Until the 1860’s THE MAIN CROP PRODUCED on the island of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was coffee. But in 1869, the coffee-rust fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, killed the majority of of the coffee plants and estate owners had to diversify into other crops in order to avoid total ruin. The owners of Loolecondera Estate had been interested in tea since the late 1850’s and in 1866, James Taylor, a recently arrived Scot, was selected to be in charge of the first sowing of tea seeds in 1867, on 19 acres of land.
Taylor had acquired some basic knowledge of tea cultivation in North India and made some initial experiments in manufacture, using his bungalow verandah as the factory and rolling the leaf by hand on tables. Firing of the oxidized leaf was carried out on clay stoves over charcoal fires with the leaf on wire trays. His first teas were sold locally and were declared delicious. By 1872, Taylor had a fully equipped factory, and, in 1873, his first quality teas were sold for a very good price at the London auction. Through his dedication and determination, Taylor was largely responsible for the early success of the tea crop in Ceylon. Between 1873 and 1880, production rose from just 23 pounds to 81.3 tons, and by 1890, to 22,899.8 tons.
Most of the Ceylon tea gardens are situated at elevations between 3,000 and 8,000 feet in two areas of the southwestern part of the island, to the east of Colombo and in the Galle district on the southern point. In the hot, steamy plains and foothills, the tea bushes flush every seven or eight days and are picked all year round. The finest teas are gathered from late June to the end of August in eastern districts and from the beginning of February to mid-March in the western parts.
Until 1971, more than 80 percent of the island’s tea estates were owned and managed by British companies. In 1971, the Sri Lankan government introduced a Land Reform Act which gave the state control of the majority of the plantations (which also grow rubber and coconuts for export) leaving about one-third in private hands. Since 1990, a restructuring program has been going on to involve the private sector companies (both Sri Lankan and foreign) as Managing Agents of the state-owned plantations. The long-term aim is for the private managing companies to take on most, if not all, of the financial responsibility and control of the estates, with the government retaining ownership.