The Elephant Boy of Tea

Wonderful true-life story recounted by Ali Zaman 
Reprinted courtesy of Many thanks!


 Many will remember Sabu, the first Indian actor who made it to Hollywood and became the legendary Elephant Boy. This is the story of The Elephant Boy of Tea, son of an ex-patriate planter.

 Arthur Mansfield Nuttal was born in 1906, at Digulturrang TE, which was planted out by his father.

His great grandfather was Maj General Sir Arthur Nuttal of the Gurkha Brigade.  Arthur’s parents became estranged when he was very young and his mother returned to England leaving the toddler behind. His father died soon afterwards. The Miri bungalow servants adopted the abandoned child and raised the white baba in their village.

 Soon the young lad, brought up in the Miri traditions, became an expert at kheda operations, training of elephants and a talented shikari. Assam in those days was prone to malaria and kala- ajar, which periodically surfaced in epidemic form. The youngster fell violently ill and was brought to Digulturrung in a critical condition. The Bara Sahib seeing a white boy and learning of his antecedent had the patient admitted in the estate hospital.

Planters on hearing of the English boy, gone native, decided to get him back to their civilization. Colleagues of the boy’s father helped to send Arthur to St. Paul ‘s School, in Darjeeling . However, the lad so much at home with the local tribesman and the wild animals of Assam , especially the elephants, was a total misfit “among” his own. The English language and the western culture he was being educated in was totally alien to him. Not being able to express his inner feelings he developed a violent temper and was quick with his fists, traits that made teachers and students leave Arthur alone. The loner not academically inclined, but excelling in sports and games, left school before completing his final studies. He returned back to Assam .

With the tea industry expanding rapidly contractors were engaged to clear the jungle for plantations. A renowned contractor was Walter Smiles, later knighted to become Sir Walter. The gentleman, who engaged elephants for jungle clearance, employed young Nuttal and put him in charge of the herd, a job he loved. But the fiery temper, which develops when one is brought up in a disturbed environment, surfaced and Nuttal fell out with his employer.  It was with a heavy heart that he said goodbye to his beloved elephants.

He joined the Railways as a temporary ticket collector at Makum Junction. Those days the Railways had a three-tier salary system, for Europeans, Anglo Indians and Indians. Arthur was paid the middle wages. Finding out that he was entitled to the European scale Nuttal applied but got no justice.  The refusal of the higher scale was on the grounds that although he was a white man he lived like a native. In frustration he resigned.

A planter seeing Arthur in Makum offered him an apprentices post in Moran T.E. By dint of hard work Arthur Nuttal was promoted to the covenanted ranks and proved to be a diligent planter. He was very energetic and able to realize good work from the labourers without friction. He was adept at all garden work. Could do a full nirrick in pruning and pluck as well as the best plucker. His weakness was friction with fellow planters, especially seniors, poor administration and hostility to paper work. He was nicknamed Nutty Nuttal by his colleagues for his eccentricities.

He went to England on leave, his first trip overseas. While in UK he met and married an English lady. It was only after marriage that he was taught to live like a foreigner. The English mem that turned Nuttal into a “Bitish sahib” was, however, unable to curb the fiery temper, even when he became the Acting Superintendent of Moran Tea Company.

In the 40’s Assam came into the orbit of World War II. The Japanese Air Force bombed many areas and their land forces moved rapidly through Manipur into the Naga Hills , then a district of Assam Province.  Planters evacuated their families out of the war zone. The tide turned only after the Battle of Kohima when the Japanese were defeated and started retreating.

When the Superintendent of Moran Tea Company went to leave his family in Darjeeling , Nuttal, the Acting Superintendent spread the rumour that his senior had run away. The rumour cost Nuttal his job.

With a family to support, the couple had two kids; Arthur Nuttal accepted work as a temporary garden assistant with the Makum ( Assam ) Tea Co in ‘44. In 1947 he was promoted as Senior Assistant and put in charge of Top Side division of Margherita TE. In 1951 he was transferred to Namdang Tea Co where he received his billet in Bogapani.

 Bogapani, in the 50’s, was in the midst of a thick jungle infested with wild animals. News of a rogue tusker, creating havoc at the Bogapani railway station, was reported with Government orders to destroy the pachyderm. Nuttal went to inspect it. He looked at the rogue and declared that it was not wild. He slowly approached the animal, talking in mahout’s language. Soon he had the animal following him and led the tusker away from the railway tracks, where a train was held up. When forest personnel queried as to how the sahib knew that the elephant was not wild he pointed to the faint chain marks on the animal’s feet.

