Chapter 6 - The Planters Association of Ceylon

The immediate results of the catastrophe of 1845/47 was a return to financial stability and the labourious rebuilding of an industry all but ruined by ill-luck and senseless speculation. Those planters such as Lt-Col H.C.Bryde who were still in possession of their estate after the crisis had passed and those who joined them in the agricultural development of the Island, set about their task in a sober mood. It soon became evident that some form of an Association was a necessity to the community of Planters whose problems were manifold. The recruitment of labour from the Indian mainland, their transportation to the plantations, the complexities involved in their housing and the maintenance of their health were but a few aspects of the labour question. The matter of communication was of great importance to the Planter since he had to transport produce over very difficult country to the ports of Colombo and Galle. Taxation had to be watched with an expert eye.

Mr George Wall drafted a circular letter proposing the formation of an Association as a result of which 100 coffee planters met on 17th February 1854 in Kandy at an institution bearing the name of “The Boarding House” under the Chairmanship of Captain Keith Jolly, founded the Planters’ Association of Ceylon”.

Large plantations could never have been established without the availability of cheap labour in sufficient quantities. Further, technology had not developed during the initial stages of coffee cultivation, to save on labour. Under these circumstances, coffee cultivation had to be labour intensive and cheap labour was necessary to keep costs low and increase profits. In Ceylon it was labour and not so much as Capital, that determined the establishment of large plantations. All these factors of production were freely available and above all a dependable, well disciplined and a cheap labour force from adjoining India was always at hand.

George Wall

At the commencement of the clearing of the forests in the Central Province, many Kandyan and low country Sinhalese, tempted by the high wages offered by the planters, flocked to these areas for employment. The type of work called for by the ‘White Man” did not suit their ways. They soon returned to their villages to cultivate their paddy fields. Every Sinhalese had an attachment to his village and furthermore he always had a stake in his father’s properties. After the abolition of “rajakiriya” in 1848, they got themselves well established in their own villages and tended their own lands and showed no desire to move out to the fast developing coffee districts.

This was the reason that the British planter was compelled to look at Coolie migration.

The close proximity of a mass of dispossessed people who had little or nothing other than their labour to sell was no doubt the colonial legacy created by the British in their attempt to establish a plantation economy in India. In the process India was transformed into a great labour market, second only to the African continent.

To the poor people of South India, stricken with frequent droughts, the fast developing plantation sector in Ceylon offered them the opportunity to ward off starvation. The serendipity of greener pastures offered in Ceylon was irresistible and with it the availability of cheap labour in sufficient numbers to work the plantations was solved.

The first batch of immigrant labour from South India to work the coffee plantations were imported by Lt-Col Bird (the father of Lt-Col Byrde, the son changed the spelling of his family name after his father’s death) and Governor Barnes in 1828. From the late 1830’s the trickle of Indian labour developed into a stream. Unfortunately, the conditions of the immigrant labour from south India was appalling. Wages were low and irregularly paid and grievances met by force. Despite these hardships Indian labourers flowed in by the thousands each year. One observation made by a person who was fighting the cause of the South Indian worker was that they were better fed, clothed and housed in the line rooms of the plantations, than their fellow villagers in India. The labour forces from India were recruited on a voluntary basis. They came from the lowest segment of society and they did not require any form of coercion to persuade them to travel to plantations in the hill country.

Captain Keith Jolly

The journey to the South coast of India from the interior, carrying with them all their worldly belongings on their heads was no easy task. The journey through the Palk Straits to Ceylon, in a fragile fishing boat that followed, was equally treacherous. Those who died on board were given a watery burial.

After setting foot on Ceylon soil, they had even a more dangerous journey to undertake through the jungle footpaths to their final destination. Drinking water was scarce and the jungle tracks were infested with deadly wild life, snakes, leeches and above all the malaria mosquitoes. The sick and those who could not match the pace of the walk were left behind to be devoured by the jackals that followed the marchers. After many days of walking, they would approach their journeys end. Very high percentage of those who braved the quest for a better life fell by the wayside, due to starvation, illness, fatigue or attack by wild animals.

The primitive accommodation along the way would take the form of a leaky thatched hut, but they probably felt happy and contented, carrying distressing memories of the past, but hopeful of a brighter future.

The early routes via Mannar and the North Road were often referred to as the “Death Road”, due to the number that perished along the way.

In 1844 a Conductor (Field Supervisor) from the Black Forest Estate was sent to Trincomalee to find a suitable Tamil to represent Lt-Col Byrd in South India. He was successful and recruited 14 labourers. The method used by the Kangani was to show money to the lean and hungry South Indian locals and tell them about the ample work available on the estates in Ceylon. Those who accepted were marshaled into large gangs and brought across the coast to Ceylon by boat. They then traveled down the North Road and those who survived reached the estate for which they were bound.

