SRI LANKA SCENES: Some Pick The Tea, Others Drink Whiskey

After learning that, four years after the conclusion of the civil war, Sri Lanka has the most cases of disappeared people anywhere in the world apart from Iraq, I began reflecting on the evidence of a prolonged ethnic divide I came across during my time on the island nearly three years ago.

A weekend on a tea plantation staying in the Super Intendants bungalow made the gap between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations obvious to me. I had been picked up by the man himself and, before going off road onto a bumpy mud truck, we were waved through three checkpoints as the driver was recognised. We started to head even further up the hill side towards the bungalow which, since the very first colonial settlers, has been located above all of the other properties on the mountain as a blatant sign of superiority — though, theses day, it is not Westerners living in them, but the privately educated Sinhalese elite looking down from their immaculately groomed gardens on the Tamil workers. Continuing down the dirt track which led us further up the mountain but deeper into the wild for what must have been forty minutes, and after passing the rudimentary concrete and sheet metal homes of theworkforce who had to tend to their own small patch of crops after the working day, we passed through the brick gateway into a separate and exclusive world.

There was a sense that, if they had stopped picking in that place, they would lose the best of the crop and profits would consequently drop.

Having arrived in the early evening, I was sat down in the living room and introduced to the family by the very proud father, consisting of a very well behaved eight-year-old carrying the mandatory cricket bat and the wife with another child on the way. After half an hour of introductions and small talk, his wife and son left and the butler brought in the drinks trolley. The Super Intendant of a tea planation can usually boast having a servant, however my particular host seemed to have taken it to a new level – I counted three: the butler, a driver, and a cook.

Sri Lankans, while being some of the nicest people I have ever met.

Sri Lankans, while being some of the nicest people I have ever met, are very eager to show off their relative wealth and particularly social status at every available opportunity. Hence when the butler brought in the drinks trolley packed with whiskeys, arracks, beers, mixers and snacks, one glance from my host sent him scurrying back behind the scenes and reappearing moments later with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label whiskey, which — it seems — is a great indicator of social standingamong the Sri Lankans.

The butler made another appearance at dinner and, while I was greedily helping myself from the dishes in the middle of the table, in an unashamed display of superiority, my host ushered him with a series of hand movements and stern glances to serve his food. The conversation carried on as if no one else was in the room though a display which had been designed to impress just made me feel slightly awkward as the gap between rich and poor was being acted out in plain sight.

Photo by Thomas Seaman

The next day, I went on the rounds with the Super Intendant whose first job was to check on a group of tea pickers who were reluctant to carry on picking where they were because, the week before, a water buffalo from the neighbouring jungle had charged and killed a supervisor and there had been sightings of another, possibly the same one, that morning. They were, in short, told to get back to work, though it would be wrong to say that their concerns fell on deaf ears as it was clear that the supervisors were on edge as well. There was a sense that, if they had stopped picking in that place, they would lose the best of the crop and profits would consequently drop.

At that point, I felt it appropriate to ask why so many of the workers were Tamils and was given the explanation that, during the civil war, hundreds of Tamils had been forced to move to rural areas to look for work because no one would hire them in the towns and cities — the tea plantations were a lifeline.

Thomas Seaman

Look out for the second instalment in our special Sri Lanka Scenes series by Thomas Seaman.

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21 Comments on this post.
  • Luckshi Ramiah
    4 November 2013 at 14:40
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    Your first article is best, but the Tea Plantation workforce from Tamil Nadu India. They were brought to Sri Lanka by British Government. It was another good history.

  • Sanjaya Anuruddha
    6 November 2013 at 18:57
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    Dear Mr. Thomas Seaman,
    Thank you for writing an article about my country . But please do not write false information as tarnishing the image of our country has become a big business for some bogus Human Rights activists and Propaganda type journalists . Where did you get the statistics of missing persons ? Do you know some 2000 people go on missing in USA : ..Please learn more about the ethnic issue before you try to make a snap judgment ..It has become a habit of some westerners to write imaginary bad things about Third world countries ..but unknown to them their work has been used by wicked people engaged in human smuggling , terrorism , and bogus rights/charities for their ends ..thanks

  • Ivak
    5 March 2014 at 07:45
    Leave a Reply Read this and you will know why so many Tamils work as tea pickers in the hill country. Feel free to visit the Hiniduma area ins southern Sri Lanka, where ‘low-country’ tea is produced and many Sinhalese + others work as tea pickers in these regions.

