Ceylon Tea History

By 1825 the Ceylonese already had a knowledge of coffee. They started planting coffee as a garden crop and the first coffee plantation was started in Baddegama in Galle District. The demand and high price in the European market for coffee fueled the rush of coffee planting. The coffee plantations were devastated by a fungal disease called Hemileiavastatrix or coffee rust, better known as "coffee leaf disease" or "coffee blight".

Thus the birth of Ceylon Tea History took place in the demise of Coffee in the island.


In 1839, Dr. Wallich, head of the botanical garden in Calcutta, sent several Assam tea plant seeds to the Peradeniya estates in Kandy district. Seeds of Chinese tea plants, brought to Sri Lanka by travelers such as Maurice de Worms, were also planted in the Peradeniya nurseries although these yielded disappointing results, and Chinese plants were gradually abandoned in favor of the Assam variety that is now grown on every estate in Sri Lanka.

In 1867, James Taylor marked the birth of the tea industry in Ceylon by starting a tea plantation in Loolecondera estate in Kandy in 1867. He began the tea plantation on an estate of just 19 acres (76,890 m 2). In 1872 he started a fully equipped tea factory in the same Loolecondera estate and that year the first sale of Loolecondra tea was made in Kandy. In 1873, the first shipment of Ceylon tea, a consignment of some 23 lb (10 kg), arrived in London.

The total population in Sri Lanka according to the census of 1871 was 2,584,780. The 1871 demographic distribution and population in the plantation areas is given below:

Kandy District , the heartland of tea production in Sri Lanka


Tea production in Ceylon increased dramatically in the 1880s and by 1888 the area under cultivation exceeded that of coffee, growing to nearly 400,000 acres (1,619 km2) in 1899. The first tea rolling machine by John Walker & Co in 1880 set the conditions that would be required to make commercial tea production a reality. This was consolidated in 1884 with the construction of the Central Tea Factory on Fairyland Estate (Pedro) in Nuwara Eliya.

Tea was increasingly sold at auction as its popularity grew. The first public Colombo Auction was held at the premises of Somerville & Co. on 30 July 1883, under the auspices of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. One million tea packets were sold at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. That same year the tea established a record price of £36.15 per lb at the London Tea Auctions. In 1894 the Ceylon Tea Traders Association was formed and today virtually all tea produced in Sri Lanka is conducted through this association and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. In 1896 the Colombo Brokers' Association was formed. In 1925 the Tea Research Institute was established in Ceylon to conduct research into maximizing yields and methods of production. By 1927 tea production in the country exceeded 100,000 metric tons (110,231 short tons), almost entirely for export. A 1934 law prohibited the export of poor quality tea.

In 1941 the first Ceylonese tea broking house, M/s Pieris & Abeywardena, was established.

By the 1960s the total tea production and exports exceeded 200,000 metric tons (220,462 short tons) and 200,000 hectares (772 sq mi), and by 1965 Sri Lanka became the world's largest tea exporter for the first time.

In 1976 the Sri Lanka Tea Board was founded. It was in 1976 that the export of tea bags also commenced.

In 1980 Sri Lanka became the official supplier of tea at the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games, in 1982 at the 12th Commonwealth Games in Brisbane and again in 1987 at Expo 88 in Australia.

Cultivation areas

The major tea growing areas are Kandy and Nuwara Eliya in Central Province,Badulla ,Bandarawela and Haputale in Uva Province, Galle ,Matara and Mulkirigala in Southern Province, and Ratnapura and Kegalle in Sabaragamuwa Province.

There are mainly six principal regions planting tea - Nuwara Eliya, Dimbula, Kandy UdaPussellawa, Uva Province and Southern Province. NuwaraEliya is an oval shaped plateau at an elevation of 6,240 feet (1,902 m). Nuwara Eliya tea produces a unique flavor.

Dimbula was one the first areas to be planted in the 1870s. An elevation between 3,500 to 5,000 ft (1,067 to 1,524 m) defines this planting area. South-western monsoon rain and cold weather from January to March are determining factors of flavour. Eight sub districts of Dimbula areHatton/Dickoya, Bogawanthalawa, Upcot / Maskeliya, Patana / Kotagala, NanuOya / Lindula / Talawakele, Agarapatana, Pundaluoya and Ramboda.

Kandy is famous for Mid-grown tea. The first tea plantations were established here. Tea plantations are located at elevations of 2,000 to 4,000 ft (610 to 1,219 m). Pussellawa / Hewaheta and Matale are the two main sub districts of the region. Uda Pussellawa is situated between Nuwara Eliya and Uva Province. Northwest monsoons prevail in this region. Plantations near NuwaraEliya have a range of rosy teas. The two sub districts are Maturata and Ragala / Halgranoya.

Uva area's teas have quite a distinctive flavor and are widely used for blends. The elevation of tea plantations range from 3,000 to 5,000 ft (914 to 1,524 m). Being a large district, Uva has a number of sub districts, Malwatte / Welimada, Demodara / Hali-Ela / Badulla, Passara / Lunugala, Madulsima, Ella / Namunukula, Bandarawela / Poonagala, Haputale, and Koslanda / Haldummulla.

Low-grown tea mainly originates from southern Sri Lanka. These teas are grown from sea level to 2,000 ft (610 m), and thrive in fertile soils and warm conditions. These areas are spread across four main sub districts, Ratnapura/ Balangoda, Deniyaya, Matara, and Galle.

The high-grown tea thrives above 1,200 m (3,937 ft) of elevation, warm climate and sloping terrain. Hence this type is common in the Central Highlands. Mid-grown tea is found in the 600–1,200 m (1,969–3,937 ft) altitude range. Various types of tea are blended to obtain the required flavour and colour. Uva Province, and Nuwara Eliya, Dimbuala and Dickoya are the areas where mid-grown tea originates. Low-grown tea is stronger and less-subtle in taste and is produced in Galle, Matara and Ratnapura areas.


After the introduction of tea, the Sri Lankan economy transformed from a traditional economy to a plantation economy. Many Europeans migrated to Sri Lanka as planters and Indian Tamils were brought to the island as estate laborers.

At the time of the Kandyan Kingdom it was policy not to build roads for reasons of strategic defense. Therefore when the plantations started, there was very little infrastructure in place in the hill country. Therefore the Sri Lankan government undertook a massive program of road, rail and urban development in the plantation areas. Governor Sir Edward Barnes pioneered the building of roads. During his government, Captain Dawson,Major Skinner and others in the public works department completed the Colombo-Kandy road.

Construction of the first rail line commenced in 1858. The railway was originally known as Ceylon Government Railways. The railway was initially built to transport coffee and tea from the hill country to Colombo for export. For many years, transporting such goods was the main source of income on the line. The first train ran on 27 December 1864.