A Plantation Economy

It was not only on the plantations that tea replaced coffee, but in every facet of the Ceylonese economy. Since the 1840s, the colonial government had depended for its sustenance largely on taxes and tariffs levied on the plantation enterprise. Local businesses relied on the enterprise, directly or indirectly, for the bulk of their custom; bankers and Chettiar moneylenders grew rich lending to it; and export revenues paid for the import of rice and other necessities, for, apart from plantation crops, Ceylon produced almost nothing. Halfhearted attempts were made from time to time to diversify the economy, but throughout the colonial period it remained tightly bound to plantation agriculture.

Those engaged in the new ‘tea trade’ found this advantageous. The colony’s dependence on them conferred a substantial degree of political power and influence, exemplified by the right of the Planters’ Association to nominate one member to the governor’s Legislative Council. Just as helpfully, most existing infrastructure, public and private, was geared to the requirements of the coffee enterprise and could be adapted almost wholesale to serve the needs of tea. The same went for commercial institutions already established in the country: the mechanism of trade and brokerage, the Planters’ Association and, up in the hills, the scattering of small, resort-like towns with their sporting and social clubs, their Anglican churches and quaintly English architecture, located and developed entirely with the needs and tastes of the planters (and their wives) in mind. Only a few innovations were necessary: factories on the plantations to process the tea leaf, which did not travel well in its raw state, were the most important and costly of these. A system of auctions for the local industry, like those conducted at Mincing Lane in London, was also introduced, the first being held on the premises of Somervile & Co., a Colombo merchant house, in 1883.

In 1891, a consignment of Ceylon tea fetched a record-breaking price of £36 15s at London. By the end of the decade, tea had entirely superseded and surpassed the achievements of coffee in terms of export volume, revenue and area under cultivation.

In the twentieth century, kopi kalé (‘the coffee times’) would become a Sinhala colloquialism meaning ancient, worn-out and irrelevant. From now on, Ceylon, later Sri Lanka, would be ‘the country where the tea comes from’