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

Shrunken and scarred by the Great Depression, the Ceylon tea industry survived, though not without yet another shakeout of planter-proprietors and independent landowners and a further consolidation of estates and estate-company assets. The small group of agency-house and plantation-company dealmakers grew smaller still, and tighter-knit, further concentrating power within the industry even as its political influence in the wider world began to diminish.
       One result of this rationalization of plantation ownership was to establish a higher career path for professional planters. It had long been established that a planter would begin his career as a ‘creeper’ on a company estate. During this time he would be taught every aspect of tea cultivation and manufacture from weeding, pruning and plucking upwards, till there was no task on the estate he could not carry out himself. After mastering a wealth of practical and theoretical lore, he would be promoted to assistant superintendent or sinna dorai (usually on a different estate owned by the same company). After some years as an SD, he would finally attain the rank of superintendent, with an estate of his own to manage. Saving transfers to larger and more important properties, this was where most planters’ careers reached their peak, though a handful might be chosen for the plum job of visiting agent by the agency house that employed them.
       Now, with consolidation, management posts at company headquarters in Colombo became available for senior planters who had done their time ‘in the field’, with a directorship or partnership in further prospect for some. As one historian of the industry has put it, ‘the Agency House style of management provided the incentive for planters to ascend the rungs of this “plantocracy”.’ It also provided the means. The divisions between planters and the trade, growers and sellers, were partly elided as a result of this, so that – for a time, at least – the Ceylon tea industry spoke with a more coherent voice.
       Another effect of the Depression was a kind of de facto Ceylonization of the industry. Though there had always been a few native planters employed by European-owned firms, up-country plantations (as well as many Ceylonese-owned low-country ones) had tended to employ Britons as PDs and SDs. Technical and clerical staff were also often British, with a salting of other Europeans and Burghers. As the number of educated, Anglicized Ceylonese multiplied during the Twenties, it occurred to some estate companies that these expensive Europeans might be more cheaply replaced by suitably qualified locals; they began taking on a few Ceylonese as ‘creepers’. When the Depression struck, retrenchment affected European staff on many plantations, and after trade began to improve again towards the end of the decade it was these young Ceylonese planters who inherited their places. For the most part, the local men mirrored the outlook and attitudes of their foreign predecessors, seeing themselves as very much part of the imperial plantocracy – though, ironically, their arrival was a symptom of its obsolescence.
       Meanwhile, the Depression ran its course. As far as the tea trade was concerned, it was over by 1937. World tea prices, bolstered by the International Tea Regulation Scheme, had risen past the psychologically critical shilling-a-pound mark as early as mid-1933, and while they had then remained almost static for nearly three years, Ceylon tea continued to enjoy a clear price premium over other varieties at auction, just at it had during the boom times. This was the most convincing proof yet of the value of the Ceylon brand and the veracity of the quality claim that sustained it.

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The Depression also inspired a revival of marketing and promotional efforts that had grown almost moribund since the discontinuation of the Tea Propaganda Cess in 1908. Although a key impetus was the industry’s commitment to generic tea promotion under the first International Tea Agreement, Ceylon planters and merchants put more effort into publicizing their own product. For once the whole industry was in agreement; a joint committee of the Planters’ Association, CEPA, the Chamber of Commerce and the Colombo Tea Traders’ Association quickly agreed to pool their resources in order to create a separate body charged with publicity and promotion, and to finance it with yet another cess. The Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board was established by State Council Ordinance in June 1932. All the founding associations were represented on it, together with the government (in the persons of the Financial Secretary and the Minister of Labour, Industry & Commerce, or their respective nominees), delegates from the Low-Country Products Association and the Ceylon Merchants’ Chamber, and individuals selected to represent the small traders and smallholders (who had been particularly hard hit by the Depression).
       The Board scored an early coup with the help of the Empire Marketing Board in London, which had its own film production unit, operated in partnership with the UK General Post Office. Through this unit, the Tea Propaganda Board commissioned the making of four one-reel promotional films about Ceylon to be shown in cinemas round the world. A rising young filmmaker, Basil Wright, was chosen to direct the one-reelers, footage from which was later edited together to make a longer film that was released in 1934 under the title Song of Ceylon.
       It is open to question whether Song of Ceylon did anything to improve tea sales in the countries where it was shown. Though technically a documentary, it says very little about tea, though a few scenes do show estates and tea-pluckers at work. Mostly, the film consists of beautifully shot and creatively edited scenes of Ceylon life with an emphasis on the picturesque and ‘exotic’. The soundtrack consists mainly of excerpts from Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, a seventeenth-century work, read by the Ceylonese photographer and aesthete Lionel Wendt. The suggestion to involve Wendt had come from the director of the Tea Propaganda Board, G.K. Stewart, and Wright was understandably wary of the recommendation, but his qualms dissolved as soon as he met the photographer. ‘Within five minutes we were both roaring with laughter’, he later told reporters. Wendt, who knew Ceylon intimately and in depth, turned out to be a great asset to the production, guiding and instructing Wright and his crew as they toured the country, visited the ruined cities, climbed Adam’s Peak and filmed the people of the island at work, play and worship. The finished work received widespread critical acclaim – Graham Greene, for instance, thought Song of Ceylon ‘an example to all directors of perfect construction and the perfect application of montage’ – and doubtless inspired many tourist visits, even if it failed to sell much tea.
       During most of the Thirties the CTPB was involved mainly with generic ‘Empire tea’ promotion (Ceylon’s allotted promotional field being Canada) and international tea advertising under the terms of the ITRS. It also began to promote the national product more seriously in the home market. Here the Board had an uphill task, for the tea available to consumers in Ceylon scarcely matched the quality of product destined for international consumers. Historically, tea-producing countries within the British Empire had never been large tea consumers; this only began to change with the Depression, when desperate planters and traders sought to sell their tea to anyone who would buy it. In 1928, producer countries accounted for just over 4 per cent of world consumption; by 1936, the figure was above 9 per cent.
       Yet much of the Tea Propaganda Board’s early domestic activity seemed to be aimed at foreign residents or visitors: its most spectacular achievement of the time was a huge billboard, 232 feet in length, that stood on the Colombo waterfront, spelling out the words ceylon for good tea in fifteen-foot-high letters that could be read from ships entering and leaving the harbour. It was the world’s largest illuminated sign – and of course, completely illegible to anyone inland. ‘Ceylonization’ of the tea trade plainly had some way to go yet.


  1. I really enjoyed your writings on the tea industry. I will be working in Sri Lanka for a few weeks in July for a Churchill Fellowship project on tea, empire and indenture, and would love to get in touch with you to learn a little more about what you've been working on. Would this be possible?

  2. I would be delighted to, Mr Subbiah. Please send a private message to the Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation page on Facebook and I'll give you my contact details.

  3. Loved your writings on Ceylon Tea and presented my copy of it to my 90 year old father-in-law and mother-in-law who to date have daily discussions about it over a cup of Loolecondera!