Leopard of Ceylon

As coffee was a seasonal crop, immigrant labour in the early stages was required only during the picking season and on completion of this task, the Tamils would return to their native villages in South India. The return journey to India was even more hazardous as they now carried their savings with them and they had to be on the watch for robbers.

At the inaugural meeting of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon a sub-committee was formed to provide Rest-sheds and water supplies along the North Road.

Mr R B Tytler

On the 13th January 1856, Mr Hugh McClenan of Kelvin Estate Dolosbage, submitted a memorandum to Mr R B Tytler, the then Chairman of the Planters’ Association, drawing attention to the difficulties experienced in obtaining “coolies” from the Coast and pointing out the system of advancing monies to “canganies” was a pernicious one, resulting in very little recruitment. To Ceylon Planters and the thousands of Indian Immigrant labourers employed on the coffee and later tea plantations in Ceylon, the word “Coast” meant the large area of South India, mainly the Madras Presidency, from which the majority of Indian immigrants originated. He then set down his suggestions for the establishment of the Coast Agency and offered his services to initiate the measure.

It took 48 years for the Coast Agency to be established in 1904, and the basis of the scheme was as suggested by Mr McCleland in 1856. A relevant extract reads as follows:-

“In the first place a proper European well acquainted with the Tamil language and with Estate matters ought to be stationed over on the coast at the Shipping Port Vethella Mandagam with a proper staff under him to collect men and when necessary to ship them to other Ports. He should be under the control of the Planters’ Association to which Body he should be held responsible for all sums of money given to him as advances for coolies. No Estates ought to make advances, but through him. Managers should, as soon after the crop as possible, forward to the Planters’ Association a memo stating the number of men required for the ensuing season and a cheque fore the amount fixed by that Body as proper advances.

No Coolies or Canganies should be employed by any Estate unless they produce a printed pass signed by the Agent on the Coast or his assistants stating the number of men, women and boys in each gang, the amount advanced to each individual and the name of the Estate they were sent over for. The Cangany should be made satisfactorily to account for any party missing.

“Coolies coming via Colombo, if without passes from the Agent on the Coast should be questioned by either the Customs or Police authorities and provided with passes and any coolies entering the Central Province without such passes ought to be taken up as runaways. This should put a stop to the “crimping system” which is a disgrace to Coffee Planters.

Madras Presidency in India

The men to be delivered at Talli Mannar by the Agent on a given day to a proper person sent from the Estate or Estates to take charge of them and this person’s receipt for the men to be held by the Agent as a sufficient discharge of his duties. The number of men required to each gang should be fixed by the Planters’ Association and a table of uniform wages to be given to Canganies and men in each Planting district should be drawn up by that Body so as to enable the Agent to make proper arrangements with the men on the Coast.

In forwarding the order for men, the manager ought to give a list of the Canganies returning to their country, the name of the place he generally gets his labour from and whether he wants these men next season or not, so that the Agent may be able to send the same men to the same estates year after year, unless specially requested to send new men. That the Canganies may all appear before the Agent on their return to their country, the first year a moiety of their salary should be handed to the Agent to be paid to them on the Coast on production of an order for it. This is to enable the Agent to form a register of the Canganies and ascertain their whereabouts. In cases where coolies are wanted immediately they should be shipped at once for Colombo, the person thus ordering them, to pay the passage money.

Each Estate ought to pay in a ratio with number of men required or the Planters’ Association could charge as much a head and apply the profit, if any, to other useful purposes.

Coolies could always remit money to their country through the Agent, or Old Hands could make regular monthly allowances to their relatives, he amount to be stopped from their wages here.

The Government should be petitioned to place a Medical Sub-Assistant at Vethella Mandagam, on a good salary, to look after the coolies. This would be a great advantage to the whole Island as well as to Planters, as no sick coolies would be allowed to pass over, as they are now. A hospital would be required as well as houses for the Agent and his establishment, there being no houses at present in the place. But these are only secondary matters to be spoken of after the main thing is agreed to viz., the establishment of an Agency on the Coast”.

The Government did very little to address this report, until the shortage of Indian immigrant labour grew so bad that action was taken in later years.

Victoria Commemoration
Building Kandy

On June 29th 1897, Lady Ridgeway laid the foundation stone of the first permanent Headquarters of the Association on a piece of land in the centre of Kandy granted by the Crown. This building, to be known as the Victoria Commemoration Building was formally opened on 17th February 1900.

Incorporated in the Victoria Commemoration Building were memorials to men who helped the Association to attain the flourishing condition it was in 1900. The building remained the centre of activities of the association until in 1935 structural defects appeared in the building and for reasons of safety it became impossible to hold the Annual gatherings of the association in its Hall. In 1941, the building was demolished.