  • Kottu Roti
    6 March 2014 at 02:03
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    Dear Mr. Seaman,

    I think you have incorrectly extrapolated one person’s (or a group) to the general relationship between each ethnicity. There are several issues at play here; The arrogance of the elitist superintendent is a common colonial hangover that most ruling class sadly display towards the underprivileged regardless of ethnicity cast or creed. This is how the British planters behaved towards the “coolies” and it sadly continues towards them to this day. You should not extrapolate this to ethnicity because in SL even the SL Tamils look down on the plantation (ethnic Indian) Tamil. I have first hand experience when my Colombo Tamil colleague excluded a plantation Tamil colleague for no other reason but caste. He even speaks down to him. Sadly that is an Indian attitude that is largely affecting Tamils and to a very small degree some silly Sinhalese as well.

  • Kottu Roti
    6 March 2014 at 02:14
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    “At that point, I felt it appropriate to ask why so many of the workers were Tamils and was given the explanation that, during the civil war, hundreds of Tamils had been forced to move to rural areas to look for work because no one would hire them in the towns and cities — the tea plantations were a lifeline.”

    Let me explain that the plantation Tamils were brought to SL as “coolies” of the British Raj to work the field and they have remained as indentured servants to this day to serve you a cup of tea at the affordable price you pay in UK. If the tea buyers cough up a living wage for all the sweat shop workers who are modern day slaves then your morning cup of tea might as well be laced with flecks of gold dust coz it would be out of reach of the every-day westerner. So will your branded clothes which are stitched in a crammed Bangladesh factory or a Chinese assembly line.

    There are no restriction of movements of the estate workers and if you ask most estate companies are facing an imminent threat of a shortage of workers. So I would recommend Mr. Seaman to next time make some polite inquiries when in SL next before speculating ethnic enslavement. If you find this to be like a rant than a polite discourse please excuse because I’m tired of reading biased reports on SL ethnic issue.

  • DJ
    7 March 2014 at 02:27
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    I don’t know where you are from. Imagining that you are from UK, just please ask about these Tamils from your great-great grand father (I mean you better than us should know). where they came from , for what and who did that.

  • carlion
    7 March 2014 at 02:44
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    Mr Seaman,
    You visited only one tea estate I believe. Perhaps you would like to be informed that “Superintendants” and not” super intendants” originally were all colonial masters who fleeced third world countries of their wealth. It is good you brought this up thus giving an opportunity to Sri Lankans to apprise you and the world what you white men from the UK left behind when you left. Even to this day you folks behave like lords when you visit third world countries. So do not attempt to shed crocodile tears for the estate Tamil people who your ancestors indentured from Tamil Nadu to work as coolies and tea pluckers in Sri Lanka treating everyone as slaves
    May I also inform you that there also are Tamil Superintendats in several estates who too act the same way like the Seamens of the bygone era.

  • jay gunasekara
    7 March 2014 at 03:36
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    Mr. Seaman the word superintendant is a single word and this is the first I have seen it broken.
    what are you suggesting? about the disparity of living conditions.this is happening all over the world unless you are ignorant of the fact.Look at the farm workers of California and their living conditions that mirror the plantation workers of Srilanka that are not fit even for animals. There are solutions but it will raise the price of tea by 100%.Alternate crops of a higher value should be considered.

  • P.R.
    7 March 2014 at 04:01
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    Such ignorance from Western journalists is common sadly due to the system of education they have in their countries of birth. Mr. T.Seaman’s ignorance is clear in that he can hardly get his spelling right..’Super intendent’ instead of ‘Superintendent’ . This was the title bestowed on the Manager of the estate by the British, hardly used now. But Mr. S cunningly uses the word to further a hidden agenda. That is why the former colonies are now living and working in their local languages rather than slavishly following the colonialist language.
    You Mr Seaman has abused the hospitality shown to you by a well meaning friend to host you in his house, but betrayed by you. You ate his food, shared his roof, and wrote rubbish. Shame on you. Maybe that’s the type of man you were born to be..

  • William
    7 March 2014 at 04:35
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    I suggest that you first get your facts in order before trying to write articles of this nature, For your information the plantation workers were brought in by the British to work in their plantations. They were brought in to work in similar conditions of the slave labor used in America in their cotton fields, again by the British. If you had travelled to the low grown plantations you would have found that most of the labor are in fact Sinhalese.

