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    History of Tea : Sri Lanka (Ceylon)


    The plantation industry in Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka, began in 1825 with the widespread planting of coffee In 1839, Dr. Wallich, head of the botanical garden in Calcutta, sent several Assam tea plant seeds to the Peradeniya estates in Kandy district. Seeds of Chinese tea plants, brought to Sri Lanka by travelers such as Maurice de Worms, were also planted in the Peradeniya nurseries although these yielded disappointing results, and Chinese plants were gradually abandoned in favour of the Assam variety that is now grown on every estate in Sri Lanka. These early arrivals were largely ignored for the more lucrative coffee craze that had seized the region. However, this booming industry came to a dramatic halt in 1869 when a leaf disease Hemileia vastatrix (known as the "coffee rust") spread rapidly throughout the countryside, reaching every coffee district within the span of five years. While the plantation owners desperately cleared and replanted coffee at a remarkable rate, the disease continued to spread unhindered.

    During the next twenty years, in a frantic effort to avoid financial ruin, planters in Ceylon converted their decimated acreage to tea; it was a remarkable effort that involved the wide-scale uprooting and burning of millions of infected coffee bushes. Perhaps the rapid cultivation of tea in Sri Lanka was aided most by the knowledge and experience of their fellow Indian tea planters and the fruitful initiative of James Taylor.

    Back in 1851, near Mincing Lane, which was later renowned as the tea centre of the world, James Taylor had signed on for three years as an assistant supervisor on a coffee plantation in Ceylon. He was sixteen-year-old Scot, son of a modest wheelwright. 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 seeds around 1860.

    Taylor then set up the first tea "factory" on the island. It was in fact a rather rudimentary setup. 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 dealers’ association in 1894.

    The planters' association supported this propaganda campaign by organizing various publicity events. In 1891, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar 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 19th 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.

    Within the span of a few years, tea processing factories, most resembling nothing more than shacks constructed from mud and wattle walls and floors, sprang up across the island of Ceylon. Fresh-picked tea leaves were withered in separate sheds and hand-rolled on long, grooved tables before undergoing fermentation. Inside the factory building, lines of charcoal-burning ovens were situated across the mud floor, and it was over these ovens that the tea leaves were fired or dried.

    Although many influential and successful planters were responsible for transforming Ceylon from ruined a coffee-producing region to one famous worldwide for its tea, nearly all of their names have been forgotten except for one, Thomas Lipton.

    Thomas Lipton

    Son of poor Irish immigrants, Lipton grew up amidst the slums of Glasgow. He left school at the age of 10(1860) to help support his family and in 1865 sailed to America to work as a manual laborer and later manage a successful New York grocery store. It was here that he learned all the tricks and techniques of advertising and salesmanship that he later used to great effect when selling groceries and tea back in England and Scotland.

    He returned to Glasgow in 1871 and worked for a couple of years in the grocery shop run by his parents. By the age of 21, he had opened his own store, where he practised the retailing skills he had learned in America. His imaginative marketing and clever publicity stunts brought his new venture rapid success. By 1914 he had 500 outlets. His success was based on bulk purchasing a limited range of goods and selling them at cut-price rates with low-profit margins.

    In 1890, already a millionaire, Lipton wanted to go on vacation and booked a passage to Australia. On the way, he broke his journey in Ceylon. He had an interest in tea as a product to sell in his shops. Lipton did not trust middlemen, and wanted to explore the possibilities of growing tea and bringing it direct to Britain. He couldn't have picked a better time. Because the economic effects of the coffee blight were still drastically affecting Ceylon, Lipton naturally chose this island as the inexpensive source for his tea. He bought four former coffee plantations and could now fully control his company's tea's quality and price.

    Lipton's genius was not in the area of growing tea but rather in the marketing and distribution of the final product, and his tireless capacity to invent and popularize clever slogans and effective advertising campaigns are legendary. Instead of selling it loose from the chest, as was the custom at that time, Lipton packed his tea in brightly-colored, eye-catching packets bearing the slogan "Straight from the tea gardens to the tea pot."

    Lipton's foray into tea was a huge success, and vastly increased his wealth. His 300 shops throughout England soon could not keep up with the growing demand for his inexpensive product, and so Lipton teas became available in other stores around Britain. The name of Lipton had migrated from a chain of grocery stores and became a trademark soon to be famous the world-over. In 1897 Queen Victoria, a big fan of the Lipton tea brand, elevated Thomas Lipton to knighthood. In the 1930sUnilever corporation bought Lipton company.