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.
‘Coolies’ at work on Lipton’s Bandara Eliya Estate
‘A Favoured Class’
Tea and coffee cultivation – particularly the former – are highly labour-intensive. Even today, when automation has revolutionized nearly every field of human activity, manual labour remains one of the largest components in the production-cost of both commodities. Their profitability, in consequence, is strongly dependent on wages: the lower these are, the bigger, potentially, the profits. The logical conclusion is that it is most profitable to pay no wages at all, which explains why the great industrial plantations of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – sugar and coffee in the Caribbean and Brazil, tobacco and cotton in North America – were worked by slaves.
Thanks to William Wilberforce and the English Abolitionist movement, slavery was an option mercifully closed to coffee planters in Ceylon. Instead, they made use of the cheapest labour to hand: folk in such desperate straits that they were willing to work for next to nothing.
It took some time for this unpalatable necessity to become apparent. On the very first coffee plantations, the work was carried out by local labour, but this arrangement soon came to be regarded as unsatisfactory. It is sometimes explained in publications like this one that the Kandyans, with their feudal outlook and fields of their own to tend, simply disdained to indenture themselves to lives of endless drudgery on white men’s estates. The reputation for ‘indolence’ and ‘lack of enterprise’ that the Sinhalese gained among the British is said to have been a consequence of this – an ignorant misinterpretation of the high-caste paddy-farmer’s natural reluctance to turn himself into a common labourer. There is certainly some truth in this – among the Sinhalese, labour services or rajakariya were provided, by ancient tradition, not in return for money but in discharge of ancient tenurial and customary obligations – but it is nonetheless a fact that many plantations did employ Sinhalese labour – women as well as men – from time to time, a practice that continued long after the pioneer era had ended. Moreover, as a certain notorious remark by Thomas Maitland makes all too clear, the British had been complaining about the ‘indolence’ of the Sinhalese long before anyone thought of planting coffee in Ceylon. The reluctance of Kandyans to work on coffee-estates may have been at least partly due to the planters’ unwillingness to make the effort worth their while.
Whatever the truth of this, it soon became plain that an alternative source of cheap labour was needed for the plantation enterprise in Ceylon. It was found among the ‘barren and over-populated’ lands of southern India, which were home to vast numbers of desperately poor, uneducated and generally hopeless villagers who had no place in the East India Company’s schemes for the country. To these unhappy folk, any paid work – even work in a foreign land for subsistence wages under harsh and deprived conditions – was better than slow starvation at home. Indentured workers from India had already been used successfully as a substitute for slave labour on the sugar plantations of Mauritius, creating a precedent that Ceylon coffee-planters were quick to follow. There had always been Indians labouring in British Ceylon, though their numbers at first were small; it was not until the mid-1840s that planters began recruiting directly from India. Nevertheless, 6,400 ‘aliens and resident strangers’ were already living in the Central Province as early as 1832. Most of them were Tamil- or Telugu-speaking plantation workers from South India.
At first, unlike the indentured labourers of Mauritius, they were mainly seasonal migrants. Coffee, unlike tea, does not need year-round care and tending, so men and women came and went in response to the demand for labour. For the most part, they travelled by boat between the Malabar Coast of South India and ports like Mannar in northern Ceylon, from where they would make their way on foot into the hill country, enduring frightful privations along the way. The vessels in which they were borne were overcrowded, filthy and often unseaworthy; on land, they walked barefoot over mile upon mile of rough, desolate, unfamiliar country, prey to hunger, disease and attacks by wild animals, often losing their way or being lured from their path by ‘crimpers’ who sought to recruit them for other estates and purposes. Neither their employers nor the government of Ceylon provided anything in the way of guidance, shelter, transportation or medical care for these migrants. A.M. Ferguson put the death-rate among estate labourers during the 1840s at 250 per thousand.
Once a ‘coolie’ made it to the thottam and commenced work, he found his miniscule wages further diminished by various deductions to meet the cost of his passage, the expenses of the kangani who had recruited him and so on. Among these expenses were included the settlement of the labourer’s existing debts in India, which were paid off by the overseer or kangani so that he would be free to emigrate. All these debts were recorded on a ‘chit’ or thundu, and the new recruit discovered that he was obliged to work until he had paid off the full sum through compulsory deductions from his wages. If this was not disheartening enough, he soon found that, instead of shrinking, the debt grew bigger every time he found himself obliged to beg an advance on his wages in order to marry off a child or celebrate a religious festival. Thus the worker found himself trapped in a system of indenture only technically distinct from slavery. Meanwhile he worked from dawn to dusk under the merciless supervision of his kangani, and lived with four or more of his fellows in one small room of a cramped and insanitary ‘coolie line’, utterly cut off from the rest of the world. If he fell ill and grew too sick to work, he risked being turned off the estate to die by the side of the road and receive a pauper’s burial, courtesy of the local police. It would be some decades before the worst of these abuses ceased and the beginnings of an improvement in the coolies’ lot was seen.
For the most part, the inhumane nature of labourers’ treatment at the hands of the system was barely recognized. H.W. Cave, writing about Ceylon tea in 1900, described the living conditions of estate workers with an insensitivity typical of Europeans and educated Ceylonese of the colonial era:
Each compartment accommodates about four coolies, and it is obvious that they do not enjoy the luxury of much space; but their ideas of comfort are not ours, and they are better pleased to lie huddled together upon the mud floors of these tiny hovels than to occupy superior apartments. Their condition calls for no pity or sympathy...in many respects they are a favoured class.
Yet inevitably, despite the frightful conditions (and often because of the debt-trap into which they had fallen) some migrants would stay behind when each year’s working season ended. The planters encouraged this, because it gave them a handy pool of labour to draw upon. Thus, in time, a new community of ‘Indian Tamils’ grew up on the plantations of Ceylon. Its members lived in isolation from their Sinhalese neighbours, the physical separation between the two populations reinforcing the linguistic, religious and cultural differences that divided them. Two parallel economies and cultures, that of the village and that of the thottam, came to exist side by side in the hill country, with little mutual interaction or even very much contact. The coffee-estates became islands of foreignness – European-run, Indian-worked – in the rural heart of Lanka. The multitudinous consequences of this separation would only begin to be felt many generations in the future.