  • nuke77
    7 March 2014 at 04:47
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    What a bunch of highly one-sided, opinionated poppycock and tomfoolery you have written. Does Aristocracy of Britain including its Royalty treat commoners of lower or middle class equal? All the Lords, Monarchs, Barons and their female counterparts and families ought to dine on the same table at home and in public Royal banquets and functions. Your Queen was caught counting edible nuts in her nibbling jars in fear of Royal guards indulging on them! Why are there English words “Butler”, “Chauffeur”, “Cook” in usage in Britain?
    Sri Lanka’s Northern Tamils will NEVER work in Tea Plantations as the Indian Tamil workers who descend from the slaves brought to Sri Lanka by British colonial rulers to work as coolies are considered LOWER caste by them. The class difference and etiquette between Superintendent and tea plantation workers were introduced and enforced by YOUR great-great grand uncles when they invaded this island and brought Indian Tamil slaves to work for them. Yes your ancestors were involved in slave trade. You have their blood. Now you have nerve to write crafted nonsensical profanities to denigrate a small island nation with smiling people who welcomed and treated you like Royalty in the hope it would cleanse your tainted blood?

    Your writing has NOT a drop of credibility of truth. It reflects amateurism of writing spiced by ignorance of a western neo-colonial hegemony and idiocy at its best. Disgusting and insulting to Nottingham community, indeed. If you are bankrupt of stories, write about India’s Tetley Tea plantation (formerly British Lipton and Brooke Bond) was involved in slave trade of its tea pluckers recently. British bullying does not work on a tiny resplendent island nation that is recovering from 30 yrs of terror war by Tamil Tigers fueled by India and the UK!

  • nuke77
    7 March 2014 at 04:49
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    Moreover, your writing in fact insults the intelligence of educated, well-traveled fine folks of Nottingham.

  • Chrissy Abeysekera
    7 March 2014 at 04:57
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    I do not normally respond with comments and certainly I am not normally given to resorting to insults but this writer just exemplifies the image of the ignorant Westerner.

    Mr Seaman, there are many things factually wrong with your story but the most astounding of all is your attempt to categorise the hill country Tamils as those who had fled there due to the civil war. A simple search on Google would have sufficed to answer your question before writing this ridiculous piece. The hill country Tamils were indentured labour brought by the British during colonial times when the Sinhalese refused to work on the plantations. Moreover the hill country Tamls resolutely refused to join in the separatist struggle by the Northern Tamils, the LTTE. In fact, the LTTE always looked down on them, considering them as inferior.

    Your stay in a class conscious so called elitist Supt’s bungalow (which you seem to have enjoyed, partaking of the whiskey yourself) was at your choice. I come from a estate family and let me tell you that we employ Sinhalese as well as Tamils and they are our friends not servants. I have on several occasions spoken out ad written against this Government’s policies and abuse of rights so I am not a sympathiser. But it gets my goat when I see such badly written articles like these. Please educate yourself Mr Seaman. And don’t presume to provide incorrect equations for complex historical problems

  • DUWI
    7 March 2014 at 06:22
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    What a load of bull. The lifestyle that plantation superintendents live-out now is one inherited from British Colonialist Planters. The British treated the house staff worse. The tamil workers on plantations were imported by the British Planters from South India (where they were living in abject poverty) in the 1800s and early 1900s as native Sinhalese never wanted to work on the plantations which were built on land plundered from them by the Britishers.

  • ranjit demel
    7 March 2014 at 06:38
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    this pundit shows his ignorance, like many so called j.

  • Ong Kiuwwa
    7 March 2014 at 08:38
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    What you have described “the what” may be accurate, but the conclusions “the why” are flawed.

    Yes, there is poverty among the estate Tamils. However, due to strict labour laws and the powerful trade union cum political party of Mr. Thondaman (CEylon Workers Congress), a cabinet minister in the Government and the critical vote base of this segment, their lot has significantly improved over the last so 30-40 years, with free plantation housing, schools for kids, plantation company sponsored as well as government medicare.

    These were brought down 2 centuries ago by the British for cheap labour.

    These were NOT the war affected Tamils from the North and East. They never engaged in armed terror or separatism and most are patriotic Sr Lankans.

    The Last King of Kandy, effectively the last Sri Lankan monarch , Kannasamy (Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe) was a Tamil of the Royal “Nayakkar” lineage.

    Muttiah Muralidharan (Ever heard of him?) , one of Sri Lanka’s finest sons, is a Tamil of Indian/Kandyan Origin, possibly with aristocratic ancestry.

    If you went to a tea, coconut or rubber plantation, in the south, you would have seen Sinhala workers, occasionally with a Tamil or Muslim Superintendent.

    Plantation jobs used to be “plum jobs” for the best school leavers, but with a more vibrant mercantile sector (relatively), planting doesn’t always attract the better elements now. Probably why you may have encountered a pompous jackass eager to display his recent rise in the social hierarchy. This behaviour
    is not typical of all Sri Lankans, except in some cases of the nouveau riche.

