Tea History


The history of tea is long and complex, spreading across multiple cultures over the span of thousands of years. Tea likely originated in southwest China during the Shang dynasty as a medicinal drink. An early credible record of tea drinking dates to the 3rd century AD, in a medical text written by Hua Tuo. Tea was first introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the 16th century. Drinking tea became popular in Britain during the 17th century. The British introduced tea production, as well as tea consumption, to India, in order to compete with the China monopoly on tea.

Tea Production in Sri Lanka

Tea production is one of the main sources of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon), and accounts for 2% of GDP, contributing over US $1.5 billion in 2013 to the economy of Sri Lanka. It employs, directly or indirectly, over 1 million people, and in 1995 directly employed 215,338 on tea plantations and estates. In addition, tea planting by smallholders is the source of employment for thousands whilst it is also the main form of livelihoods for tens and thousands of families. Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth-largest producer of tea. In 1995, it was the world’s leading exporter of tea (rather than producer), with 23% of the total world export, but it has since been surpassed by Kenya. The highest production of 340 million kg was recorded in 2013, while the production in 2014 was slightly reduced to 338 million kg.

The humidity, cool temperatures, and rainfall of the country’s central highlands provide a climate that favors the production of high-quality tea. On the other hand, tea produced in low-elevation areas such as Matara, Galle and Ratanapura districts with high rainfall and warm temperature has high level of astringent properties. The tea biomass production itself is higher in low-elevation areas. Such tea is popular in the Middle eastern countries. The industry was introduced to the country in 1867 by James Taylor, a British planter who arrived in 1852. Tea planting under smallholder condition has become popular in the 1970s.

Sri Lanka is renowned for its high quality tea and as the fourth biggest tea producing country globally, after China, India and Kenya, and has a production share of 9% in the international sphere. The total extent of land under tea cultivation has been assessed at approximately 187,309 hectares.

The plantations started by the British were initially taken over by the government in the 1960s, but have been privatized and are now run by ‘plantation companies’ which own a few ‘estates’ or tea plantations each.

Ceylon tea is divided into 3 groups as Upcountry, Mid country and Low country tea based on the geography of the land on which it is grown.

Foundation of tea plantations

James Taylor in Kandy, Sri Lanka in 1860s

In 1824 a tea plant was brought to Ceylon by the British from China and was planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya for non-commercial purposes. Further experimental tea plants were brought from Assam and Calcutta in India to Peradeniya in 1839 through the East India Company and over the years that followed. In 1839 the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce was established followed by the Planters’ Association of Ceylon in 1854. In 1867, James Taylor marked the birth of the tea industry in Ceylon by starting a tea plantation in the Loolecondera (Pronounced Lul-Ka(n)dura in Sinhala -ලූල් කඳුර ) estate in Kandy in 1867. He was only 17 when he came to Loolkandura, Sri Lanka. The original tea plantation was just 19 acres (76,890 m2). In 1872 Taylor began operating a fully equipped tea factory on the grounds of the Loolkandura estate and that year the first sale of Loolecondra tea (Loolkandura) was made in Kandy. In 1873, the first shipment of Ceylon tea, a consignment of some 23 lb (10 kg), arrived in London. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remarked on the establishment of the tea plantations, “…the tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion at Waterloo”.

Soon enough plantations surrounding Loolkandura, including Hope, Rookwood and Mooloya to the east and Le Vallon and Stellenberg to the south, began switching over to tea and were among the first tea estates to be established on the island.

The total population of 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:

1871 Demographic Distribution

District Total
No. of
 % of population
on estates
Kandy District 258,432 625 81,476 31.53
Badulla District 129,000 130 15,555 12.06
Matale District 71,724 111 13,052 18.2
Kegalle District 105,287 40 3,790 3.6
Sabaragamuwa 92,277 37 3,227 3.5
Nuwara Eliya District 36,184 21 308 0.85
Kurunegala District 207,885 21 2,393 1.15
Matara District 143,379 11 1,072 0.75
Total 1,044,168 996 123,654 11.84


Source: Wikipedia