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.

Tea planters and their wives at the Darawella Club, 1880s

A New Century

Old hands like Jenkins, recalling the testing conditions under which planters had laboured in the past, sometimes looked askance at the new generation. And indeed, the tea-planters of the 1890s and 1900s were men of a different stamp. Long gone were the mettlesome lads and wild adventurers of the early days of coffee, and gone too were the planter-proprietors and dedicated salarymen of the brief summer of its maturity. Even the embittered but determined lionhearts who had assisted at the long labour that preceded the birth of tea had now entered their respectable majority. The gentrification of the planting class – the full flowering, some might say, of the plantocracy – had begun in the late days of coffee, but was only fully accomplished in the age of tea.
       Though some old stagers might regret the lost informality and freedom of the past, there was no question that the new ways were better. The hills of Lanka in the 1830s and 1840s had been, in the most literal sense, among the frontiers of Western civilization, and it was a frontier spirit that animated those who had lived among them. Young, womanless men from the impoverished farms and slums of Britain, out to make good, had endured loneliness, toil and squalor for years on end, finding little relief except in drunkenness, roughhousing and escapades with female labourers and other local women. Their lives were troubled and often short, but they made smooth the way for those who came after them.
       Roads, railways and comfortable bungalows did more than improve conditions for the planters themselves. They also brought with them the most powerful civilizing influence known to man, namely woman. With the ladies came domesticity and polite conversation, soft beds and harmoniums, churches, charitable works and, soon enough, children. A new kind of social life evolved, centred on the teapot and the Sunday School picnic rather than the card-table and whisky-bottle. So subtle – and seductive – was the change that later, some planters could scarcely remember when it had begun.

I am not sure whether the new social ways came in with the ladies or with the leaf disease. I only know our simple ways suddenly changed in many places; such as dressing for dinner and that sort of thing, never heard of in the jungle before the sixties.

Whenever it began, it was certainly in full cry by 1881, the year that Ernst Haeckel, a famous German naturalist and explorer, paid a visit to what were then still known as the ‘coffee districts’ of Ceylon and remarked upon the widespread enforcement of ‘the strict rules of English etiquette, in which even a solitary planter dwelling in the wilds of the tropics would think it derogatory and ill-bred to fail.’ Since his own tastes veered sharply towards the informal, Haeckel found this insistence on the social niceties amusing and at times absurd:

I remember with dismay a certain evening, when I arrived, after sundown, and quite tired out, at a very remote plantation, and the hospitable master gave me distinctly to understand that he expected to see me at dinner, which was just ready, in a black tail-coat and white tie. My sincere regrets and explanation that my light tourist’s kit for this excursion in the mountain wilds could not possibly include black evening dress, did not prevent my host from donning it in my honour, nor his wife, the only other person at table, from appearing in full dinner toilet.

Still, Haeckel was by no means insensitive to the uncompromising demands of plantation life:

(The planters’) lonely lives are unvaried but by hard work, and they have much to sacrifice... Work is the watchword here – work, think, and superintend from dawn till night. I always found my hosts at work by daybreak.
     The residences being as a rule very far apart, neighbourly intercourse is extremely limited, and the ladies, particularly, lead very lonely lives. Many of them find small compensation for this privation in the perfect freedom it affords them within the limits of their extensive estates, or in the constant presence of the beauties of nature, which for an appreciative soul must here be an unfailing source of enjoyment.

Twenty years later, opportunities for ‘neighbourly intercourse’ had expanded along with the up-country road network and the membership-rolls of planters’ clubs such as the Dimbula Athletic & Cricket Club (founded 1856) and the Dickoya & Maskeliya (‘Darawella’) Cricket Club (1868). Governor Barnes’s hill station of Nuwara Eliya was now, with its famous Hill Club and newly opened (1889) Golf Club, a recognized social centre for planters. Other planting districts, too, had their centres of conviviality: the Kelani Valley Club, the Bogawantalawa Club, the Uva Club. Planters’ lives were no longer quite as lonely as they had been.
       Their work, too, had become a good deal easier as the industry grew more stable and profitable in the new century. The theory and practice of tea-planting were by now tried and tested: planters might argue contentedly over the details of pruning, plucking and so on, but they had a body of established practice to follow instead of having to improvise their own methods as they went along. The labourers and kanganis, too, had developed occupational skills within their own communities, making the tasks of supervision and management considerably lighter. Planting, once the recourse of poor lads with broad shoulders and narrow prospects, was becoming a suitable occupation for the younger sons of the English nobility and other well-bred fortune-seekers. The already high status of the planter in Ceylon society was further enhanced by these upper-class arrivals, for in addition to their social cachet many of them also turned out to be ‘extremely solid characters’. Ceylon, it seems, was lucky; the newcomers, for the most part, settled down and worked hard rather than using their distance from home as an excuse to plumb the depths of decadence and vice, as planting aristocrats later did in Kenya’s Happy Valley and certain other parts of the British Empire.
       It was also at about this time that the first Ceylonese planters began arriving on the scene. Although a few Sinhalese (members of the de Soysa family prominent among them) had owned plantations ever since the coffee era, those properties had always been managed by white men. With the exception of one or two wealthy Indians, estate superintendents and assistants were always European. Now, however, a growing number of Burghers and Sinhalese could be found amongst the fraternity. The numbers of the latter increased after it was discovered that good tea could also be grown in the lowlands of Ceylon, prompting many coastal and southern landlords to convert their coconut estates and other lands to tea-cultivation.
       As was only to be expected, there was at first a certain tension between the Europeans and the ‘natives’. It seemed to the latter that the august Planters’ Association was dismissive of their views and concerns, which often differed from those of the (mostly European) up-country planters. To many Ceylonese, indeed, it seemed at times that ‘the policy of the government in regards to economic, commercial, and even fiscal questions was dictated by the Planter’s Association, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and the voice of Queen’s House’ rather than by any concern for the people of the island. In 1909, a group under the leadership of the politician and municipal councillor James (later Sir James) Pieris set up the Low Country Products Association to represent Ceylonese planters and proprietors. The LCPA was, in its own way, as much an elite body as was the PA: apart from Pieris himself, its inaugural meeting was also attended by D.S. Senanayake, later to become the first prime minister of independent Ceylon, and several other prominent Ceylonese who would play vital roles in the political, judicial and economic future of the island. In time, the Association would receive the right to nominate a member to the Legislative Council, just as the PA already had.

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