This film is held by the BFI (ID: 11388).


The tea-gardens of India and Ceylon.

Aerial view of countryside around the tea-gardens (54). The Kangchenjunga mountain railway is followed on its journey in the Himalayas. Views of the tea-gardens with waterfalls (118). A European family sit drinking tea in the grounds of their residence. Shots of various families of locals who all work in the plantations (168). The locals' village, illustrating all their different activities, e.g. basket-making, washing their clothes in the stream, barbers at work, the local creche, the children in the classroom and the hospital (269). Payday in the village (288). Elephants clearing away under- growth and uprooting trees in preparation for cultivation (348). The tea bushes which are grown for the seed are shown and there is a close-up of a young plant shooting. The bushes are watered (397). The preparation of the draining system is shown, followed by shots of pruning bushes, cutting away old ones, fertilising and applying leaf mould to the roots (443). The bushes are cut and tips of new shoots removed, so that the bushes do not become too high for plucking (467). The leaves are plucked (519). The baskets of leaves are emptied into ox-carts or motorised transport and are taken to the factory where the leaves are turned into tea (572). Withering is the first process, whereby the leaves are left on the hessian shelves until the moisture has dried off (618). The leaves are then spread on rolling tables. Rolling breaks up the cells which produces flavour and colour (674). The twisted leaf is put on an oscillating machine. This breaks up the lumps and disperses the heat. The finer leaves fall through the mesh. The rest are sent back to be rolled again (700). A process of natural fermentation follows. The leaf changes colour. It is then cooked in the firing room at 180F, where it assumes the appearance of black tea (731). Sieving and the use of suction fans dispose of dust. Each grade is sorted (764). Shows 4 lbs. of green leaves which make 1 lb. of tea (782). Graded tea is packed into metal-lined chests. The chests are loaded into a lorry, then a train and finally into a boat. Alternatively, they are carried across river or lakes to warehouses. Bullock wagons take them to a liner. The liner takes the cargo aboard at the quayside (903 ft).



Several companies were responsible for bringing the short film Gardens of the Orient to fruition. The film emerged in 1936, produced in Britain by the GPO Film Unit, the Post Office’s pioneering documentary-making department. According to credits printed in the Monthly Film Bulletin, the material was ‘reconstructed and edited by Gaumont Screen Services Ltd’ (MFB, 1937, 260). This organisation was chiefly responsible for distributing films made by its sister company, Gaumont-British Instructional, a division of the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation that specialised in documentary films for the ‘educational and industrial market’ (Swann, 1989, 51). Gardens of the Orient contains footage re-edited from an early Gaumont-British Instructional documentary, Darjeeling A Foothill Town (1934). Finally, and most tellingly, the Monthly Film Bulletin discloses the fact that the film was distributed by ‘The Empire Tea Market Expansion Bureau’. It was made available free of charge in the UK and the journal described its purpose as being ‘propaganda’ (MFB, 1937, 260).

The importation of tea into Britain began in the 1660s but it was not until the 19th century that plantations were created in India and Ceylon, the countries featured in this film. The need for these new plantations grew out of the loss of the British monopoly on the tea trade with China in 1833. Cultivation of the crop first began in the Assam region of India in the 1830s, and it was first planted in Darjeeling (the location of many of the scenes in this film) in the 1840s (‘Darjeeling Tea’). Production in Sri Lanka began later, in the 1860s, the growth of the trade here paralleled by a decline in coffee production.

In both countries the trade was dependent on bringing in workers to the plantation areas. The Assam plantations were originally populated by indentured labourers, drawn mainly from nearby regions of India (Moxham, 2003, 132). The number of workers coming to the plantations was vast, as was the attrition rate caused by the harsh working conditions. Moxham records that between 1863 and 1866 nearly 85,000 labourers came to Assam but by 1866 only 49,750 of them remained. He states that ‘The others had either run away and not been recaptured (in which case they probably died in the jungles) or they had died on the estates’ (Moxham, 2003, 135). In Ceylon the trade was reliant on Indian Tamils, who originally only journeyed to the country for the harvest season but eventually settled in large numbers. By 1900, 300,000 out of a total population of four million in Ceylon were Indian Tamils (Moxham, 2003, 183-84). Tensions between the Tamils and the native Sinhalese continue to have repercussions. In both countries whole families were employed in the trade, living in basic accommodation on the plantation estates. Children as young as five were employed (Moxham, 2003, 182) and the work was sexually divided: women picked the crop while the men carried out heavier labouring duties.

