Hemileia vastarix, or Coffee Rust, decimated 19th century Ceylon?s coffee crops in 1869, wreaking havoc on the island’s coffee plantations and sparking the birth of the tea industry, which remains vital to the Sri Lankan economy today.
Coffee had only been around for a few decades when the rust hit. The first Ceylon coffee plantation was started in 1827, with reasonable success. The breakthrough came several years later, as slavery was abolished in the West Indies, causing a decline of coffee production there. Sri Lanka stepped into the gap, and the island, which had been somewhat overlooked as an economic asset by the British, started turning a handsome profit on the back of soaring coffee exports.
Over the next two decades, coffee came to dominate the island’s economy. Roads and railroads were built for greater access to plantations and the Ceylon Bank was created in 1841, allowing more money to be invested in new plantations.
Then came the rust in 1869. Fifteen years later, coffee had disappeared from the island’s economy, replaced by a thriving tea industry.
James Taylor was working as an assistant supervisor on a coffee plantation in Ceylon when he was put in charge of Loolecondera Estate, with the mandate to experiment with tea growing. Tea had been grown in Ceylon as early as 1839, but it had made little impact. With a few tea plant seeds imported from Assam, Taylor began growing and hand-rolling tea in 1860.
In 1872, with the coffee crop in decline, Taylor invented a leaf-rolling machine, which enabled him to increase production and begin exporting Loolecondera tea to London and Melbourne.
Taylor’s success did not go unnoticed. From the 1870s onwards, London companies bought up old coffee plantations and converted them to their new crop, tea. From the 23 pounds Taylor initially sent to London in 1873, Sri Lankan tea exports grew to 22,900 tons in 1890.
Among those to take advantage of cheap land and the burgeoning tea industry was Thomas Lipton. Lipton was already a successful businessman when he expanded into the tea trade in 1888. Unlike other London tea merchants, Lipton focused his efforts on producing a brand that was affordable for London’s poor working class, an emphasis which helped him establish one of the tea trade’s most famous brands.
The boom of the tea industry did not spell good fortune for James Taylor. Small farmers like Taylor were no match for the cashed up companies coming in from London, and Taylor was fired from his post at Loolecondera Estate. A year later, he died a poor man and was buried in Sri Lanka. On his grave was written:
“In pious memory of James Taylor of Loolecondera Estate Ceylon, the pioneer of the cinchona and tea enterprise in this island, who died May 2, 1892, aged 57 years.”