“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.
But take a second and ask yourself who was responsible for the carpeted green fields and the colonial bungalows? Where did the ladies in their colourful saris arrive from?
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.
By the late 1850’s 80,000 acres of inaccessible jungle had been felled and the land planted with coffee. By 1867 Ceylon briefly became the worlds largest exporter of coffee. This was the height and heyday of the Ceylon coffee industry.
A small rust coloured powdery patch (Hemileia vastatrix) on the coffee leaves was first noted on the outlying plantations in 1869. This disease was first ignored as the opening up of jungle was continued, while the effects on yield per bush were masked. The disease that started on a few outlying plantations spread its way through 250,000 acres of cultivated land, ruining the estates and the lives of the men who had risked it all. Many of these once proud men packed up and left Ceylon, financially and mentally broken. Yet others carried on with their pioneering spirit, by uprooting every single coffee bush and replanting with tea.
Coffee Planter, Tea Planter, and Pioneer
Well before the coffee collapse, tea seeds of Assamica Jat were sent from the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta (modern-day Kolkatta) to the Peredeniya Botanical Gardens near Kandy in the late 1830’s. Small experimental plantings were conducted. Some of the more enterprising coffee planters planted patches of tea on their estates. Most, however, were gripped by coffee mania.
Mr. James Taylor from Laurencekirk, Kincardineshire Scotland, undertook the first commercial planting of tea. Loolecondra estate near Kandy is the original home of Ceylon tea. On Loolecondra, the first seeds were planted and the initial manufacture of tea was conducted – not in a factory as you would today – but on Taylor’s bungalow veranda.
By 1867, the first shipments of tea were sent to the London auction and were declared to be as good as the flavours from China and India. Ceylon was brought into the world of tea, and the coffee men begun planting the hills of Ceylon with what is now a common sight.
As the collapse of coffee had left a lot of proprietors short of money, old coffee stores were turned into tea factories. Tea plantations required plucking to take place every day, requiring larger populations of workers to be recruited.
Tea machinery flowed into Colombo port from Britain’s industrial towns. “Davidsons of Belfast” and “Marshalls of Gainsborough” equipment was transported up the rickety roads; elephants became invaluable means of transport for creating the modern estates.
As the crop of tea steadily increased, the need for purposefully-built tea factories was realized. Many of the factories found in the hills today are the very factories that were built by these men. In some cases, the original equipment is still used.
History in the Cup
The pioneering work of these men can be seen all over Sri Lanka’s high country. From the estate names, to the roads, to the economic opportunities that tea provides to Sri Lanka’s economy, the importance of these innovators is evident.
With the Commonwealth Games that have taken place in Glasgow, golf’s Ryder Cup in Gleneagles, and an independence referendum which failed last week, it is a big year for Scotland. Hopefully Scots – and people all over the world – can find the time to brew up some history in their cup this coming year.
(You can also check out the author’s Book Review: “The Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon.” )
This article has been reformatted and updated from the original September 2014 publication.
Photo “Severe symptoms of leaf rust” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License to the photographer and is being posted unaltered (source)