The tale of Taylor and tea is an often-told one. The sesquicentennial being celebrated this year dates from when James Taylor supervised the planting of tea plants on Field No.7 at Loolecondera Estate, 34 km southeast of Kandy. This was not the first planting of tea in the country and the date seems to have [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Taylor-made: Sri Lankan Tea

This year, Sri Lanka celebrates the 150th anniversary of the first commercial planting of tea here. Royston Ellis looks at the life of James Taylor, the Scottish planter, who began the island’s tea industry.

James Taylor (right) in Kandy

The tale of Taylor and tea is an often-told one. The sesquicentennial being celebrated this year dates from when James Taylor supervised the planting of tea plants on Field No.7 at Loolecondera Estate, 34 km southeast of Kandy. This was not the first planting of tea in the country and the date seems to have been chosen arbitrarily to enable the publication of a delightfully written book: “A Hundred Years of Ceylon Tea” by Denys M. Forrest, published in England in 1967.

Forrest was Commissioner of the Ceylon Tea Centre in London and wrote the book in 1966 at the behest of the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board. It is based on thorough archival research and field work (this was long before the Internet answered everything), and also on letters written by Taylor to his relatives in Scotland. If we are to celebrate the anniversary of the first successful sale of locally grown tea, the sesquicentennial should be in 2023, for it was six years after the planting that Taylor harvested and sold his tea commercially.

However, the usually reliable J. Penry Lewis in his book “Tombstones and Monuments in Ceylon” published in 1910, states that Taylor “planted 19 acres at Loolecondera estate in 1868. These form the oldest tea field in Ceylon, which was still flourishing in 1908.” He records the inscription on Taylor’s tomb at the Mahayaya Cemetery, Kandy, as crediting Taylor with being “the pioneer of the Tea and Cinchona enterprises in this island…This stone was erected by his sister and many friends in Ceylon.”

The story of Ceylon tea actually begins in 1834 when the British government, aware that tea from China, and even ersatz teas produced from English hedgerows, was becoming a popular and inexpensive drink in Britain, set up a committee to investigate the possibilities of growing tea in India. Thus tea production (and its taxation) would be within the realm of British control. According to Forrest it was in 1839 that the first authenticated batch of tea seeds to reach Ceylon (from the Calcutta Botanical Gardens) were planted at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya.

There are several claimants to being the first planter of tea in Ceylon but all agree that it was Taylor’s extensive planting that started the industry. Forrest’s research revealed that the Loolecondera mark first turned up for sale in London in 1881 but “Taylor may well have been shipping for private sale a little before that” and 23 pounds of his tea was carried to London and sold by a visiting broker in 1873. In 1876, Taylor reported that he was selling his tea in Ceylon “for well over twice the price we could get for it in London.”

Just who was James Taylor? Forrest reports interviewing the son of one of his former workers who stated: “He was a very big man with a long beard. He weighed 246lbs [111.58kg]…the labourers were in awe of him and when he came near they stood like this [hands beneath armpits], and they never spoke to him…For his funeral, 24 men carried him into Kandy, two gangs of 12 taking turns every four miles.”

Taylor was born on March 29, 1835 in a cottage called Moss Park in the Scottish town of Laurencekirk, one of six children. His father was a wheelwright and Taylor seems to have been both practical like his father and bright (his first job was as a pupil teacher at his old school).  In 1851 he signed up as a plantation’s Assistant Superintendent (at a salary of one hundred pounds per annum) at the urging of his cousin, Peter Moir, whom he met when Moir was on home leave; he had been in Ceylon planting coffee for six years. Another planter, Hugh Blacklaw, writing in the “Times of Ceylon” in 1907, recalls that at one time there were 14 men from Laurencekirk planting on the island.

Taylor arrived in Ceylon on February 20, 1852, just a few weeks before his 17th birthday. He was unhappy with the brutal behaviour of the planter on the estate (Naranghena) to which he was assigned so, after six weeks, transferred to Loolecondera. Coffee was the crop then and Taylor was diligent in turning the virgin plantation into a profitable venture, building a bungalow for himself, and even creating a flourishing flower garden. He experimented with other crops such as nutmeg, clove, vanilla and cardamom but had the most success with growing and marketing cinchona bark (the source of quinine).

