History of Ceylon Tea

Tea, in the beginning, was grown naturally, without fertilizer or pesticides and thrived in the wild, untended by people. Legend attributes tea’s discovery as a beverage to the Chinese Emperor Chen Nung. In 2737 BC, he was boiling water ‘to purify it’ when leaves from a tea tree by chance fell in the pot. The aroma was tantalizing. The Emperor tried the brew and was enchanted by this clear, cheering drink. The very word tea comes from a Chinese Amoy dialect, corrupted from the word t’e, which was pronounced as tay. Even Ceylon Tea, or Sri Lankan Tea, is known by this term today. Its botanical name Camellia sinensis confirms its Chinese origins.

Tea was regarded as a medicinal herb and was cultivated carefully as its popularity in elite Chinese circles grew. Over millennia the drinking of tea, made with sun-dried leaves steeped in boiling water, became part of daily life in China. Tea arrived in Europe in the 17th century and became an important trading commodity between East and West. China wanted little the European traders had to offer for its tea. The increased demand in Europe for tea rapidly put pressure on traders to find or create something the Chinese wanted.

Image Credits: In The Kitchen

The solution was the sale of opium to China from India. This became the way of financing Europe’s demand for tea. However, while opium provided the silver to buy tea, it also increased political tensions that made the tea trade with China even more difficult.

Ceylon Tea

The British were keen to find another place where tea could be grown to avoid the difficulties of trade with China and to gain greater control over its production, supply, and marketing. The discovery in 1823 of tea trees growing in Assam enabled the British to copy the Chinese. Tea was produced for export to England to satisfy their passion for the beverage.

In Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the arrival of the island’s fifth British governor, Sir Edward Barnes, in Colombo in July 1819, was to lead to the commencement of the island’s tea industry. Barnes, then 43, was an energetic visionary. He declared that what the island needed – instead of forts to subjugate the people – was roads. So the country’s natural resources could be developed through agriculture.

History of Ceylon Tea
The Ceylon Tea industry

Barnes is not usually credited with introducing tea to Ceylon. It wasn’t until 50 years later that Ceylon Tea was first planted as a commercial crop. However, it was while he was the governor that the first tea cuttings, brought from China, were planted at the government’s Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya, in 1824. This was with Barnes’ blessing as he was himself a keen planter and grew coffee on his own plantation.

Coffee had been introduced to the island by the Dutch during their occupation (1648 – 1796). But no organized effort had been made to develop it as a commercial crop.

A settlement in Nuwara Eliya

It is possible that the Dutch also introduced the tea plant. James Cordiner writes in his book, Description of Ceylon published in 1807, that some tea plants were found growing wild in the northeast, near Trincomalee. He wrote that British soldiers dried the leaves, boiled them, and preferred the ‘decoction’ to coffee.

Barnes encouraged Britons to settle in the island as planters with grants of 4,000 acres (1,618 hectares) of land, free from tax, for five years. This resulted in a land rush that was driven by a demand for coffee in Europe. Barnes opened up the interior, making road access to the former kingdom of Kandy possible, and pioneering a settlement at Nuwara Eliya in the hill country.

Nothing is known of what became of the tea planted as an experiment in the Botanical Gardens in Ceylon at Barnes’ behest, but in 1838 tea grown by British planters in India was shipped to London. It was well received and tea production began in earnest in India.

Indigenous Assam Tea

Seeds of the then recently discovered ‘Indigenous Assam Tea’ was sent from the Calcutta Botanical Gardens to the Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya. This was followed in 1840 by 205 tea plants. Some of those plants were sent to plantations near Nuwara Eliya. In his book Ceylon, Sir James Tennent writes about his visit to the bungalow of Mr. Worms and his brother: ‘Proprietors of one of the finest plantations in the island.’

