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Thursday, 17 March 2011






Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Camellia Sinensis:

First and last Love

I try, but the massive rock, reminiscent of Sigiriya, casting a heavy shadow on everything around me, remains silent. I know the water gliding gracefully over the pebbles in the creek is telling me the answers; if only I could understand her language. “Cheerup. Cherup. Cherup” insists a magpie from a tree above the water. I hope he is saying “Yes, yes, yes” to my three questions. Was he handsome? Was he kind? Was he happy here? “Cherup!”.

 Silent monolith

 View from the bench

I know he would have sat here, on this stone bench, one arm thrown across the top half of the two stones, legs crossed, head thrown back, gazing at the scene in front of him, the very scene I am watching now, a scene that reminds me of ‘Braveheart’, of picture postcards and screen saving images on the computer. But to him a scene that would have brought back memories of home. Scotland. I raise my eyes towards the sky. And suddenly I know, on a day like this when he sat on this bench at this time of the day, even if everything else around him would have changed since then, there would have been one constant; the sky. The sky would have been the same, the same azure with the white clouds drifting at the same speed they are drifting right this minute. The sky of that day would have been the sky of today. Sky to sky, we unite.

With this relaization come the answers to my questions. Yes, he was handsome because his heart was beautiful. Yes, he was kind; kind to Mother Nature, kind to the workers from India, who like him had left their beloved motherland, in search of a new life on this strange but beautiful island.

Yes, he was happy; as happy as any pioneer who had overcome many an obstacle in creating a settlement in the jungles of Galaha,Kandy could be. James Taylor was only sixteen when he left Scotland and sailed to the mysterious, exotic island called Ceylon in 1851. Born on March 29, 1835, he was the son of a modest wheelwright in Kincardineshire, Scotland.

Having lost his mother at the age of nine, he left behind him five other siblings when he signed up with G & L A Hadden, the London agents for Loolecondera Estate, to work for three years as an Assistant Supervisor on their Coffee plantation in Ceylon. His salary, according to the information provided in ceylon-tea-portal.com, was 100 Sterling Pounds a year. On October 22, 1851 he set sail to Ceylon, never to return home.

‘The Contemporary Tea Time’ journal, states five years after he took up his post, his employers, Harrison and Leake, impressed by the quality of his work, put Taylor in charge of the Loolecondera Estate and instructed him to experiment with tea plants.

The Peradeniya nursery supplied him with his first seeds around 1860. As if in homage to this young Scotsman who made tea synonymous with Ceylon, five acres of those first tea bushes are still alive, still yielding the legendary two leaves and a bud.

Take a walk up a gravel path under the watchful eyes of the silent rock, caressed by a soft wind creating soothing music as she runs her fingers through the leaves of the trees above, to reach the remnants of the log cabin where he had lived and manufactured the first bags of tea, ever to be made in Sri Lanka.

The stone bench

The fireplace in the log cabin

What would life have been like in that log cabin on a cold, windy night in March? In James Taylor’s own words, “whenever the light went out at night, a flock of rats from the jungle beside us came in looking for something to eat; and then the wind, of which we have plenty at this season of the year, blows a perfect hurricane in the bungalow, sometimes so as to put out the lamp. This is the rainy season with us and cold too; I wonder how the naked fellows of coolies can stand it all.” (Source: A Bean Two Leaves and a Bud, Edouard Rowlands)

Once the bushes had started to yield, he had started making the tea entirely with ‘arrangements in the bungalow verandah’. One Sunday when his neighbour, E G Harding from the Great Valley Estate, paid a visit he had found ‘the factory’ was in the bungalow. The leaf was rolled on tables on the verandah by hand, from wrists to elbow, while the firing was done in chulas or clay stoves, over charcoal fires, with wire trays to hold the leaf. The result was delicious tea which Harding bought for one rupee and fifty cents a pound.

Though he would have cleared the forest land in the district of Hewaheta, James Taylor was careful not to cause undue harm to Mother Nature. The uncleared patches of the virgin forests still visible on the fields of the Kondagala Division of the Loolecondera Estate are evidence of his ‘apologies’ to nature for the destruction he had had to instigate in the name of ‘economic progress’.

To the very last day of his life he lived on the Loolecondera Estate, leaving his beloved plantation only once. This was to visit Darjeeling, in 1874,in order to study the new tea plantations in India. By 1872 he had set up the first tea factory on the island; a rudimentary ‘sack’, the walls of which were constructed from mud and wattle. Inside was his very own tea-rolling machine. “I have a machine of my own invention... for rolling the tea which I think will be successful. If so, we cannot help making a profit on tea if it grows of fair quality in this country,” he wrote in a letter dated March 18, 1872. The following year his first quality teas were sold for a very good price at the epic centre of tea trading, the London auction in Mincing Lane.

“Taylor trained a number of assistants, and from that point on; Ceylon tea arrived regularly in London and Melbourne. Its success led to the opening of an auction market in Colombo in 1883, and to the founding of a Colombo tea dealer’s association in 1894.” (Source: Contemporary Tea, Time Vol. X No. 3 September-November 2001). On May 2, 1892, he breathed his last amidst the fields of tea he had so carefully nurtured. It took one whole day, for twenty four men changing hands every four miles, to carry his coffin across the 18 miles from Loolecondera to the Mahaiyawa cemetery in Kandy.

His people, the Kanganis and the labourers walked behind their ‘Sami Dorai’ with tears in their eyes. The inscription on his grave reads “In pious memory of James Taylor, Loolecondera Estate, Ceylon, the pioneer of tea and cinchona enterprise, who died on May 2, 1892, aged 57 years.”

Today, walking on the very paths he would have trodden, paths which he had helped build with his own hands, looking at the tea bushes he had planted, staring at the fireplace in his log cabin and imagining an evening when it would have blazed fiercely, when he would have stared into the flames, and pondered on the day-to-day problems of running the tea estate, it is easy to realize why he had remained a bachelor to the very last. Camelia Sinensis would have been his first and last love.

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