By the end of the 19th century, the word ‘tea’ was no longer associated with China, but with Ceylon.
Tea is produced from Camellia Sinensis, of which there are three main varieties; the China, Assam and Cambodian. Today, a vast number of hybrids exist, developed to take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of each variety, and to adapt plants to the specific geographical and climatic circumstances of each area.
The plants did not figure among the local flora on the island of Ceylon, a British crown colony, until the early 19th century when several entrepreneurs used their estates as test 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 plants, some of which went to Nuwara Eliya, a health resort to the south of Kandy at an altitude of 6,500 feet. The Nuwara Eliya experiment produced excellent results.
Seeds of Chinese tea plants, brought to Sri Lanka by travellers such as Maurice de Worms, were also planted in the Peradeniya nurseries, although these yielded disappointing results and Chinese plants were gradually abandoned in favour of the Assam variety that is now grown on every estate in Sri Lanka. Tea cultivation nevertheless remained a minor activity for twenty years. Coffee remained the island’s main export crop. However in the 1870’s the dreaded blight systematically destroyed coffee plants. The entire coffee industry was destroyed. Tea then appeared as a godsend and the entire local economy shifted to the new crop within a few years. This rapid substitution owed a great deal to the fruitful initiative of a man named James Taylor.
In 1851, near Mincing Lane, which was later renowned as the tea centre of the world, Taylor had signed on for three years as an assistant supervisor on a coffee plantation in Ceylon. The sixteen–year–old Scot, son of a modest wheelwright, would never see his native land again. 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 seeds around 1860.
Taylor then set up the first tea ‘factory’ on the island. It was in fact a rather rudimentary set up. 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 dealer’s association in 1894. Taylor continued to test new methods and techniques at the Loolecondera Estate (which he would never own) until the end of his life. 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 plantations. His talent and determination were officially recognised when Sir William Gregory, Governor of Ceylon, paid Taylor a visit in 1890 to congratulate him on the quality of his tea.
But the rise of the 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. 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 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 Sri Lanka Pavilion discovered replica tea factories and the “five o-clock tea” that became so fashionable.
The promotional policy was so effective that by the end of the 19th century, the world “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.
Source: Contemporary Tea, Time Vol. X No. 3 September – November 2001
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