Ceylon Planter caricatured


He wears knee socks. A globe of a stomach strains the buttons of the shirt tucked into his shorts. Shades and a hat tops off the outfit. Somewhere in the background is the mud splattered land rover. Close at hand, a walking stick of some sort to point out what needs to be done to the labourers. Instructions are in slightly broken Sinhala or Tamil. Delivered in a deep voice befitting his status. The details will be handled by the foreman standing respectfully behind.

At the end of the day there’s a whisky (or whiskeys) with the chaps at the club. Where they address each other with truncated names or nicknames originating from boarding school antics. Berti, Micky, Dicky, Ronnie. The English is confidently smooth, easy flowing, and laced with Ceylonisms only when necessary. Most of the time though its solitary arracks in an isolated bungalow with a British name on a remote tea estate hill top.

As a child he was sent to a boarding school of missionary origins to be moulded into a man. In the footsteps of at least one generation of his family. The true purpose of such institutions are to build life long social networks and intuitively navigate hierarchies governed by unwritten rules. As part of this training he took part in one or more essential team sports: cricket, rugby and rowing. Consequently he is part of a close knit circle of friends bonded by ordeals of endurance on the field and daring escapades. In the process he mastered the arts of improving his alcohol endurance and making smoke rings. Exams and books are of course a formality.

Leaving school means joining an old company (perhaps festooned with relatives) and some sort of apprenticeship in the estates. Eventually “graduation” to his own fiefdom amongst the tea bushes, or rubber trees. Periodically he will “come down” to Colombo for the call of the social calendar: the big match, christmas/31st night. There would be youthful dalliances with the ladies of certain schools who will be attracted to the dashing style and manner. Carefully blurry details of these escapades will join the tales bandied about at the club.

Eventually there is a marriage and consequent offspring. Inevitably the sedate decent beyond middle age. Symbolised by a deceleration of movement, inflation of the belly, and the retreat of greying hair across a balding scalp.

Internally there are the health consequences of youth. The walking stick is now for use not show. His sporting life is restricted to dissecting the game from the pavilion. An activity that inevitably stumbles into reliving old glories on the field or boat over beer, cigarettes and bites. Some may have ditched cigarettes for the ceremonial dignity of a pipe. The lighting of which will be etched in the memory of an 8 year old who later in life will use it in a blog post depicting a brutally simplistic caricature.

It is a cartoon those who call for a simplified hell of ethnic purity love to use. The very icon of our familiar colonial past. Frequently bandied as a manifestation of evil, alien cultural impurity, the scapegoat for all that is wrong, the convenient obstacle in the way of recreating the paradise of 2000 years ago. I don’t feel any that such simplistic symbols have any validity. But caricatures paint easy pictures and easy pictures win votes. Thankfully, Hitler never won an election so there’s hope.

The term “planter” in Sri Lankan English refers to a member of the colonial era managerial class that ran tea, rubber and coconut estates for large British multinational companies. Until the mid 20th century they were mostly British or of British decent. However anglicised Sri Lankans began entering this demographic during the mid 20th century.

19 comments

  1. A Planter learnt his work as a “creeper’, plucking the norm before setting off to dig drains in the new clearing, staying there till he completed the ‘task. A Planter was, in the words of a Planters wife “My husband is not only the Superintendent, but Factory Manager, Accountant, Agriculturist, Mid wife, Doctor, Lawyer, Judge, Policeman, Father, Leader, Surveyor, Engineer, Irrigationist, Plumber, a Jack of all Trades”.

    They trail blazed, often living in deplorable conditions, kept the green gold coming in come rain or sun, strike or strife…. In the late 70’s they were vilified as being symbols of Colonialism, targeted during the late 80’s by insurgents and still they prevailed…

    And I was one: http://taurus19lk.blogspot.com/2008/01/those-early-days.html

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  2. Heres a story written in 1908. Its considered fiction, wonder how much is fiction versus fact.

    Ceylon, the paradise of Adam: the record of seven years’ residence in the island: Caroline Corner, 1908

    Excerpt:
    And for this parents in England are ready to pay premiums, which they can often ill afford, for their sons to learn tea-planting deeming it a gentleman’s avocation. So it is, when the tea-planter does no more than pocket the proceeds.

