Tea Growing in Ceylon-- an article on tea cultivation from the October 7, 1888 New York Times


The New York Times,
    October 7, 1888, p. 11:




Correspondence of the New-York Times.

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    LIVERPOOL, Sept. 10.—It seems to be a matter of course that a man who has to write upon any subject should begin by touching upon every subject in the world except the one upon which he has to write. On this principle, I myself, having gone all the way out to Ceylon for the express purpose of examinint the growing and preparation of the famous Cingalese tea, have described everything else in the island [in previous articles] without ever mentioning its tea at all.
    I do not find, however, that I relish a cup of tea any the more now that I know all about its manufacture than I did when it was present to my mind only as a mysterious, powdery stuff that came from China in queer boxes covered with figures like the dolls in a toy shop, and was sometimes black and sometimes green without any apparent reason...

    It is to be noticed that this industry has only developed itself to an appreciable extent within the last few years, and that it is chiefly confined to one district which seems admirably fitted for the purpose. Fifty or 60 miles inland, in a direct line from the western coast of Ceylon, the uniform flatness of the island is suddenly broken by a circular group of mountains (already described in my letters from Kandy, Tatapella, and Adam's Peak) as picturesquely steep and broken as those of Montenegro itself, and forming, though on a very small scale, a kind of Cingalese Switzerland.
    In the deep, sheltered valleys and upon the sunny slopes of these mountains grew until very lately the coffee plants and cinchona trees that yielded the coffee and quinine for which Ceylon has long been famous; but these are now being fast replaced by the glossy green leaves from which is manufactured the now celebrated "Cingalese tea"—a "survival of the fittest" which would have charmed Dr. Darwin if he could have lived to see it.

    "I doubt very much whether coffee will ever recover itself in these parts," said one of the principal planters in the Agra Patana tea country, at whose pretty little country house among the hills of the Talawakelé district we spent a very pleasant week in the course of our travels through the interior of Ceylon. "But even if it were to regain its old place to-morrow it would always be at a disadvantage as compared with tea for two reasons.
    "First and foremost, although tea suffers a good deal from 'red spider' and other things of that sort, the diseases of the coffee plant are more numerous by far than those of the tea plant, and when they come in earnest they simply mean absolute destruction of the whole crop.
    "Then too, when a crop of coffee is destroyed or blighted you have nothing more to hope for as regards that year, whereas if anything happens to a growth of tea you have the comfort of knowing that there will be another 'flush,' as we call it, in 10 days time, which, if it turns out well, may recoup all your loss and more."

    "But it seems to me," said I, "that that particular advantage is confined to the tea of Ceylon itself, for I remember that when we were in the tea-growing districts of Northern India a few years ago, the planters told us that there would not be another flush until April, and it was then about the middle of February."

    "That's very true," answered Mr. W., "and that's just where we Cingalese planters have the advantage of the fellows in Assam and the Kangra Valley; they can only manufacture their tea at stated intervals, whereas we can keep on at it all the year round.
    "And now, if you two come for a walk round the plantation with me, I'm going to see how the different gangs of pickers are getting on; and when that's done, we'll just step down to my factory at the foot of the hill yonder, and I'll show you the whole process of making tea from beginning to end."

    "Have you been successful with your tea so far?" asked I, as the three of us picked our way in single file along the narrow, threadlike path that zigzagged up the steep hillside among the glossy green leaves of fresh tea.
    "Well, I've nothing to complain about at present, although of course I can't do very much in the manufacturing line till I get up that new machinery that I'm waiting for. But so far as the mere growing of the tea is concerned, there's no fault to be found. If I make my fortune by tea—and I've both made it and lost it again by coffee, I can tell you, since I first came out here—I can put on the panel of my carriage the same motto that Dr. Johnson gave to an Indian tea planter in the last century: 'Tu Doces,' (thou teachest,) which everybody who saw it read: 'Thou tea chest.'"
    "Or else," suggested I, "you might appropriate Theodore Hook's epigram upon Twining the tea dealer:

Beneficent nature has curiously planned
Men's names with their lives should agree;
There's Twining, the tea man, who lives in the Strand,
Would be whining if robbed of his T.

    "But, now I think of it, is it true that some of the tea estates round here have been producing 1,000 pounds of tea per acre?"
    "Perfectly true, although some of the Madras newspapers wouldn't believe a word of it when the story first came out, and sent over correspondents to look into it. But by the time the correspondents arrived the same plantations were yielding fully 1,200 pounds per acre, and the worthy reporters went back again wtih a considerable enlargement in their ideas of Cingalese tea growing.

    "Now, here we come to a patch of coffee and you'll have a chance of seeing what prospect we've got of making any profit in that way."

