The Plantation Economy in British Ceylon: The Downtrodden Indian Tamil Labour and the Dispossessed Kandyan Peasantry

Uditha Devapriya, in SAT MAG” of The Island on September 19 and September 26, 2020.

PREFACE: This essay does not present a complete history of plantation slavery, which anyway has been covered many times before by scholars of repute, including Professor Asoka Bandarage, whose Colonialism in Sri Lanka went through a second edition recently. Rather, it counters Sinhala nationalists and those opposed to Sinhala nationalists who equate the position of African-Americans with that of Tamils and Muslims, indicating a failure to distinguish between minority communities which thrived under conditions of colonialism (and neocolonialism) and those which suffered under those conditions. It also counters certain “Marxist” and rightwing academics who see the plantation system as capitalist, and who, while either sympathising with the plight of Estate Tamils or ignoring them outright, single out Kandyan Sinhalese peasants for what they allege to have been their innate laziness under British colonialism, a myth demolished by S. B. D. de Silva in his underrated and unread magnum opusThe Political Economy of Underdevelopment.

Tea Plantation labour in Ceylon – circa 1890s

Slaves on a plantation 
Indian migrant workers in Trinidad Tea Plantation labour in Ceylon – circa 1890s

PART ONE

Over just two weeks, the George Floyd protests spread practically everywhere. From Kansas to Kenya, from Baltimore to Berlin, they turned into symbols of dissent against not only the racism, but also the xenophobia, of White America.

One of the most haunting images to emerge from the demonstrations was that of a young Sri Lankan girl, draped in the flag of her country, posing defiantly on the streets of an American city. The image and the girl in it attracted both support and opposition, the latter coming from militant Sinhala nationalists who felt she dishonoured a national symbol by using it as a sign of civil disobedience involving a domestic issue of another country.

The response of the nationalists to the George Floyd uprisings was, if at all, amusing. One section of this crowd took to social media to condemn White America for exhibiting its racist, chauvinist face yet again. Another section – no less big or significant – took the opposite stance, censuring those protesting against the murder of a black civilian because, to them at least, Floyd’s murder did not warrant the rampaging and the pillaging of public property. To the latter group, these protests seemed disproportionate to what they regarded as an instance of police authority enforcing the law over a minority community.

The few within the nationalist crowd who did support the raging protests were, even more amusingly, taken to task on social media by another group, this one ideologically opposed to nationalism. The latter crowd seemed to think, not without justification, that the nationalists sharing posts and posting comments against White America were myopic: they seemed to sympathise with George Floyd, but not with the Tamils and Muslims of Sri Lanka, whom the anti-nationalists alleged are as discriminated against over here as George Floyd’s community is over there. Thus, both nationalists opposed to the protests AND anti-nationalists critiquing the selectivity of those supporting the protests persisted in comparing African-Americans to the Tamils and Muslims of Sri Lanka.

In that sense the protests taught us two important lessons. Though they don’t form the subject of this essay, they are relevant to it, and hence need to be examined.

Firstly, let’s focus on the inability of many Sinhala nationalists to take their struggle against neo-colonialism and Western hegemony forward. Resistance to colonialism has historically formed the bedrock of the Sinhala nationalist lobby, yet their denunciations of this uprising betrayed a failure to think beyond geographic borders. This came out quite despairingly in their reaction to the only local political party that saw it fit to organise a protest in front of the US Embassy. The government’s crackdown on the demonstration didn’t seem to ruffle their feathers, nor did the point that the demonstrators were making.

Secondly, and just as importantly, the inability of local left-liberal outfits to come up with a proper front, in Sri Lanka, against the George Floyd murder. The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) organised the protest against the US Embassy, while the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) organised a discussion on it online. But neither of these belongs to what is traditionally labelled as “civil society.” The point can be made that the issue at the centre of these protests was not Sri Lankan and that is why civil society ignored it, but that excuse pales away when one considers that the moment sections of the nationalist crowd let out their anger at the US’s handling of the protests, certain social media civil society activists focused their energies more on pointing out the hypocrisy of the nationalists.

Despite the hostile exchanges between the two factions, one particular point brought them together: their comparison of African-Americans to Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims. They underscored this comparison from two different vantage points.

