Quinine factory and Malay-Chinese workers

THE bark of Cinchona (Jesuit\'s bark, Peruvian bark) includes many active compounds (alkaloids). For example, quinine (plus a few others), discovered by Pierre Joseph Pelletier (17881842) and J

Published: 12th July 2010 05:40 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 01:38 PM   |  A+A-

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THE bark of Cinchona (Jesuit's bark, Peruvian bark) includes many active compounds (alkaloids). For example, quinine (plus a few others), discovered by Pierre Joseph Pelletier (17881842) and Jean Bienaime Caventou (17951887) in France in 1820, were used widely in treating malaria - a dreaded disease in India in the 1870s. Cinchona - a member of the coffee family - originated in tropical South America. In the 19th century, cinchona was introduced and cultivated in India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia because of its medicinal value. Carolus Linneaus named Cinchona after the Countess of Cinchon, wife of the Viceroy of Peru in 1742.

The French, English, and the Dutch made efforts to introduce cinchona for cultivation in their respective colonies in early 1800s. John Forbes Royle (17991858), Superintendent, Saharanpur Company Gardens recommended to the government to cultivate cinchona in either the Khasias or the Nilgiris in 1835. Upon the orders of the GovernorGeneral, Lord Dalhousie, Clements Robert Markham (18301916), a clerk in India office (Calcutta), went to the Cordilleras (Peru), accompanied by four assistants, in January 1860 and returned to India in October 1860 with several plants of Cinchona Calisaya and a few other species of Cinchona. Before Markham's voyage, W G McIvor, superintendent of Government Garden in Ooty had selected a site along the Dodabetta stream as ideal for raising cinchona.

Markham decided that a site in Naduvattam was better suited for cinchona than the Dodabettastream site due to microclimatic conditions. Plantations were established following the Markham decision. Governmentrun cinchona plantations expanded along Paikara (e.g., Wood and Hooker Plantations) and Kundah until 1873.

In the 1870s, labour to work in cinchona plantations was scarce. The government, therefore, utilised prisoners. Some of them were Chinese, who had been moved to Madras from the British Straits Settlements ([BSS] Singapore, Penang, Malacca) because of lack of prison space. These Chinese labourers, after their sentence times, settled in Naduvattam working as market gardeners and dairymen, raised families marrying local women. Obviously they never returned to BSS. The Malay Chinese in Naduvattam established a Chinese village.

The government sent bark samples to England for chemical analysis. John Broughton was appointed as the Government Quinologist to manage the plantations, quininequality control, and for manufacturing quinine costeffectively making it affordable to all. After several experiments, Broughton launched the 'amorphous quinine' a combination of different cinchona alkaloids. This product existed for three years and was abandoned in 1874; Broughton resigned in disgust. The price of cinchona products spiralled and extraction efforts in the Nilgiris suffered a setback until 1884.

With the appointment of David Hooper, production of cinchona alkaloids recommenced in the Nilgiris in the new Naduvattam factory; in 1889, the first batch of quinine sulphate rolled out. The process of extraction involved use of caustic soda and shale oil (a mineral oil), steaming, and agitation. During agitation the hot shale oil separates the alkaloids from the crushed bark; caustic soda enables the oil to pick up separating alkaloids.

The Naduvattam factory received improved machinery in 1901 and the cost of production of cinchona alkaloids halved in 19051906, and the quinine sulphate output was 16,300 lbs, which was distributed throughout India, including Burma. For climate and soil reasons, subsequent plantations were developed in the Anamalais, where a locality by name 'Cinchona' (Post Code 642106) exists even today.

(The author is a senior lecturer in Ecological Agriculture at Charles Sturt University, Orange, New South Wales, Australia)

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