The history of Ceylon tea

Good to know

The history of Ceylon tea has its close relationship with coffee and begins back in the 19th century. The father of tea brought to the island is a young Scot called James Taylor.

The history of tea has its origins in China around 2700 years BC. Tea from China went to many Asian countries, and finally, also to Ceylon.

Plantacje herbaty, Nuwara Eliya
Tea Plantations, Nuwara Eliya

When does the history of Ceylon tea begin?

Apparently in the seventeenth century the Dutch made their first attempts to grow tea, but the history of this Ceylon tea we drink today begins in the nineteenth century when Ceylon was a British colony. At that time, the main crop on the island was coffee, but in the British colonies began experimenting with tea because of slowly growing demand for it. The first seeds went to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens (1839), where they served as research material. Another batch (1842), went to Nuwara Eliya to see how the seedlings would grow at high altitudes.

In 1841 the Worms brothers undertook, quite successfully, a trial of tea seeds imported from China. The tea samples obtained by them proved to be of excellent quality, but due to the high cost of production the venture failed. The Worms brothers focused on coffee because it was the time of the coffee boom.

Only James Taylor’s experimental cultivation became the beginning of Ceylon tea, which we know today.

How did James Taylor become the father of Ceylon tea?

It is the year of 1852 and James Taylor, a young Scot first arrived on the island, to work on the Looleconder coffee plantation near Colombo. His first job was cleaning the plantations from stones, coffee planting and building access roads. He is diligent, ambitious, and trying to find new solutions. Within a few years he becomes a large plantation manager and he is approved by the owner to conduct research on new crops.
His first successful experiment was the cultivation of cinchona (chinchin) tree, from which the bark produces an anti-malarial drug – quinine.

And another is tea. The first seeds of Assam tea, he took from the Peradeniya Botanical Garden, and so he planted these seedlings along the side of the road. But in 1867 he decided to plant about 8 acres, the first parcel in Ceylon, specially prepared for tea. Within a few years, he learns how to grow cuttings, but also how to collect leaves and then process them. Only Taylor improves the technique of harvesting tea, recommending the picking of “two leaves and a bud”.

Picking tea in sri lanka
Picking tea in Sri lanka, Nuwara Eliya

On the veranda of his hut he also developed the tea production process. At first, the tea leaves were hand-twisted and then dried in a clay oven. He also invented a special machine to crush he leaves to release juice and enzymes, because it is they that give tea its taste.

The effect of his work was excellent, and the time in which this happened could not have been better, because in 1869, the coffee leaves were attacked by a plague called “Destroying Emily”. Many coffee planters had lost all their life achievements. Some people, however, saw this as a new opportunity in tea cultivation and so began, the era of Ceylon tea.

And Taylor?

Although he spent 40 years of his life working on a single plantation, he went on to become a victim of his own success. He died on May, 1892, at the age of 57, after being forced into give up his job on his beloved plantation. His tomb is located in the Mahayana cemetery in Kandy.
Devices used by James Taylor can be seen at the Ceylon Tea Museum in Hantana, near Kandy, where is a section dedicated to him.

The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday: 8:30 am to 3:45pm.
Sundays: 8:30am to 3:00pm.
It is closed on Mondays and bank holidays.

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