Richard Simon’s Book a compulsive page turner till the end

By Steve A. Morrell

He gave it the title ‘Ceylon Tea the Trade That Made a Nation’. Within its pages the comment ‘This may not be a scholarly literary work’ was perhaps an afterthought. Whatever Richard says about himself and his work, perspective content of the metamorphosis of the plantations and an irresistible enactment of the, as he says, ‘rough and tumble’ of that evolution is succinctly captured in its pages.

In its current representation, the brand, ‘Ceylon Tea’, in international trade circles is now only of historical importance. ‘Lipton’, continues to be strong, although its origins are traced to its strength of origin to ‘Ceylon’.

This book, however, would reclassify the ‘Ceylon Tea’, Brand to bring back its integrity and meaning that existed when London was the auction center. When Colombo perhaps usurped that strength, and was, repeat, was, a world Tea Trade origin that buyers flocked to purchase their tea.

When the Brits were literally kicked out of the plantations, and nationalization of the industry became the ‘Peoples’, choice, internationally, the catch phrase was that ‘Ceylon Tea’, was done and buried. Most Planters however thought otherwise.

What happened then as candidly accounted, the Author moved through the throes of Nationalization and the partial treatment of the Kandyan peasantry, and eventual land alienation policy in the Matale and Kandyan Districts, which proved disastrous. He did not specify the quantum of alienation but his allusion to this land policy placed the industry in the hell hole it sank into; notwithstanding the traditional fear of hard work that the peasantry could not match the Indian Tamil workers.

In turn, those planting at that time did think they would not be affected. But the shock of stage II nationalization did hit home. Thus began typical government inertia and the usual malaise of State impotence that quite quickly effectively and successfully plunged the industry into chaos.

He rationalized the rot did set in and consequentially resurgence of Tea and its industrial importance not in reversal to its ‘good old days’, but an emergence to a more vibrant form of industrial acumen would in time set the pace for productivity. But not till the change of government in 1977, and the UNP’s power base in the JR Jayawardene government was there some excitement that re-privatizing might yet be a possibility.

He correctly remarked re-privatization was not enthusiastically accepted. There were yet some Expats in Colombo who said if the President requested, they might manage some 20,000 hectares and that was all. These views were skillfully portrayed within content of the book.

But then Gamini Dissanayake, and the Ranjan Wijeratne era, ensured the expected resurgence of the industry.

The author personalized successes of Ranjan Wijeratne, (RW) who meant business when he characterized ‘blue eyed boys’, and his no-nonsense attitude which produced results.

We were part of those days. For that matter, being in the State Plantations Corporation being led by RW, instilled that sense of urgency among all of us who were part of the SLSPC Team. The literary work captured this enthusiasm when he recorded that most estates at that time were profitable.

The Tea industry was resurrected. But only for a time. When RW was appointed Junior Minister of Defense, he was obliged to concentrate on his new subject, and quite unfortunately the plantations slipped back.

What of the workers? There is substantial space devoted to this aspect of the Plantations’ evolution. From the tragedy of the Head Kangany system, when workers would be herded by boat to Mannar, and then on foot through the thick jungles of the North, till they reached their appointed Estates, the entire system encapsulated the squalor they had to deal with. Disease, death, and the wretchedness of those times are graphically recorded. Does not leave a desirable view of those times. Planters of a later era were sensitive to those hardships, and again, thanks to the foresight of the RW era respectability for workers were part of the plantation ethos prevailing today.

The Author has been brutal in dealing with this subject. From Thondaman, the birth of the CWC in 1939, and the industrial disputes that were part of the plantations, the violence of trade union action, the subjugation of those times are not lost. Line rooms, lack of sanitation, leaking roofs, crowded accommodation, have all been realistically dealt to portray that all was not well in the estate sector at that time.

He has been fair though. Hark to the present. Privatization brought about its attributable bright aspects to worker welfare. They now have suitable housing, well, not in large measure, but some advantage to workers; and family welfare measures that could be alternatives to retain work forces on these Estates. He indirectly touched on the Plantation Human Development Trust and its work, with passing reference to worker welfare. But such measures may be too little too late. The Estates’ work force dwindled to half its number, although welfare measures are in place.

Richard Simon has also not ignored the social life of the planting community. Clubs; the center of such gatherings, were established to ensure Planters did have ‘Club day’, they could look forward to each week. We were given the afternoon off to be at the club. Club day was compulsory. Tennis, High Tea, the Flicks, and Bridge, Snookers, and more importantly, a well stocked library. That was the only recreation we had apart from the radio. No TV. If Planters did not read, other recreation included fishing, and occasional shooting trip to the jungles.

DACC, Dimbula Athletic and Cricket Club, DMCC, Dickoya Maskeliya Cricket Club, similarly, the Nuwara Eliya Golf club, Hill Club, have all been featured to extenuate the fabric of the Planting community prevailing in those times.

Planting was The profession to be accepted into, for a young man. Doors opened to the Sinhalese, the Burghers, who all made excellent Planters. And more importantly, they delivered. Those of us who joined in the late 50’s and early 60’s. we were ‘Company Planters’. This review would not include the Tea Trade, or other aspects of the book. But suffice it to say, skill of its presentation, and the detailed research of its content will result in its recognition as a major literary contribution that would be a privilege to own.

Most definitely, Mr. Richard Simon, sorry I have to disagree with you. It is a Scholarly work of major proportions, and fittingly, an excellent contribution to 150 years of the Tea industry in this country.

Well done.