Barron’s Mss History of British Planters via Three Case Studies

Tom J. Barron … a typed Manuscript I discovered in my study; …. an article drafted in 1972/73 [see below]; … essay that does not seem to have appeared in print [see elaboration at the end] …Highlighting emphasis is the work of The Editor, Thuppahi

The history of British plantation enterprise in Ceylon is a relatively neglected topic. Most historical works on 19th and 20th century Ceylon mention the estates, but few have troubled to give them any special attention. In some ways the neglect is rather surprising for by the 1870’s. if not earlier, Ceylon was celebrated throughout the world as one of the most progressive and enterprising centres of tropical agriculture. The reputation of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens and of its most distinguished director, Dr. G. H. K. Thwaites, extended far beyond Ceylon, and Ceylon’s contribution to the science of botany and to the study of agricultural economics was widely regarded as second to none. But, for reasons that are not difficult to detect, the planters have never greatly appealed as heroic figures to the historians of independent Ceylon. For the most part the estates were situated in the hills of the central highlands, remote from the affairs of the mass of her people; the capital and business organization which supported these enterprises were largely imported from Europe; the proprietors, superintendents and assistants who ran the estates were mostly British by birth; and the labour force was recruited principally from South India. There is another difficulty, too; considered from the standpoint of independent, nationalist Ceylon, the planters, who relied upon and openly supported the imperial political and economic systems, are not very sympathetic individuals. Dr. Bastiampillai speaks for many people in Ceylon when he refers to the planters, in his book on Sir William Gregory’s administration, as ‘petulant and peevish,’ ‘self—interested’ and ‘unreasonable.’ It is interesting to note, however, that recently some local historians (of when Dr. Lal Jayawardena and Dr. Michael Roberts are principal) have begun to challenge the notion of the ‘dual economy,‘ to question the theory that most Ceylonese were unaffected by the changes introduced by large-scale plantation agriculture, and to re-examine the achievements which the planters made.

My purpose today is more modest than theirs. What I would like to do is to look at the history of the British planters in Ceylon over the last 150 years and to consider what important changes have taken place which seem to mark out one generation from another. The progress of British plantation enterprise in Ceylon, it seems to me, can be divided into three basic periods. The first began with the foundation of a coffee estate by George Bird in the early 1820’s and ended with the severe depression which overtook the plantation industry in 1846-9. The second phase began in the 1850’s with the recovery and establishment of coffee as the major plantation export crop and lasted until the 1880’s by which time ‘King Coffee’ had been deposed and his throne usurped by the invader, Tea. The last era began in the 1890’s with the more broadly-based economy of tea, rubber and coconuts and may end shortly when the remaining 30 British planters in Ceylon depart from the scene.

To illustrate the developments within these three periods, I have chosen three case studies — the biographies of three planters who I think are in some ways typical or representative of their generation. The three I have chosen are (in reverse order) Col. T. Y. Wright (Ceylon dates, 1889—1950), author of ‘Ceylon in My Time;’ James Taylor (1852-1892), generally regarded as the founder of the tea industry in Ceylon; and a third planter who I will have to call Mr. X (1843-1847?). My purpose in concealing the identity of the third example is not to be deliberately mysterious or enigmatic but simply to get round the difficulty that I have not yet been able to discover his name. All I know about Mr. X’s pedigree is that his grandson was R. B. Naish, a Ceylon civil servant, who donated a collection of his letters (minus signatures) to the Institute of South Asian studies, Cambridge. Despite his anonymity, however, I think Mr. X is a highly significant figure in the history of British planting in Ceylon and it is with him that I will begin.