He describes their attempt to grow tea, ‘no skilled labor to dry and manipulate the leaves’. Tennant noted, however, ‘The adaptation of the soil and climate has thus been established.’ There were other tentative steps to grow tea. A planter called David Baird Lindsay obtained a shipment of Assam seed in 1864. He planted it on Rajawella Estate, Dumbara. In 1871, he sent a sample of the tea made from trees that he had allowed to grow to six feet (1.82m) in height.

Perhaps that’s why the tea was, to quote a contemporary source, ‘unsparingly condemned’ when it was sent to London.

James Taylor

Although the growing of coffee in Ceylon was profitable, some planters were interested in introducing tea as an additional crop. In 1866, two enterprising Britons, G D B Harrison and W M Leake, directed the manager of their Loolecondera estate, 26 miles (41km) from Kandy, to plant tea alongside the estate roads as an experiment. The manager was James Taylor, who had been at Loolecondera for 14 years since arriving as a boy of 17 from Scotland.

That same year the Planters’ Association of Ceylon (of which Leake was Secretary) persuaded the government to send a planter, Arthur Morice, to inspect and report on tea growing in the Assam district of India.

History of Ceylon Tea
Image Credits: Black Tea Exports

His report, published in 1867, recommended that Ceylon should concentrate on growing tea at high elevations. This was by using the best Assam seed to produce superior grades. After reading the Report, Leake and Harrison authorized Taylor to plant 19 acres (7ha) of land at Loolecondera. The land earlier been cleared for coffee. Taylor used plants raised from Assam seed.

Although it was six years before Loolecondera tea was shipped to London, it was the start of the island’s profitable Ceylon Tea industry. Taylor nurtured the plants carefully. He used natural fertilizer of his own device, based on his experience of growing coffee in virgin soil.

Coffee’s downfall, rise of Ceylon Tea

While his plants grew successfully, he had no experience of how to turn the plucked leaf into the tea that was a popular drink in England. He plucked the green leaf himself and rolled it by hand, from wrist to elbow, on a table on his veranda. He let it ferment and then lay the leaf on a wire tray over a clay pot of charcoal to fire it. Taylor produced a tea acclaimed as delicious and sold it locally for Rs 1.50 a pound.

He eventually built a “Tea House” as he called his factory. By 1872 Taylor was busy on a new project – a fully equipped Tea-House to his own design and ‘quite different from the Indian tea houses’. Taylor describes the tea-house as being fitted for acreage of 50 to 100 acres of tea in full bearing. Though he thought it might do more.

In 1867 the island’s first railway line was completed and a train steamed into Kandy from Colombo. Rail was to provide the transportation needed to get tea to the Colombo harbor for export by ship to England. Ceylon Tea’s success was helped by coffee’s decline as a fungus devastated coffee plantations. While foresighted planters turned to tea, others went bankrupt.

Loolecondera factory

Taylor considered his rolling machine, the first ever made in Ceylon as his most exciting project. He referred to it in a letter of 18 March 1872, by saying “I have a machine of my own invention being made in Kandy for rolling the tea which I think will be successful. If so, we cannot help making a profit on tea if it grows of fair quality in this country. The picking or gathering the leaves and the rolling are the greatest expenses in the production; the rolling costs nearly as much as the gathering”.

History of Ceylon Tea | Loolecondera Tea Estate
The Loolecondera Tea Estate, Sri Lanka’s first Tea Estate (Image Credits: Travel with Chamal)

The completed rolling machine was delivered in late 1872. By January 1873, Taylor had been making tea with it ‘for about a month’. The machine consisted of a grooved cylinder traveling across a flatbed when connected to a water-wheel. It must have imparted a twist to the leaf which was so much prized and was certainly present in the samples of 1872. At the same time a neighbor Jenkins was putting up a tea-house on Codegalla. Taylor was surprised to find it to be a copy in all its working parts as his own. But Jenkins failed to make such good tea in it.

Following Taylor’s death in 1892, there were 22,000 acres under tea in the island. Now, nearly 120 years later, there are 600,000 acres. The Ceylon Tea industry directly or indirectly employs over one million people.


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