The Tea Business in Ceylon and the Life and Times of Tony Peries

Tony Donaldson. in a Vale for the  Late Tony Peries of Colombo & Sydney, courtesy of THE CEYLANKAN, 2017 edn , where the title is “Remembering Tony Peries” … with emphasis added by The Editor, Thuppahi.

My first encounter with Tony Peries took place in 2003.  By chance, I stumbled upon a meeting of the Ceylon Society in Melbourne one Sunday afternoon at which Tony was giving a talk about his book George Steuart & Co Ltd 1952 – 1973: A Personal Odyssey, published in 2003, a copy of which occupies a prominent position on my bookshelf.   He made an immediate impression on me as a gifted speaker with a natural stage persona that drew audiences into his world.


Our paths crossed again a few years later when he invited me to give a talk to the Ceylon Society in Sydney. I can’t remember what the talk was about but it led to a fruitful period in my research and writing which gave me the opportunity to explore a variety of topics that had occupied my mind for many years. This included subjects such as the Imperial Russian visit to Ceylon in 1891 and Mountbatten in Ceylon. These two topics might at first glance seem unrelated by distance and by 53 years but by unique circumstances they intersect in Ceylon.  Tsar Nicholas II was Mountbatten’s uncle and both had spent time in Ceylon.  As heir to the Russian throne, Nicholas II visited Ceylon in February 1891, and from 15 April 1944 to 25 November 1945, Mountbatten was based in Ceylon as Supreme Allied Commander South East Asian Command (SACSEAC). During this period in Ceylon, Mountbatten did sometimes think of his uncle and his children who had been some of his closest friends before they were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918

Whenever I was in Sydney, I would visit Tony at his home in Seven Hills.  His wife Srini would prepare lunch and we would talk and laugh. Tony was fun to be around and I liked him very much. We never argued and I always found his company stimulating.  We kept in touch over the years but less so in recent years due to my frequent travels overseas.

Though he never knew it, Tony was very helpful in my research on Force 136, the SOE organization set up in India and Ceylon during World War II.  One of SOE’s tasks in Asia was to obtain rubber and other war essentials by smuggling it out of Japanese occupied territories using Chinese black market operators. The operation was run by Walter Fletcher who was based in Chungking. Fletcher had an SOE agent in Colombo assisting him. Tony was able to explain the extent of slaughter rubber tapping that occurred in Ceylon during World War II and the extent colonial policies had exhausted rubber reserves in the country.  Though SOE played no part in exhausting rubber reserves in Ceylon, Walter Fletcher’s smuggling operations were so successful in generating revenue that at the end of the war, Force 136 was one of the few organizations (if not the only one) to come out of the war with a considerable profit.

In this special tribute to Tony Peries for the readers of The Ceylankan who admire him as I do, the following interview is an edited extract of an oral history interview I did with Tony Peries on 23 February 2013 in Sydney.  The interview covers a wide-range of subjects from the art of tea tasting to lively tea and rubber auctions he witnessed in Colombo, his time as a director of George Steuart & Company (GS) and his assessment of the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board. He also talks about his impressions of Sir John Kotelawala, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and Lakshman Kadiragamar, and about his reasons for migrating to Australia and provides a surprising revelation about what he might have done in his life with the benefit of hindsight.

One contradiction about Tony that always brings a smile to my face is that although he worked for GS for just over two decades and spent many of those years refining the art of tea tasting, he preferred to drink coffee.

So I began this interview by asking: “Tony, what makes a good tea taster?”

Tony Peries (TP)        As with so many other things, to be proficient one needs a fair degree of intelligence. And tea tasting is a method of evaluating tea and it doesn’t depend entirely on taste but in my day on the appearance of the leaf, the appearance of the infused leaf, the appearance of the “liquor” [brewed liquid] as we used to call it, and finally the taste. So there was strength and colour and many things allied to taste but not taste alone.

Tony Donaldson (TD)            Visual?

TP    Yes.

TD   To what extent does the location in which the tea is grown influence its taste?

TP    Quite a lot because the best tea is grown at the higher elevations above 4,000 feet. There are exceptions but largely that is the case.

TD   Why are those teas so special? Is it the climate or the environment?

TP    As with wine, it is a question of soil, temperature, rainfall, exposure to wind and sunlight.

TD   How does this relate to the quality and taste of tea in Kandy, Uva or other regions of Sri Lanka?