    It was indeed a hopeless spectacle for any planter to behold, and one whose ghostly desolation was intensified rather than relieved by the glorious sunshine around it and the blue sky overhead. Far and wide beneath us, the whole slope seemed blasted as if by fire. In some spots the withered leaves hung shriveled and lifeless, stirring slowly in the morning breeze like the hair of dead men upon a battlefield. In other places they had fallen away altogether, leaving the long bare rows of sapless plants standing gauntly up in endless perspective, like an army of skeletons.

    And that nothing might be wanting to make this grim picture complete, the caprice of the pest had spared a few plants as the living among the dead. and mock with their fresh sunny green the dreary bareness of their blighted brethren.

    But in a sheltered hollow beneath us lies one tolerably large patch of coffee, which seems to have escaped the destroyer, and here a gang of Tamil coolies—about 20 strong, including women and children—are engaged in "picking." One of their number carries on his back a huge basket, into which the others keep emptying the coffee berries from the small panniers slung at their sides; and the group of dusky faces, white turbans, and long brown limbs, moving ceaselessly to and fro among the green leaves and bright scarlet berries, has a very picturesque effect.
    But every one in the gang, from the biggest coolie down to the smallest boy, works in a spiritless fashion which proclaims more plainly than any words their consciousness that King Coffee's reign is now over, and that they may in every sense of the word "take it coolie."

    But Mr. W. goes by this gang with only a few passing words of advice and encouragement, for the real business of the day lies behind the elbow of the ridge, beyond which the tea plantations begin. Here the picking is being conducted in the same way, but there are at least five times as many hands engaged in it, and the briskness with which the work is going forward tells its own story.
    A little apart from the rest stands a tall man with two crossed sticks hung upon his back, which I conjecture to be a kind of official badge. And so it proves, for Mr. W. points him out to us as the "kangani" or native overseer of the gang, who brings over the coolies from Southern India and hires them out to different planters, receiving a bounty equal to 4 cents per head upon all the laborers engaged.

    "It's a great thing to have an experienced overseer," says he, "one who can teach these fellows to do their picking properly, for you have no idea how much harm may be done by careless or clumsy picking.
    "You'll notice that each picker breaks off from every fresh shoot one leaf, a bud, and the half of another leaf. Now, if in doing so he happens to break the eye of the sprout, as we call this little thing here, no other leaf will spring from it any more, and when you think how many of these eyes one unskillful picker may break in a single day you can imagine how important it is to have the hands properly trained."

    "What wages do they get?" ask I.
    "The men 16 cents a day, the women and the boys 8, for 10 hours work. It doesn't sound much to you, I dare say, but I can assure you that according to native ideas it's a very fair rate.
    "Do you see that young girl to our left there, the one with the big silver bangles on her wrists? She's one of the best pickers on the whole estate. She's going off to marry one of my native servants next week, and a right good wife she'll make him. Just watch how neatly she brings off those leaves, never breaking nor hurting them a bit. Women are always better than men for this kind of work, because their touch is so light, only of course they cannot do so much work in a day.
    "Look at that man, now, who is picking just in front of us. You would hardly think, seeing him as he stands now, that he once carried a 95 pound chest of tea all the way from here to Talowakelé, which is 14 miles if it's an inch. He did, though, and thought very little of it when it was done."

    "Are these tea plants here full grown?" I inquire as we pass on.
    "Well, they're grown sufficiently to yield a good crop, if that's what you mean; but they've not come to their best yet, nor anything like. We only began planting about three years ago, you know. We consider a tea plant fit for yielding at 2 years old, and after that it goes on increasing till the end of the sixth year, when it is at its best. We keep on pruning the plants till they're 18 inches high, and when they reach 22 inches we measure them with a cross-stick and pluck everything above the 22 inch level.
    "Now, shall we go down to the factory and see how the tea is made up?"

    As we descend the slope I have leisure to admire the beauty of a plantation of cinchona trees, shooting up straight and slender as a fountain jet and then breaking off in one great gush of green leaves, many of which are now dyed with a gorgeous crimson, such as any painter would love to copy.

    But Mr. W., noting the direction of my approving glance, says with a rueful smile: "I see you're admiring those crimson leaves, but I can assure you that such bits of coloring are not at all beautiful in the eyes of us planters, for the moment we see those red leaves upon any cinchona tree we know that it's blighted and that we'll never get a single ounce of quinine from it again.

    A few minutes later we enter the factory—a long, low building of the genuine East Indian type, down in a hollow not far from the bank of the river. The first thing that we see on entering is a kind of gigantic squirrel's cage, 8 or 9 feet long, which a tall coolie is turning by a handle at one end and showering a rain of green leaves upon the floor like pepper from a caster.
    A nearer view of this queer machine shows us that it is made of twisted wire and half full of tea leaves, and Mr. W. explains that this is the "sifter," used for separating the coarser from the finer leaves, which are then spread out to be withered.
    "And here," he concludes, "is the withering going on now."

