Drinking tea is the greatest mild addiction in human history. Today, the consumption of tea easily equals all other drinks consumed across the globe apart from water. In 1700, tea was a costly luxury in Britain but a century later the nation had become a tea-drinking people. In 2018, around 165 million cups a day are drunk in the UK, meaning that about 40 per cent of the country's total liquid intake consists of this single beverage. It is such a familiar part of modern life that we take the consumption of tea for granted.

But how it conquered the world is a remarkable story and, until the publication of Tea and Empire, the Scottish factor in the saga, especially in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), had been mainly lost to history.

In the early Victorian era, China had a monopoly of the tea market in Britain and it was only later in the nineteenth century that the supply of the leaf was transformed with the rise of tea planting in Assam in India and the colony of Ceylon. As late as the 1860s, little tea was grown on that island but less than fifty years later it exported 150 million lbs and the cultivated acreage of the crop rose to 384,00 acres. Today the independent nation of Sri Lanka is the fourth largest producer of tea (still branded as 'Ceylon') in the world and the second most important when measured by share of global tea exports.

Last year, Sri Lanka celebrated the 150th anniversary of the planting of the country's first successful tea crop, a momentous development that provided the basis for the country's modern economy. At the centre of the commemorations was a modest and unassuming Scot named James Taylor from the village of Auchenblae in Kincardineshire who left for Ceylon at the age of sixteen in 1851 to work in the coffee plantations of the colony and who died there four decades later.

Despite his youth, Taylor was not an innocent abroad when he sailed from London to start a new life. Sixteen was the normal age in Victorian times for young Scotsmen to leave home and seek their fortunes in foreign climes. He had received the benefit of a sound education in the famed Scottish tradition as confirmed by the fluent clarity of his correspondence with his family in later years. Indeed, he was not simply taught the basic skills of reading, writing and counting, but also Latin and Greek in the Free Church school in Auchenblae and soon became a pupil-teacher himself. His rural background in north east Scotland would also stand him in good stead in his career as a planter in Ceylon.

By the time Taylor left for overseas, Scotland had already established an international reputation as a centre of excellence in the new improved agriculture, which was confirmed by the number of visitors who came to find out how a previously poor country had been able to achieve such marvels of agrarian productivity. In Ceylon, the English-born chairman of the Planters’ Association in 1870 claimed that ‘it was owing to Scotchmen, and those who had been trained in Scotland, more particularly in agricultural pursuits [who] had brought with them to the country a knowledge of what must be done to maintain the fertility of the soil’. In the words of another Englishman at the time, ‘half the success of Ceylon tea planting is due to the thrift, energy, and resistless determination of the Scotch character. You cannot go a mile in Ceylon without finding what a Buchanan, a Morrison, or a Stuart has done for this magnificently prosperous industry’.

The earlier settlement of many Scots on the island meant that the teenage Taylor would not find himself to be be a stranger in a strange land on arrival in Ceylon. Indeed, the island was often referred to as a ‘Scotch colony’, due to the disproportionate number of Scots working there and the many Scottish placenames given to plantations such as Caledonia, Glen Alpine, Ettrick, Glencairn and Lochnagar. Scottish influence also transcended planting and it was alleged that Ceylon’s newspapers, manufacturing, legal firms and stores were mainly run by Scots. Today, many of those estate names continue to testify to the Scottish influence, along with tombstones and the conversion of former planter bungalows into tourist accommodation. The St Andrew’s Scots Kirk at Colombo remains a congregation of the Church of Scotland, with Scottish ministers appointed to oversee it.

Ceylon was not alone in receiving a Scottish influence. Indeed, Scots were over-represented throughout the Victorian empire as merchants, administrators, teachers, clerics, bankers, engineers, military officers and a host of other professions. The old aphorism that ‘England ruled the Empire but Scots ran it’ contains more than a core of truth. Both at school and university level, the nation had an usually advanced system of education. Many of those who left for overseas careers had also initially refined their skills in a remarkably sophisticated economy, which gave them a cutting edge in the labour markets of less developed countries across the globe. Generations of Scots had been imbued with a formidable and methodical work ethic which had been moulded by the Calvinist teachings of the Kirk. All this meant that nineteenth century Scotland was rich in what economists now call 'human capital'.

These early Scottish and particularly northeast Scottish networks in Ceylon must have enabled Taylor to adjust quickly to his new environment. His initial work was to cultivate coffee and cinchona (the source of the anti-malarial drug quinine). But it was his cultivation of the first successful commercial tea clearing and planting that made his name and led to him long being publicly revered in Sri Lanka as the ‘father of the Ceylon Tea enterprise’. Five acres of his early plantings at Loolecondera remains to this day, the oldest tea field in Sri Lanka under continuous cultivation.

Yet Taylor remains virtually unknown in his ?native land. In effect, Taylor's signal achievement in helping to shape the world's drinking habits has been lost both to Scottish history and the saga of the global Scottish diaspora. Our new book is an attempt to recover the life of a man who should be recognised as a major figure in the history of the Scottish people in the nineteenth century and specifically their impact on the world through emigration.

Studies of elites in the British Empire are commonplace but knowledge of those of less elevated status remain few and far between. Taylor never became rich and all his life he remained a company employee as a manager in the Ceylon plantation economy. By exploring his life experience, therefore, it was possible to make a distinctive Scottish contribution to the history of the British empire in Asia during its heyday.

At the heart of the book is Taylor’s surviving correspondence, sent to his family at home in the north east of Scotland over most of his forty years in Ceylon and preserved to this day in the National Library of Scotland. Running to more than 83,000 words, this unrivalled archive, together with its associated photograph albums, turned out to be a veritable gold mine for the historian. It became the spine of the entire biographical project. The letters were supplemented by further manuscript research in fifteen libraries and depositories, both in the UK and Sri Lanka.

