Chapter 17 - 1870 - Start of Tea Planting

Nuwara Eliya was first visited in 1819 by Dr.John Dave and up this time had been left alone by man. In 1829 Sir Edward Barnes, the Governor of the Island, alive to its importance as an unpolluted area, commenced the construction of barracks for his soldiers and a bungalow for himself and directed the construction of a road. He issued an order to trace a road of about 40 miles long from Peradeniya, elevation 1,000 feet up to Nuwara Eliya plateau, elevation 6,000 feet and this was undertaken in 1828. A Sanitarium was later established to help soldiers and other Europeans recover from the ravages of tropical deceases contracted in the low country.
Sir Samuel Baker discovered the serenity of this mountain resort and having fallen under its charm, planned to make it his own paradise. He was the first to popularize this health resort and establish farms with colonists from England. He introduced a large variety of European vegetables that became staple crops in Sri Lanka. He was also the first to introduce English livestock to Nuwara Eliya.

Nuwara Eliya in the 1870’s

The early residents of Nuwara Eliya were mostly planters having their ‘holidays’ in the invigorating climate of the hill-post and many others from the low country made an annual pilgrimage to this sanatorium during the season. Before too long, the entire hillside was dotted with houses.

It was intended to be an English country town and forthwith, all the paraphernalia for such a perception was imported. These included a bailiff Hereford and a Blacksmith to work on metal. To be an Englishman, one had to fish and so it was painstakingly imported embryo and hatched brown and rainbow trout and the lake was stocked for licensed anglers. Hunting was also a popular pastime and Planters and soldiers on leave would indulge in shooting leopard, wild pig and other animals.

Hunting Party in Nuwara Eliya

Sir Samuel baker also discovered that steel making had been conducted by the Sinhalese in Nuwara Eliya, for generations. The steel they manufactured would have been used in their weapons and axes and other tools. He described the steel manufacturing process as follows:-

Quote “Having procured the desired amount of ore that had been mined in the Nuwara Eliya area, it is rendered as small as possible by pounding with a hammer. A platform is then built of clay, about six feet in length by three feet in height and width. This wall of wattle and daub protects the “bellows-blower” from the heat of the fire; and the bellows behind the wall. A small well is formed in the centre of the platform, about eighteen inches in depth and diameter: egg shaped. A few inches from the bottom of this well is an air passage, connected with a pipe and bellows. The well is then fitted with alternative layers of charcoal and pulverized iron ore: the fire is lighted and the process of smelting is begun. The bellows are formed of two inflated deer skins, like a double ‘bagpipe’. Each foot of the “bellows-blower” is strapped to one skin, the pipes of the bellows being fixed in the air hole of the blast. He then works the skin alternatively by moving his feet up and down, being assisted in this treadmill kind of labour by the elasticity of two bamboos, of eight or ten feet in length, the butts of which being firmly fixed in the ground, enable him to retain his balance by grasping one with each hand.

Plans of typical Iron Furnace

From the yielding top of each bamboo, a siring descends attached to either big toe, thus the downward pressure of each foot upon the bellows strains upon the bamboo top as a fish bears upon a fishing rod and the spring of the cane assists him in lifting up his leg. Without this assistance it would be impossible to continue the exertion for the time required. While the “bellows-blower” is thus getting up a blaze, another man attends upon the well, which he continues to feed alternatively with fresh iron ore and a corresponding amount of charcoal, every now and then throwing in a handful of fine sand as a flux. Occasionally, this man will also let out some slag. The bellows, from which a continuous blast is kept for three or more hours are worked by at least two other men who share the work by turns. After three or four hours the when the iron is found to be ready the sand is cleared away and the bloom pushed out through the opening and then follows the process of ‘cutting the iron’.

The bloom of iron is taken up in long tongs made of greenwood sticks tied together at one end and it is then beaten a little into shape with thick sticks, then while it is held down on a log with two of the wooden tongs, a third man takes a ketta (axe) and cuts the lump of iron nearly in half through, the gash so made is widened by the insertion of a green log, which is beaten in so far as to force the edges further apart; this is done as the quality of the iron may be examined, for the outside is spongy and the whole texture far from homogenous. The bloom is then thrown into water and taken out and left to finish cooling. The bloom thus made is soft and malleable and weighs about six pounds. Badly melted iron is subsequently re-melted and the final product eventually worked into hatchets, hoes, betel-crackers, etc; being of a superior quality to the best Swedish iron.

