The Turn of the Screw: from Ceylon Coffee to Ceylon Tea in Sri Lanka
Prior to the beginning of plantation of Ceylon Tea in Sri Lanka, coffee grew wild in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. Sinhalese Buddhist traditions that run into medieval era enlighten us of a time coffee flowers being offered at the Holy Temple of the Tooth at Kandy. But it was not until 1823 coffee plantations took root in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. During the Napoleonic Wars in Europe (1799-1815), when Holland was occupied by France, the Dutch East India Company [whose VOC Dutch Galle Fort at Sri Lanka Holidays Galle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the best preserved colonial Dutch fort in Asia today], lost much of the Indonesian coffee-producing area to the British East India Company (1811-1816). The Dutch reclaimed Indonesian archipelago from the British in 1815, following the inevitable downfall of Napoleon. No “third Reich”, no “Grande Armee” would withstand Russian winter; no Napoleon, no Hitler would conquer great Russia.
In 1823 British colonial Governor of Ceylon, Sir Edward Barnes (1776-1838) & his friend George bird, a former cavalry officer, formed the first European coffee plantation in Sri Lanka Holidays Kandy, the gateway to the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. In the same year the colonial governor established a government plantation of 200 acres near the Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens at Kandy. The quality of Ceylon Coffee was such the governor believed in a brilliant future for coffee in Sri Lanka Holidays Central Highlands. The Story of Ceylon Tea was yet to begin and unravel.
The British Child Soldier
In 1825, the British colonialists in Ceylon began cultivation of coffee in large scale in the Central Highlands. Governor Barnes invested in a network of roads in Ceylon. At the forefront of the road building work was one Thomas Skinner (1804-1877), who enlisted in the Ceylon Rifles in 1818 at the tender age of fourteen. Thomas Skinner made roads and history in Ceylon. Such was his contribution, he was attributed to had his hand & heart in the construction of nearly every road & bridge in the tropical island of Ceylon. He gave British Ceylon 3000 miles of good macadamized roads. The remarkable growth of coffee plantations in Ceylon was more or less a result of the road building work of Major Skinner.
Sir Emerson Tennet (1804-1869), colonial secretary of Ceylon (1845-1850) was on the bull’s eye when he stated “to him more than to any living man the colony is indebted for its present prosperity”. One would wonder whether Emerson could have done still better to do justice to Skinner, had Emerson lived to witness the success of Ceylon Tea plantations.
Ceylon Land Rush Vs. California Gold Rush
The investment in the network of roads in British Ceylon caused a Land Rush, commencing in 1836, for a decade, in the Sri Lanka Holidays Central Highlands in the vein of the Gold Rush in California (1848-1855). Coffee was the latest craze that torched Ceylon ablaze. Fired up by the coffee craze, enterprising individuals across a wide spectrum of the populace took lock, stock & barrel (literally in view of the herds on elephants then populated the Central Highlands). Among those who swarmed to the Central Highlands were Ceylonese civil servants, soldiers, judges & clergymen with one ambition in common: to become planters. At the forefront was legendary Sinhalese Coffee planter, “Rothschild of Ceylon” Charles Henry De Soysa (1836-1890) of Moratuwa [of South-Western Coastal Belt of Sri Lanka Holidays].
And the authorities were only too ready to sell crown lands of British Ceylon and did so at the pace of about 40,000 acres per annum. With the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in 1833 resulting in a decline of coffee production therein, coffee export from Ceylon was in ascendance, filling the gap in the world market. The success of Ceylon Coffee plantations was such it successfully transformed Ceylon’s economy from reliance upon subsistence crops to plantation agriculture. Coffee industry became a money spinner of Ceylon in the lines as tobacco, cotton, or sugar was in America albeit on a different scale of production. By the mid 1800s Ceylon was the world’s leading coffee producer. In 1869, coffee covered over 90,000 acres of Sri Lanka Holidays Central Highlands and had created a vibrant export trade. But then the wheel of fortunes was to turn & turn with merciless wrath.
Irish Potato Blight Vs Ceylonese Coffee Blight
In 1869, nature turned its wrath upon the coffee plantations of Ceylon through a leaf blight called Haemileia vastatrix, for which no control could be found as was the case in Irish Potato Bight during 1740-1741, a watershed in the history of Ireland which sparked Irish emigration to the New World. Alas, once vibrant Ceylon Coffee plantations of Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon was to become a footnote in the history.
The Los Angeles Time, June 30, 1899: The coffee of Yemen (Mocha) is esteemed the best in the world, but little Mocha coffee gets out of Arabia, or at least beyond Turkey and Armenia. Ceylon once had an excellent reputation for its coffee, but so many natural obstacles arose to impede coffee cultivation in Ceylon that Ceylonese coffee plantations have been largely converted into tea plantations…
Andrew Carnegie sees a brilliant future for Black Tea in Ceylon
In 1879, a decade after the coffee blight, American industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) wrote “there are more than twelve hundred coffee plantations, and the amount of coffee exported exceeds twenty millions of dollars per annum. Tea cultivation has been introduced recently, and the quality is said to be excellent. There cannot be any doubt of this, because it finds a ready market here. None has been exported. If it were not a remarkably good article the foreign would be preferred, as we all know a domestic article has a world of prejudice to overcome at first. I shall watch Ceylon Tea leaf may rival that of the coffee bean.”
On the ashes of once great Ceylon Coffee industry, was built the now world renowned Ceylon Tea industry of Sri Lanka.