No one knows when coffee first came to Sri Lanka. However, it was noted by Sir James Emerson Tennent in the 1800s that As to coffee, although the plant had existed from time immemorial on the island (having probably been introduced from Mocha by the Arabs), the natives were ignorant of the value of its berries, and only used its leaves to flavour their curries, and its flowers to decorate their temples. It was not until nearly a century after the arrival of the Dutch that one of their Governors attempted to cultivate it as a commercial speculation.
The Dutch abandoned the cultivation to focus on their Javanese plantations because they did not want to oversupply the market which would have dropped the price from the Javanese coffee plantings. However according to the Report of Governor Schreuder “Coffee succeeded very well in the western parts of the island. It was superior in quality to the coffee of Java, and approached near to that of Arabia, whence the first coffee plants came.” The Dutch also brought seedlings from their Javanese plantations to Sri Lanka. These coffee plants that were brought from Java had previously been procured from what is now Yemen and Ethiopia. These Javanese plants did not succeed well at the lower elevations where the Dutch experimented with coffee growing.
It was the British who had now conquered the highland interior who successfully commercialized coffee as the first hugely successful export crop from Sri Lanka.
Cutting down the Mountain Forests of Ceylon
The higher plateaus and peaks were rapidly and aggressively annexed and deforested and the acreage under coffee doubled from 80,000 acres to 162,700 acres by 1867. Only the Nuwara Eliya plateau escaped the transformation of forest and patana lands. At the lower elevations, the locals cashed in on land sales and acquired large acreages. In 1857 67,453,680 lbs was exported out of Ceylon. Today it is negligible.
The Coffee Blight
Due to the British only focusing on mono-culture coffee without shade, the conditions were created for a devastating fungus. This was the famous coffee blight. This coffee blight destroyed the plantations and forced the British to find other crops they could export.
Fortunately for them the tea bush, Camellia sinensis, is not as susceptible to the fungus and that is why Sri Lanka today is the leading exporter of tea worldwide. We feel tea as it is grown today continues to be highly destructive to the upland ecosystem. This can be witnessed by the fact most tea estates have no A-horizon of soil remaining and very little biodiversity.
Traditional varieties of coffee
Though some of the more recent hybrid coffees have been introduced, Hansa Ceylon Coffee is encouraging farmers to keep with the traditional more flavourful varieties.