ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 08
Financial Times  

Place in the sun for the plantation worker

By Lakwimashi Perera

Inside a line room

PUSSELLAWA, Gampola - Ceylon Tea, the beverage that put Sri Lanka on the map has a history of almost 200 years in Sri Lanka.
For decades now, tea has been among the top foreign revenue earners of Sri Lanka but the tea estate workers, the silent heroes that worked behind the scenes, have been forgotten and neglected until now.

The Sunday Times FT went on a journey to tea country through winding roads and lush tea plantations last week to the Tea Workers Museum- newly opened in the Raman Dora Estate in Pussellawa which is dedicated entirely to the tea estate workers. The Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar was also present on the occasion.

P. Muthulingam, Chairman of the Intitute of Social Development (ISD), an NGO that supports plantation workers, provided a guided tour of the museum, taking us on a journey through the history of tea in Sri Lanka from the beginning of the 19th century to the present day.

The first tea plant was planted in Sri Lanka in 1829 at the Royal Botanical Garden, Peradeniya. Thereafter, in 1840 James Taylor, a Scotsman, regarded as the father of Ceylon Tea, started the first tea plantation in the "Loolecondera Estate" in Deltota. The year 1872 saw the first tea sale which took place in Kandy and the first consignment of tea weighing 23lbs was exported in 1873 from Loolecondera. The scientific term for tea is ‘Camellia sinensia’.

Tea pluckers at the beginning of the 20th century

Since the Ceylonese peasants refused to work in the estates, the British had to look at another alternative so they went to our closest neighbour, India. The first batch of seasonal migratory workers from South India arrived in the country in 1828. It is to them and their descendants that this museum is dedicated to.

Home to scraps of paper from a 100 years ago, little bits of cloth, pots and pans and drums and stones, all of which make the estate workers who they are and give them an identity and a culture of their own, the museum is situated in a line of houses, commonly referred to as "line rooms".

The wall separating each house had been broken to make for a long hallway where the artefacts are displayed. The first house in the line was left in its original state with clay walls and the few articles of furniture that was typically found in those houses. The house itself was a nothing more than a square room, approximately 10 feet long and 10 feet wide and housed at least five people.

In one corner of the room were the bed which was a contraption of string woven on wooden frame and a cradle made of a cloth tied to the roof with a rope. In another corner was the kitchen with a basic hearth and a few pots and pans, making up the kitchen utensils. Through the archway to the next room or "house" where more kitchen equipment could be found, there were the "aatukkal" and the "thirugeikkal", grinding stones that they used to grind their grain into flour and the "thair mattu" - a contraption of wood and metal which was used to separate milk and ghee.

Also on the walls were remnants of a blanket made of lamb's wool called a "kambali" which was almost a century old.

A kambali, Muthulingam explained, was given to the plantation workers by the British planter in the colonial period. This particular blanket, he went on, was obtained from an estate worker who had kept it in memory of his parents.

Part of an estate superintendent's ledger from 1897 with information about the estate's income and expenditure was another interesting artefact that was on display at the museum. It was an interesting piece of paper partly because of its age and partly because of how detailed it is.

It was a glimpse at how things were managed on such a large scale before the advent of the computer.

Another wall was dedicated to the "freedom fighter" of the estate people, those who established unions and fought for workers' rights, Muthulingam said. Sharing the wall are the forefathers of the movement, K. Natesaiyar of the All Ceylon Indian Estate Labourer Federation, who started the first trade union in 1931 to win workers’ rights, Dr. Colvin R. De Silva, Dr. N. M. Perera and many more.

Many a struggle has been fought to secure the rights of these workers and some have also faced death. One such example is Ramasamy Weesamy and Iyan Perumal Velainthan who were hanged because they killed their superintendent.

The story goes like this; C. P. G. Pope, the superintendent of the Stellenberg estate where Weerasamy and Velainthan were employed, had refused to let them practice trade union rights.

Angered by this, the two killed the superintendent and were sentenced to the gallows as punishment.

Some of the artefacts on display were bought by the ISD while others were donated to the museum, Muthulingam said. He also told us that the private sector support was not sought for this endeavour but would seek support later.

The INGO Christian Aid and Hivos had however assisted in the collecting of artefacts, which began as far back as 1997.


Top to the page

Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.