1835, two years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in England, was the birthyear of a remarkable figure. His name was James Taylor. He was born one of six children in a cottage in the Scottish town of Laurencekirk. At the age of 17 he went to Ceylon where he, without realising it himself, would singlehandedly forever change the future of the island.
On a misty October morning in 1851 James Taylor reported in the London docks. A few weeks before, he had signed an agreement to serve as an Assistant Superintendent on a coffee plantation in the British colony Ceylon. After spending months at sea, he arrived at the Loolecondera Estate in the Kandy District in the new year.
Taylor’s star rose quickly with his superintendents. He was eager to learn and did many experiments to create extra revenue for the plantation. When he came across some tea seeds he planted them along all the paths in the plantation. Later he experimented with the leaves, rolling them using his hands and charcoaling them next. Although he had originally signed on for just three years, during the rest of his life Taylor left Sri Lanka only once. It was to learn how to cultivate tea in Darjeeling India. A year after, in 1867, Taylor planted the first acres of tea on the Loolecondera Estate.
Predicting the future
It was as if Taylor could predict the future. Soon after the fate of Ceylon and coffee changed dramatically. Towards the close of the 1860’s the coffee trees were infected by Hemileia vostatrix or coffee rust, wiping out the complete industry in less than a few years. Coincidentally, the same year that Taylor planted tea, the first train steamed into Kandy. In the end it would be the tea industry that enabled the profitable expansion of a railway network in the hill country. It was the train, on the other hand, that made it possible to transport the readymade tea quickly to Colombo to be shipped.
Although Taylor is not very well known in his own country he is, even today, held in high regard in Sri Lanka. The image of this broad-shouldered man wearing a big beard overlooking Loolecondera Estate with his arms crossed in front of his chest and his hands under his armpits, is recognisable to every Sri Lankan. He wasn’t a big fan of public appearances, he loathed parties, dinners and other social events held in nearby Kandy and was intimidated by women. As he described it himself:“I was never trained for ladies’ society and, indeed, a white woman with petticoats and talking my own language would frighten me out of my wits.” Taylor never got married. His had found his one true love: Ceylon Tea.
Even on the morning of his death in May 1892, he got up as usual and instructed his employees how to go about that day’s work. James Taylor died of dysentery and severe gastroenteritis at Loolecondera at the age of 57. For his funeral, 24 men carried him down the hill. Two gangs of twelve men took turns every four miles to take him to Kandy, where his body was buried in the Mahaiyawa Cemetery.
“It can be said of very few individuals that their labours have helped to shape the landscape of a country, but the beauty of the hill country as it now appears owes much to the inspiration of James Taylor, the man who introduced tea cultivation to Sri Lanka.”
Quote by John Field, the High Commissioner for the UK in Sri Lanka, for the 100th anniversary of the death of Taylor in 1992.