June 2012

Loolecondera: The Birthplace of Ceylon Tea
June 2012

Loolecondera – the sprawling lush green tea plantation

Loolecondera is no ordinary plantation, for it was here that James Taylor made the first successful attempt to grow and process tea in Ceylon. Indeed he pioneered the commercial cultivation of the world's favourite brew on the Island, so Loolecondera Estate will forever be associated with the birth of Ceylon Tea.

Richard Boyle Photography Indika De Silva

Tea became Sri Lanka's premier agricultural product in the late 19th Century because the main plantation crop until that time, coffee, had been crippled by a fungus known as "Devastating Emily". Fortunately, George Thwaites, Director of the renowned Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya, realised the potential danger that coffee monoculture posed. During the 1850s and ‘60s he advocated experimentation with other crops, especially tea, which culminated with the arrival at Peradeniya of some Assam tea seeds.

Thwaites gave most to James Taylor, one of many Scottish coffee planters, probably because he had already established the cultivation in Ceylon of the cinchona tree, the bark of which was used to manufacture the anti-malarial drug quinine. Taylor, son of a humble wheelwright, was born near Aberdeen and arrived in Ceylon in 1852 at the age of 17. He was originally posted as an assistant supervisor to Naranghena Estate, but was soon transferred to the adjoining estate, Loolecondera.

Taylor found the estate undeveloped - all that had been achieved was the cutting down and burning of the timber. From his correspondence we learn that the initial shack he built at Loolecondera exemplified the harsh living conditions experienced by pioneer planters. It was "constructed of a few posts about the corners with boards nailed across, with about a foot of opening between them and the thatch . . . when the light is out at night rats from the jungle come looking for something to eat; and then the wind blows a perfect hurricane in the bungalow."

Taylor was entrusted with 
the task of clearing the stony ground characteristic of Loolecondera, planting coffee, and constructing access roads. Remarkably, Loolecondera was operational within a year. Well-built and strong, he earned the respect of his workforce despite his tender age. From the start he sought fresh ideas to improve the plantation profitability. His chance came in 1857 when the new owners of Loolecondera showed an interest in diversification. So it was that he began to cultivate cinchona.

But it was Taylor's experimentation with tea that was to ensure his name, and that of Loolecondera Estate, would forever be associated with the birth of what would quickly become a world-famous brand, Ceylon Tea. In 1867, Taylor, now the estate's superintendent, cleared 19 acres (7.5 hectares) of forest and planted his Assam tea in what is known as Field No. 7. In the first years he had to learn how to nurture the seedlings so that they grew into healthy, mature plants. Then he had to learn the art of plucking and teach it to Tamil women from southern India who had never seen tea bushes.

What distinguished taylor's experiment was his ability not only to grow tea but also master its processing
What distinguished Taylor's experiment was his ability not only to grow tea on a commercial scale, but also to master its processing. This was initially achieved in the verandah of the bungalow he had built to replace the shack. Here the leaf was rolled on tables by hand, from wrists to elbow, and fired in clay stoves. The result was a delicious tea that was sold in Kandy at Rs 1.50 per lb (Rs 3.30 per kilo).

However, in a major development towards the realisation of a tea industry in Ceylon, Taylor built a fully-equipped tea factory in 1872 with a waterwheel 20 feet (six metres) in diameter to supply power that dipped into a stream. The most important aspect was the rolling machine Taylor had invented: an essential part of tea processing is crushing the leaves to release the juice and enzymes that provide flavour. (This rolling machine and other machinery from Taylor's factory are on display at the Tea Museum, Hantana, near Kandy.)

These pioneering efforts could not have been timelier, for in 1869 the coffee blight had been detected. George Thwaites warned of possible calamity, but little notice was taken until "Devastating Emily" began to spread from estate to estate, forcing planters to abandon large areas. Many faced financial ruin and returned home. 
The rest soon realised that tea could 
be their salvation, and the task of switching industries began in earnest.

In 1873 Taylor sent a package of Loolecondera tea to London, but it wasn't until 1875 that regular consignments began, when 1,438lbs (653 kilos) were exported. In 1878 Ceylon tea made its first appearance at the London auctions, much of it from estates other than Loolecondera. The Loolecondera mark first arrived in London in 1881, but Taylor may well have been shipping for private sale before then. From that time onwards tea export increased exponentially.

After devoting 40 years to Loolecondera - his only break was a trip to Darjeeling to learn more about tea growing - Taylor became a victim of his own success, for the rapid growth of the industry meant that large companies became involved, leaving small planters like himself vulnerable. In April 1892 he was ordered to take sick leave by the Loolecondera Estate management. Being perfectly healthy he refused, and was asked to resign. He contracted dysentery soon afterwards and died within days at the estate.

24 men carried Taylor's coffin the 18 miles (34km) to Kandy, two gangs of 12 taking turns. The kanganies (overseers) and labourers, who called him sami dorai (‘the master who is god'), followed. Taylor was buried in the Mahaiyawa Cemetery near Kandy. The inscription on his tombstone reads: "In pious memory of James Taylor, of Loolecondera Estate, Ceylon, the Pioneer of the Tea and Cinchona Enterprises in this Island, who died 
May 2, 1892 aged 57 years."

Loolecondera’s heritage is supplemented by its important role in the industry
Loolecondera Estate, now managed by the Janatha Estate Development Board, is located south-east of Kandy off the B364 road near Deltota. It is well worth a visit, primarily to see Field No. 7, where a small patch of Taylor's original plants are still being plucked. In addition, there are the remains of Taylor's cabin, which consist of neat piles of granite stones and a well-preserved brick chimney and fireplace. And there's Taylor's granite seat, with one of the best vistas that Sri Lanka offers.

Early British plantations had an obvious negative impact on the environment, but Taylor designed Loolecondera Estate so that the effect was minimised, as exemplified by the untouched area of rare montane forest at the top of the estate that features extraordinary biodiversity, which deserves exploration. Fittingly, as the estate was home to the first tea factory, today's version is the longest in Sri Lanka at 324 feet (98 metres), and is used to produce "silver tips", the small, unopened leaves of the plant, which is the country's finest tea.

Today, 145 years after Taylor planted Field No. 7, Loolecondera's heritage is supplemented by its important role in the industry. As for Taylor, it can be said of very few individuals that their endeavours have revolutionised the economy of a country. By the end of the 19th Century, the word "tea" was no longer associated with China, but with Ceylon.