Of his domestic background, we are told very little, but it is clear from internal evidence in the letters that he comes from a fairly well-to-do family. He moved in the same social circles as colonial civil servants, he perhaps knew a little about industrial machinery, he was fairly well—educated and, most significantly, he was heavily in debt. In October 1842, when he was (at a guess) about 20 years old, he met in England Mr. C. R. Buller, then on leave from his post as Government Agent, Kandy. Buller told him that he had just bought an estate called Oorakanda in Kegalle, and offered him the job of superintendent. The estate was uncultivated and his duties were to clear the land and open it in coffee. Doubtless influenced by his pecuniary embarrassments, Mr. X promptly accepted, although he says he had never been to Ceylon before nor seen a coffee estate in his life.

On the other hand, Mr. X was clearly a man of quick-wits and intelligence, for he immediately began to question his employer about the soil and climate of Ceylon and about the differences between agriculture in Ceylon and in the West Indies. Perhaps he himself (like many planters of this period) had been to the West Indies or read of its plantation industry. His questioning rather embarrassed Buller who was forced to confess an equally total ignorance of the subject of Ceylon agriculture. But Buller offered his new employee the time-honoured advice (dear to scholarly minds of all ages and climes) that he should get the subject up from a good text—book. Accordingly, Mr. X purchased Porter’s ‘Tropical Agriculture’. In using this method, incidentally, he did no more than most early planters were to do though Mr. Laborie’s ‘The Coffee Planter of St. Domingo’ rather than Porter was to become the standard text. Fortunately, a text-book was not his only resource. On board ship on the way to Ceylon he met William Tindall (a relative of a shipping magnate, then en route for Sumatra) who taught him about coffee planting in the West Indies. On the same ship he also met Buller’e nephew, Mr. Little, who was going out to learn planting before being entrusted with another of the G. A.’s estates, so we may suppose that much ship-board conversation centred on the prospects that were to await them.

Once on the estate, Mr. X was precipitated into the difficult and trying work of clearing and opening a new estate in a remote and unfamiliar territory. ‘Twas rough enough at the start,’ he confided to his cousins, ‘but am much more comfortable now [a year later] though what would be a hardship in England is none here.‘ His main problems stemmed from his isolation. There was no one available to give him any advice on the work — a fleeting visit from Buller was all he saw of a white man in the first twelve months of his stay. To obtain provisions was hard — the nearest market was at Uthuwankande, seven miles away, and his efforts to make a good bridle road there did not progress very quickly. Like many others, he also had financial worries. He does not say what Buller paid him but, after paying his house servant 30/- per month and a boy 12/— per month plus all his living expenses, he managed to save £40 at the end of his first year. Probably he earned about £100 to £150, respectable by contemporary standards but not enough to allow an early prospect of clearing off his debts. His estate expenses were an even bigger headache. He spent £1,300 in the first l8 months on felling and planting 100 acres and building a plant nursery. Thereafter, Buller attempted to enforce a £50 a month limit on all expenses (including his superintendent’s pay) with the result that the labour force had to be cut from 80 to 34. This virtually meant the end of weeding.

The supervision of his predominantly Sinhalese labour force was also difficult since Mr. X did not speak the language and was forced to employ an overseer (at £3 per month) as an intermediary. Nonetheless he was able at first to attract village labour to his estate at what he considered to be the very reasonable wage of 16/6 a month. This wage rate he regarded as a personal triumph: ‘I had so much trouble getting men at first. They got up a strike or combination not to begin at less than 1/- per day; but I waited a month and sent to Colombo for men which brought the villagers to their senses.‘ The victory, however, was short-lived. A year later he was forced to pay 28/- a month to keep them at work; and when the crisis of 1846 came, and money ran short, he was forced to dismiss them altogether and replace them with Indian immigrants. The latter received only 18/— a month. Here X’s experience was probably unusual except for its end result. On higher estates the villagers almost from the first refused the work offered them and Indian labour had become general long before 1846.

