28th
May
2015

Posted in Kafevend Blog

Today we are going to have a look at a renowned tea growing country- Sri Lanka. Currently the fourth largest tea producer, it was also the biggest exporter of tea until a few years ago when China and India took the lead. Tea hasn't always been the cash crop of choice in Sri Lanka however. To find out what it was, we need to go back in time some 500 years.

In 1505, the Portuguese explorer and commander Lourenço de Almeida arrived at the shores of an island off the south east coast of India and named it Ceilão, rather than ask the locals what they called it. At the time of his arrival, Sri Lanka was divided between seven kingdoms, all at war over the island and in no state to fend off foreign invaders. Over the following century, the Portuguese gradually extended their control around the coastal areas. By the end of the century, even the ruler of the largest kingdom was forced to retreat inland to the city of Kandy.

In 1638 the first Dutch explorers arrived on Sri Lanka and in them King Rajasinghe II saw a way of removing the Portuguese. In the same year, he signed a treaty with the Dutch East India Company (and we all know how well that goes...) to form an alliance against Portugal. At the time, the Dutch were involved in their war of independence from Spanish rule, who also ruled over Portugal, giving them a good enough reason to fight. Over the next two decades, the Dutch and native Sinhalese fought off the Portuguese. The natives were to be disappointed however, as the Dutch reneged on parts of the treaty and established themselves in the void left by Portugal. Following their somewhat crafty entrance on to the island, the Dutch began to cultivate cinnamon and tobacco as cash crops.

The colonial power in Sri Lanka changed hands again in 1796, this time going to the British. Back in Europe, Napeoleonic France had captured the Netherlands, and Dutch leaders who fled to Britain were worried that they might lose land overseas to France as well, and transferred the rule to the British who would have a better chance at fighting off the French. It was under British rule that coffee was introduced to Sri Lanka, following an economic slump in Europe in the 1830s that rendered cinnamon unprofitable. Coffee plantations were thriving, but they were cut short a few decades later when coffee leaf rust devastated many of them. Finally tea became the cash crop of choice as farmers swapped to it to replace their coffee.

The British company Lipton helped to promote Ceylon tea in Britain after Thomas Lipton met with James Taylor, a plantation owner who had established the first tea plantation in Sri Lanka. Lipton bought the tea directly from Taylor, and combined with some stylish packaging had good sales both at home and in the USA. Sri Lanka's tea industry never looked back and continues to thrive to this day.

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