Thus the nationalists who critiqued the protests seemed to believe that, like extremist Tamils and Muslims, African-Americans and other minorities in the US were unfairly questioning the legitimacy of rule by an ethnic majority. Those opposed to the nationalists, on the other hand, inadvertently, by their critique of the nationalists’ sidelining of Tamils and Muslims, equated the latter two with the community which Floyd hailed from. The question to be asked here is whether such an analogy is, if not plausible, then at least tenable.

In 2011, a year before Barack Obama won election for a second term, Vinod Moonesinghe wrote a cogent reply to someone who in an article had wished for a Tamil or Muslim to be elected as this country’s leader. Vinod made two points there: considering Obama’s win as a win for all African-Americans failed to distinguish between his class origins and those of most African-Americans; and equating African-Americans with Tamils and Muslims was anachronistic, given the economically privileged status of the latter two groups.

Taking class and caste into consideration, then, Ranasinghe Premadasa’s election win seemed closer to such a comparison than the potential coming to power of a member of a “minority.” Taking class, caste, AND ethnicity into consideration, the analogy would have to extend, not to Jaffna and Colombo Tamils, Moors, and Malays, or Borahs and Sindhis, but instead to a community that, like the blacks of the US, was imported as dirt cheap labour, cut off from the rest of the population, and supervised under a setup no different to the plantations of the southern US. In other words, the migrant Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka.

Before making an analogy between these two groups, though, it would do well to reflect, very briefly, on the historical trajectory of slavery in the West.

Following the Arab invasions of the seventh and eighth centuries, Europe turned inward. The eminent historian Fernand Braudel has written of a “second serfdom” that sprang up in parts of the continent where feudalism failed to give way to capitalism. The result was the growth of a kind of slavery, white slavery, across the East, in what is now Russia; it’s a testament to the legacy of the trade which emerged there that the word “slave” derived from the ethnicity of those marshalled into it from that region, Slav.

With the influence of the Arabs and the Ottoman Turks after them waning after the fall of Granada in 1492 (the same year Columbus “discovered” the New World), a liberated Europe, discovering hitherto unchartered colonies in the Americas on one side and Australia on the other, gradually instituted a system of indentured white bondage.

It has been estimated that around 67% of all white immigrants to the new colonies arrived there as servants. These immigrants were bound to a contract that compelled them to work for an overseer, without pay, over a specified period of time. Most often such contracts were drawn for those who had a prior obligation to these overseers which they couldn’t meet, such as a debt. Since the government usually didn’t interfere with these contracts, extortion and kidnappings became common, as they would among Africans later on. The situation was such that even in as late as 1910 the US government was trying to put an end to white slavery: the White Slave Traffic Act (or the Mann Act) that year made it a felony to transport women across state borders for the purposes of “prostitution or debauchery.”

Debt bondage, however, applied in the early period only to white immigrants to the white colonies, and the Irish; the difference between their situation and that of African slaves was that the latter were never recruited to pay off an obligation; most of them ended up as lifelong labourers, unpaid and treated as chattel or property. As Liam Stack once observed, “[u]nlike slaves, servants were considered legally human.”

To put this in its proper perspective, the position of those shipped to the sugar plantations of the West Indies and the cotton mills of the southern United States fitted that of neither indentured servants nor wage labourers. The process of recruiting and transporting these Africans, in the long term, thus became, as Gordon K. Lewis put it, “quasi-militarised”, while once quartered in the plantations their owners did everything to isolate the unfortunate immigrants, prisoners really, from the world outside.

Revisionist historians, white and black, have tried to understate the full weight of black slavery, either by pointing at the involvement of African intermediaries in it or by showing that European Christians became as entangled in it as Africans.

Thus Robert Davis (Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters) argues that while the Atlantic slave trade was 12 times as large, more Christians than Africans were captured between 1500 and 1650, while Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (“How Many Slaves Landed in the US?”) contends that of the 10.7 million Africans who survived the passage to the West, “only about 388,000” were shipped to the United States. What these “findings” fail to show is that black slavery was not geographically limited to the US, or for that matter to Western Europe, and that from 1530 to 1780, when more than five million Africans found themselves dispatched to Portugal and Brazil, only about a million Christians were forced into servitude in North Africa, along the Barbary Coast and into the Ottoman Empire.