Despite all his difficulties. Mr. X became genuinely interested in his work and rapidly acquired the outlook of a pioneer planter. For example, he became quite skilled at judging the soil and conditions necessary for coffee production and within 18 months he rightly asserted that Buller had made a poor choice for his estate (the soil being too clay-ridden and the aspect too exposed to the south-west monsoon winds). Secondly, he came to see himself as the helpless victim of an ignorant, uncaring British government (particularly because of the equalization of the coffee duties for empire and non-empire countries in 1846). Thirdly, he regarded the British settlers as the main progressive force  in Ceylon: the Sinhalese, despite the high quality of their work, were ‘the laziest, idlest set of vagabonds ever created,‘ This View undoubtedly stemmed immediately from his discovery that the local villagers were impervious to the appeal of capitalism: ‘they don’t care,’ he remarked. ‘having all gardens, paddy fields and cocoa trees.‘ The

fourth way in which he adapted to his role as planter was to become an amateur mechanic. He subscribed to the ‘Practical Mechanics Magazine’ and was busy planning improvements to the crusher (a machine designed to separate parchment and husk in the coffee berry) when disaster overtook the estate in 1847. What became of Mr. X thereafter is something of a mystery. Perhaps, like many other later victims of coffee depressions he used his skills elsewhere in the Empire in some of the other colonies which were then offering openings for young men with a knowledge of agriculture.

Of our second planter, James Taylor, a great deal more is known. He was born on Lord Monboddo’s estate in Laurencekirk, Kincardineshire. Scotland in 1835. His father was a wheelwright who worked on the estate and there is every reason to suppose that the son had a considerable practical knowledge of market-gardening and of the manufacture of agricultural implements before he left home. He was also a man of complete moral probity (no debts for him) and was intelligent and well-educated for his age and background. he had been a pupil-teacher since the age of 14 at the village school. It is practically certain that these were the qualities which lead to his appointment at the age of 16 to a job in Ceylon. Unlike Mr. X, he was carefully selected by a professional planter (Peter Moir) who was scouting on behalf of an agency firm (Messrs. C. F. & F. J. Hadden) for assistants to superintend their estates in Ceylon.

The difficulties which Taylor confronted in his work were also quite unlike those that Mr. X faced though both were employed in clearing and opening an estate. Instead of an unassisted adventure with text-book and his wits, Taylor found himself, for his first five years, subject to the discipline (though, he says, it was very lax discipline) of an experienced European supervisor. In order to get his three year contract extended, he was warned that he must acquire the good opinion of his superiors. He, therefore, learned by example, not trial and error. Another difference was that his labour force (now exclusively South Indian except for work done on contract) was thoroughly well trained. ‘If he [the employer, George Pride] had not coolies that understand better than I do,’ he told his father, ‘I could not do at all.‘ No longer was the work improvised: it had become a matter of simple routine. Even after taking charge of an estate of his own, at the end of his fifth year of service, Taylor had an easier lot than Mr. X. He was, it is true, subjected to a strict control of his expenditure and the regular inspection of his work by the agency house’s Visiting Agent, but while disliking ‘interference‘ Taylor was more often critical of his employer’s ‘extravagance’ than meanness and of his V. A.’s neglect or reticence than the opposite. The bulk of Taylor’s time and attention was not spent on getting the estate going but on maximizing its productivity. By a process of study (he built up a large 1ibrary) and experiment, Taylor acquired a thorough familiarity with what he called ‘scientific agriculture.’ especially in the field of botany.

Taylor’s advice to a young planter in one of his letters home is a perfect illustration of his inquiring, disciplined mind and merits a lengthy quotation:”Everything goes wrong in innumerable ways unless managed with a constant attention and consideration which no one not thoroughly interested can give. Besides this there is the improvement of planting constantly going on and no one scarcely, unless by means of his money, can become of any particular importance unless he advances this…. It is a hard, anxious struggle to make it pay in most cases, besides the every-vexing anxieties about all the minutiae concerned with it; and it is by no means an agreeable job.”

