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
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.