  • Dissanayake
    7 March 2014 at 13:22
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    Mr SEAMAN is a good example for biased writing by Western journalists. They do not bother to spend time for researching facts and reality in Sri Lanka. As many have already written that Tamil labourers working in tea plantations are from Tamil Nadu who were brought by British people and not from the North and East where there was a war between the LTTE terrorists and the legitimate Sri Lankan armed forces. This is well known truth. It is unfortunate this writer was not able to find even a preliminary fact.

    However, I want to tell you that there was a migration of Tamil labourers to North and East of Sri Lanka from the hill country. Under the Srima-Sasthree agreement between Sri Lanka and India, Tamil migrants who were not resident in Sri Lanka more than 10 years were sent back to India while others were given citizenship in Sri Lanka. Ten years of resident in a country is a normal and one condition even in European countries to give citizenship to any person to this date. However, a Norwegian NGO called RED BANA headed by Mr. Jon Westborg (Later he became the Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka and facilitated the Cease Fire Agreement between GOSL and the LTTE) and Sri Lankan NGO SARWODAYA stopped trains that transported Indian Tamils, in Vavunia and settled them in the North province. Later some of these new settlers joined with the LTTE. A good example is S.P. Tamilchelvam, the leader of so-called political section of the LTTE.

    On the other hand relationships between poor and rich are very much universal everywhere in the world. The writer cannot exaggerate the relationship between Tamil labourers and their bosses, mainly Tamil in tea plantations in the hill country. Similar relationship can be seen in low-country tea plantations in the South where there are both labourers and bosses are Sinhalese.

    I beg all western writers who write erroneous facts and lies about Sri Lanka, intentionally or otherwise, please leave us, we Sinhalese Tamils and Muslims live in Sri Lanka peacefully and try to help each other whenever possible. Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka is the good example for peaceful co-existence of these three races. In Colombo, 40% are Muslims, 30% are Tamils, and the rest is Sinhalese. Many Tamils in Colombo are recent migrants form the North and East. Many Tamils from those areas came to the South parts of the country to avoid recruitments by the LTTE and their brutality. Those Tamils now live very peacefully and prosperously in their new locations. Sinhalese do not obstruct their settlements as some of the Tamil leaders do to Sinhalese who were chased out from the North by the LTTE 30 years before.

    Indeed, there is no big problem between normal Tamils and Sinhalese. But Tamil ruling class who were pets of British ruling and hence enjoyed all the benefits lost their status after Sri Lanka got universal franchise in 1931. Since then they try to get their status again by any means. They ignite hatred among normal Tamils against Sinhalese based on lies or half-truths.

    Therefore, we the Sri Lankans irrespective of our ethnicity urge from the international community to understand our situation and let us solve our residual problems remaining after colonial masters from the west left our shores in 1948.

  • Bolshoi De Crimea
    7 March 2014 at 16:32
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    Thomas Seaman is a good example of western journalists who go into stories with preconceived notions. This is very similar to what is happening Crimea at the moment. Before asking the Sri Lankans where the tea plantation workforce comes from, you should ask your own people why they dragged these people from India to all parts of the world for forced labour.

  • shini
    7 March 2014 at 16:32
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    British were responsible for the ethnic conflict in the first place when they divided the majority Sinhalese from the minorities by giving good government positions to the minority Tamils. There was serious ” apartheid ” at the time when Sinhalese were pushed to a corner .They used their most famous ” divide and conquer” rule used when ruling their empire. They brought down low cast Tamils from India for ” cheap labour” ( called Estate Tamils) to work in the Tea Industry. ( They are the Tamils you are talking about ) as the ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils were too proud to be used for slavery by the British who now talk about ” human rights”. Before the British and other invaders took over Sri Lanka by force, there was peace in the country. There were no divisions. This will be proven beyond doubt if you read the history of Sri Lanka where there were Tamil kings ruling the country including the ” last King of Lanka” . Yes there were coupes against them as in any other country. The history of Britain will show how many kings were overthrown and how many wars occurred and how many queens were be headed in Britain for trivial reasons !!! So in short the British are responsible for the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka !!! What do you have to say to that Mr Thomas ??????

  • Bolshoi De Crimea
    7 March 2014 at 16:52
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    With regret, I have to state that this is poor quality journalism for a student magazine of a university that produced D H Lawrence & a few Nobel winners.

    Mr Seaman could have produced a much better piece on the same subject if he had done a few searches in Google or visited one of the following places,

    1) British Library
    2) Victoria and Albert Museum
    2) Natural History Museum
    4) British Museum

  • carlion
    7 March 2014 at 17:29
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    Mr. Seaman,
    If you have read the above comments and understood them you would dare not write another installment. Your ignorance of facts, history, cultures and peoples is quite evident enough. So, stop your nonsense and thank your guest, that superintendant who treated you with such hospitality together with an apology. Arrogant as you are, I bet you would’nt

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