In addition to his work on cultivation, Taylor successfully introduced refinements into the design and construction of the estate machinery (his first being a coffee dryer). He also became a skilled surveyor, saving his employer much expense, and a competent irrigation engineer. Few planters of his age, perhaps, had quite so many talents or quite such obvious skill, but what he did supremely well all others performed as their abilities allowed. Perhaps Taylor’s greatest success was in the field of labour relations since the difficulties in attracting and keeping a sufficient labour force were considerable. This expertise was not guarded jealously as perhaps it would have been in the age of rugged individualism before 1850. It was generously shared with what we can now call the planting community in an age more conscious of the need for solidarity — for example, through letters to the ‘planting press,’ by the activities of the Planters’ Association (founded 1854), by personal contacts, and as a tutor (or Peria Durai) for a generation of assistants (Sinne Durais). In addition, the Visiting Agent collected information from Taylor directly and distributed it throughout the estates within the agency. Hence Taylor’s early experiments with cinchona and tea in the 1860’s were taken up subsequently by the whole planting community.

In terms of outlook and attitudes, there is little to distinguish Taylor from Mr, X. though Taylor had obviously identified with Ceylon far more than Mr. X did. He knew some Sinhalese and Tamil, loved the scenery with a Wordsworthian passion, and lived with a Tamil girl for a time and latterly kept a Sinhalese house-keeper to whom he left his life’s savings (those were not very large). But he was equally prejudiced against local peoples, the government and the proprietors. The only striking difference is that Taylor saw himself as part of an imperial community which had achieved something worth admiring. The imperial community, however, he defined only narrowly:

 “Really neither the English nor Irish in this part of the world are nearly as good as Scotchmen with few exceptions. Even English proprietors try to get Scotch superintendents as, for example, Pride my old master, and his brother says “he thinks them the most useful people in the world.” And the Messrs. Hadden … have found Scotchmen serve them better than any other managers in the country, perhaps of any class. Wherever an estate is doing well, it is a Scotchman that is on it. If we speak with a Scotchman it is about estate matters; if with an Englishman [about wives]… [An English man’s] whole heart is in dogs and horses and I think the few Irish that I know seem generally to give themselves precious little trouble about anything. I see little of the wit they are famed for and terrible little practical sense.

To move from a study of Taylor to one of Col. T. Y. Wright is to enter a rarer world and to enter a rarer world and to breathe a finer air. Their backgrounds, for example, were totally different. Taylor remembered ‘life in a country farm house with its washing days and the smell of feeds being boiled for pigs and cattle and people coming in wet and muddy and steaming in front or a smoky fire.’ He remembered ‘the gudewife’s everlasting scolding at everything and everyone, and no way to get out of all these discomforts except going out in the rain or to the cold barn or byre to look at the cows.‘ Col. Wright, on the other hand, remembered a carefree boyhood as the younger son of a wealthy owner of a Lancashire cotton mill. (His father was later — in 1885 — to become M. P. for the Leigh Division). Wright was given the upbringing of a gentleman. Instead of Taylor’s self-tuition, Wright enjoyed all the advantages of a privileged education — dame’s school, boarding school and public school. In place of Taylor’s anxious apprenticeship at £100 a year on Pride’s estate, Wright actually paid a premium to be allowed to serve for a year, firstly at the London office of Gow, Wilson & Stanton, Tea Brokers, and then for a further 12 months as a ‘creeper’ under Mr. Hasting Clarke on Deyanilla Estate. In the first post he received no salary whatever; in the latter his pay (Rs. 83.33 per month) was about the same as Taylor’s (and, of course, very much less if the increased cost of living is taken into consideration). In fact, low pay and premiums had the effect — in all probability deliberate — of keeping out working class aspirants and limiting recruitment of superintendents to the middle class. Wright’s brief training was considered sufficient for life, however, and at the end of his first year in Ceylon he became (thanks to parental generosity) the proprietor-superintendent of Mousagalla estate, Matale.