TP    Any reasonable tea taster, after a little experience, can distinguish, not so much by district, but the taster can say, “This is not a very good tea”, meaning it is not full of flavour but it could be a good tea nevertheless. Many teas were purchased as what used to be called “fillers”, that is, to make up the bulk of a blend or mixture, uplifted with a minimum of very good tea.

TD   When has a tea taster made a mistake?

TP    It is easy to make a mistake. This did not apply to my kind of tea tasting. My tasting was really an evaluation of how well the tea had been produced on the plantation. But those who purchased tea could value a tea wrongly and decide it was worth four rupees when it was really only a two rupee tea. That kind of mistake did happen.

TD   How were you taught to know the quality of good tea?

TP    It was purely experience. I was told this is good tea and why. I tasted tea every day. I probably tasted somewhere between 80 to 100 cups every day. If you have a reasonable memory and a fair degree of intelligence, you begin to learn quickly what is good and why.


TD   What factors do tea estates need to consider when growing and cultivating tea?

TP    Tea cultivators need reasonable soil—I’m not really an agriculturalist—and I think tea needs a minimum of about 70 inches of rain per year and preferably not more than 150. So you need a fairly good amount of rainfall evenly distributed and a good soil.

TD   You were involved in tea auctions. What was the life and atmosphere like at a tea auction

TP    It was exciting because firstly it proceeded at great speed. A good auctioneer could sell six lots a minute but an auction normally went at somewhere between four and five lots a minute. So it happened very fast.

TD   So a tea auction was lively and full of energy and noise?

TP    Yes a lot of noise because when a particularly good tea was put up, somebody would bid for it and other buyers would say to the initial bidder: “Can I have some?” A single lot of tea could be divided by the buyer into two, three or four. If there were six bidders, the intending buyer would divide with those he knew were likely to be the most competitive. So if he “went quarters”, he was eliminating three bidders. All these deliberations had to be done in seconds.

TD   How did a tea auction compare to a rubber auction?

TP    The rubber auctions were much slower and the quantity sold was much smaller and the lots were not divided. The rubber auctions took place twice a week and went on for an hour or two. The tea auctions started at 8 am and went on with a lunch break until 6 or 7 in the evening, and very often continued [into] the next day as well.

TD   While we are on the subject of rubber, sometime in 1942, an SOE Force 136 officer called Walter Fletcher ran a smuggling operation by using Chinese black market operators to smuggle rubber, quinine, kapok, foreign currency, diamonds and machinery out of Japanese occupied territories.  To finance his rubber smuggling activities, Fletcher put up a proposal to the C-in-C Ceylon Admiral Geoffrey Layton in 1942 recommending the price of rubber be increased by 600 per cent.  While the C-in-C Ceylon was not opposed to an increase in the price of rubber, he did feel an increase of 600 per cent was too high and he rejected it.  In your view, what would have been the impact of raising the price of rubber by 600 per cent in Ceylon in 1942 if Fletcher’s proposal had been approved?

TP    The impact would have been enormous. I know what the impact was when the price of rubber increased and it might have been something like that figure. I think rubber at the end of the Second World War was selling at around 90 cents per pound. At the time of the Korean War, I think it was around 20 or 30 rupees per pound. My father-in-law owned a big rubber estate and he made an enormous amount of money at the time.

TD   So there were times when, if you were into producing rubber, you could do very well?

TP    A rubber grower could do very well.

TD   Were those price increases artificially pushed up?

TP    No it was because of scarcity value. Rubber is a strategic material. You may not know this but in the early 1950s, when Red China first set up as an independent government, they were not recognised by many Western governments, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom. Those two countries frowned upon countries like Ceylon having anything to do with China. But a very clever rubber trader called Terence de Sosya set up a very good export business with China, selling rubber to China and he made a great deal of money. That company is still in business. [It is called] C. W. Mackie & Co. Ultimately it led to the creation of a barter system between China and Ceylon in which we sold them rubber and they sold us rice without any exchange of hard currency. It was a saviour of the Ceylon rubber industry at the time.

TD   Did the British give incentives to rubber growers during the war?