If the native blacksmith were to value his time at only six pence per day, from the day on which he first started for the mountains, until the day that he returned form his iron smelting expedition, he would find that his metal would have cost him rather a high price per hundredweight; and if he were to make the same calculation of the value of time, he would discover that be the time he had completed one axe, he could have purchased ready-made, for one third the money, an English tool of superior manufacture.

Time has no value, according to their crude ideas therefore, if they want an article and can produce it without the actual outlay of cash, no matter how much time is expended, they will prefer that method of obtaining it. Unfortunately, the expense of transit is so heavy from Nuwara Eliya to Colombo that this valuable metal, like the fine timber of the forests, must remain useless”.

The operations of these smelters and furnaces, that for generations provided the Sinhalese with the raw materials required for their currency have been verified by a good friend Mr Bandu Sri Munasinghe in his excellent website:-
In 1834 Lord William Beninck signed a famous Minute calling for a Committee to investigate the possibilities of growing tea in India. First Secretary G.J.Gordon was sent to China to seek tea seeds and plants. Later he was followed by Dr.Wallich of the Botanic Gardens, Calcutta and factory farming commenced in a nursery set up for the reception of China plants. China ‘Jat’ and Assam ‘Jat’ seedlings were grown with some success. The name of the tea plant known as ‘Camellia Sinensis’ came into vogue.

In 1839, Dr Wallich sent some indigenous Assam Tea seeds to Peredeniya Gardens with a view to starting a nursery. A further 205 plants were sent to Peredeniya Gardens in February 1840. In May of the same year, the Superintendent at Peredeniya Gardens sent several plats to Nuwara Eliya and a man was supplied by the Gardens to look after them. This was after representation was made to the Government that tea was likely to prove a new and profitable speculation and a valuable source of revenue.

In 1841, George de Worms claims that his Uncle Mr Maurice Worms brought the first tea plants from China and formed a nursery of them on his estate at Pussellawa. Samples of tea grown there were sent to England and found to be of excellent quality. Due to the objection to the importation of Chinese labour and the then ignorance of Sinhalese to the art of preparing tea, its cultivation remained in abeyance for many years.

Croquet Club in 1872 in Nuwara Eliya

In the pioneering days of coffee and tea the names of brothers Gabriel and Maurice Worms, whose mother was the sister of Baron de Rothschild, planted tea on several estates besides the one in Pussellawa. A field on Condegalla (now a Division of Labookellie Estate) was also planted with China tea seeds. It was on Condegalla that Assam Planter, W.J.Jenkins carried out his first experiments in the manufacture of tea. The cost of production was over a Guinea. Thereafter, the Worms brothers concentrated on their highly successful output of coffee. The Worms influence extended as far as Uva, as tea was cultivated on a small block of land on the Kottagodde Estate, also North Punduloya Estate, not far from Condegalla. Tea was also grown in Dimbula and Yakdessa on Radella, Lindula and Dolosbage. There was also some early tea planting on Charles Shand’s Barra Estate.

In 1842, another installment of plants was received from Dr Wallich and some 30 of these was sent to Mr Mooyart in Nuwara Eliya. Reverend E.F.Gepp at the time, the tutor to the son of Sir.A.Oliphant, Chief Justice of Ceylon, recalled that in October a piece of jungle on land owned by Sir Oliphant was cleared and planted with this tea.

Gabriel Worms

Rev Gepp also recalled that the ground in question was in the neighbourhood of the “Queens Cottage” at an elevation of 6,300 feet.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – in one of his works – pays the following tribute to the Ceylon Planters who successfully overcame the disaster that followed in the wake of the baleful fungus.

“Not often is it that men have the heart, when their one great industry is withered, to rear up in a few years another as rich to take its place, and the tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the Lion of Waterloo. My story concerns the royal days of coffee planting in Ceylon before a pestiferous fungus drove a whole community through years of despair to one of the greatest commercial victories which pluck and ingenuity ever won”.

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