    It appears things have not changed much. It appears anyone (at least ones I have spoken to) who owns a small holding (20 to 50 acres) and is not actively managing it (too busy, not in the country etc), the venture runs at a loss. Hmm..

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  3. Ah such a timely post! I’m researching plantation ideology and postcolonial hierarchies at the moment, and it’s unbelievable how the colonial notion of a planter is holding its own in the face of modernity and minor inconveniences such as labour rights and trade unions. Good post as always Cerno🙂

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    • This is not the case anymore. Labour rights are very strictly observed, it would be impossible to survive in todays politicised environment without observing the law.

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  4. Sigma: Thank you for that eye opening comment and the link. What a wonderful post! Wish I caught that one when it came out. My knowledge of “The planters” is based on what I sponged off the adults as kid. And your post blew the dust off a lot more conversations and realisations which I think deserve another post. Definitely like to hear more about you’re planting experiences. Sounds like there’s a book in there🙂

    b, Kiri, and u4j10: Thrilled that you guys like the post😀

    sbarrkumL Thank you for that link. An interesting point about hands on management an commercial agriculture. There’s clearly some interesting dynamics involved. Have you had any encounters with it?

    Vindi:😀 Thank you – serendipitous timing no?🙂 Looking forward to reading about your discoveries. As with most things there’s always variation of the stereotype. But the world of plantation culture from the little I’ve read/seen seems a murky one. Nothing is as it seems — then again what I know is from scraps of passing conversations than any organised reading.

    maf: Thank you😀

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  5. Brilliant article.

    Reading through the progression of events as the planter got on in years, don’t you also think that replace the word planter with any other person and you can have an equally similar story of old age and re living times when you were young and dashing🙂

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  6. Read “A Time For Tea” by Piya Chatterjee. Although it is an ethnographic study of Assamese tea plantations, I’ve found from fiedlwork that the situation in Sri Lankan tea plantations mirror those of postcolonial India quite remarkably. Charred Lullabies by E. Valentine Daniel is another good one, although it mainly considers the aspect of violence with relation to the tea plantation community.

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  7. sbarrkum:Very good point😀 I guess it depends on what you define as “win” and how “fair” the election was. Fact remains that Hitler never won a fair election to secure power for the Nazis as the sole party of government. They had to form a government with a coalition of another party. The parlimentary act that gave Hitler dictatorial powers (the enabling act) was possible because most of the parlimentarians who would have opposed it were locked up during the vote.

    As for the election of 1933, the Wikipedia article also points out that the other major opposition parties were heavily suppressed. Thanks to a decree passed due to the burning of the German parliament building.

    This emergency law removed many civil liberties and allowed the arrest of the leaders of the KPD shortly before the election, suppressing the Communist vote and consolidating the position of the Nazis. While at that time not as heavily oppressed as the Communists, the Social Democrats were also restricted in their actions, as the party’s leadership had already fled to Prague and many members were acting only from the underground.

    Despite all this and with the 50,000 members of Nazi organisations “monitoring” the elections, Hitler didn’t get enough votes for the Nazis to form a majority. He essentially had to manipulate the workings of a weak democracy with “violence or the threat of it” to secure his powers.

    So there is hope. But as you’ve pointed out with the link there’s not that much hope.

    Abracadabra13: Thank you🙂 Quite true about the reliving of youth theme. From the little I know of the subject I got the feeling that the desire to focus on the positive aspects of the past is an attempt to deal with social and physical isolation caused by the remoteness of plantation life, and the power position of being a planter.

    I could of course be quite wrong😉

    Vindi: Thank you for those links. Love to read you research when you knock out that research paper – hope you publish a “lay person’s version” on your blog – or who knows there could be a book in there😀

    anon: An interesting point – hope you could elaborate further. I hate to sound like a dehydrated cynic but the “law” has rarely stopped those with the influence to rise above it in Sri Lanka. Then again politics in Sri Lanka is a slippery business.

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