“The tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as the lion is to Waterloo.”
Visit Sri Lanka’s tea plantation in the high country and you find beautiful carpet-like green tea fields, pluckers in their colourful saris, and colonial style bungalows where you can enjoy a cup of freshly manufactured tea. A moment that should be sipped and savoured.
Tea is steeped in over 5000 years of history. The story of Scottish men venturing out from the homeland to create the Ceylon tea industry from scratch is just another page in the ever-evolving history of this wonderful beverage.
The first men to venture to Ceylon were a rough and tough bunch. The majority came from the Scottish highlands. The opportunity for cheap land and the chance to achieve great riches in a far-flung colony of the The British Empire was too much temptation for the first men who boarded the ships bound for Colombo and Point de Galle. Although Ceylon is known for its tea, the first plantations that were established in the country were, in fact, not for tea – but for coffee.
The first coffee plantations were established outside of the ancient kingdom of Kandy in Gampola. The Arabs first introduced coffee; the Dutch tested planting of the crop in the southern part of the island. However, the hot and humid climate of the south proved not be the utopia for growing coffee.
The Gampola valley – roughly 3000 feet above sea level with crisp cool climate – offered the perfect location for the growing of coffee.
Young Scots looking to plant coffee on the land that was offered faced two problems. First, it was covered with dense tropical jungle; and second, the local Sinhalese population refused to be employed. In the 1800’s – well before the advent of the chain saw, and earth moving equipment – the task of felling and clearing dense jungle for the planting of coffee fell to the planter and his army of workers.
The plantation workers who call the many tea estates their home today can see the legacy of these men. The workers who make up the heart and soul of today’s estates are of Tamil descent from South India who were bought to Ceylon by British agents to rear the fledgling coffee industry. Planters who took up the task of finding their fortune soon found that learning Tamil was an essential element if they where to be successful in achieving their dreams.
The planter and his workers would clear a section of jungle – 50-100 acres of land at a time. The task entailed the felling of trees by hand followed by burning the area to be suitable for the planting of coffee. To get a sense of the idea of the scale of this massive task, picture yourself making yourself at home in the jungle, habitat for vipers, leopards and malaria-carrying mosquitos. Many a planter has been trodden on by a wandering elephant while he took a few hours rest.
Many of these men would not see another European face for months – if not years – on end. Heaven forbid they were to fall ill from one of the many tropical diseases, for their fate would be sealed.
By the1860’s, families of Scots had migrated to Ceylon after hearing of a relative who had established a Coffee plantation and was slowly making his fortune. PMD’s original home of Maskeliya, which borders the slopes of Adam’s Peak, provides one with no better example of the legacy of these men. The names of the early coffee estates located in the area have a very Scottish flavour: Dalhousie; Moray; Glentilt; and Braemar are some of the names that you will find in this part of the world. In fact the current site of Maskeliya town is established on part of Glentilt estate, because the previous town of Kintyre Maskeliya was flooded in 1969 to make way for a hydroelectric dam.
One of the first men who ventured to the Adam’s Peak area was a Scotsman named James Fettes Moir, who established Tarf coffee estate. Today, Tarf is merged with Brownlow estate. Moir was one of 14 Scots who made their way to the region, including three brothers and two cousins – one of whom was the pioneer of the Ceylon tea industry – James Taylor.
End of Part 1. Part 2 of Canny Scots will publish next Tuesday, September 23.