The cool, refreshing climate of the hill country surrounding the town of Nuwara Eliya, appealed to the British colonial elite who arrived in the country after the defeat of the Dutch colonial regime in 1796. To a favourable climate was soon added good conditions for growing British fruit and vegetables. Despite the fact that the landscape is dominated by tea plantations, this region soon gained the title of ‘Little England’.
This was the heart of British Ceylon where, like the Kenyan Highlands, colonial administrators, the military, and plantation owners enjoyed life at the expense of the colonised. Today, you can still get faded glimpses of that past, and there are still many reminders of the role the British had in shaping the modern landscape of Sri Lanka’s hill country. These once densely forested hills were originally cleared to make way for Sri Lanka’s first cash crop, coffee.
Valuable as coffee was, the arrival of a coffee plant disease decimated the crops and paved the way for an even more lucrative caffeinated drink, tea. It’s frankly bizarre that tea is the drink most strongly associated with Britain when the British climate is entirely hostile to growing it. On the slopes surrounding Nuwara Eliya it has thrived since 1867, and today those same slopes produce some of the world’s finest teas.
It is an incredible landscape of rolling hills and steep mountain peaks that are home to dramatic waterfalls. Incredible, that is, when you can see them. As we drove from Kandy to Ramboda, a small town at the heart of the region’s tea cultivation, low clouds and occasional drizzle obscured the tops of the hills. It was far cooler amongst these hills than anywhere else we went in Sri Lanka, a relief before heading to the humidity of the cost.
Stopping at the Blue Field Tea Factory in Ramboda to break our journey and try some tea in situ, we could see brightly coloured dots moving amongst the tea bushes on distant hills. These were the tea pickers who pick 15kg or more of tea leaves per day, placing the leaves into a bag or basket carried on the back using a head strap. We toured the factory and then wandered out into the plantation where small groups of pickers were at work.
The women pickers were incredibly quick and nimble, but there’s no doubt that it’s extremely physically demanding to be doing this job on the mountain slopes all day long. Afterwards we had a pot of their finest tea at the restaurant and watched a Russian couple buying hundreds of euro worth of the finest silver tip tea. This is one of the top tea grades, and high demand around the world adds a premium to the price.
On our second day in the area, the hills were empty of tea pickers, most of whom herald from the Tamil minority and are mostly Hindu. It was the Hindu Festival of Lights, Diwali, a major holiday and at night we heard celebrations reverberating across the hills from small, poor-looking settlements where plantation workers live. These are the descendants of Tamils recruited as indentured workers during the colonial period.
While distinct from the Tamils in north and east Sri Lanka who fought a civil war until 2009, they have been the victims of longstanding government persecution. Despite better legal protections, they are socially, politically and economically marginalised, and often exploited by plantation owners. Many live in poverty – a BBC investigation in 2014 found daily wages of only US$0.88. All of a sudden that cup of tea tastes just a bit less refreshing.
It made staying in a former tea factory near Nuwara Eliya, now a boutique hotel where you can experience a little of 19th century Ceylon, feel unethical. The Hethersett tea plantation dates to the 1870s and played an important role in developing Sri Lanka’s tea industry. Today, it is a peaceful hotel set in stunning countryside with commanding views over hills and valleys draped in low cloud and mist.
The hotel has a lot of the old tea factory machinery and it’s exciting to sleep in a room that was once in the tea leaf withering lofts. We stayed for a couple of days, taking walks through the plantation, and wishing we had more time to explore this fascinating region. On our last night we ate in an 1930s train carriage that once chugged around the hills on a narrow gauge, now converted to a restaurant. It really did feel ‘colonial’.