History of Tea production in Sri Lanka

Tea production in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, is of high importance to the Sri Lankan economy and the world market. The country is the world’s fourth largest producer of tea and the industry is one of the country’s main sources of foreign exchange and a significant source of income for laborers, with tea accounting for 2% of GDP, generating roughly $700 million annually. In 1995, Sri Lanka was the world’s leading exporter of tea, (rather than producer) with 23% of the total world export, but it has since been surpassed by Kenya. The tea sector employs, directly or indirectly over 1 million people in Sri Lanka, and in 1995 directly employed 215,338 on tea plantations and estates. The humidity, cool temperatures, and rainfall in the country’s central highlands provide a climate that favors the production of high quality tea. The industry was introduced to the country in 1847 by James Taylor, the British planter who arrived in 1852.

Pre-Tea era

Cinnamon was the first crop to receive government sponsorship in Ceylon, while the island was under Dutch control. During the administration of Dutch governor Iman Willem Falck, cinnamon plantations were planted in Colombo, Maradana, and Cinnamon Gardens in 1769. The first British governor Frederick North prohibited private cinnamon plantations, thereby securing monopoly on cinnamon plantations for the East India Company. However, an economic slump in the 1830s in England and elsewhere in Europe affected the cinnamon plantations in Ceylon. This resulted in them being decommissioned by William Colebrooke in 1833. Finding cinnamon unprofitable, the British turned to coffee.

By 1825 the Ceylonese already had a knowledge of coffee. They started planting coffee as a garden crop and the first coffee plantation was started in Baddegama in Galle District. Although this venture failed due to the unsuitability of the area for the crop, George Bird Hemileia vastatrix or coffee rust, better known as “coffee leaf disease” or “coffee blight”. The planters nicknamed the disease “devastating Emily” when it was first identified in the Madolsima area in 1869. Production dipped rapidly as the disease set in and every effort failed to revive coffee production. Of 1700 coffee planters, only 400 remained on the island as the rest left for their home countries. The coffee crop died, marking an end of an era when most of the plantations on the island were dedicated to producing coffee beans. Planters experimented with cocoa and cinchona as alternative crops but failed due to a bug, Heloplice antonie, so that in the 1870s virtually all the remaining coffee planters in Ceylon switched to the production and cultivation of tea. By the year 1900, only 11,392 acres (46 km2) were still under coffee cultivation.

became the first to start planting coffee on a commercial scale. After Bird began his coffee plantation in Singhapitiya, Gampola governor Edward Barnes also started a plantation in Gannoruwa. The demand and high price in the European market for coffee fueled the rush of coffee planting. Investors flocked to Ceylon from overseas and around 100,000 ha (386 sq mi) of rain forest was cleared to pave the way for coffee plantations. The term “Coffee rush” was coined to describe this developing situation in 1840. In 1869 the coffee industry was still thriving in Ceylon but shortly afterwards, coffee plantations were devastated by a fungal disease called Hemileia vastatrix or coffee rust, better known as “coffee leaf disease” or “coffee blight”. The planters nicknamed the disease “devastating Emily” when it was first identified in the Madolsima area in 1869. Production dipped rapidly as the disease set in and every effort failed to revive coffee production. Of 1700 coffee planters, only 400 remained on the island as the rest left for their home countries. The coffee crop died, marking an end of an era when most of the plantations on the island were dedicated to producing coffee beans. Planters experimented with cocoa and cinchona as alternative crops but failed due to a bug, Heloplice antonie, so that in the 1870s virtually all the remaining coffee planters in Ceylon switched to the production and cultivation of tea. By the year 1900, only 11,392 acres (46 km2) were still under coffee cultivation.

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