How modern Sri Lankan plantations began

Present day issues of the estate sector have their roots in the early history of plantations

Plantations have a venerable history in Sri Lanka. The 2nd century Roman author Aelian wrote, “…Taprobane has palm-groves, where the trees are planted with wonderful regularity all in a row.” The Culavamsa records that King Aggabodhi I (around the 6th century) gifted a coconut garden three yojanas in length to the Kurunda Vihara, near the Giant’s Tank in Mannar. In the post-Anuradhapura period, coconut plantations flourished on the coast from Chillaw to Matara. The 15th century monarch Parakramabahu VI gifted a coconut plantation to the Vijayaba Pirivena at Totagamuwa.

Governor Gustaaf Willem Baron van Imhoff

In the early colonial era, since the Portuguese had much interest in toddy and arrack, but not in other palm products, they neglected coconut plantations. The situation did not change much under the Dutch United East India Company (Vereinigte Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC). In the 1730s, Governor Gustaaf Willem Baron van Imhoff sought to improve the country’s agricultural output, reasoning that increased prosperity would lead to greater sales of VOC goods in the island, thereby increasing revenue. He therefore promoted coconut plantations, giving land between Colombo and Kalutara to people interested in planting coconut trees. Unfortunately, in the 1750s, the VOC put a stop to this, arguing that it got in the way of cinnamon production. The same thing happened to coffee and pepper plantations, also promoted by van Imhoff. The VOC saw Sri Lanka only as a source of cinnamon and a market for its goods, and subordinate to its prime concern, The Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The cautious VOC directors, worried that Sri Lankan pepper and coffee would compete against the products of Java, put an end to these exports. A classic case of the strategic objectives of the head office contradicting those of the regional branch. On the other hand, the VOC did want cinnamon production to flourish. Hitherto, it harvested the spice from trees growing naturally in the jungle. Some 2,800 cinnamon peelers belonging to the Salagama caste, organised in ranchus (gangs—from the Dutch Randje) of 50-60 men, each under an Arachchi, had to fan out into the jungles, look for cinnamon plants and harvest them.

In 1769, Governor Iman Falck grew cinnamon from seeds successfully in his botanic garden at Grandpass, and consequently ordered his korale headmen (including his cousin Cornelis de Cock, Dissawe of Colombo) to start plantations, but still using Salagama cinnamon peelers under the same compulsory labour conditions. In order to boost production, Governor Willem Jacob van der Graaf leased the plantations in lots to smallholders and handed out “waste” land for growing cinnamon. By 1794, the 5,000 bales (about 200 tonnes) of cinnamon harvested from plantations and private land proved sufficient to preclude harvesting the King of Kandy’s forests.

In order to boost production, Governor Willem Jacob van der Graaf leased the plantations in lots to smallholders and also handed out “waste” land for growing cinnamon

When the British arrived, the cost of the cinnamon plantations was so high that they decided progressively to destroy cinnamon plants on private lands and concentrate them in a few state-run plantations. However, Sri Lankan cinnamon had to compete against cheap cassia from China and India, as well as higher-quality cinnamon from Java, so the government abandoned its monopoly on the cinnamon trade, instead imposing an export duty. From 1840, it sold off its cinnamon lands, and the cinnamon trade declined, only to revive after 1948.

In 1804, Governor Frederick North tried to resuscitate the VOC coffee plantations, but failed. Eight years later, the Post Master General, a Cape Dutchman called Egbert Bletterman began a private coffee estate, obtaining a licence to export the produce. But it failed. Meanwhile, “native” coffee, cultivated by indigenous smallholders, increased in importance.


Peeling cinnamon, from a print by Romeyn de Hooghe in Simon de Vries’ Curieuse aenmerckingen der bysonderste Oost en West-Indische verwonderens-waerdige dingen, courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

British coffee consumption grew ten-fold in two decades, from 340 tonnes in 1801 to 3,320 tonnes by 1821. However, “native” coffee exports only averaged 500 tonnes in the early 1820s, most of it intended for the Indian market, although they continued to increase thereafter.

The colonial government began to offer concessions to planters and exporters. In 1823, George Bird was granted 200 acres of land at Sinnapitiya in Gampola, together with a tax-free loan of 4,000 rix dollars, to establish a coffee plantation. The following year, Governor Lt. Gen Edward Barnes directed Alexander Moon, Superintendent of Botanic Gardens, to establish a 125-acre coffee plantation at the Peradeniya Gardens. In 1825, Barnes set up his own 100-acre private plantation at Gannoruwa, which produced 50 tonnes of coffee annually.

By 1832, Sri Lankan exports reached 1,875 tonnes, most of it to Britain and a fair portion to the US. This was despite competition from West Indian coffee

The government sold its plantation, but coffee, both native and plantation-grown, had been established as a major crop. By 1832, Sri Lankan exports reached 1,875 tonnes, most of it to Britain and a fair portion to the US. This was despite competition from West Indian coffee, produced using slave labour and protected by tariff restrictions. Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1833 (after which the slaves refused to work on coffee plantations) and removal of restrictive duties on coffee soon after, laid the stage for Sri Lanka to become a major coffee exporter. Until about 1840, the bulk of exports were provided by native coffee, but thereafter plantation coffee became preponderant.