Nuttal was Manager of Bogapani from 1951 to 1959. During his term he cleared the estate of encroachers and started the out garden Nazirating, then infested with tigers. For killing a man-eater he was given a small plot of land by the forest authorities for a shikar camp. The story goes that every time Nuttal went for a shoot he moved the Nazirating boundary pillars thus acquiring 100 hectares of prime forestland for the company. To clear the jungle two retired sirdars were given the timber as bakshis. Once the trees were removed he distributed the land to the workers and allowed them to cultivate ahu paddy for two years. With the land levelled Nuttal started planting. Today, even after half a century, Nazirating has some of the finest teas.

The fiery tempers never abated and lead to Nuttal’s final downfall. He quarrelled with the Superintendent and was dismissed. In 1959, aged 53, he left India for England with his family for good.  Arthur Mansfield Nuttal passed away in the 80’s. The story does not end here.

During his bachelor days Nuttal frequented Shillong where a Khasi lady befriended him. Out of that friendship a male child was born. When the boy was of school going age Nuttal had him admitted to Dr. Graham’s Home, Kalimpong, with the instructions that the boy must never be told of his father.

The youngster grew up and went off to England where he married and settled down. Just a few years back he, with his wife, came looking for his roots. In Shillong he met Mr Peter Furst, an ex-patriate and the last European Superintendent of the erstwhile Makum Namdang Company. Peter, who had worked under A.M.Nuttal as an assistant, on retirement   settled in Shillong, where he still resides.

The visitor from England asked Peter to narrate about his father. It was with rapt attention that the couple listened to what Peter had to say. When he finished the lady quietly remarked that her husband was just like Arthur Mansfield Nuttal, a father the son never knew.

Ex Manager Bogapani 
(1988 – 1997)


  1. sporranmaker says:

    What a wonderful story, Ali.
    I was on Digulturrung with Dick Street then Ron Cooper in 1963 but never knew this part of its history,
    Davey Lamont


  2. Andy Nuttall says:

    Dear Shona,

    I recently came across this site and am intrigued as it seems to be about my grandfather, Arthur Mansfield Nuttall. I would love to have a copy of this book and any other information you can provide. My father was brought up in India and lived on the Tea Estates and so would love to read the book as would the whole family. Many thanks for your blog, it is of great interest.

    Kind regards

    Andy Nuttall


    1. teabuddy says:

      What a pleasure to have you visit my blog, Andy! This piece about your grandfather was posted on under “Ali’s Gems” (you must be aware of the mearvelous Koi-Hai website?). I think it is an essay, not a full book. I am forwarding your comment to Ali Zaman and he may have more information for you. Do you have any photos of your grandfather? I would love to post them on my blog. Many thanks for your kind words.


    2. Paul Tucker says:

      This is a lovely story, but it has (as all good tales do) some inaccuracies. I hope I don’t spoil the story by adding corrections! Major General Sir James Mansfield Nuttall, KCB, had five sons and one daughter (who is my g-grandmother Frances). One son, Herbert James Nuttall, married Miriam Eleanor Cave, and had two children, Arthur Mansfield Nuttall and Alice May Nuttall (known as Noel as she was born on 24 December 1905 at Degallarang Tea Estate). It is true that the mother, Miriam, returned to England shortly after the birth of Arthur, for reasons unknown (her action was regarded as scandalous in Assam), but in so doing effectively abandoned her children. Their father was the tea estate manager, and in no position, in those days, to look after the children on a day-to-day basis. He arranged for sisters Rosie and Nellow Cox, who ran the Rockingham Girls School in Darjeeling to look after them. It is certainly true that the children spent a lot of time with their Indian ayah and spoke fluent Hindustani. (Alice’s son has written a private circulation book about his mother’s time in India – she married in England very shortly after Herbert’s death in 1930).
      Arthur Mansfield Nuttall was, by all accounts I have read, quite a character! I expect that the “abandoned” tale derives from him – look for Arthur Nuttall on this page:
      Before Arthur married Sheila Collier in Devon on 24 July 1937, he had lived with the Indian lady mentioned in the article, and had an acknowledged son John Nuttall by her. John now lives in England. I have corresponded with both of these cousins of mine.
      I can send you photos if you wish to add them. I have yet to make Andy Nuttall’s aquaintance and would be very happy to do so and let him have the family history of the Nuttalls (descendants, amongst others, of Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Eleanor of Aquitaine…)


      1. teabuddy says:

        Hello Paul,
        I greatly appreciate the correction and details. I have added your comments here so readers can get a balanced view. Stories are such an interesting patchwork of fact and imagination and “The Elephant Boy of tea” is a remarkable story. I am forwarding your email to Andy Nuttal in case he chooses to get in touch with you. And yes, please send me any photos you care to share so I can add them here. I am sure they will be of great interest to readers. Many thanks again. Shona


