British tea planters in Sri Lanka engaged in tea tasting
The tale of Ceylon Tea unfolds amidst the mist of the hillside. A brew that put the 'Pearl of the Indian Ocean' on the map. A cuppa that became the lifeblood of the country. 150 years on, Ceylon Tea continues to evolve, its presence evident in both the home and trendiest spots in Sri Lanka.
In the 1800s, the island of Sri Lanka was immersed in a coffee rush. The central hills were bustling with planters, English life and a clamber for land. Fortuitously, the Superintendent at the Loolecondera Estate had been tasked with exploring the commercial viability of 'tea' in 1867. This nursery, seedlings that sprouted from Assam seeds, showed promise. Therefore, when the Coffee Blight, also called Devastating Emily, started to destroy the coffee fields from 1869, tea was there to save the day.
" James Taylor, the Father of Ceylon Tea was born on March 29, 1835. He came to Ceylon at the age of 17 and his legacy lives on. At Loolecondera five acres of the first tea planted by Taylor are preserved at ‘Field No 7’. Taylor never left Sri Lanka and his grave lies in Mahaiyawa. What remains of his log cabin, where it all started, has been preserved at Loolecondera. Not often is it that men have the heart, when their one great industry is withered, to rear up in a few years another as rich to take its place; and the tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion of Waterloo." Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tribute to Sri Lankan planters
James Taylor, the Father of Ceylon Tea, launched this illustrious industry on his verandah. It was then a manual process, with leaves rolled by hand, from wrist to elbow. James Taylor's tireless efforts paid off when the very first consignment of tea from Ceylon, in fact believed to be two little packets containing 23 pounds, was shipped in 1872. In fact, records show that the name ‘Loolecondera' even appeared in a London Mincing Lane report as early as 1876. London Mincing Lane being the 19th century world trading centre for tea and spices. And aboard the ‘Duke of Argyll' the first recorded shipment of Ceylon Tea set sail for England in 1877.
As Ceylon's tea economy took off, the infrastructure, especially between the central hills and the Colombo Port, was developed by the British Planter who sought efficiency above all else Factories were constructed, and as the production numbers increased, multiple-storey factories were also introduced; each facility custom built to suit the estate's terrain. The roads improved and as the estates spread across the province more and more destinations were connected to the railway line. Along with the planting culture came planters' clubs, joyous dances, sport and other recreation. In fact, the country's first bowling alley is believed to have been set up at the Mathurata Planters Club.
The expansive Pedro Estate in Nuwara Eliya has a plot in which Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh planted a single seedling in 1954. Tea from this plot was served at a banquet at Westminister Hall held in honour of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.
By the late 1800s the image of neatly pruned tea bushes carpeting the central slopes became almost a symbol of the Island. Eventually, in England tea was associated with ‘Ceylon' rather than ‘China', where the brew first originated from.
As the tea fields required constant harvesting, unlike coffee, the planters sought a larger labour force, which was brought over from South India. Later, Colombo too had to follow the Public Auction System prevalent at London Mincing Lane. Thus, for the first time tea started to be traded through the auction in 1883. After independence the industry opened up for local ownership.
Colombo International Tea Convention August 8 - 11, 2017
One and a half centuries on, Ceylon Tea has indeed evolved beyond the brew served in true English elegance. Inspired by a celebrated history, it will continue to be a part of the Island's soul.