In 1830, Charles Hay Cameron joined William MacBean George Colebrooke as part of the Commission of Enquiry into the state of the Cape of Good Hope, Mauritius and Ceylon. Colebrooke had laboured since 1823 in the Cape and Mauritius before arriving in Colombo in 1829, the other commissioners having retired, sick. Their recommendations had far-reaching consequences for agriculture. The prohibition of Rajakariya (compulsory labour) freed workers for wage labour, but led to the collapse of the complex Robert Boyd Tytler from The Tropical Agriculturalist but already-delicate irrigation system that sustained paddy cultivation. The reduction of government salaries meant that officials had to find income elsewhere. The reduction in taxation enabled freer trade. Most significantly, the government funded its budget deficit by selling off “waste” lands. Newly impoverished government servants discovered that speculation in crown lands could be lucrative. Sales of crown lands grew from 49 acres in 1834 to a peak of 78,685 acres in 1841. By 1848, of the 400,000 acres which had been sold, only 60,000 were under cultivation. Government officers bought much of this land: on a single day in 1840, some eleven civil servants (including the Governor, the army commander and the acting Colonial Secretary) bought 13,275 acres in the Ambagamuwa area of the Central province. Edward Lord Stanley, War and Colonial Secretary, discontinued the practice in 1845, giving officials a pay rise instead.

Robert Boyd Tytler from The Tropical Agriculturalist

Nevertheless, an unhealthy nexus now existed between the state and the estate sector, the so-called “Planter Raj”, which saw government policy acting in the interests of the planters. The acceleration of road-building in coffee-growing areas owed much to this nexus, as did the construction of the railway line from Colombo to Kandy, and the development of Colombo harbour to the detriment of the more logical choice for a national port, Galle.

Money began flooding in, as British Indian civil servants and capitalists rushed to invest in coffee. However, the planters they recruited, mainly through family networking, had no idea how to run a coffee plantation. Most came from the Scottish town of Aberdeen and had no previous experience. However, one Aberdonian proved an exception. Robert Boyd Tytler, born in 1819, went to work as a gardener at age twelve. At fifteen, he travelled to Jamaica to study sugar and coffee planting. After three years there, in 1837 he arrived in Sri Lanka and went to work for Ackland, Boyd and Company in Dumbara. He brought with him Laborie’s The coffee planter of San Domingo, a handbook of slave-based coffee cultivation on Haiti, which became the planters’ bible.

Tytler, who came to be regarded as “the father of Ceylon planters”, introduced tried and tested West Indian techniques of coffee culture. For example, he noticed the “lanky long-drawn coffee plants” were growing too tall, not getting enough sunlight in the shade of tall trees. It is a reflection on the experience of the planters that some took his advice on shade too literally, and eliminated shade altogether, to the detriment of the plants. Tytler regularised the processes of planting, manuring, pruning and harvesting, and set the Sri Lankan estate sector on the path to excellence. Within a few years, Sri Lanka became the world’s second-largest coffee exporter, and “Ceylon Coffee” had all the standing that “Ceylon Tea” acquired later.

The reduction in taxation enabled freer trade. Most significantly, the government funded its budget deficit by selling off “waste” lands

As early as 1828, Barnes and Bird together brought 250 Tamil labourers (“coolies”) from India to work on their coffee estates, but they all left within a year. After 1839, however, labourers flooded over the Palk Strait looking for work. The work being mainly seasonal, several unscrupulous planters cheated the workers of their wages. As a result, the flood dried up and the “Kangany system” of recruitment of indentured labourers began, and the biggest demographic change on the island since the invasion of Magha took place – Indian Tamils eventually outnumbering native Tamils.

However, the availability of extremely cheap labour had a detrimental effect on the plantation economy. Whereas in places such as Hawaii, labour-intensive methods of cultivation gave way to more modern, mechanised techniques, in Sri Lanka, the semi-slave human resources model introduced by Tytler from the West Indies remained.

John Walker’s original disc pulper from William Harrison Ukers’ All About Coffee

Early coffee planting had been characterised by a great deal of innovation, particularly in post-harvest technologies. Modern firms such as Walkers CML owe their existence to the pioneering technological efforts of engineers of the ilk of John Walker, who developed an advanced coffee pulper. However, this did not spread into the field, and planters became conservative, eschewing innovation: as late as the 1950s, they rejected proposals for replanting tea so that mechanical harvesting could be facilitated. Even today, proposals for revivifying the estate economy rest more on reducing labour costs by introducing backward outgrower or sharecropper methods, which would necessarily be short-term, rather than capital-intensive, labour-saving technologies. Indeed, closing down the estate sector has been advocated – which would be a waste of know-how and trademark reputation built up over nearly two centuries.