The Abolitionist movement, no doubt representative of a progressive, enlightened wing in the Evangelical Revival, agitated for African slavery’s end. It did this as much for moral reasons as for pragmatic ones; the rise in Britain of an industrial Whig bourgeoisie over a landed Tory gentry and the expansion of British interests in Asia and Africa had by then necessitated the rise of plantation colonialism. It is hence not a coincidence that African slaves in the British West Indies were emancipated by official proclamation in the same year (1833) that the most ambitious set of administrative proposals were tabled in Sri Lanka (Colebrooke-Cameron) to lay the foundation for the new colonial plantation economy.

Against this backdrop, black slavery soon receded to countries where a whitesettler class predominated, including Rhodesia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. S. B. D. de Silva in The Political Economy of Underdevelopment refers to these as “settler states”, a distinction I will return to later. In any case, what we have here is the first of many differences between the plight of African-Americans and that of Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims.

Plantation colonialism demolished and also made use of existing traditional political, cultural, social, and economic patterns in much of Asia and Africa. The most immediate result of that, of course, was the impoverishment of the peasantry; in Sri Lanka, as we know, the peasantry most directly affected by these policies remained the Kandyan Sinhalese.

Marx was largely correct in his comparison of British domination of India to that of Ireland. He was more prescient in the implication that the British brought with them to the colonies their experience in subjugating the Irish peasantry. Two policies make it clear to what extent they were following the Irish example in India and Sri Lanka: the expropriation of peasant land, and the pursuit of divide and rule. I shall turn to these next week, and with them, the growth and evolution of Indian migrant labour.

PART TWO

The abolition of plantation slavery did not mark the end of plantations. Nor, for that matter, did it mark the end of slavery.

The unwillingness of indentured white servants to remain in the tropics, and the need to settle them on lands of their own once their period of indenture was over, had earlier led the planters to dragoon permanent slave labour from Africa. The emancipation of these slaves in the 19th century, as George Beckford put it, “changed the scene drastically.” The newly emancipated slaves now sought to build settlements of their own.

The planters, trying to mitigate the losses arising from this, began a sharecropping scheme. When even that failed to make up for their losses, the latter used their influence to secure indentured labour from the new colonies of Asia. The expansion of the British East India Company in Sri Lanka and of Dutch influence in South-East Asia thus soon necessitated the recruitment of Indian migrant workers: in Malaya as in Sri Lanka, it gradually took the place, or rather was made to take the place, of indigenous workers.

It has almost become a practice among economists, historians, and social scientists to identify plantation activities as capitalist. Largely owing to a paradigm shift that transpired in the social sciences in the 1970s – a shift that, as the “privatisation” of the social sciences in the 1980s proved, was short-lived – we know today that in actual fact, they were anything but; the plantations outwardly exhibited capitalist forms of production, but inwardly, as S. B. D. de Silva has argued in The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, they remained pre-capitalist. Yet even George Beckford, whose study of plantations was largely limited to the Caribbean, characterised them as capitalist enterprises.

My contention is that we must draw a fine line between the capitalist facade and the pre-capitalist reality of the plantations of Asia here, because it has a bearing on the evolution of migrant Indian labour in Sri Lanka. It is vital to our understanding of the structures to which Indian Tamils found themselves tethered, and the insensitivity of Sinhalese and Tamil elites alike, after independence, to their exploitation by those structures.

There is little debate over the way the plantation economy developed in Sri Lanka. British officials in the island initially favoured the continuation of Dutch mercantilist policies. In his dispatches to the Governor, for instance, Henry Dundas, the Secretary of War, deplored the rising tide of laissez-faire sentiment in Britain. He clearly did not want laissez-faire to take root in the colonies either, at least not for some time.

40 years later, though, owing to pressures exerted by aspiring planters who colluded with officials – who in turn, as the case of Edward Barnes and George Bird showed, themselves turned into plantation owners – a new economic system came into place.

The colonial State, as Bandarage (1982) has observed, completely identified with plantation development. In that scheme of things, land became paramount. The passage of the Crown Lands Encroachment Ordinance in 1840 hence paved the way for officials to take over uncultivated and unoccupied lands if locals failed to prove ownership.

Initially handed over as grants, these were sold at five shillings an acre; according to Bandarage, in 1844 the minimum price was increased to £1. Their sales were swift: in one day in 1840, for instance, more than 13,275 acres were sold. The designations of their new owners indicate the link between the State and the emerging plantocracy: judges, road commissioners, surveyor-generals – even the Governor himself.

