'Tea and Empire, James Taylor in Victorian Ceylon' by Angela McCarthy and T M Devine (Manchester University Press)
From one perspective 'Tea and Empire' was an obvious book for its authors to write; from another it was a somewhat more problematic undertaking. James Taylor is a largely forgotten Scot who deserves to be remembered. Born in 1835 near Auchenblae, a village in Kincardineshire, at the age of 16 he set off to London en route to Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was called until 1972) and never returned to Scotland. However, at the time of his death in 1892, he was celebrated in Ceylon and beyond as a key figure in making Ceylon a world centre in the production of tea.
Initially, the plantation in mid-Ceylon that Taylor soon came to superintend produced what was then the island's main crop: coffee. In the years that followed, however, a coffee leaf disease gradually undermined that crop and finally wiped it out. For a few years the former coffee plantations were given over to the growing of cinchona trees – from which quinine could be extracted. But in reality the economic future of Ceylon lay in the development of a hugely prosperous tea industry. In recognising this, and working to make it happen, no single individual played a more important role than James Taylor.
Growing tea on the plantation he ran near Kandy in central Ceylon, Taylor demonstrated that tea production could be both successful and highly profitable. The result was that in the late Victorian period Ceylon soon came to rival – and even surpass – China and India as a source of what had become one of the world's favourite beverages. Of course Taylor was in no way the first or only person to grow tea in Ceylon, but this book proves that his example proved hugely influential in promoting tea as the island's defining product on a worldwide scale. This is why he deserves to be remembered.
There is a second reason why a biography of James Taylor would seem an obvious choice. Despite the fact that once in Ceylon Taylor never chose to return to Scotland, Taylor remained in very close touch with the folks back home. Throughout his life he remained a voluminous correspondent with both relatives and friends. The scale and richness of this 40-year correspondence are indicated by the fact that the collection of his letters now held in the National Library of Scotland amounts to some 83,000 words.
The authors of 'Tea and Empire' acknowledge that the existence of such a treasure trove of letters provided them with well-nigh unrivalled access to the life-long thoughts, attitudes, feelings, reading, and behaviour of a typical Scottish colonist whose life was dedicated to achieving success within the world of the British Empire. Biographers could hardly ask for more.
So why should I suggest there could be anything problematic about choosing to write this book? Perhaps there's a clue in the title 'Tea and Empire.' In recent years the historical tide has very much turned against the concepts of empire and imperialism. Such concepts have few defenders. The received wisdom has become that the British Empire was little more than a grand, deeply racist, power grab involving the subjugation, exploitation, colonisation and sometimes even extermination of native peoples.
Economic growth in a range of ways may have often occurred in colonies, but this was almost always at the expense of traditional ways of native life, and of the ecology of the local environment. Victorian Ceylon had gained a reputation as the most 'Scotch' of all the colonies in the British Empire, but its 'Scotchness' made no difference to the behaviour of its imperial rulers. And no contemporary historian has done more than T M Devine to remind us that Scotland played as full a part in slavery, the slave trade, and all the forms of exploitation that marked the imperial project, as the rest of the United Kingdom.
So at a time when the case against the architects of empire is being made with increasing urgency – leading to demands that statues be removed and the names of buildings changed – should we be reading the biography of a figure who is an all too typical representative of those Scots who helped to make the British Empire the power it was? In my view the answer is an unequivocal yes. History is about understanding the past – not judging it.
However, this book in no way attempts to whitewash Taylor. Here is a comprehensive picture of a man who acted out the British imperial project in the 19th century in a broadly typical way. James Taylor seems never to have asked himself whether he had the right to be there in Ceylon, enjoying a comfortable life and providing his employers in London with a good level of profit. Like all the other plantation owners and supervisors around him, he employed large numbers of 'coolies', both local Sinhalese and Tamils imported from India, to grow and produce his coffee and tea. Clearly the lives of these men were all too often nasty, brutish and short.
If Taylor did sometimes make an effort to house and feed them adequately, it was for the pragmatic reason of retaining them as efficient workers. And it is striking to note that he, like so many other British colonists, saw the atrocities reportedly suffered by the British in the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8, as a reason to do nothing more to improve the living conditions of those he employed.
Then again, in his early years in Ceylon, Taylor in his letters home often spoke of returning to find a Scottish wife. But that never happened. His Scottish family believed he remained a life-long bachelor. After his death, his will offered a different story – it stipulated that funds were to be left to 'the mother of his children.' Who she was and what became of her is not clear, though she may well have been his Sinhalese housekeeper.
'Tea and Empire' is an academic work making few concessions to the general reader. Each chapter concludes with dense pages of footnotes. The bibliography is long and very detailed. The wealth of information on coffee and tea growing in Ceylon, and a range of related topics, makes for demanding reading. But its authors have succeeded in their principal aim: James Taylor emerges from these papers as yet another remarkable and eminent Victorian Scot.
I suspect that there are still quite a number of readers for whom the notion of Ceylon tea brings to mind a different name: Sir Thomas Lipton. For several generations Lipton's tea was as familiar a product as Heinz baked beans. But it is clear that the unassuming James Taylor, who pursued neither fame nor fortune, had a great deal more to do with the rise of Ceylon tea to worldwide popularity than the flamboyant Lipton. With the publication of this beautifully produced book, the man described, at the time of his sad and unexpected death, as 'the father of the Ceylon tea enterprise,' regains the recognition he should never have lost.