TP    No they didn’t. Don’t forget Ceylon was a colony at the time and the British controlled the price of rubber. There was a ceiling price so you had to sell your rubber to the government at that price and not only did the British do that but they forced everybody to do what is called “slaughter tapping” to increase the yield. If you tap a rubber tree, you have to ration the amount of bark that you use because if you use too much bark, before too long you will cut off the bark faster than it can grow back. At the end of the war, Ceylon was left with a lot of rubber estates which had exhausted their reserves.

TD   Was there a shortage of rubber in Ceylon at this time?

TP    Yes, it was in short supply because synthetic rubber was known before the war. But it was developed in America during the war due to the short supply of natural rubber because Malaya was overrun by the Japanese. So that was lost. So the producers of natural rubber were practically none.

TD   Could we turn to the time you became a director at GS. What were the main challenges for you in that role?

TP    To me the challenges were not all that much different to having been a manager of the department. It merely meant that I didn’t have to answer to anybody else. But it brought in new areas because I had to know about the other areas of the firm and how they functioned.

TD   You come across to me as a straightforward businessman. You have a certain degree of business ethics and yet you know how to find loopholes. You don’t suffer fools or corrupt practices. Is that a fair description of how you would see your business and managerial style?

TP    Yes. My father was also very much a straightforward businessman. He was a broker in the Central Business District in the Fort. Brokers didn’t have a very good business reputation and for years he was called “the only honest broker in the Fort”.

TD   Is that good?

TP    Yes, very good [laughs].

TD   How do you feel about wheeler-dealer managers?

TP    I was fortunate in that the business world that I grew up in at George Steuart’s didn’t have room for wheeler-dealers. It wasn’t that kind of business. But when I left Ceylon and George Steuart’s and came to Australia I was exposed to lots of wheeler-dealers and I had to adjust my thinking to accommodate them.

TD   Could you expand further…

TP    One company I worked for in Australia was big in manufacturing. The company made cardboard boxes and cartons and they had the opportunity to tender for a very large job involving tens of thousands of cartons on a yearly basis. I was working in Melbourne and one boss at the head office in Sydney rang me and told me that Christmas was coming and he wanted me to buy a case of the finest wines and send it to the purchasing manager of that company and he told me I could buy a bottle for myself. So I did the job very gladly. I was very interested in wine at the time and drank quite a lot, so I bought excellent wines and sent them to this man. But we didn’t get the contract because the winner of the tender bought the purchasing manager a Mercedes-Benz [laughs].

TD   Tell me about the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board (CTPB). What were its aims and how successful was it?

TP    The Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board was set up to do propaganda for tea, in other words, to advertise it themselves, or to help others to advertise tea and to promote tea in the big markets overseas. In order to do that, every pound of tea exported carried a cess of so many cents a pound which was allocated to tea propaganda. There was similarly a tea research cess which went towards funding the Institute for tea research.

 So the Tea Propaganda Board gave money to firms overseas in my time mostly to retailers to help them to promote tea. And the popular cry at the time which was swallowed by the Board was that to promote tea generically was a good idea because it would sell more tea and therefore sell more Ceylon tea. But the Tea Propaganda Board didn’t really take a great deal of trouble to make sure that their tea was where it was supposed to be. For instance, the retailers (the people who packed tea for retail) were allowed to use a symbol on their packs to show pure Ceylon tea and there was a gentleman’s agreement that they would use a certain percentage, 60 to 70 percent of Ceylon tea in their packs but it was never policed. In fact, it would have been very difficult to police.

One didn’t know whether all the retailers who used the [Ceylon] symbol on their packs were really using as much Ceylon tea as they were supposed to. I think they did most of the time to give them their due.

The Tea Propaganda Board made a mistake in that they did not help small Ceylon exporters. There is a notable example. There is today a very well-known tea marketed in Australia and in Europe. It is called Dilmah. The man who owned that company and still does is Merrill Fernando and in his early days on the Propaganda Board, he was always on at them about the fact that people like him needed support to pack tea in Ceylon and to export it as tea packed entirely in Ceylon. He does this very successfully today but at the time he got no support from the Board.

TD   I am curious about the name Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board. The words “tea” and “propaganda” don’t go together well insofar as while drinking tea is a harmless and enjoyable pastime, propaganda is a subversive activity.  We don’t think of tea cultivation or tea drinking as subversive and one would not usually openly admit engaging in propaganda by including this word in the name of the organisation. How did this name come about?

TP    I don’t know. It went back to well before World War II. I suppose at the time propaganda didn’t have the political connotations that it acquired by World War II.

