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.

A newly-planted coffee estate, with the stumps of felled
forest trees still standing among the coffee bushes.

‘The Happiest of Mortals’

The young men employed to ‘open up’ the hill country in coffee did not find the work easy. Across the pathless mountains and ravines of Maya Rata each took his separate, arduous way, struggling through the clammy up-country forest, coping as best he could with elephants, bears, venomous snakes and bloodsucking parasites, till at last he came upon the place his employer had assigned him. This might be some distance – often several days’ trek – from the nearest road. If he was lucky, there would be a shelter of some kind awaiting him; more often, he would have to erect one himself, with the help of his hired workmen. Since the men’s principal duties (and the planter’s) were to clear the forest and prepare the ground for coffee, there was little time or incentive for architectural flights of fancy. John Capper, the editor-proprietor of the Times of Ceylon, paid his first visit to a coffee-planter’s ‘bungalow’ in 1840 and found a ‘miserable little cabin’, which he took for a fowl-house ‘or perhaps a receptacle for tools’. Capper thought that even the mud huts in which the workers lived appeared more comfortable than this mean dwelling, but his host the planter, whose eyes were firmly fixed upon tomorrow’s riches, ‘thought himself the happiest of mortals’ and expressed himself more than satisfied. His former home had been a shelter of talipot-palm leaves, under which he had slept until his shack was completed.
       This was in 1840, but Frederick Lewis, a veteran planter whose career spanned both the coffee and tea eras, encountered very similar conditions as late as 1874 when he was sent to ‘open up’ a new coffee estate in Dimbula:

My new home... consisted of a log hut, comprising one room 12x8 feet. The logs were roughly fitted into each other to make a shell, with an opening at one end for a door, over which hung a mat. The floor was the bare ground, from which a few stumps and roots had been roughly removed. The roof consisted of talipot leaves... A similar but smaller ‘shanty’ adjoined, to serve as a kitchen, while for furniture, a couple of planks made my table, a three legged stool was my only chair, and some sticks covered with a little grass supplied my bed!

If the accommodation was bad, the food easily matched it. On remote estates, where a ‘coolie’ sent to Kandy or Nuwara Eliya for supplies might have to spend an entire week on the round trip, planters lived on a monotonous diet of rice and chicken curry supplemented by ‘shooting for the pot’. Bread, if available at all, was often ten days old by the time it reached the thottam, mouldy and covered with ants. ‘Toasted was the best way to eat it,’ observed R.W. Jenkins, another planter whose career spanned both coffee and tea. These dietary deficiencies were often made up, or at least made tolerable, by frequent recourse to spirituous consolation.
       Once in situ, the new planter would enlist the aid of a group of experienced Sinhalese woodsmen to clear the land by cutting down the trees and ‘burning off’ the fallen timber. Capper’s almost lyrical description of the technique of felling, quoted by D.M. Forrest in A Hundred Years of Ceylon Tea, is well worth reading at full length. Equally spectacular was the burn-off, which was delayed for about a month after the felling to allow the wood time to dry out. ‘I know of no more awe-inspiring sight than a thousand acres on fire,’ wrote Frederick Lewis.

Sheets of flame leap into the air and yell with a sort of devilish delight at their victory over the magnificent trees they are reducing... After the fire has completed its work, the land is covered with black logs, lumps of charred timber, masses and often great fragments of stones, broken by the heat that has swept over them. A deep black covers the landscape; impressive, but depressing.

Depressing indeed; entire mountainsides were laid waste in this fashion, a glorious profusion of wild species and habitats mercilessly effaced to make way for the regimentation of industrial monoculture. Such despoliation was the invariable fate of nature in the Victorian era, an age of worldwide exploration, expanding populations and booming industry in which the apparently unstoppable march of progress was regretted by none but a few Romantics and well-heeled aesthetes. It is only in the past half-century or so that humanity has learnt to count the environmental cost of industrial and economic development, and to regret what has been lost. A hundred and fifty years ago, hardly anybody thought in such terms: Nature was simply an adversary, to be fought, tamed and exploited for the benefit of humankind. It would be unfair to judge such behaviour by our own standards, for our forerunners thought differently from us and did not have the benefit of our knowledge. Moreover, we are their heirs; and so long as we continue to enjoy the economic benefits of the plantation enterprise they bequeathed us, it does us no credit to condemn them.

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