 White Planting fraternity watch cricket-late 19th century

Sri Lanka. Aerial view of tea estate hillside

On the surface the work which Wright performed, first on his own behalf and later (and more typically) as a superintendent for a planting company, seems to have been much more demanding than that of Taylor. He was required, for example, to master the cultivation of a wider variety of estate crops (coconuts, tea and rubber), each of which had an ancilliary factory process of some complexity. The labour force was also bigger. But, in fact, by Wright’s day two important developments had taken place. Firstly, the disciplining of the labour force was now largely done by the Head Kangany (labour boss) and the planter negotiated with him; secondly, the factory process was under the care of a conductor and again the planter exercised only an indirect control. Hence the work had become much less purely agricultural and more like a business — in terms of personnel management and business administration. In place of Taylor’s dour, relentless application to work, we find a more relaxed atmosphere which is more than simply a difference of personality. ‘I’m afraid I neglected my planting work a little,‘ is a typical Wright comment, ‘as I was always off playing either football, cricket, polo or tennis.’

Wright had little of the rough work of clearing an estate – almost all his places had been previously cultivated (usually in coffee) and the buildings, roads and drains were already there. Labour problems had also been simplified considerably since labourers now resided permanently on the estates. As many estates were in the Low—country, it was also easier to obtain a Sinhalese labour force. ‘We practically had no movement of labour from our estates’ he commented, ‘which was usual on most estates.‘ And for such problems as cultivation or estate management as he encountered, there were a whole host of printed guides and vade mecums setting forth in great detail every necessary aspect of the subject. In the realm of finance, equally clear advances had been recorded. In place of anxious proprietors pressuring anxious agency houses to pressure anxious superintendents, the more mechanical and distant control of the small capitalist company had become the rule. In 1907 Wright himself took a major part in the organisation of the Galphele Tea and Rubber Estates Co., a limited company which took over all the properties with which he had been involved. Stability and continuity in the realm of finance, far beyond what an individual proprietor could provide, was now ensured. In some ways this development enhanced the power and independence of the local superintendent who usually held the power of attorney and was unquestioned as an agricultural authority provided he could continue to maintain the profits.

 Ceylon Planters’ Rifle Corps WW One

Even more striking differences can he found in the sphere of social relations. The reader of Wright’s autobiography could be forgiven for imagining that the island was entirely peopled with middle class British emigres (related by school or marriage) and a small upper class Ceylonese elite. The very much larger British community since Taylor’s day — and the larger number of ladies in particular — made possible a much more complex world of entertaining, sports-meetings, balls and parties (and, of course, the club life, par excellence). It is not insignificant that Wright found his first wife in Ceylon. Nor should it be overlooked that through his English public school he possessed, even before his arrival in the Island, the entree into the upper class society of Ceylon — Sinhalese as well as British. Mathias de Mel, a cousin of Henry de Mel, was a fellow pupil. Wright’s lifelong interest in military affairs, particularly the two planter organisations, the Ceylon Maunted Infantry and the Ceylon Planters‘ Rifle Corps, and his political contributions to the P.A. and the Legislative Council, are  perhaps other aspects of his more leisured existence.

With the difference in social life went a difference in planter ideology. The self-confident assertiveness, the complacent belief in economic progress and in their own roles in guiding it, which mark both Mr. X and Taylor, is not found so obviously in their successors. Instead a deepening pessimism, a defensive outlook on the world and its affairs, emerged. The reasons for this change are obvious: the growth of indigenous nationalism; the emergence of labour unions; the much greater interference of government (particularly after 1931) in the affairs of the estates. In 1927, in his foreword to the first Quarterly Bulletin of the Ceylon European Association, Wright sounded a warning note to his fellows when he wrote: ‘Our object in bringing this magazine into being is to help educate European opinion on political matters.‘ Before 1914 the planters had practically been despotic rulers within their estates. They even called themselves ‘kings’ (King of Coorg, King of Kandy, etc.); after 1914 they had begun to fear a palace revolt. ‘The Labour Unions … are to blame for the propaganda they instil into the coolies,’ Wright wrote. ‘These unions are supposed to look after the cooly, but they create antagonisms between employers and employees. Before these unions came into being, the feelings between employers and employees were of the best.’ A few years later, in 1943, when his second wife sold her personal estate. he commented: ‘There was no pleasure in working a place with so much interference from Government and having to get a permit even to drink tea which belonged to us, and filling up innumerable forms, and not be able to work the labour as we wished which was the very best way or working the labour, and the most fair and just.’ The objects of attack are not very different from those Mr. X and Taylor chose; the difference is in the consciousness of defeat.

