Sri Lanka

Part One

Plantation Sri Lanka

Gill Juleff

The history of Ceylon Tea, as it is affectionately known, begins with coffee. It was the decades of land clearance for coffee planting that created the space for tea and it was the terrible scourge of coffee blight in the mid-19th century that created the opportunity for tea. But over and above all, it was the imperative of the British to extract economic gain from the resources of their dominion lands in Asia that transformed the inaccessible and pristine natural environment of the central highlands of Sri Lanka into the manicured and gentrified plantation landscapes of today. The story of Ceylon Tea is often told in terms of the plucky 19th century British pioneers who set sail to create new lives for themselves and their families through their own endeavours at the frontiers of Empire. The images that accompany these stories are of the tea planter gazing across the vast carpet of tea of his planting, or overseeing the work of his factory with his superintendents, or sitting in the splendour of his bungalow surrounded by the trappings of Victorian life. And, most ubiquitous of all, the iconic smiling native tea-picker, with traditional basket and head strap, chest deep in tea bushes, enjoying the freedom of working in the fresh cool air of the hills. Woven through this heroic narrative, often unseen, are other, subaltern stories of the land itself, the plants and animals of the land and the subjugated people brought in to subjugate the land.

This image of tea rolling is from an 1891 collection, courtesy of the V&A.

Before the British, the island of Sri Lanka, known by its many names – Serendib, Tabrobane, Ceilan – was not a nation but made up of shifting polities based on the island’s topography. Its broad coastal fringe was controlled by royal dynasties who looked seaward in their alliances with similar dynasties in South India, and variously welcomed, tolerated and/or repelled Portuguese and Dutch traders and colonisers. The hilly interior of the island, with central mountains rising to 2500m, operated as its own kingdom with Kandy its capital city. The Kandyan kingdom remained isolated and immune to external incursions, retaining its own distinctive medieval culture, as comprehensively documented by Robert Knox, the 17th century British sea captain held captive in the kingdom for 20 years (Knox 1681). The kingdom comprised a network of small towns, hamlets and villages radiating out from the capital through the forests of the lower hills. With a rich diversity of edible cereals, fruit and spices, its economy was based on subsistence agriculture. The highest hills were largely unpopulated (of people), with steep ravines, waterfalls, dense natural forest and patana grasslands. The environment was perfect habitat for wildlife and elephants, leopards, wild pig, porcupine, deer (large sambhur elk, spotted deer and small deer muntjac or barking deer) thrived in abundance, along with a wealth of small mammals, snakes, lizards and birds.

Having jostled with the Dutch for supremacy in trade, influence and control along the coast of Sri Lanka in the late 18th century, the British finally gained the ascendency over the whole island in 1815 when they Kandyan kingdom, under internal and external pressure, ceded power to the British. It took a further decade and a half to bring the maritime provinces and the old Kandyan kingdom under a single unified legislative and administrative system and it was the exploitation of the rich potential for plantation agriculture in the hill country that provided the economic drive for unification. In that time, two things pointed the way to that potential. Firstly, the completion of a road, with rock tunnels and bridges spanning ravines, connecting Kandy to the coast meant that the journey into the interior, which could take anything up to 10 days and often failed, could now be undertaken confidently in two days. Secondly, the first successful commercial planting of coffee made by George Bird at Gannoruwa (Breckenridge 2001, 31), adjoining the nascent Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. The Dutch and the British had tried to grow coffee on the coast and failed but the climate of the cooler hills proved much more suitable and ‘garden’ coffee quickly became a feature in the small home forest plots of resident Kandyans. Both these things were instigated enthusiastically by the British Governor, Sir Edward Barnes, who recognised the need to develop the hill country and the need for a safe route in and out of the region for people and goods, to the extent that he diverted South Indian labourers of the Pioneer Road Corps from road-building to plantation work (Breckenridge 2001, 31).

