in the Calcutta Mint, although R Heaton & Sons (later The Mint, Birmingham Limited) also played a large part in tokens manufacture (Source: The Coins of the British Commonwealth of Nations, F Pridmore - 1980).

Tokens originally came in denominations of 3 annas  (16 annas being a rupee), 2 annas and 9 pie (12 pies being an anna) of sums equivalent to the worth of a full task (hazree) and the portions of a task.

Understanding the use of tokens in tea gardens requires some knowledge of the type of work done. Work in the gardens was on a piece work basis. A particular piece of work is called a task. The various tasks performed by the workers during a day were broken into portions, usually fourths, thus a specific task should take, by an average worker, either a full day, three quarters of a day, and  half a day. Sometimes rather than annas or pie (later pice, being 4 pices make an anna) on a token the portion of a task was found such as FULL HAZREE, THREE QUARTER HAZREE AND HALF HAZREE.

Usually legends on the tokens were of no consequences, some tokens appear with only the tea garden name, the denomination or task on the token was less necessary as everyone on the garden knew what each was worth, the size and shape of a token was sufficient as everyone on the estate from top to bottom knew exactly what each token signified (Source :Puddester, Mettallic Tokens of North East Indian Tea Gardens - 1999).  

All the tea gardens that used tokens were in Sylhet (Bangladesh) and Cachar (Assam, India) with a few used at estates in adjoining tea districts of Assam. No tokens appear to have been used in upper Assam, the Dooars, Darjeeling or the Terai gardens.

Tea garden tokens were made in numerous shapes, sizes and metals, often with quite distinctive piercings or centres. Centre holes in the shape of squares, triangles and circles. Some have two or three holes in various shapes rather than the usual centre hole.

Most of these tea garden tokens seem to have disappeared. They are elusive today and hard to find either in or outside the subcontinent.

It appears that named tokens were used only by the larger garden, owned by companies holding interests in several and represented by larger well-known agencies. The smaller, often independent gardens, both European and local, appear to have made to do without tokens or to have used cheaper or other substitutes (Source: Robert P Puddester - Finlay House Magazine Vol 35 # 1 - 2000).

In the early days when tea plantations were being established in Assam, tea estates were facing acute shortage of labour. Local adivasis (tribals) and local people (bengalees) were neither suitable nor coming forward to work in the tea gardens. As such these companies had to import labourers from other parts of India. Stealing and enticing the labourers of one garden by another was considered a part of skilled management.

Labourers for tea gardens were recruited from various provinces Bihar, Nagpur, Bengal, Madras, Orissa, Central Provinces etc were the main areas of recruitment of the then India. People from these areas used to be bribed, enticed and sometimes even forced to go to tea estates.

These recruits were always disillusioned on reaching the gardens. A number of labourers used to run away for reasons like home-sickness, hard work, tough life and uncongenial climate of Assam. Companies which paid commission to agents and Sirders etc for recruits and for their transportation to gardens, did not like losing money and the workers. Consequently, they thought of paying their garden labourers in their own currency (tea garden tokens), which could get the workers their daily needs but not the railway ticket.

These tokens might have been in circulation and honoured and accepted by local people within a limited area. On presentation of these tokens in the garden office one could get the legal currency in exchange. Judging by the different estates named on the tokens, they were evidently deemed useful and suitable to the economy of the tea garden (Source : M P Singh,Journal of Numismatic Society of India,Vol xxxv, 1973).

There is no record of any government sanction for the use of tea garden tokens. The only official notice traced which mentions tokens is that made by the Calcutta Mint Master in 1877 but as the attitude of the Government was favourable to their issue, probably on account of the powerful tea lobby in Calcutta, no attempt was made to suppress them.

These tea garden metallic tokens first used about 1870, the tea garden token era, which ended and new tokens were last ordered in the late 1930's. However, the supply they had on hand continued to be used up to approximately the middle of the 20th century that is 1950s. They finally fell into disuse due to plentiful supply of devalued paise after the new paisa was introduced. When the tea garden tokens had served their final use, many thousand were doubtless melted down for their metallic content, so I am sure that today, this series is becoming a real rarity.   

