Sri Lanka 2: James Taylor’s Legacy

What started it all
What started it all

His plaster bust watches over the entrance to the Hanthana Tea Museum: James Taylor, Scotsman, emigrant to Ceylon, promulgator of tea, father of the island’s most famous and marketable commodity.

The placard at his cold, white side lists basic biographical data: the guy stood 6’4”, weighed two-sixty-something, and died at the relatively young age of fifty-seven.

Andy and I watched, side by side and holding hands.  “So he’s a big deal, huh?” Andy asked.

“I guess,” I said.  “But I thought he was a singer.”


There I go with my corny jokes again.

Walking through the rollers and presses, screens and shelves, fannings and flakes and furnaces and boilers and belts of the Victorian tea factory, we got familiar not just with the process of turning unassuming leaves of simple bushes into the most popular non-water drink on the globe, but also with James Taylor’s legacy in the island of Sri Lanka.

The tea-making get-up

The tea-making get-up

We soaked it in through posters and photos, through the reverent tones of the tour guides, through the venerable language that all used to present Taylor’s saga—he came as a teen, had the bright idea to fill the hills with tea instead of the blighted coffee, and consecrated his entire existence to that dream.

“James Taylor never married,” the guide in the tea-spangled sari intoned.  “He dedicated his life to his work with perfecting tea growing techniques here.”  She nodded reverently.

“Uh-huh.  A hard worker.”  I was busy inspecting a hydropower gizmo that captured flowing water and turned it into mechanized movement for the factory.

A tea press--this guys has mashed more than a few leaves in his day.
A tea press–this guys has mashed more than a few leaves in his day.

“He took only one holiday in his forty-year career,” she insisted.  Maybe she thought I wasn’t impressed.  “And that trip was to study tea techniques in Darjeeling.”

“Where’s Darjeeling?”  I was following the belts and shafts running through the ceilings—the conveyance of that hydropower the various presses.

She looked puzzled.  “Yes.  Darjeeling.  That’s where James Taylor took a holiday.”

“I see.  But where is it?”

“Why, it’s where James Taylor took a holiday—but only to study the tea there.”

I got the picture—and maybe you do too.  James Taylor is a hero.  He planted the industry that planted Sri Lanka on the map of the widest-ranging empire in the history of the globe.  It was his work that put tea into the ground of the fertile mountains and into the lips and bellies of prosperous Brits.  It was his work that makes Ceylon celebrated worldwide, that powers its most lucrative trade, that fuels the heart of its non-surf, non-Buddist tourism crowd.

He’s hailed as a hero.

At least in the museum.

Fading photos graced the walls of that same place—elephants in chains tugging up root-wads of jungle trees and coolies by the thousands hacking out rainforests to plant tea bushes.  There are still-lifes, too, of quarters for the native-born plantation workers—no sanitation facilities, the photos’ captions read, were to be found, and thousands died of easily preventable diseases.  Only decades after Taylor’s last breath were factories required to install proper waste management for their workers.  Brits in safari-style caps and Khaki trousers pose with canes and mustaches while dark-skinned, un-shirted masses trudge up and down the slopes behind them, load crates and barrels for transport to the Imperial isle.

Colonial Transport
Colonial Transport

I started to get the picture here too.

Colonialism—what can I say that hasn’t been said already?

For today, I wondered about James Taylor—not the legacy but the man himself.  Was he a giant lumbering through the hills shouting at the coolies, whacking them with his cane, griping about their uncivilized habits, mopping his brow with a sweat-soaked hanky?  Or was he a gentle beast, a smile lurking under his ‘stache, his chubby, ringless fingers caressing the tender flushes of lime-green growth, greeting the workers by their Singhalese and Tamil names, spending late nights lonely beside kerosene lanterns and botany books, or perhaps writing loving letters to friends back home?

The heavy lifters of the trade.
The heavy lifters of the trade.

All I know is that he once took a holiday to visit tea plantations in Darjeeling.

Leaving the museum, we cruised through the tea fields stretching up and down the slopes outside Kandy.  We stopped for pictures and met a man with a crooked-toothed and Betel-stained smile who was selling mangoes.

Rows and columns of the lime-green flush wrapped the slopes under the shadows of tall trees stretching whispering canopies far above. The air was cool and pleasant.

Plantation landscape
Plantation landscape

“Tea plucker.  Photo.  There there,  photo.”  The mango-man pointed his mango-hacking knife around the next hill.  You photo there.  Tea plucker.”

We smiled and sauntered off the way his blade carved for us.  True enough, we found a half-dozen women half-sunk in the tea bush bristles, their thick, knotted knuckles flying over the sprouts, tossing giant handfuls of the bright two-leaves-and-a-bud plucking into burlap sacks hung on their wiry backs.

Of course we shot some portraits and some candids as they worked Of course we were delighted to see the humble ladies smile in the drifting sun and shade.  Of course—we should have known—after bidding a broken farewell to them they would ask for money.

Plucking for pennies
Plucking for pennies

They rattled something in Singhalese, and then the sole word of English they knew: “Money. Money.”

“They only get a few dollars a day,” our friend said, “but don’t give her anything.”  Andy and I looked at each other, confused.  “It makes problems for them and all the others,” he explained.  “They will fight.”

We sighed, tucked the camera away, and climbed back up the hill to the mango-man, who by now was probably wanting a tip for tipping us off about the planters.

Tea, from all I see, is the legacy and the lifeblood of the island.  It’s the cultural staple piercing deeper than any tap-root, a drink so indelible to each pallet and every breakfast that none would think of going a morning without its hot caress across their lips, none endure an afternoon without knowing its bitter tang tamed by its milk and its sugar, and it’s all due to Taylor’s lifetime of labor in the endless springtime of Ceylon’s be-jungled mountains.

Is it a stretch to say Taylor is the man who gripped the wilderness by the collar and bludgeoned it into an extensive tea garden?  And is it fair to say he did it fairly?

More Tea Landscapes
More Tea Landscapes

Tea brought trains and ships and ports and stacks of cash and colonizers to the otherwise unnoticed island.  Tea brought infrastructure and notoriety; it made its mark in more than a simple stain from a careless cup and saucer—it forever molded the lives of millions of Sri Lankans—whether they wanted molding or not—over the tumbling course of a century and a half.

Tea was brought on the back of laborers who never knew its taste.  It took root through hands bruised and calloused, backs bare and sunburned, feet mud-caked and churning up and down, up and down the impossible slopes.  Employment, yes.  Serfdom, closer than many of us may ever really realize.

JT's Placard
JT’s Placard

James Taylor, what exactly did you bring to the island you loved?

James Taylor, if you had lived past your fifties, what would you have said about the day tea overtook coffee as the island’s chief product?  What would you have responded to proclamation of sanitation laws for the factory farmhands?  What would you say, today, to those who complain that the clear-cut jungle and mountain-topping spread of tea farms ruin the watershed for the valleys and coasts?  And would you, if you could stand with us and watch the pluckers rapid-fire shoots into their monstrous sacks, have offered them a day’s wages from the leftover change in your pockets?

James Taylor, you giant, bearded symbol of colonialism you, what shall I make of your life and your legacy from a simple visit to a tea museum?

Enjoying Ceylon's finest
Enjoying Ceylon’s finest

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