The Beginings of Tea

Nothing predisposed the island of Ceylon, a British crown colony since 1802, to such a fate, for tea plants did not figure among the local flora. Yet from the early nineteenth century, several enthusiasts used their estates as experimental 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, situated at an altitude of 6,500 feet. The Nuwara Eliya experiment produced entirely satisfactory results. Seeds of Chinese tea plants, brought to Ceylon by travellers such as Maurice de Worms, were also planted in the Peradeniya nurseries.

11 Tea cultivation nevertheless remained a minor activity for twenty years. The island's prosperity in fact derived from coffee, whose quality rivaled that of Brazil. This situation changed dramatically in 1869 with the outbreak of a parasite fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, that systematically destroyed coffee plants. Tea then appeared as a godsend, and the entire local economy shifted to the new crop in a matter of several years. This rapid substitution owed a great deal to the fruitful initiative of a man named

James Taylor. Back in 1851, near Mincing Lane, Taylor had signed on for three years as an assistant supervisor on a coffee plantation in Ceylon. This sixteen-year-old Scot, son of a modest wheelwright, would never see his native land again. But throughout his life he sent letters to his father back home, providing a unique description of the daily life of a planter in that epoch. 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 seed around 1860.

Taylor then set up the first tea "factory" on the island. It was in fact a rather rudimentary setup. Historian D. M. Forrest quotes a description provided by Taylor's neighbor, planter E. G. Harding: "The factory was in the bungalow. The leaf was rolled on tables on the veranda by hand, i.e. from wrists to elbow, while the firing was done in chulas or clay stoves over charcoal fires, with wire trays to hold the leaf.

The result was a delicious tea which we brought up locally at Rs.1.50 per lb." 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 Traders Association in 1894.

Taylor continued to test new methods and techniques at the Loolecondera estate (which he would never own) until the end of this life.
He was well-liked by both European planters and native workers, yet remained somewhat solitary. 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 recognized when Sir William Gregory, governor of Ceylon, paid Taylor a visit in 1890 to congratulate him on the quality of his tea. The Ceylon Tea Growers' Association, founded in 1886, gave him a silver tea service engraved with an inscription citing his pioneering work.

But the rise of the tea 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. Taylor, like other planters, was dismissed. Terribly disappointed, he decided to remain on his estate despite an order to quit; not long afterward, 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's 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 Ceylon Pavilion discovered replica tea factories and the "five o-clock tea" that became so fashionable. As a contemporary chronicler put it"The charming colonia house with bright shutters, the deliciouseness of the

beverage, the beauty of the Singhalese people-living statues of bronze wrapped in shimmering white loincloths-everything contributes to the success of this delightful stand at Trocadero…"

The planters' association supported this propaganda campaign by organizing various publicity events. In 1891, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Czar Alexander III, Grand-Duke Nicolas, the Queen of Italy and Emperor Franz-Josef all received sixty coffers of tea accompanied by an illustrated album on Ceylon.
The promotional policy was so effective that by the end of

the nineteenth century, the word "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.

( Extracted from "The Book of TEA" by Antony Bugess)


About F&W

Forbes & Walker was set up in 1881 as a partnership between James Forbes and Chapmen Walker. Although there is no actual record of the date on which it was established the very first cash book, still in the possession of the Finance Director, indicates the brokerages were earned from 1st August 1881. In Sir Thomas Villiers' book “Mercantile Lore” the date of establishment of Forbes & Walker has been put down      Read More...

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