An analysis of know specimen indicates the first tokens are dated 1872 these are from investigations made at Heaton Mint and Calcutta Mint reports by Major Pridmore.

Six gardens to have date recorded tokens were Luayani, Oochail, Robi, Shumshernugger, Chandpore and Munoo. All these gardens were in Sylhet and all had Octavius Steel as agent. The agent for a tea garden made all the arrangements with Mints to provide tokens as is confirmed by the Calcutta Mint records. Foremost among these agencies was Octavius Steel & Co which obtained tokens for twenty-eight gardens.

Very few mentions of token or their use can be found in any memoirs of tea planters making what W M Fraser says in The Recollection of a Tea Planter even more interesting. ‘After a days work the coolies (now labour) brought their baskets to be weighted. The head babu (staff) wrote up the hazris.'

The next morning coolies (now labour) were paid for the previous days work and ‘muster' at dawn was of course, at that perhaps the most important item of routine at all gardens.

The whole of the working coolies (now labour) in the lines, men, women and children, had to attend, drawn up in lines on either side of the muster ground, the men facing the women and children. The ordinary teelah sirdahs stood at intervals along the lines while the head men,chowkidhars and chuprassis, grouped themselves close to the Babus and Kiranis who clustered near the rostrum where the burra-sahib, standing like the skipper on the bridge of a ship, gave out orders of the day. It was a long business; there was a good deal of bustle and, finally, prior to proceeding to the different works, the whole labour force, amounting to say a thousand souls, filled through the pay styles to receive their tickets (brass tokens) for the previous days work.

There may be number of tokens yet undiscovered. For example if we look at Luskerpore Valley in Sylhet, the nearest tea area to Calcutta, around the mid - 1890's we find five established gardens - Chandpore, Chundeecherra, Amo, Luskerpore and Lalchand. Chandpore ( a Tommy McMeekin enterprise now Duncan Brothers garden 2009) ordered a supply of tokens from Heaton UK Mint in 1878 while Luskerpore (the older garden) received a supply from the Calcutta  Mint in 1923. During the intervening forty-five years between  those two orders there must have been a need for tokens at Luskerpore and one could reasonably expect that an earlier token order for Luskerpore had been made.

Next door to Chandpore is Chundeecherra for which no tokens are known. It was an Alston family concern (agent Octavius Steel) and W L Alston had been in Octavius Steel & Co's office in Calcutta before taking over Chundeecherra in 1883 a short time before his death. The estate was bought by Chundeecherra Tea Company, whoes agents were Octavius Steel, in 1894. In other words this garden was owned, operated, and agented by people who were instrumental in the introduction of tokens to tea gardens and made repeated orders between 1872 and 1938. Lalchand Garden was also owned by the Alstons with Octavius Steel as agent. Even today in Lalchand close to Shahajibazar Railhead is the ‘Alston Thal' (Alston Valley).

Amo garden was named after and owned by Odling and Aitchison, both of Cachar background, and Milne of Sylhet, all token using areas.

This pattern recurs frequently in all areas of Sylhet and to a lesser extent in Cachar. It would thus appear reasonable, at least in Sylhet, to assume that a number of tokens of European gardens remained to be discovered.

The likelihood of additional undiscovered tokens is supported by the fact that even known tokens are rare, they must have been used many, many years with minimal wastage. A Chandpore token even with a mintage of 6000 large size and 3000 small size have never been illustrated.

The writer has a very handsome collection of tea garden tokens which was collected during his time as a planter serving actively in various multi-national tea companies in Bangladesh from 1967-1992. His collection has been mentioned in the Numismatics International Bulletin, 1990 page 32.

Two more books are in circulation now which deals in details about tea garden tokens in Bangla in which we have been mentioned. Cha Silpaer Etihash by Abul Kashem, Dhaka and British Mudra Babostahia Cha Baganer Paisa by Sonkor Kumar Ghosh, Kolkata

Nasim Anwar,

Managing Director

Plantation Assistance Tea Estate Services,

Chittagong, Bangladesh