I hope this brief and impressionistic survey of 150 years of planting in Ceylon has not left you exhausted by its scope. The pictures I have drawn of the planter/adventurer, the practical planter and the gentleman/planter are no doubt caricatures rather than full portraits. And if I have shown too much sympathy for the second of these three categories and been unfair to the other two, I should remind you that I too am a Scot.

***  ***

A MEMO from TOM BARRON, early August 2017:  Dear Mike:  Many thanks for this.  I’m happy you decided it best to publish and be damned.  I have had a draft reply to you on the stocks for a week but wanted to wait because quite recently I found our correspondence from 1972/3 and thought I should incorporate information from that in my response, only to find that I’d lost the correspondence again… until yesterday! 

From this. it is quite clear that the piece was written in Ceylon in the early summer of 1972.  It had then a subtitle ‘A Lecture’ and was delivered as such either in the Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya to a group of planters or perhaps to a meeting in Colombo of some learned society (I remember those occasions but not the topics). For some reason, I sent it that June to you (probably in an effort to find out whether something so different from its normal bill of fare would be acceptable to Modern Ceylon Studies).  You had it copied (it must have been in rough draft) and sent back to me with a note to say that it would obviously require to be presented differently if it was to be acceptable to a local historical journal.  That seems to have convinced me that it would fit better into a British magazine. On my return to the UK, I footnoted and rearranged the piece and in 1973 a revised version was presented to a seminar at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in the University of London. The pieces there often ended up in the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History but this one didn’t.  By then I was moving away into plans for a general history of planting in Ceylon in the 19th century and from that into a study of agriculture more generally, as Edinburgh University was keen to convert its imperial studies courses into area studies (Asia, Africa, Australasia) ones. I found the paper again only very recently after a search when Angela {McCarthy] gave a talk at Edinburgh which included some of the same quotes which I had used from the Taylor papers.  And the rest, I suppose, you know.  

This is a long and rambling way of thanking you for your interest in the piece and your support.  Hope all goes well with you and yours.

With best wishes:  Tom

Please note that Tom J Barron has recently published  a chapter entitled “Scots and the Coffee Industry in Nineteenth Century Ceylon,” in Tom Devine and Angela McCarthy (eds.) The Scottish Experience in Asia , c. 1700 to the Present, 2017, pp. 163-85.



Richard SimonCeylon Tea: The Trade that Made a Nation © The Colombo Tea Traders’ Association 2017
Picture research by Dominic Sansoni, Project co-ordination & design by Sebastian Posingis
Printed by Tien Wah Press, Singapore 2017, ………..ISBN 978-955-7394-00-8

Michael Roberts: “Ceylon Tea and Its Surrounds: Richard Simon’s Tour de Force, 18 july 2017,

Michael Roberts: Potency, Power & People in Groups, Colombo, Marga, 2011,

Potency Power & People in Groups

Author : Roberts, M.

Publisher: Marga Institute

Place of Publish: Colombo

Year: 2011

Page Numbers: 128

Acc. No: 4440

Class No: 320 ROB-SL

Category: Books & Reports

Subjects: Political Science

Type of Resource: Monograph

Languages: English

ISBN: 978-955-582-129-2

Sri Lanka. Aerial view of tea estate hillside. for Michael Roberts blog.

















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