Documentary research was crucial but we followed also in Taylor's footsteps from his birthplace in Auchenblae and the surrounding district where he grew to manhood. In Sri Lanka we travelled to the tea estate of Loolecondera, which he managed for forty years, visited his grave near Kandy and traced the many commemorations to his legacy, including the imposing 13-foot bust at the mock Scottish tea castle in Talawakelle. Taylor is honoured as the first planter to produce marketable tea in Ceylon.

His pioneering impact came after the country's coffee industry was destroyed by disease which caused a national economic catastrophe. Taylor's initiative therefore averted economic calamity in the short run but also led in the longer term to the global success of Ceylon tea and so provided employment and rising living standards for the people of the island. Moreover, by weakening the Chinese monopoly in tea exports to the west, Ceylon production helped to eventually reduce the importation of opium to China as that drug had long been the means by which British merchants paid for tea in the Chinese empire.

The richness and detail of James Taylor’s correspondence allowed for an intimate portrayal of his personality and relationships and so the biography is not confined only to his career as a tea planter. Taylor's attitudes to his plantation workers, his views on race, family ties to home and how his early years in Scotland made him are all considered.

He was alert to the ethnic distinctions of his workers – both Tamil and Sinhalese – and his impressions of both echoed those of many other planters. Born and bred within a system of agrarian capitalism and rigorous work ethic, he commented frequently on the indolence of his workforce. While there is only fleeting reference to his own efforts to enact discipline, Taylor did comment on other planters who ‘thumped’ their workers. Such actions may have led to an assassination attempt on his life. Yet he also showed concern with their living and working conditions and his workers became known for their clean clothing.

He remained a bachelor all his days but was not lacking in female companionship. His photograph albums contain several images of a young Tamil girl in Loolecondera, on one occasion dressed in the European style. Taylor also wrote several cryptic messages on the albums, which read like a record of female menstrual cycles.

He may have been involved with more than one woman and he certainly had children. His will testified that any remaining monies were to be left to the 'mother of his children'. However, no inkling of any such relationships ever appeared in the letters sent home to his father and other members of the family. This was partly due to changing perceptions of such cross-cultural liaisons following the Indian ‘Mutiny’ of 1857, about which Taylor wrote in graphic terms. Such relationships in the early years involved local women working in the planter’s bungalow while in later years they were kept in nearby villages. Certainly on Taylor’s death his housekeeper was said to have emerged from the bungalow in tears and although wishing to attend the funeral was prevented from doing so.

In 1891, the Planters Association of Ceylon publicly honoured James Taylor for his historic contribution to the foundation of the colony's tea economy. However, a mere six months after accepting this accolade he was dead, aged 57, and with his reputation sullied. A dispute with his employers, who publicly accused him of 'lethargy', eventually led to his being sacked from his post.

A friend was with him when the firm's instructions arrived. He recalled: 'He seemed completely dum[b]founded at receiving such a letter & I may say from that day to the day of his death he never held up his head. His one cry was 'what have I done? & why dont the Coy [company] give me a reason for getting rid of me?' He refused to resign & then was summarily dismissed'. Taylor's grieving associates blamed his death on a broken heart ‘at being turned away like a dog after 40 years of service’.

A recollection after his death said of him: 'Honourable in the smallest things in life, ever thinking of others, and giving them assistance; simple, lovable, charitable and possessed of extreme modesty – such was the Father of the Ceylon Tea enterprise; a man whose kindnesses will live in many a planter’s memory, and whose name will stand high in the archives of this Colony for ever.’

Yet why have Taylor’s achievements have been ignored in his own country until relatively recently? One explanation is that he was by nature a shy and unassuming man who sought neither publicity nor recognition. Even when he received the enthusiastic public appreciation of his fellow planters, he declined to give a speech in response.

Taylor never returned to Scotland and this may also have been a relevant factor. His Ceylon-born children, if they survived into adulthood, did not have links with their father’s family or his homeland. Their mother, who was of Sinhalese or Tamil descent, would almost certainly have raised them within her own ethnic community.

The fame and reputation of another Scot with connections to the tea economy of Ceylon could also have kept Taylor’s name in the shadows. This was the charismatic, dynamic and world-renowned Sir Thomas Lipton, in personality the exact opposite of the quiet man from the Mearns in north east Scotland. Publicity and press attention were meat and drink to Lipton and he relentlessly promoted Ceylon tea and his own name from the local high street to the global market place. Lipton and Ceylon tea quickly became synonymous. He was the marketing man par excellence who won the acclaim of society rather than the modest gifted pioneer. Lipton’s riches meant that he moved in the highest circles in the land, and he was eventually knighted by Edward VII in 1901.

Ironically, however, while Lipton’s name fades into history, Taylor’s significance will live on through the wonderful archive of letters he has left to posterity. They provide multiple opportunities for enquiry into several aspects of imperial and emigration history, including race, economy, plantation management and life, environment, cross-cultural connections, identities and the complex nature of an emigrant’s ties to home.

Sir Tom Devine is Sir William Fraser Professor Emeritus of Scottish History and Palaeography in the University of Edinburgh. Angela McCarthy is Professor of Scottish and Irish History at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Angela McCarthy and T.M. Devine, Tea and Empire: James Taylor in Victorian Ceylon, was published by Manchester University Press in 2017.

At the Aye Write Festival on Sunday 25 March at 6.30pm in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, the editor of the Sunday Herald, Neil Mackay, will discuss the book with Professor Tom Devine. Those who buy a copy afterwards will receive a complimentary sample of tea from the original plantation of Loolecondera in Sri Lanka where James Taylor first grew tea successfully 150 years ago.