Here we need to assess the impact of these transactions and interventions on what became, for a while, the most discriminated community in the country: the Kandyan peasantry. In Java the plantation system managed to gain control of land through accommodation rather than outright takeovers. In Sri Lanka no such accommodation was possible, in light of the rebellions that sprang up after the British annexation of the Kandyan provinces.

Surprisingly, Beckford’s conclusion here seems to be that “the invading Crown” moved into and took over peasant land “without seriously disrupting the settled or shifting agriculture of the indigenous people.” This implies, in other words, that the British could take over land in the Central Province without radically altering the agricultural patterns of those regions. History tells us otherwise, and we need to assess this thesis in-depth.

A corollary to the characterisation of plantations as capitalist is the assumption, shared widely, that migrant Indian labour was necessitated by the unwillingness of indigenous labour (Sinhalese peasants) to adjust to the plantation economy. This explains not just Mick Moore’s “Sinhalese peasant myth” thesis, itself a myth, but also continuing references to the laziness of Sinhalese Buddhist “natives” by right-wing academics.

Such Orientalist views are not unique to Sri Lanka. Nor are they the preserve of right-wing academics, who, during the previous regime, frequently used to churn them out. But they indicate, if not intellectual bankruptcy, then a failure to grasp history: a history free of ethnic and racial stereotypes, one conversant with facts and figures. It is that history which we, whether as readers or students of the social sciences, must privilege.

The truth is that the Sinhalese, as S. B. D. de Silva has clearly shown, did not always remove themselves from the plantation economy. When land needed to be cleared and trees felled to build estates, it was to the peasantry that the plantocracy went.

That in itself flatly contradicts the two most cited assumptions regarding their unwillingness to engage in labour at plantations: their lack of familiarity with a monetary economy, and their aversion to hard work. What these presume is that acceptance of money transactions and wage labour is predicated on prior acquaintance with monetary exchange, rather than the factors which facilitate the transition from a non-monetary to a monetary economy: “a veritable non-sequitur of bourgeois scholarship”, as de Silva wittily observed.

In fact, the wage labour that scholars practically accuse the Sinhalese peasants of avoiding due to an innate laziness hardly resembled wage labour under conditions of capitalism. Yet these same peasants were initially eager to seek employment at plantation enclaves, even outside their traditional activities. Dispatches by officials make it clear that the main if not the only reason why they rejected work at those enclaves later on were the low wages being offered – or delayed and forfeited, as was often the case – by their overseers.

When locals discovered that their wages were being denied to them and intermediaries, whose hold over migrant Tamils have been recorded by scholars, negotiated on their behalf while lending to them sums of money which they would deduct from those wages, they refused to leave their land. A questionnaire put to the peasants of Walapane in the early 19th century, for instance, revealed that while they remained landless and seemed to be going “[n]owhere in particular”, they did not want to labour at the estates because, as they put it, “we never get anything for our work.”

Thus, the burden of the position of the most discriminated community in the country fell on the shoulders of migrant Indian Tamils. Forced to seek employment owing to a series of famines which devastated South India in the late 19th century, they came to comprise more than 70% of the plantation population in Sri Lanka; one account in 1998 records no fewer than 300,000 migrant Tamils working at tea estates, alongside a mere 50,000 Sinhalese, Moors, AND Malays.

Incidentally, it wasn’t only the Sinhalese peasants who shied away from employment: wage differentials between Jaffna and migrant Tamils in the Eastern Province, where both groups had been recruited to repair irrigation tanks, encouraged officials to hire more of the latter, releasing the former to other fields of activity, in particular agriculture. The difference, of course, was that land in Jaffna was never as fragmented and encroached upon by the British as land in the Kandyan provinces had been; thus could hardworking Tamils eke out a living in an otherwise barren north and east.

In any case, migrant Tamils whether in the northeast or the upcountry found themselves in a position, as with the blacks of America, that of neither indentured servants nor wage labourers. They were quasi-wage labourers: the blacks of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese absorbed as captives in the estates soon became as culturally delinked as them; as Nadarajah Shanmugaratnam observed, “they began to speak Tamil and to their children it became the first language”, while their children “spoke their own language with a Tamil accent.”