Conditions for tea workers gradually improved. In India in the 1920s workers began to unionise, fighting for a living wage and to keep the abuses of plantation owners in check. Moxham argues that ‘Judged against the poverty of much of India, by the end of British rule the tea estate workers were living a better life than many other workers’ (Moxham, 2003, 189). He nevertheless concludes his study stating that  ‘Tea production was founded on very cheap labour, and continues to rely on very cheap labour’ (Moxham, 2003, 215). Production in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), for example, remains subject to methods inherited from the British. Here large families are allocated a single ‘line’ room to live in, cultivation remains subject to a strict sexual division of labour, and the minimum working age has only risen to twelve (Victor, 10 December 2007). 



Gardens of the Orient is a film of contrasts, some of which it highlights, some of which it attempts to reconcile, and some of which it ignores.

The film’s proselytisation for the tea industry is transparent, aiming to show that the production of this crop is as pleasant as its consumption. ‘“Tea”’, we are informed, ‘even the name has a cheerful ring about it’. The film illustrates this harmonious production-consumption process in a strange manner. It begins by highlighting the difference between the gardens of the west – redolent of ‘pleasant shade and soft homely colours’ - and the ‘gardens of the orient’ – the tea plantations in India and Ceylon. The film both endorses and undercuts the traditional use of the word ‘garden’ to describe the tea plantations. ‘Garden’ removes any idea of exploitation. We are informed that the British plantation owners have worked ‘in harmony with the inhabitants of India and Ceylon’; the film maintains that the plantation village is ‘a happy place’; and we learn about the free meals, creches, education and medical care that are provided for the labourers. On the other hand, the film cannot help but highlight the difference between the British garden, a place of leisure, and the oriental garden, a place of work. It even juxtaposes a scene of an English-styled garden in India, in which we witness a middle-class British family being served tea by their Indian servants, and scenes shot in a tea plantation, where we are offered ethnographical studies of large Indian families. Moreover, the film reveals the indifference with which these tea planters could be treated. This is evident in its condescending narrative: at one point workers are described as getting ill ‘through eating too much curry perhaps’. It is also in evidence in the footage. In one scene workers can be seen lining up for their pay; here an Indian woman is tossed a bag of coins by the plantation owner who doesn’t even look at her.

The film contrasts the modern facilities provided by the British with the antiquated daily lives of the Indians. The narrative talks of the ‘scrupulous cleanliness’ of a tea factory, full of ‘British machinery of new design’; similarly, the plantation hospital provided by the British is described as being ‘most modern’. In contradistinction, the viewer is informed that ‘local laundrymen disdain newfangled methods’ (here there are shots of Indian planters washing their clothes in the river). There is also footage of the basic kit of the village barber. The commentary states that he ‘airily dispenses with modern tonsorial equipment’.

The film is made up of two contrasting sections. The first shows life on the tea plantations, while the second, longer section outlines the stages of tea cultivation and production. The latter section is thorough in its approach and stands as a valuable document of the processes employed during this period. It covers these processes in great detail, down to the level of the alternative transportation methods employed in various plantations. This is different from the way in which the film illustrates plantation life. Although the film speaks of both Indian and Ceylonese ‘gardens’ it does not distinguish between them. Instead, it states simply that ‘Indian labour is employed on both Ceylon and Indian tea gardens, to which the families emigrate to find work under pleasant conditions’. The film says nothing of the consequences of bringing labour to each region.

The two sections of the film have an effect on one another. On the one hand, because the study of tea cultivation is authoritative, it lends an unwarranted weight to the subjective account of plantation life. This certainly seems to be the way in which early critics viewed the film. The Monthly Film Bulletin summarised that ‘The film is coherent, the emphasis, speed of presentation and photography satisfactory’ (MFB, 1937, 260). On the other hand, while the narrative stresses the care and attention that are given to workers by the plantation owners, the film’s structure suggests otherwise. Viewed today much can be read into the fact that more screen time, and a greater degree of background information, is accorded to the crop than to its pickers.

A final contrast lies in the film’s production values. The soundtrack features an ersatz oriental soundtrack, its indifferent employment being reflective of the film’s viewpoint towards its subjects. The camerawork occasionally belies this attitude, however. Some of the scenes of village life and the villagers are beautifully framed; the photographer grants the workers a dignity that the narrative fails to relay.

Richard Osborne (October 2009)


Works Cited

‘Darjeeling Tea: A Historical Beginning and Growth’,

‘Gardens of the Orient’, Monthly Film Bulletin, 4/47 (1 November 1937), 260.

Moxham, Roy, Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire (London: Robinson, 2003).

Swann, Paul, The British Documentary Film Movement, 1926-1946 (Cambridge: CUP, 1989).

Victor, Stella, ‘Working With Men in Sri Lanka’s Tea Plantations’ (10 December 2007),




Technical Data

Running Time:
10 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
936 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Sound Recording
British Acoustic Full Range System
Production Company
Gaumont-British Screen Services
Production Company
GPO Film Unit