Temporary headquarters were established at the Queens Hotel Kandy, pending the finalization of plans for the re-building of the Victoria Commemoration Building, but for various reasons and changing circumstances, the plans were never implemented.

Memorials to the Pioneers of the Plantation Industry

Principal events in Ceylon during the period 1858 to 1866

The first telegraph line opened in Ceylon between Colombo and Galle….1st January.
The Pearl Fishery at Arippu realizes 24,129 Pounds Sterling ….April.
P & O Steamer “Ava” tatally lost on the east coast of Ceylon …April.
Telegraph communication between Colombo and Galle established….June.
Inauguration of the Ceylon Railway by Sir Henry Ward….3rd August.
Submarine cable connecting Ceylon with India laid between Thanaikai Point and Talaimannar by Messrs Wickham and St Albin in a native brig….17th September.
Telegraph communication from Kandy to Mannar via Mihintale opened….October.
Through telegraph communication between Ceylon and India established….October.
Dr.Thwaites “Enumeratio Plantarum Zeylaniae” published.

A successful Career Pigeon Express Service began by Dr.Elliot was carried on in conjunction with the Ceylon Observer  from 1850 to 1858 between Galle and Colombo, when the telegraph was established; pigeons brought the mail news regularly during the Crimean War and often brought enough for several columns of new, in from 15 to 60 minutes – a distance of 72 miles.
 Ferguson’s Ceylon Directory published.
The Railway question largely engrosses the attention of the public. Mr.Doyne, the Chief Engineer, estimates the cost at 2,214,000 Pounds Sterling, which is more that double Captain Moorsom’s outside limit….1st July.
The Morse system of Telegraphy, in place of the old needle instrument, introduced into Ceylon….July.
Bill to regulate marriages amongst Kandyans and rendering the practice of polyandry illegal, passed….16th October.
Sir Emerson Tennent’s book on Ceylon published.
Iron lattice bridges over the Mahaweliganga and Pinoya at Katugastota opened to
The foundation stone of All Saints’ Church laid by the Governor….21st June.
Sir Charles MacCarthy arrives as Governor ….22nd October.
The Volunteer movement started in May, but afterwards collapsed.
A Select Committee of the Legislative Council report in favour of constructing a Railway between Colombo and Kandy …July.
Kandy Headmen attached to the Maritime Provinces exempted from tax…6th September.
The Ceylon Planters’ association remodeled and a new constitution adopted…January.
Sinhalese newspaper, The Lakminipahana published… September.
The Jaffna Freeman newspaper published…September, discontinued.
Bronze money introduced for the first time into Ceylon…September.
A complete concession made by Government to the principles of civil and religious freedom in the cause of the Galle Face Graveyard…October.
The Legislative Council adopts the Report of the Sub-committee on the Railway. Questions and accepts Mr.Faviell’s contract of 873,039 Pounds Sterling for the construction of a Railway from Colombo to Kandy… November.
P&O Company Mail Steamer “Colombo: of 1,860 tons, wrecked on the north end of Minicoy Island, Maldives…November.
Cruelty to Animals prohibited by a legislative enactment.
The Ceylon Patriot Newspaper commenced at Jaffna….February.
The first Ice Machine erected in Slave Island, Colombo…June.
Departure of the 50th Regiment from Ceylon to the New Zealand War…October.
Ordinances for the Registration of Marriages and for Land Registration passed.
The first locomotive engine landed in Ceylon….January.
Land registration department created….January.
Dr.Thwaites work on the Ceylon Flora completed (First part published in 1858)…March.
Capture of the bandit Sardial, after severe struggle with Police at Kegalla.
First message received at Colombo by Indo-European line…March 2.
The “Comet” a steam tug intended for use on the Jaffna Lake, the first steam boat made in Ceylon launched….April.
Resignation of all the Unofficial Members of the Legislative Council, with reference to the Military Expenditure vote….November.
Telegraph line from Dambulla to Trincomalee opened…November.
First special train on Ceylon Railway, conveying H.R.H. the Duke of Brabant to Ambepussa…December 27.
Public meetings regarding the Military Expenditure held in Kandy and Colombo…Jan.
Ordinance establishing the Regular Police Force of the Island passed.
Fatal accident on the railway at Ragama, 36 lives lost…January.
Sir Hercules Robinson sworn in as Governor….16th May.
The “Ceylon League” formed…May 26.
Opening of the Railway from Colombo to Ambepussa…October.
Bill passed constituting Colombo and Kandy Municipalities….November.
Petition forwarded to the Queen by the Ceylon League, praying for a reformed Legislative Council…January.
First direct telegraph message from New York received at Galle….August 19.
General Cemeteries established in the principle towns…October.
Food riots in Colombo, in Kandy and Galle….October.
First telegraph message received at Galle from San Francisco via Atlantic Cable and Indo-European line (7 days in transmission) ….October 9.

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