CEYLON TEA - THE
Nothing predisposed the island of Ceylon, a British
crown colony since 1802, to such a fate, for tea plants did not
figure among the local flora. Yet from the early nineteenth century,
several enthusiasts used their estates as experimental plots. In
1839, Dr. Wallich, head of the botanical garden in Calcutta, sent
several Assam tea plant seeds to the Peradeniya estates near Kandy.
This initial consignment was followed by two hundred and fifty
some of which went to Nuwara Eliya, a health resort
to the south of Kandy, situated at an altitude of 6,500 feet. The
Nuwara Eliya experiment produced entirely satisfactory results.
Seeds of Chinese tea plants, brought to Ceylon by travellers such as
Maurice de Worms, were also planted in the Peradeniya nurseries.
Tea cultivation nevertheless remained a minor
activity for twenty years. The island's prosperity in fact derived
from coffee, whose quality rivaled that of Brazil. This situation
changed dramatically in 1869 with the outbreak of a parasite fungus,
Hemileia vastatrix, that systematically destroyed coffee plants. Tea
then appeared as a godsend, and the entire local economy shifted to
the new crop in a matter of several years. This rapid substitution
owed a great deal to the fruitful initiative of a man named
James Taylor. Back in 1851, near Mincing Lane,
Taylor had signed on for three years as an assistant supervisor on a
coffee plantation in Ceylon. This sixteen-year-old Scot, son of a
modest wheelwright, would never see his native land again. But
throughout his life he sent letters to his father back home,
providing a unique description of the daily life of a planter in
that epoch. Five years after he took up his post, his employers,
Harrison and Leake, impressed by the quality of his work, put Taylor
in charge of the Loolecondera estate and instructed him to
experiment with tea plants. The Peradeniya nursery supplied him with
his first seed around 1860.
Taylor then set up the first tea "factory" on the
island. It was in fact a rather rudimentary setup. Historian D. M.
Forrest quotes a description provided by Taylor's neighbor, planter
E. G. Harding: "The factory was in the bungalow. The leaf was rolled
on tables on the veranda by hand, i.e. from wrists to elbow, while
the firing was done in chulas or clay stoves over charcoal fires,
with wire trays to hold the leaf.
The result was a delicious tea which we brought up
locally at Rs.1.50 per lb." The factory soon became famous
throughout the island. In 1872, Taylor invented a machine for
rolling leaves, and one year later sent twenty-three pounds of tea
to Mincing Lane. Taylor trained a number of assistants, and from
that point on Ceylon tea arrived regularly in London and Melbourne.
Its success led to the opening of an auction market in Colombo in
1883, and to the founding of a Colombo Tea Traders Association in
Taylor continued to test new methods and techniques
at the Loolecondera estate (which he would never own) until the end
of this life.
He was well-liked by both European planters and
native workers, yet remained somewhat solitary. He never left the
estate, except for a single short vacation in 1874 - spent at
Darjeeling, needless to say, in order to study the new tea
His talent and determination were officially
recognized when Sir William Gregory, governor of Ceylon, paid Taylor
a visit in 1890 to congratulate him on the quality of his tea. The
Ceylon Tea Growers' Association, founded in 1886, gave him a silver
tea service engraved with an inscription citing his pioneering work.
But the rise of the tea industry nurtured by James Taylor was
also the cause of his downfall. Rapid growth was accompanied by a
concentration of capital in the hands of large corporations based in
Britain, and a wave of property consolidation forced out smaller
planters. Taylor, like other planters, was dismissed. Terribly
disappointed, he decided to remain on his estate despite an order to
quit; not long afterward, in 1892, he died suddenly of dysentery at
the age of fifty-seven, on his beloved soil at Loolecondera.
The 1884 and 1886 International Expositions held in
London introduced the English and foreigners to teas produced in the
British Empire. But it was at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago that
Ceylon tea made a tremendous hit-no less than one million packets
were sold. Finally, at the Paris Exposition of 1900, visitors to the
Ceylon Pavilion discovered replica tea factories and the "five
o-clock tea" that became so fashionable. As a contemporary
chronicler put it"The charming colonia house with bright shutters,
the deliciouseness of the
beverage, the beauty of the Singhalese
people-living statues of bronze wrapped in shimmering white
loincloths-everything contributes to the success of this delightful
stand at Trocadero…"
The planters' association supported this
propaganda campaign by organizing various publicity events. In 1891,
Kaiser Wilhelm II, Czar Alexander III, Grand-Duke Nicolas, the Queen
of Italy and Emperor Franz-Josef all received sixty coffers of tea
accompanied by an illustrated album on Ceylon.
policy was so effective that by the end of
the nineteenth century, the word "tea" was no
longer associated with China, but with Ceylon. The island's
prosperity sparked covetousness on the part of British companies and
London brokers, who wanted to acquire their own plantations and cut
out the middlemen. This marked a turning point in the saga of
tea-pioneers gave way to merchants, whose name or label would soon
become more important than the country in which the tea was grown.
( Extracted from "The Book of TEA" by Antony Bugess