Sri Lanka was formerly a British crown colony known as Ceylon, a name it kept for nearly a quarter-century after independence. Green and lushly fertile, the island republic of Sri Lanka lies in the Indian Ocean, just below the southeastern tip of India.
It was during the British era that tea first began to be cultivated and manufactured here. Tea from Ceylon soon gained the reputation of being the finest in the world, and tea exports became the mainstay of the colonial economy. Housewives and restaurateurs across the globe grew familiar with the name of the country, learning that its appearance on a tin or packet reliably guaranteed the quality of the tea inside. Independence brought new markets, and production continued to increase. In 1965 Ceylon became, for the first time, the world’s largest exporter of tea.
When the country changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972, its premier industry was faced with a knotty problem. Ceylon was not only the former name of the country; it was also one of the world’s leading brands, familiar to consumers from Virginia to Vladivostok – a brand the industry had been actively promoting and investing in since the early 1930s. Abandoning it would deliver a setback from which there could be no easy recovery. And the cost of promoting and establishing an unfamiliar new brand – ‘Sri Lanka Tea’ – would be ruinous.
Though opposed by some who demanded a complete break with the colonial past and a new start for the country, industry leaders managed to persuade the socialist government then in power to permit the continued use of the name Ceylon to refer to the country’s most famous product. Tea from Sri Lanka would still be marketed as Ceylon Tea; a priceless world brand had been saved.