        1. Paul Tucker says:

          Hello Shona
          Having read your first chapter (and put the book on order), I fully agree with you about the interesting patchwork of fact and fiction. The interpretation broadcast by the Elephant Boy of Tea and his friends is, to me, very evocative. The facts can’t diminish the words of the story and the feelings it creates.
          I am happy to send you pictures, and bore you with extracts of the Indian diaries of my great-grandfather, but I presumably need an email address please?
          My great-grandfather was a surveyor, and travelled extensively in India in the 1860s-1880s, complete with his water colours. He was surveying the Naga hills when attacked by headhunters. He managed to retreat, although badly wounded, and it was the daughter of General Nuttall who tended his wounds, and who became his wife. Her brothers all went to India, and three became tea planters.
          The following is a report sent by my great-grandfather William Francis Badgley (of Montreal) to his superiors. I don’t expect you to add it to your site, but you are most welcome to add parts if you find it interesting.
          Kind regards


          1. teabuddy says:

            Hello again Paul,
            Your great grandfather had one of the most interesting jobs in the world: a surveyor in colonial India- imagine that? My first cousin is the ex survey general of India. He had to travel under police protection at all times. It is a dangerous and harrowing job, as documented so beautifully in William Francis Badgley’s account. I have not added the extract here because my blog is not the right place for it. I think it deserves pride of place in its own right. Have you considered writing a book? You have a wealth of material. You may want to think about it. I am writing to you in a private email so we can communicate directly. Many thanks for ordering my book. More in a bit. Shona


            1. Paul Tucker says:

              Dear Shona
              Thank you for your very kind suggestion that my writing skills could be on a par with your own. I know my limitations! (I have written over 100 published works, but with titles like “Intelligent Transport Systems” – hardly Booker Prize material 😉 ).
              I’ll leave it to you to write a sequel that can explain why India and its people totally captivated generations of English. There is a challenge for you – but I think you can rise to it.
              One tale comes to mind given your comment about police protection for your cousin – one early morning my g-grandfather decided to paint the clouds below him in the Lushai hills, and left the camp on his own. Part way through the painting, he heard noises behind him in the bushes, and knew he was surrounded by tribesmen who were partial to removing heads. “Don’t be afraid!” he called out “It is quite safe!”. (He had a notion that they had never seen anyone painting before, and thus would regard him as being a madman – and thus protected from harm). The tribesmen came out and stood watching him paint, weapons at the ready, but unsure what to make of it for quite some time. General Roberts happened to be in the camp at the time, and came looking for my g-grandfather (whose return had been delayed) with a suitable number of troops to scare the tribesmen away, and told g-grandfather off severely.
              I still have the watercolour on the wall – a very peaceful scene!
              kind regards


          2. Andy May says:

            Paul — would love to get in touch as I am writing a history of Shillong and came across your g-g-grandfather.


            1. Shona Patel says:

              Hi Andy, I have written to you in a separate email. Best wishes, Shona


              1. sporranmaker says:

                Hi Shona, good to see you’ve been writing again…..I’ve heard of the Elephant Boy before and enjoyed the story all over again.

                Can you please tell me about your new book and I’ll send the necessary funds …..I still keep in touch with a few EX TEA PLANTERS who I never met in Assam and they’ re good mates now, Trust you and Vinoo are keeping well, Hugs,




              2. sporranmaker says:

                I forgot to mention that we’re Getting a LOT of Indian news every day for about an hour so it’s very interesting, it looks like Australia is forging stronger links with India to cut out China who has been getting very dangerous in the past years

                The news is presented by an Indian woman wearing a sari with lots of visual world news and Indian news of course Modi must be doing a good job, It’s a much more open place than when we were there……Running competitions and all sorts of Comps, I love watching it all.

                Lots of hugs




  3. shaheen tyebjee says:

    Hi Shona! It was great reading Tea Buddy. Tinku forwarded it to us and we really enjoyed it. Infact we’ve signed up for it. Will call you next week when i fly into New York . Shaheen (Lalkan).


    1. teabuddy says:

      Welcome Lalkan!!!! It’s amazing how many friends TeaBuddy has unearthed for me from my childhood. You must call me when you are in NYC. Big hugs xxoo Shona
      PS for other readers: Lalkan (“Red Ears”) aka Shaheen is a dear Assamese buddy from my boarding school days. I had the gall to chop off her waist length hair and give her a bob and yes her ears turn red at the slightest provocation.


  4. Bipul Gohain says:

    Glad to read details about the Elephant Boy story. I came across its mention in the the book “Tea Love & War …” by Arthur Mitchell. Thank you very much for bring out more about this wonderfull story. In fact it is only recently that I have come across the site Koi-Hai, such a wonderfull collection of true stories and relishing every bit of it. Being born and brought up in a tea garden in Assam (my home state), Pengaree TE to be precise (those who read the TLW will able to locate) I find TEA stories very dear and interesting. Hope to order your books soon.
    Bipul Gohain
    Dehradun, India


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