In the early 1860s, Taylor obtained tea seed from Peradeniya and successfully grew tea plants alongside his plantation trails. This encouraged him, with the support of Loolecondera’s owners, to plant an entire field – previously cleared for coffee – with tea. It was a fortuitous move as coffee cultivation collapsed during the next few years, stricken by a deadly blight. Taylor learned from planters visiting from India and by his own experiments how to turn the green leaf plucked in the field into a drinkable beverage.

A neighbouring planter, E.G. Harding, reported: “The factory was in the bungalow. The leaf was rolled on tables 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 bought up locally at Rs 1.50 per pound.”

The changes Taylor’s successful planting of tea brought to the island were not just to the landscape as forests were felled to allow more plantations to flourish, they also affected the traditional village way of life.

Harvesting and processing tea was labour intensive, resulting in the importation over succeeding years of Tamil workers from India who gradually settled permanently. Sinhalese landowners also took to planting, creating successful low-country tea smallholdings.

Coincidentally, the same year that Taylor planted tea, the first train steamed into Kandy. It was the tea industry that enabled the profitable expansion of the railway network, as goods trains were used to transport manufactured tea swiftly to Colombo for shipment to Britain and Australia.

There was a change in the character of the British planters too. No longer were they tough pioneers who were dedicated and prepared to rough it like Taylor. The generation of planters who began to arrive as word of tea’s lucrative potential spread were, according to Forrest, “neither a bought-out Army Corporal not a Scots gardener.” The social status of planting changed: “It was still regarded as, on the whole, an occupation for younger sons, and even for the problem boy! If you failed for the army, were too tongue-tied for the Bar and had no vocation for the Church, well, there was always Ceylon!”

This new generation of middle-class British planters were conventional in their upbringing and came with wives or sisters, which obliged them to live and dress in a sophisticated manner at odds with the climate. Taylor, who called such parvenu planters “swells,” wrote to his relatives in Scotland that his clothes “have to be easy-fitting without wallowing and my coats must have no tails; I’m not ashamed of my backside.”

An “Old Planter” writing in the Ceylon Observer commented: “I am not sure whether the new social ways came in with the ladies or with the leaf disease. I only know our simple ways suddenly changed in many places; such as dressing for dinner and that sort of thing, never heard of in the jungle before the 1860s.” Dressing for dinner meant formal wear such as a black dinner jacket, or even tails, and was a tradition that continued into the 1920s in an effort to preserve British elitism.

Unlike the dedicated Taylor who never returned to Scotland, these new planters regarded living and working in Ceylon as a job and always referred to Britain as “home” to which they dreamed of returning. Taylor’s only trip out of Ceylon was in 1874 when he went to Darjeeling to study tea manufacturing. He never married and confessed: “I was never trained for ladies’ society and, indeed, a white woman with petticoats and talking my own language would frighten me out of my wits.”

The image that remains of James Taylor is of a broad shouldered man with a long black beard. He was proud of his beard and wrote that he cut it off periodically, but mostly allowed it “to twist and twirl about as it likes,” although he would trim it if he was going to Kandy. He was devoted to Loolecondera and loathed visiting Kandy and being involved with Planters’ Association committee meetings there, preferring the company of his neighbours. They would drink together on his verandah.Forrest writes that: “Taylor disapproved of the first beer that came out of the neck of a bottle, so this was regularly discharged on the floor, which at the end of hospitable day would be well aswim.”

Taylor dedicated his life to tea and planting at Loolecondera and his service to the nation was recognised with the presentation of a silver tea set. One of the contributors to the testimonial fund was Sir William Gregory who, while Governor of Ceylon, visited Loolecondera to see the tea and cinchona experiments. That Taylor was a difficult man, who despaired of “swells” and the world that was changing around him, was evident when he refused to go on six months’ sick leave as the plantation owners instructed.

He declared he wasn’t sick and suspected, rightly, that the new owning company wanted to get rid of him after he had lived nearly 40 years on the same plantation so they could introduce new methods. He was asked to resign but refused. However, according to contemporary reports, he was stricken with dysentery and died a few days later at Loolecondera 125 years ago, on May 2, 1892. Whether his death was natural or induced, the pioneering legend of James Taylor lives on, recalled in every cup of tea from Sri Lanka we drink daily.

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