Mature Industry

Following the collapse of the coffee industry, a great consolidation of ownership took place on the estates of Ceylon’s hill country. The early coffee planters had been, for the most part, sole proprietors, though some also worked as estate-managers for British civil servants, military officers and church functionaries who had bought plantation lands during the rush of the 1840s but were unable to attend to the management themselves. When blight brought the enterprise low, many of these proprietors sold out, often for a quarter or less than their recent value. The result was larger estates, or ‘groups’ of estates, belonging to fewer owners.

Already, in 1861, legislation had been passed mandating the formation of joint-stock companies in Ceylon. By the turn of the century, most Ceylon estates were owned by such companies, some registered in England and called ‘sterling companies’, the others registered in Colombo and known as ‘rupee companies’. Regardless of the currency in which their balance-sheets were presented, however, most of the shareholders in these companies were British. They rarely or never visited Ceylon, little caring how their estates were managed and worked so long as they received their dividends regularly.

Management of the estates, together with the cultivation, manufacture and sale of tea, was thus left to ‘agency houses’ or ‘management companies’ set up in Ceylon for this purpose. Acting on behalf of negligent absentee proprietors and big enough to command both economies of scale and the obedience of planters on their estates, these institutions became enormously powerful, dominating the tea industry. The planters, once lords of all they surveyed from their estate verandas, were reduced to the status of employees. As one historian of the industry put it, ‘many proprietors went through bankruptcy court and became superintendents of an estate which had at one time been their own.’ Their status was further reduced by the institution of ‘visiting agents’ – expert planters retained on the agency-house payroll whose task was to make a tour of estates managed by the house and tell the superintendents what to do and how to do it, season after season.

Work on the estates proceeded according to the well-established methods that were now agreed to produce the finest black tea in the world. Tea cultivation and manufacture was (and remains) highly labour-intensive; the labour was provided, for the most part, by indentured labourers of South Indian descent whose forebears originally arrived in Ceylon to work the coffee plantations.

The labour demands of coffee are seasonal, and during the ‘kopi kalé’ workers migrated back and forth by ferry and rail. With the coming of tea, the demand for labour became year-round, and the Indians became permanent residents, adding another element to colonial Ceylon’s multicultural ethnic mix.

In Colombo, the agency houses employed teams of expert tea-tasters to sample and report on the quality of each estate’s produce before it was put up for auction in Colombo or London. The brokers and buyers, too, had their tasters, and it was tasters from both sides who attended the auctions, and who in time came to comprise the senior management in mercantile firms connected with the tea industry. Despite the many changes undergone by the industry since the late 1890s, this remains largely true up to the present day.

Once established, the structure of ‘the tea trade’ was little altered. Overseen by trade associations such as Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (est. 1839) and the Colombo Tea Traders’ Association (est. 1894), it continued to function with little change in operational procedure, management style or ownership structure throughout the colonial period, taking two world wars and a global depression in its stride. Though a few Ceylonese did make inroads into the trade (such as Thomas Amarasuriya, who was elected head of the Tea Traders’ Association in 1915), it remained British-dominated and clubby. A Tea Research Institute was founded in 1925, and did invaluable work finding ways to combat an infestation of the tea tortrix caterpillar, which briefly raised the spectre of the coffee-blight to frighten planters and traders during the late 1930s.

The first international efforts at promotion began in the 1890s, as soon as an adequate supply of tea for export could be assured. Ceylon Tea was heavily promoted at various British Empire trade expositions, the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and, most effectively of all, at the Paris Exposition of 1900. In addition to these ‘national’ efforts, numerous manufacturers and exporters also promoted Ceylon Tea along with their brands.

The Tea Propaganda Board, a privately-funded industry initiative that was the earliest ancestor of today’s Sri Lanka Tea Board, was formed in 1932, and legislation to prevent the export of tea of inferior quality was introduced two years later. Another notable marketing initiative was the 1946 opening of the first Ceylon Tea Centre in London. But these were incremental improvements; it was not until well after Independence that radical change would come to the Ceylon Tea industry.