TD   Was it a subversive organisation?

TP    No, not at all.

TD   What are the big challenges for the tea industry in Sri Lanka today?

TP    The challenge for Sri Lanka and some other tea producers is how to contain costs, while improving wages and living standards of pluckers. I am hardly qualified to comment, having been in Australia for 40 years during which I visited Sri Lanka only three times, in 2007, 2010 and 2013. In all that time I did not see a tea estate or talk at length to a planter. However, the problem I mention is well known.

Plucking tea in all weathers is a wretched task which has never attracted indigenous people and tea estate workers are still mostly of South Indian origin – even they are quitting when they can. It is said that increased yield in recent years has come from small holdings which may be an indication of labour shortages on estates.

Another major problem of relatively recent origin is political instability in countries like Iraq, Iran and Syria, which purchase big quantities of low country tea grown under 2,000 feet, which is not of the best quality flavour-wise. These countries, mostly oil rich, became major buyers but just recently, the United States has pressed the Government of Sri Lanka to follow the lead of many Western powers that have imposed sanctions on Iran and Syria, and not export tea to them.

TD   Could I ask you about some of the personalities you got to know starting with Sir John Kotelawala. What was he like? Did you like him?

TP    Yes, I liked him very much. He was a very forthright individual who said exactly what he thought. He was reputed to have called every head of state in his era “You bugger”. He was at school with my father so he knew my father and he was a close friend of my father-in-law. He came to our wedding and in later years when he was no longer Prime Minister he used to dine with us from time to time. He was a very entertaining man to have because he had a whole series of scurrilous anecdotes which he would enjoy telling us.

TD   What personal experiences did you have of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke?

TP    I did not know him as well as Sir John but he was also a friend of my father-in-law. Sir Oliver proposed the toast at our wedding. It was my father-in-law’s wish and he was paying for the wedding. Sir Oliver had a lot of charm. He had a great memory and if he met you after ten years he would still remember your name and if he didn’t know your name he would ask and find out who you were. He would ask, “Who is daddy?”  He had the reputation of being devious and cunning.

TD   You need to be cunning in politics…

oeg-and-mrs-b-getty Mrs B and OEG--Getty Images

TP    Well don’t forget he wasn’t a politician but a civil servant who because of his ability was made Civil Defence Commissioner during the war. I think he might have been an Ambassador before he became Governor-General. As Governor-General he was a supreme manipulator of politicians. It is said with reasonable certitude that he brought Mrs Bandaranaike into politics realising she was a vote winner. She did not put herself forward when her husband was alive.

TD   What about Lakshman Kadiragamar? Did you ever come across him?

TP    Yes I knew him. In my book I mention how Ranjan Wijeratne who became a minister of the government set up a kind of Ginger Group. I think he really did it to benefit himself. One of the other members of that group was Lakshman Kadiragamar, who was a very nice man, very well educated, Oxford I think, President of the Union at Oxford and very confident and a good lawyer. It was very unfortunate that he was assassinated.

TD   What was the purpose of the Ginger Group?

TP    The purpose of the Ginger Group was to give Dudley Senanayake an ear to the ground. Ranjan was distantly connected to Dudley or his wife and I think Dudley couldn’t really say no so we went to see him a few times at his home and he spent about an hour with us and we expressed our views on various subjects but I don’t think he was listening to us very carefully.

TD   Did you like Lakshman Kadiragamar?

TP    Yes, very much. I only ever met him five or six times, in the context of the Ginger Group, when we convened at each other’s homes. I think there were about six members, so the meetings were intimate enough to give me an appreciation of his ability. He possessed both grace and charm.

lakshman-kadirgamar-newsfirst Kadirgamar-Newsfirst

TD   Of the personalities discussed so far, who were you drawn to the most and why?

TP    You have to remember I knew them at different levels. Sir John was a much older man than I. So obviously our relationship wasn’t like that of a person of my own age or at the same social level as Lakshman Kadiragamar. So I would say it was Lakshman because he could talk to me on the same level.

TD   Did you meet Geoffrey Bawa?

TP    Yes.

TD   What was he like?

TP    He had a very sharp tongue. I once went to a social occasion with him where the drink was in very short supply and he made the classic remark, “the whiskey is flowing like glue” [laughs].

TD   Was he astute?

