Introduction of tea to Sri Lanka

By Walter Wijenayake

(November 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Long before 'export agriculture' was introduced, rice was the main crop planted on a large scale in Sri Lanka as a lowland crop, under submerged conditions. Shifting cultivation, known as the 'Chena' system, was also common, mainly in the dry zone. In these 'Chenas' a mixed cropping system was practiced where a variety of cereals and vegetables were produced to meet home needs.

Even in the homesteads, mixed planting of various tree species to meet home needs, were cultivated. In such holdings, indiscriminate and unscientific planting has resulted in overcrowd stands, as seen in the wet zone, mainly in the midcountry, where they are commonly known as 'forest gardens’. In these gardens, various kinds of vegetables and yams were grown, along with fruit trees and spices, like cardamom, cloves, pepper and cinnamon.

Export agriculture was started by the Dutch, who took over the island from the Portuguese. Cinnamon and pepper, which were grown successfully in home gardens, were promoted as plantation crops. After that, sugarcane was introduced to be planted with coffee. However, cinnamon was the main export crop during the Dutch period, but it failed to be established mainly due to competition from India and Java.

When the British conquered parts of the island, which were under the control of the Dutch, coffee became the basis of the plantation industry. Later, coffee was introduced by the British in the hill country. Even though coffee plantations were a great success, much of it suffered from lack of experience and the plantations were severely affected by the depression which hit the industry in 1847, mainly due to the lower efficiency of Sri Lankan estates where much planting had been speculative and ill financed; as a result, many estates were abandoned.

The failure of the coffee industry led to its replacement by other crops which were envisaged to be more profitable.

Tea was first introduced to the island in 1824 at the Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya with a few plants brought from China and again in 1839 from China and North-East India (Assam). Many years later, in 1867, a Scottish planter, James Taylor, planted tea seedlings on eight acres of forest land which had already been cleared for coffee planting (at Loolecondera Estate, Hewaheta, in the Kandy District).

Taylor's foresight was remarkable, because two years later, a blight wiped out the country's coffee crop. At a time when the coffee industry was on the decline, owing to the ravages of the coffee rust decease, coffee planters were able to transform Taylor's few acres into the beginnings of a new industry.

With their foresight and courage, the lands, where coffee flourished, were planted with tea and the new industry began to experiences success. By 1875, an extent of 10,000 acres of tea was already flourishing and by 1885, the extent had increased to 48,000 acres.

In 1965, Sri Lanka displaced India as the world's biggest tea exporter, making tea one of the biggest foreign exchange earners for the country.

The resurgence of the plantation industry, under tea, after the annihilation of coffee, is a remarkable testimony to the growers and others who built the country's tea industry.

Most of the tea lands were managed by sterling companies, based in the United Kingdom and supervised by local 'agency houses.' The agency houses monitored the cultivation of the lands and the marketing of the made tea.

The major problems of the tea plantations in Sri Lanka were the limited areas of suitable terrain, which kept land prices high and the average estate size small and also a shortage of labour. The demand for labour, first created by the coffee and then by the tea industry, was not met by the local peasantry, despite landlessness. The landless class arose because most of the forest land, cultivated by the traditional 'Chena' system in the mid country area by the peasants, were taken over by the British Crown under the 'Waste Land Ordinance' and subsequently leased to British interests for opening up plantations. Generally, the peasant was devoted to his village and to the land, if he owned it and refused to seek employment. Thus, the tea planters had to turn to South India for labour. The annual rate of entry of the South Indian Tamils varied from about 30,000 in the early 1840s to about 100,000 in 1880. While some of the labour returned home, most of them eventually settled in Sri Lanka.

The tea plantations were largely owned and developed by individual planters. The formation of plantation companies came into being a few years before the second World War. After the formation of these companies, most of the proprietary planters became the shareholders of them. Along with the development of the plantations, there was also widespread development of the smallholdings, owned by the natives.

In Sri Lanka, the acreage of tea small holdings expanded very greatly during the 20th century with their produce being processed in plantation factories. Even though there were a considerable number of small holdings, the monopoly of the export crop production was maintained by the plantations.

The Tea Research Institute was established in 1925 by the Government of Sri Lanka for the purpose of conducting scientific research into the various problems faced by the tea industry, as well as examining suitable means of improving and modernizing the tea industry. Mr. T. Petch was the first Director of this institute who assumed duties on March 8, 1925.

The temporary office of this institute was situated in Kandy and later shifted to Nuwara Eliya. The work of the institute began at the bungalow in Nuwara Eliya on July 1, the same year, with only a few scientists, a mycologist and an entomologist. Later, a biochemist joined the team.

This small team commenced all the early work in tea research and also attended to all matters connected with tea through correspondence and by visits to estates, whenever it was considered necessary.

The 'Tea Quarterly', was first published by the institute in 1928. St. Coombs Estate, Talawakele, was purchased in 1928, as the site for the institute's research station, and when laboratories and a few living quarters were completed, the institute's temporary laboratory at 'Lindfield' was moved to St. Coombs in December, 1930.

Men at the helm of today's plantation companies have to know their plantations and their executives pass on their experience and help find solutions to problems, avoiding constant fault finding. That is easy enough, but desired results will be a long way off, if at all.

Our plantations are a national asset and those executives in control of them are in a privileged position to improve the economic conditions of many in the industry and the national economy itself.
-Sri Lanka Guardian