    There, sure enough, are three or four strange-looking objects exactly like overgrown Venetian blinds, except that the horizontal "slats" are formed not of painted wood, but of sheets of stout canvas in wooden frames, upon which the tea leaves, scattered as thoroughly as possible, are drying apace.

    Next we proceed to the adjoining room to witness the third process, viz., the rolling of the withered leaves. Here we find something which looks like an insane coffee pot fixed on top of a copying machine, and performing a kind of demon dance over a hole in the centre of a flat round stone, while absorbing mouthful after mouthful of leaves shoveled into it by a watchful native only to cast them forth again the next moment rolled neatly up in those tiny cylinders with which we are all familiar.

    Passing lightly over the "re-rolling"—a process to which only a certain proportion of the leaves are subjected—we go back into the large room to study the details of the two final processes, "fermenting" and "firing," after which the tea is ready to be packed and sent off.

    The firing is performed in two different ways, the second and most complete of which is managed by a seven-chambered steam furnace of improved construction, the beauties of whose working are explained to me by Mr. W. in an elaborate discourse, which, like the majority of scientific explanations given to unscientific men, leaves me just as wise as I was before.

    "There are three kinds of tea here," he adds, "broken Pekoe, Pekoe, and Souchong. We're manufacturing a good deal of all three just now, but nothing to what we shall do when our new machinery's in operation, as I hope it will be next week.
    "Take my word for it, all Ceylon will have gone into tea growing in another year or two, and 'real Cingalese' will be as well known in the English market as 'Kangra Valley' itself.
    "Bye the bye, that reminds me that I mustn't let you go away without a sample of it."

    And in a trice a perfect stack of neatly-packed half-pounds of tea, compactly done up in air-tight leaden wrappers, lie awaiting our acceptance. It is hard to refuse what is so freely offered, as well as so precious in itself; but the necessity of one portmanteau apiece has no law, and we can only accept three out of the twelve.

    "And now," says our obliging host, leading the way to the further end of the building, "I'm going to show you, by way of an appropriate wind-up, what I don't think you'll ever see again in these parts—the method of preparing coffee."

    In a dark corner about two feet below the general level of the floor we find a long, narrow, stone tank with a few inches of water in it, in which a half dozen bare-limbed natives are splashing about like Italian peasants treading the winepress, except that in this case they are treading coffee berries instead, in order to wash off the inner husk when softened by water, thus leaving the smooth cream-colored bean within ready for that two days' exposure to the sun which is the final stage of the process.

    Mr. W. opens a side door and shows us several sheets of matting outspread on the ground in an open space just at the back of the factory, upon which lie strewn several hundreds of shining coffee beans, exposed like ancient martyrs to the full heat of the burning sun.

    "Coffee has one advantage over tea," he observes, as we leave the factory and begin to ascend the hill again, "that it certainly requires less preparation, but in every other respect the superiority is quite the other way. You may sum up the present history of coffee in Ceylon like the schoolmaster who, when the boy whose half-yearly character he was writing tumbled off the top of the house and was killed, coolly added: 'I notice a great falling off in him lately.'"

The New York Times, October 8, 1888, p.2:


From the Ceylon Observer.

    The main results of the statistical inquiry just completed for a new edition of Ferguson's Ceylon Handbook and Directory may be of interest to those who have watched the progress of our planting industries since coffee fell from its position as staple export.
    The outcome of a detailed and very careful compilation is as follows:

    Total area of 1,963 plantations and planting properties, 664,209 acres;
    Total area of 1,479 plantations in cultivation with 1,136 Superintendents, 318,067 acres.

    Total approximate area under tea, 182,914 acres;
    Total coffee, (Arabica,) 77,407;
    Total coffee, (Liberica,) 916;
    Total cinchona, (35,655,000 trees over two years);
    Total cacao [cocoa], 12,000 acres;
    Total cardamoms, 4,592.

    Tea has therefore taken the position once occupied by coffee, the exports rising from 160,000 pounds in 1880 to 12,013,686 pounds in season of 1886-7, while for the current season 1887-8 up to Sept. 30, 1888, the export will not be less than 22,000,000 pounds.
    For the succeeding three seasons a safe estimate would seem to be as follows:

    Tea exports from Ceylon—
    season 1888-9, (Oct. 1 to Sept. 30,) 32,000,000 pounds;
    season 1889-90, (Oct. 1 to Sept. 30,) 40,000,000 pounds;
    season 1890-91, (Oct. 1 to Sept. 30,) 50,000,000 pounds.

    And there is no reason why, with its great advantages—in a moist, forcing climate, cheap free labor, exceptionally intelligent, energetic planters, ready means of internal transport, and nearness to the European market—Ceylon should not, a few years later, reach an export of 80,000,000 pounds of tea per annum.
    Much might be said of the prospect of the other products mentioned in the statistics; suffice it to say that the prospects are favorable as well for the products in the hands of the European planters as for the great cocoanut oil and fibre industries chiefly engaged in by Ceylonese land owners.
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