15 June 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (5)

The story of Ceylon tea begins with coffee – the first crop successfully adapted to plantation agriculture in the central hills of the island. It was coffee, not tea, which first made fortunes for British proprietors and speculators in Ceylon, financed the establishment of a modern government and administration in the colony and made possible the rise of an educated local elite and middle class. As a famous historian remarked as recently as 1980, ‘almost every salient feature of modern Sri Lanka can be traced back to the coffee era.’ After the collapse of coffee, tea inherited the cleared plantations with their fine bungalows and resident labour forces, the mercantile trading system, the up-country road network, the railway and Colombo’s modern harbour, all of which were originally brought into being to serve the coffee enterprise.
       This, the fifth (and last) in a series of excerpts from my soon-to-be-published book Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation, takes readers back to the early days of coffee in Ceylon.

11 June 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (4)

Few people, even in the tea trade, now recall the report of the commission appointed by the United Front Government of 1970-77 to inquire into the workings of plantation agency houses and broking firms. The commission, led by LSSP stalwart Bernard Soysa and the leftist intellectual Kumari Jayawardena, had a strongly Marxist and nationalist orientation and was evidently prejudiced against the industry. Its report, published after much delay in May 1975, made numerous charges, both general and specific, of collusion among plantation-industry capitalists, the intent of which was to loot Sri Lanka of the proceeds of its key industries, for the benefit of a few, mainly English beneficiaries. The report caused a sensation when it came out and provided the State with the excuse it needed to nationalize the estates and remove them from agency-house control – though as it turned out, the state still needed the agency houses after all.
     The following excerpt from Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation describes how the Agency House Commission Report was received by the government and the trade, and what happened next.

22 May 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (3)

When told that I was writing a book about the Ceylon tea trade, the first question many socially-aware friends asked me was ‘What are you going to say about the estate workers?’ A pertinent question: the status of Sri Lankan plantation workers and their treatment at the hands of estate owners, the general public and the State are heavily fraught and controversial subjects. My answer – that I would deal with the workers and their troubles as truthfully and fairly as I was able – was often met with a sceptical smile. Wasn’t my work being sponsored by the tea trade – the putative oppressors themselves? I could only counsel my friends to wait and see.
       This, the third in a series of extracts from Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation, begins the story of the plantation workers. The tale commences not in the age of tea but in the coffee-planting era that preceded it. From here, the story is carried through the rest of the book, becoming one of the principal strands out of which the narrative is woven.

11 May 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (2)

The Great Depression of 1929-39 added to the already considerable troubles of colonial Ceylon. The country’s vital tea industry was severely tested as world prices plummeted and production restrictions were imposed on estates. This second excerpt from my forthcoming book Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation deals with some of those impacts, and the impetus they gave to tea marketing in the Thirties.

An early achievement of the Tea Propaganda Board: Song of Ceylon,
directed by Basil Wright and narrated by Lionel Wendt

The Slump & The Song

07 May 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (1)

It is slightly over a year since I began work on a history of the Sri Lankan tea industry, which will be published next month as part of the celebrations being held to commemorate the 150th anniversary of that industry, which falls in 2017. The book will be titled Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation.
     The publishers of the book, the Colombo Tea Traders’ Association, have given me permission to post selected excerpts on this blog in advance of publication. Below is the first of these excerpts, taken from a chapter that describes the early maturity of the industry, around the end of the nineteenth century.

26 January 2017

Rx: Failed

The Great Degeneration
by Niall Ferguson

Edmund Burke, the intellectual father of conservatism, famously pointed out that the real social contract is not between the rulers and the ruled, as Rousseau had it, but rather, ‘between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. Niall Ferguson, in this little book, explains that present-day Western governments (and others, too, including our own in Sri Lanka) are happy to commit themselves to costly but vote-catching social provisions that have to be financed by government borrowing. What governments borrow, they must sooner or later pay back. It is future generations who will do the paying.

This has been going on since about the 1950s. It was the baby-boomers who were first in breach of the social contract as Burke defined it. And it is the baby-boom generation, now grown crusty and selfish with old age, that recently snatched the future away from young voters in Europe and America by supporting such manifestations of short-term economic greed and political selfishness as climate-change denial, Brexit and Donald Trump. The contract between the generations has been torn up and tossed into the fire.