Meanwhile the Kandyan Sinhalese sought restitution for the loss of their livelihoods. It is notable that the first attempt at drawing up a federal administrative structure in Sri Lanka was made in the 1920s by Kandyan (not Tamil) representatives in the Legislative Council. The harsh truth is that by this point, the Sinhalese peasantry in the hill country had become a backward community; devolution, they thought, would address their grievances. This had nothing to do with their innate “laziness,” as rightwing and “Marxist” intellectuals see it, but rather the state of degradation a century of colonialism had led them to.

To sum it all up, when Sinhalese peasants refused to work at plantations the State turned to migrant Tamils. The latter, not Colombo’s trading class, formed Sri Lanka’s real minority, though even by independence their deprived status had not been compensated.

Far from attempting compensation, in fact, the ruling party proceeded to disenfranchise them for the sin of being a Left vote bank, and stripped them of their citizenship. Such actions amply proved, quoting Dayan Jayatilleka in Long War, Cold Peace, that “we never had a Nehru.” One could just as easily quip, given how our founding fathers schemed to condemn an entire minority into slavery in pursuit of political self-aggrandizement, that we never had an Abraham Lincoln either. But that’s another story.

In the final analysis, any attempt at comparing African-Americans with Sri Lanka must take into account the status of a dispossessed minority, reduced to quasi-wage slavery, detached from the rest of the country, denied the most basic amenities, and supervised under a semi-feudal setup. In Sri Lanka this position would be occupied by the plantation migrant Tamils. For a while the Sinhalese peasant fitted in, but as in Malaya, the colonial State preferred to replace them with a poverty-stricken community from elsewhere.

If we are to repudiate certain “Orientalist” views of our history, as we must, we should also repudiate arguments, such as Beckford’s, which imply the British Crown took over native land without disrupting local agricultural and social patterns. We should also reject notions, entertained by “Marxist” academics, that the British, by disrupting those patterns, paved the way for the destruction of feudalism and the flowering of capitalism. For capitalism, as its most perceptive critic Marx realised, involves more than enclave colonialism, which is what plantations amounted to; it involves the reinvestment of profits in industry, rather than their repatriation to an overseas metropolitan centre.

Pre-capitalist, semi-feudal, and primitive, the plantations of Sri Lanka thrived on the dispossession of the peasantry and the erasure of entire ways of life. Contrary to the views of “Marxist” scholars and activists, then, the colonial government did not and could not lay the foundation for a modern State (which nationalist leaders later supposedly “feudalised”). To assume such a thing is to insult the legacy, not just of the Kandyan Sinhalese who lost their livelihoods (and lives), but also of Indian Tamils “recruited” – a word which conceals the quasi-militarised setup under which they arrived here – to replace them.

1 Comment

Filed under British colonialism, British imperialism, caste issues, centre-periphery relations, commoditification, economic processes, ethnicity, governance, historical interpretation, island economy, land policies, landscape wondrous, Left politics, legal issues, life stories, modernity & modernization, politIcal discourse, power politics, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, social justice, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, transport and communications, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy, working class conditions, world events & processes

One response to “The Plantation Economy in British Ceylon: The Downtrodden Indian Tamil Labour and the Dispossessed Kandyan Peasantry

  1. The plight of the plantation Tamils (known as coolies) was indeed horrific. They lived in conditions of utter and abject poverty and degradation in rickety and unsanitary shacks called ‘coolie lines’.

    Coolies slaved all day long, rain or shine, in the dark shadows of the rubber trees, as they shaved the bark and collecting the rubber sap. They were poor, malnourished, ill-clad, and prey to sickness, snake-bite and the plague of millions of leeches who sucked their innocent blood.

    My father was a rubber planter in the Kalutara district, and during my school holidays I caught glimpses of how these poor souls lived. When our car passed them on the winding road to the top of the hill where the planter’s bungalow stood, little, smiling urchins would line the route and shout “aiya salaam”. My heart breaks when I recall these scenes.

    I can’t even begin to understand how these downtrodden people did not rise up against their heartless masters. It is possible that they knew their servitude to be intractable and had neither vision nor hope of a better life.

    It is certain that their masters were immune to the conditions and plight of the wretched slaves who produced the wealth gained from rubber exports. How could the planter class been so callous and blind?

    Human beings should never be permitted to wield the immense power over their fellows that planters and plantation owners took for granted.

    Indeed, this was a viciously cruel form of slavery, and I am sorry that I could not, as a child see it for what it was.

    I do now, and I am filled with sorrow and regret.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.