January 2014


From 'Coffee Rush' to 'Devastating Emily': A History of Ceylon Coffee
January 2014




Peacock Hill coffee estate (Charles O’Brien, 1864)

Words Richard Boyle

The history of Ceylon Tea overshadows the fact that initially the Island's main export was the other popular beverage, coffee. Indeed there was a 'coffee rush' and Ceylon became a major player in the world market. Then a leaf-blight known as 'devastating Emily' swept through the plantations. Many planters emigrated; others took to growing tea. So without 'Emily', Ceylon Tea may never have materialised . . .


The coffee plant is not indigenous to Sri Lanka, having been introduced probably by Arabians or Persians during an unidentified period. Certainly it was growing in the Island before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505. Yet it was not used by the islanders as a beverage. Sir James Emerson Tennent comments in Ceylon (1859): "Although the plant had existed from time immemorial on the Island (having probably been introduced from Mocha by the Arabs), the natives were ignorant of the value of its berries, and only used its leaves to flavour their curries, and its flowers to decorate their temples."


The Dutch, who governed the lowland regions of the Island they called Zeilan between 1640 and 1796, imported coffee seedlings from Java, their coffee-growing colony. According to Governor Jan Schreuder (1757-1762) the coffee produced was superior in quality to that of Java. However, the Dutch could only grow it in the lowland areas, whereas it needs elevation. Ultimately the cultivation was abandoned so as not to oversupply the market and reduce the price of Java coffee. Zeilan would remain a cinnamon-growing colony.


The Dutch experiments made the Islanders aware of the commercial value of coffee—known to them in Sinhala as kōpi, and in Tamil, kōpp-and cultivated it in small quantities in what are termed 'home gardens' to supply the Colombo bazaars. These home gardens remain, making a special contribution to Sri Lanka environmental management as they provide patches of unique biodiversity due to the many different trees and plants cultivated.


After the occupation of the entire Island by the British some unsuccessful attempts at coffee growing were made near Galle. It was Governor Sir Edward Barnes (1824-1831) who identified the hill country as a more suitable locality for such cultivation. However, there was little progress until 1837, when a decrease in the supply of coffee to Britain from the West Indies occurred with the abolition of slavery. Subsequently there began a 'coffee rush' in Ceylon around 1840 that resembled the gold rush in Australia.


Apart from the many civil servants and military personnel stationed in the Island who acquired Crown land in the hill country to pursue dreams of wealth, other speculators came from India, Europe and elsewhere. Massive swathes of jungle were sold: the 1840 total of 17,200 hectares soared to 31,800 a year later. As a result, the normally silent hills and valleys around Kandy, Dumbara, Pussellawa and Kotmale-even the lower ranges of the holy mountain, Sri Pada (Adam's Peak)-resounded with the blows of the planter's axe-men and the crash of falling timber. Thus the Island's highland ecosystem was irrevocably transformed for the worse.


Vereker M Hamilton's and Stewart M Fasson's volume of illustrated verse, Scenes in Ceylon (1881), sheds much light on aspects of British life in Ceylon. One poem, "The New Clearing", captures the essence of colonial conquest for commercial purposes and the disastrous environmental consequences:


The ruthless flames have cleared his lands;
No trace remains of green;
When lost in thought our Planter stands,
And views the sterile scene.


In dreams he sees his Coffee spring,
Fed by the welcome rain;
And berries many a dollar bring
To take him home again.


Once the land had been cleared the planter's labourers-imported from India as the local people were mostly land-owning farmers unwilling to be hired-sowed the coffee seeds about two metres apart amongst the wreckage of the burnt jungle. The young coffee plants are extremely graceful, throwing out their branches with perfect regularity. But when matured the trees were cut-"topped" in the trade-at a height of about 1.2 metres, and the branches droop.

A plantation of coffee is at every season an object of beauty and interest
Eventually the deforestation-scarred landscape faded into a pleasant (but monotonous) carpet of coffee plants. Tennent (1859) makes this favourable comment: "A plantation of coffee is at every season an object of beauty and interest. The leaves bright and polished; the flowers, of the purest white, grow in tufts along the top of the branches, and bloom so suddenly that at morning the trees look as if snow had fallen on them during the night. Their jasmine-like perfume is powerful enough to be oppressive, but they last only for a day, and the branches of crimson berries which follow resemble cherries in their brilliancy and size."


When ripe the berries were picked by women much as tea is plucked today. Each berry or 'cherry coffee' contains two seeds known as 'beans' that were removed from the shell by a pulping machine reminiscent of a large nutmeg-grater—a cylinder covered with roughened copper, powered by a water-wheel. The beans were then fermented for 12-18 hours in concrete tanks or wooden boxes to remove saccharine and facilitate drying. They were then washed and dried in the sun on trays for three weeks.


At this stage of the process the dried beans, referred to as 'parchment coffee', were sent to Colombo where the parchment or 'silver skin' was removed by 'hulling' in a circular trough containing heavy rollers. Grading and winnowing were also performed before the beans were fit for the London market. In 1857, at the height of the coffee boom, 36 million kilos were exported from Ceylon.


Despite the success of coffee in Ceylon the British were guilty of the practice of monoculture so that insufficient shade was given to the plants to deter fungus. Thus in 1869 a fungus with the scientific name Hemileia vastatrix was detected and it soon began to spread rapidly through the plantations. Commonly referred to as 'coffee rust', 'coffee leaf disease' or 'coffee blight', planters bestowed the curious moniker 'devastating Emily'—perhaps 'Emily' was a corruption of Hemileia.


The characteristic of the disease is the formation of yellow spots on the surface of the plant's leaves. The fungus consumes the nutrients so that the plant is weakened, its leaves fall prematurely, and only a small proportion of the flowers develop into good berries. The result is a very poor yield and the probable eventual death of the plant. No curative measures were discovered.

But though coffee became a commercial and personal financial disaster, tea was already being grown successfully by the pioneer James Taylor
"Devastating Emily" quickly ruined the coffee industry in Ceylon. Of 1,700 coffee planters, only 400 stayed on the Island. The rest left for home, generally penniless. But though coffee became a commercial and personal financial disaster, tea was already being grown successfully by the pioneer James Taylor. As there was a plantation system in existence it was relatively straightforward for the remaining coffee planters to make the switch to tea, and the rest is history.


"Devastating Emily" destroyed Ceylon's main export but consequently led to a new and vastly more profitable commercial venture. D M Forrest remarks in A Hundred Years of Ceylon Tea (1967), "There is no doubt that the disgusting little fungus must be regarded as our industry's patron saint".

 

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    Pounding coffee (Scowen & Co)

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    Bungalow, Aluvihare coffee estate (J Lawton, 1868)

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    Coffee planter’s bungalow in the hill country (WLH Skeen & Co, 1878)

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    Coffee stores and pulping house (Illustrated London News, 1872)

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    Ceylon coffee pickers (Pictorial World, 1876)

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    “The New Clearing” (Vereker M Hamilton, 1881)

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    Workers planting coffee seeds after the cutting and burning of the jungle (WLH Skeen & Co)

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    A coffee planter with labourers (source unknown)

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    Sorting coffee seeds (Plâté)

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    Bungalow of a coffee planter (Eugéne de Ransonnet, 1860s)

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    Drying grounds for coffee (Frederick Fiebig, 1852)

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    Coffee berries being picked (Royal Commonwealth Society)

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    Shipping coffee downriver (Adolph Richter & Co, 1906)

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    Hemileia vastatrix, which causes coffee rust (Howard F. Schwartz, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org)

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