When James Taylor started the first tea plantation in the Loolecondera Estate in Kandy in 1867, little did he know that he was making one of the most significant contributions to the history as well as the future of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).
Before tea was cultivated as a crop in Sri Lanka coffee was by far the most dominant export crop in the country. The high demand and price for coffee in the European market made sure that plenty of interest as well as investments were made towards the coffee industry in Ceylon. But then tragedy struck and the coffee industry was devastated by a fungal disease which left the coffee industry in utter disarray. This is when tea entered in to the fray and rapidly took over as the no. 1 export crop of the island.
In the 1880s, Ceylon tea production increased dramatically and by 1888 tea cultivation areas actually exceeded that of coffee with nearly 2000 square kilometres being used. With the growth of the industry, many new factories were constructed and innovative methods of processing and packaging of the tea was introduced. The first public Colombo Auction, another important milestone in the history of Ceylon tea, was held at the premises of Somerville & Co. on 30 July 1883, with the backing of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.
At the Chicago World’s Fair held in 1893, one million packets of Ceylon Tea was sold and in that same year, the tea established a record price of £36.15 per pound at the London Tea Auctions. 1894 saw the establishment of the Ceylon Tea Traders Association while the Colombo Brokers’ Association was formed in 1896. By 1927, tea production in Ceylon exceeded 100,000 metric tons almost exclusively for export purposes.
Today, Sri Lanka is synonymous the world over as the producer of the world’s finest tea. It is the country’s main export crop and Sri Lanka is the 4th largest producer of tea in the world making it one of the Sri Lanka’s main sources of foreign exchange and a significant source of income for laborers, with tea accounting for almost 12% of the GDP. In fact Sri Lanka was the world’s leading tea exporter in 1995 accounting to more than 23% of the world’s tea exports.
The tea industry currently employs over 1 million people in Sri Lanka both directly or indirectly. The ideal humidity, cool temperatures, and abundant rainfall in the country’s central highlands provide the perfect climate that favours the production of high quality tea.