The Great Degeneration was published in 2013. The crisis of Western society of which Ferguson warns us in this short treatise on the failure of institutions was already upon us by then, but the worst had not actually happened. Now it has, and we are already beginning to suffer the consequences. Yet what we suffer will be as nothing compared to what our descendants will have to go through. The collapse of modern technological societies will be exacerbated by ruined natural environments and the exhaustion of available resources. This is the future that, through our own selfishness, we shall bequeath our children.

So it is a little bit late to be reading this book – which, you might say, was published a couple of generations too late anyway. Ferguson illustrates his thesis – that the failure of societies is due to the failure of institutions, because institutions themselves need to be perpetually renewed and adapted to prevailing conditions or they will fail – fairly convincingly. He covers political, economic, legal and civil-society institutions, though he pays little or no attention to religious ones, a serious lacuna in my view. In the end, however, he fails to convince us that anything can really be done. His prescription appears to be the restoration of classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberalism to its old place in the political order. But liberalism no longer means what it did in those days; the change has been so profound that old-style liberalism is more likely to be found nowadays in conservative circles than in so-called ‘liberal’ ones. There is nothing liberal – in the old-fashioned sense – about cradle-to-grave social provision, trade protectionism, the leveraging of corporate charity for political purposes, affirmative action or political correctness. What passes today for liberalism is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Ferguson, who is married to the controversial feminist and political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, recognizes this. He has called himself ‘a proud Thatcherite’ and ‘a confirmed Eurosceptic’, and although he initially opposed Brexit he now says he was wrong, and in breach of his own political principles, when he did so. As for his views on Trump, he has said that liberals’ greatest fear was not a Trump presidency but ‘a successful Trump presidency’. Judging by the reactions I’ve been seeing on my Facebook wall, he is right.

In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson’s argues that liberal institutions should be constructed upon the slimmest of possible frameworks, with a minimum of specified rules. They should be shaken up regularly. And they should be administered by intelligent meritocrats with lots of goodwill and common sense. Not so distant, politically and philosophically speaking, from Plato’s Guardians. Closer still to Pope’s famous couplet about forms of government. And just about as useful as a practical prescription. What use has a world of ageing, selfish gluttons, coddled and indulged by consumer capitalism and brainfucked by communications media that package even wars and natural disasters as entertainment, for leaders who can rule their passions? We’ve all become Napoleon the Pig, and we won’t be ruled by anything.

04 December 2016

Grunt Work

The Human Division
by John Scalzi

This isn’t really a novel. It’s a series of short stories held together by an overarching meta-plot and common characters. The bigger plot never resolves, leaving the reader with some unanswered questions at the end of the book and allowing for the continuation of the Old Man’s War series. Some reviewers have compared it to a TV serial, but books of this kind have a well-established history in literature – see, for instance, the Jeeves stories of P.G. Wodehouse. As a reader, I’m comfortable with the device and welcomed it in this book.

I found the stories interesting and often funny, though some of the jokes are designed to elicit groans rather than laughter. The characters are stock – military surplus for the most part – but lovable, mostly people with jobs to do and problems to solve. If anyone reading this is old enough to have ever enjoyed Robert Sheckley, they’ll find Scalzi’s set and setting familiar: working stiffs and grunts caught up in bizarre situations, leavening their tribulations with questionable humour.

This is problem-solving SF. Some of the problems are technical and some are human (if you count sentient aliens as humans, which you should). There are whodunits and what Martin Amis once called whydunits. They’re a mixed bag but then, variety is the spice of literature. On the whole, I liked them.

What you won’t find here are marvellous passages of visual description and world-building, alien strangeness, metaphysical trippery and all that sense-of-wonder stuff. In fact, the visual depiction of characters, settings, spacecraft, etc., is kept to a minimum. This is the other kind of science-fiction: the techy, Analog kind. And none the worse for that. I probably won’t ever read it again, but I plenty enjoyed reading it the first time.