Sri Lanka: Empire, coffee and tea

Introduction

This article was written by Veera Mo and is posted on her behalf. Veera recently graduated from King’s with a First Class degree in International Relations and has been undertaking an undergraduate fellowship in Archives and Special Collections, researching material related to South Asia in preparation for a new Research Guide.

The new printed and illustrated guide will cover Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. It will span the early modern and modern periods and will cover political, military and social history, topography, natural history and culture.

ci_pl022This article relates to her research into the former British colony of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The images shown in this article are from the Official Catalogue of the Ceylon Court (1886). Please see the Bibliography for full details of this and other works mentioned in the article.

Veera writes:

It it is safe to say that the introduction of the camellia sinesis plant in 1824 changed the course of Sri Lankan history. Following a failed attempt at coffee production by British planters, tea plantations had incredible success, and eventually superseded the formerly predominant trade in cinnamon, coconut and pearls.

British involvement in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, began many years earlier. Indeed, in the late 1700s, Britain was engaged in imperial trade competition with the Dutch and the Portuguese. By 1815 they had captured the island from the Dutch East India Company, and proceeded to expand commercial activities in the non-settler colony.

The Foyle Special Collections Library holds copies of several rare items on the expansion of imperial trade and related works exploring what was termed the ‘Wonderland of the East’ and its potential.

The debate as to the suitability of the island for coffee production is evident in the works held in the Library. Tytler’s 1879 work entitled: The position and prospects of coffee production as affecting the value of Ceylon coffee estates, explains the potential competitiveness of Ceylonese coffee, despite the ravages of Coffee Leaf Disease. Six years later, Ferguson’s work, Ceylon & her planting enterprize in tea, cacao, cardamoms, cinchona, coconut, and areca palms critiques the zeal of the continued, but failing, coffee enterprise:

Theoretically it was shown many years ago that the climate and much of the soil of Ceylon were better suited for tea than coffee; but still the felling and clearing of the most beautiful and tropical forests in the world went on until from 400 to 500 squaremiles of country were covered with the one shrub, Coffea Arabica.

Title page of Officila catalogue of the Ceylon Court, 1886By 1886, faith in the tea plant was evidently growing among British planters. Produced for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, 1886, the Official handbook and catalogue of the Ceylon Court introduces Ceylon through its many resources, particularly emphasising the potential of the tea trade.

Later successes in tea production ensured that Ceylon tea became the glory of the island. The more touristically minded work, A handbook on Ceylon: the Wonderland of the East, even appears to contain a marketing attempt, where other teas are described as ‘rubbishy’ in comparison to those produced in Ceylon.

The introduction of the tea plant to Sri Lanka played a role not only in the island’s own historical development, but also in shaping British beverage habits. In fact, tea was partially popularised in the United Kingdom through Thomas Lipton’s entrepeneurship in Ceylon. He bought himself some Ceylon tea gardens in order to cut out the middle-man and produce ‘an inexpensive blend for the public’ (Wickramasinghe & Cameron 2005:127).

ci_tpfr2The expansion of tea production had several consequences beyond production and consumption, and its success was not only determined by favourable soil and coincidence.

The British planters saw the proximity to India as a source of cheap labour as the key advantage in Ceylonese tea production. Hence, imperial trade expansion of plantations began to influence local hierarchies and structures. In many ways, these developments were to shape the foundations of the Sri Lanka we see today.

Select Bibliography

John Ferguson. Ceylon and her planting enterprise in tea, cacao, cardamoms, cinchona, coconut, and areca palms: a field for the investment of British capital and energy: giving opinions of a number of planters of diversified experience in the colony : also, estimates of the outlay on, and return from, a variety of products. Colombo: AM & J Ferguson, 1885  [Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection SB108.S72  CEY]

Samuel Nicholas. A handbook on Ceylon “The Wonderland of the East”. H.W. Cave & Co: Colombo, 1939 [Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection DS489 NIC]

Official handbook and catalogue of the Ceylon Court. London: William Clowes & Sons Ltd., 1886  [Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection T696.G1 COL]

RB Tytler. The position and prospects of coffee production as affecting the value of Ceylon coffee estates. Aberdeen: Free Press Printing Company, 1879 [Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection HD9199.S722 TYT]

DW Wickramasinghe & CD Cameron. ‘British capital, Ceylonese land, Indian labour: The imperialism and colonialism of evolution of tea plantations in Sri Lanka’. Critical Management Studies Conference (Management and Organizational History), Cambridge. Vol. 4, 2005

 

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