TP    Yes, very astute. He qualified as a barrister and I don’t know whether he practised even for a day but he realised very quickly that law was not for him, so he also qualified as an architect. He was a very talented man but I think he was at times a little impractical. He designed some houses in Colombo which had ornamental ponds within. In the Colombo monsoon, an ornamental pond inside a house is not a good idea. I know someone who had such a pond and somebody fell into it during a party.

TD   I would like to turn to your life in Australia. You decided to migrate to Australia in the 1970s. In your book you hint at your reasons for leaving Ceylon. You say that at the age of 41, full of energy, you did not want to see your hard earned assets expropriated. You were convinced you could build a life elsewhere while all the freedoms were vanishing in Ceylon. Is that really how you felt?

TP    Yes, absolutely. I knew that I could get a job because tea tasters with my experience – at the time I left George Steuart’s I had 21 years of experience and there weren’t a lot of locals around with that depth of experience. So I could find a job but I didn’t want to work for some government corporation.

TD   You have visited America, New Zealand, Europe, Russia, Denmark and England, but you chose to live in Australia. Why?

TP    I had been to America. I went to the Stanford Business School and when I was there, I was offered jobs by people I knew at the school but I was not attracted to the American way of life and I found, for instance, Americans would ask me very quickly, “How much do you earn?” In the world I grew up in, one had to know someone very well and even then one might not ask that question. When I visited Australia I stayed with friends who had migrated here and I could see the way they lived and that they liked the place so I was attracted to come here.

TD   What were your first impressions of Australia?

TP    Very good. The first place we landed in was Brisbane. I thought it was bright and the people were friendly. It was clean. It wasn’t crowded. I found it very appealing.

TD   When you look back over your life what do you see as your greatest achievements?

TP    I would say there are two. One was becoming a Director of George Steuart’s. To a degree, you have to be in the right place at the right time and I was very much for that job in the right place at the right time. I had the right social accomplishments. I could mix with the British without any difficulty.

In Australia that counted less. It was really more about how one did the job. Even so, it was difficult in the sense that we didn’t come here with a great deal of money but probably more money than many people had but even so, I had to build myself up again and that was a little difficult. So my second achievement was building myself up again in Australia.

TD   With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything in your life you would have done differently?

TP    I might just have stayed in Ceylon. If I stayed in Ceylon I would have made George Steuart’s do some things differently. After I left, the company made some very bad mistakes which are really down to my successor. He had been a planter and he was a good businessman insofar as the management of estates was concerned but he wasn’t a good businessman in the wider sense and he made some very bad decisions.

One mistake was he put a great deal of money into building a rubber thread factory. This is used in support garments such as corsets, and for socks. It was a terrible failure and George Steuart’s lost a lot of money. And then the company went back to what they used to do in the pre-war years, they did a bit of merchant banking. George Steuart’s early business was partly in the form of merchant banking. In the days when coffee was being grown and coffee [was] the emerging crop, the company advanced money to coffee growers and they did it with bills drawn on Arbuthnot & Co in Madras. And when I left [in 1973] George Steuart’s was still connected to Arbuthnot Latham in London who were big merchant bankers.

After I left and banking was freed up after a change of government, the company went back into merchant banking and lent money unwisely. Some of this they couldn’t recover and to get themselves out of debt, they had to sell their stores which were their biggest asset. I would not have done any of those things. I would have turned the entire stores into a warehousing operation, which even from hindsight would have been perfectly feasible and I would have used the profits from that to go into other business. But I don’t think I could have stood the political climate.

TD   You have dealt with all sorts of people over your lifetime. You call some “stinkers” and there are those you have greatly admired. What have you gained from these experiences?

TP    I suppose the biggest lesson is to take the good with the bad. When you are very young, you want to reject the bad very violently but you cannot do that. You have to learn to live with the good and the bad.





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2 responses to “The Tea Business in Ceylon and the Life and Times of Tony Peries

  1. Pingback: Decolonization in the Rubber Trade, 1946-54 | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. I had the pleasure of knowing Tony and his wife Srini. I worked at John Keell Thompson White Ltd.,( now Johnkeells, a blue chip Company.) and our office was located at Ceylinco Building, 100 yards from Tony’s Office. Our favourite haunt in the week-end was the Blue Leopard at the Grand Oriental Hotel, generally, along with Mark Bostock and his wife Lif.

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