Previous in Series: The Advent of Machinery – Part 2

God’s mysterious ways cannot but amaze, yet one wonders how two of the most devastating scourges in agricultural history could occur in the exact same decade. In the late 1860s, a microscopic organism unheard of before started killing the roots of all the grapevines in Europe. Europe would not produce an ounce of wine today if someone hadn’t finally learned to graft the vines onto native American rootstock, which was impervious to the disease. Over this identical period a similarly noxious life-form was attacking the leaves of Ceylon’s coffee plants, only this time no cure was found for it. All the coffee died and all the planters ruined. What followed could be called either “true grit” or “the rush into tea.” Ceylon, the fabled Isle of Serendip of “The Arabian Nights,” had just nineteen acres planted in tea before the dusty-looking leaves denoting the coffee fungus were first noticed in 1869. Twenty years later the figure stood above two hundred thousand acres, and yet another hundred thousand were added over the next twenty years.

The enormous cost in human heartbreak and toil involved was recognized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s statement: “Now 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 the lion at Waterloo.” Sir Thomas Lipton purchased a large block of valuable estates in 1890 and his worldwide advertising of Ceylon tea began soon after. Thanks as ever to novelty’s perennial value, the first lot of Ceylon tea to be to be sold in Mincing Lane in 1891 brought twenty-five pounds, ten shillings per pound. All of this was thanks not just to humans but to the Assam tea variety; Ceylon gave conclusive proof that unlike its Chinese sister it could travel, take root elsewhere, and flourish.

To be concluded in Serendipity – Part 2