Sir Edward Barnes pushed forward with his vision for coffee plantations, using his position and power to encourage new enterprises, making ‘crown’ land available at just £1 for 4 acres. The area of land sold for cultivation rose from 337 acres in 1834 to 78,685 acres in 1841, with 37,000 acres under coffee cultivation by 1845 (Moxham 2009, 152). A government ordinance of 1840 established the point that the Crown had ‘a catholic right to all the lands not proved to have been granted at an earlier period’, evidence for which was easily dismissed (De Silva 1981, 276). In the six years between 1838 and 1843 no fewer than 130 plantations were opened, most within 30 miles of Kandy. By 1846 there were between 500 and 600 coffee plantations in Sri Lanka, owned by individuals and agency houses. This bonanza, which came to be known as the ‘the coffee mania’, was boosted by rising coffee prices in Britain and preferentially low import duties. The expansion attracted energetic adventurers, a notable number from impoverished regions of North East Scotland, who came alone and lived in spartan conditions alongside their labourers as they cleared and planted the steep hillslopes. Breckenridge (2001, 41) describes one typical kinship-determined emigration network of 14 ‘frugal Scottish gardeners’ from the parish of Laurencekirk in Kincardenshire that included James Taylor, who was the first to attempt commercially planting tea.

If you failed for the army, were too tongue-tied for the Bar and no vocation for the Church, well there was always Ceylon. (Forrest 1967)

Meanwhile Governor Barnes and his successors kept pace with the rapid changes, bending colonial resources and systems to build routes, facilitate immigrant labour from South India and create infrastructure, ultimately planning for railways into the interior. Being a seasonal crop, a pattern had developed of immigrant labour arriving, by foot, for the 4-month coffee harvesting season and returning again to South India for their own rice cultivation season. Organised in gangs lead by kanganis (middlemen/gangmasters), the first labourers were technically neither indentured nor enslaved. However, coming from a region hit by successive famines, and their lives were impoverished and harsh, and they invariably set out for the plantations in debt to their kangani. Many died of cholera, hunger and exhaustion on the long walk to the coast in India and then, after a short boat crossing of the Palk Strait, along the North Road from the northern coast of Sri Lanka across the plains and into the hills. Mortality on the walk to the hills alone was estimated between 20-40% (Breckenridge 2001, 35) and the work, once they arrived, was relentlessly hard with inadequate living conditions.

In 1846, a financial recession in Britain and concessions given to coffee from Java and Brazil, saw coffee prices fall dramatically and many land speculators and poorly financed planters in Ceylon were forced to abandon their projects. The slump lasted some three years and those who weathered the storm returned to planting new acreages and by 1850 momentum once again was building, albeit with more caution and stronger financing. Many individual planters had given way to plantations amalgamated into estates run by agency houses. By 1869 land under coffee had risen to 176,000 acres and by 1880 it reached 275,000 acres (Moxham 2009, 153). Now there were Planters Associations to support and lobby for the industry. With better roads and a growing rail infrastructure, planters could bring with them their families and a social life in the hills began to develop, with clubs, churches and schools opening. The research and development work of the botanical gardens at Peradeniya and then at Hakgala, near Nuwara Eliya, the highest hill town, continued to look at improving species and develop other plantation crops, including trials with growing tea.

The strengthening culture of the plantations meant that when disaster struck the coffee growers for a second time there was greater resilience. The first signs of blight, a rusty fungus (hemileia vastratrix) that attacked the coffee bushes were identified in 1869, bushes shed their leaves and yields dropped. Despite all endeavours to fight the fungus, the coffee industry was doomed and by the 1880s production had halved, going on to wither to almost nothing in the 1890s.

The planters quickly turned to alternative crops, firstly cinchona, from which quinine can be extracted, but then more determinedly to tea. Since the 1860s, experiments with commercially cultivated tea had been growing steadily, promoted by Governor Henry Ward and facilitated by exploratory visits to the tea gardens of Assam. While coffee was best suited to the mid-elevation hills there was growing understanding that tea would do well up to the highest elevations in the central highlands where there was still much virgin land available. The first commercial tea planting of 19 acres was made in 1867, by James Taylor, from Laurencekirk, on Loolecondera Estate, where he was superintendent. By 1875 there were 100 acres of tea at Loolecondera and Taylor had built a fully equipped tea factory with machinery that he had designed himself for rolling and roasting the tea leaves. In the same year, the first shipment of Ceylon tea was sent to the London Tea Auction.

From this promising beginning, tea was quickly adopted over coffee and by 1880, 100,000 acres of tea had been planted, increasing to 384,000 acres in 1900. The infrastructure created through the 19th century by the coffee plantations was the foundation of the tea industry. New land clearances, roads and railways, and tea agency houses and auctions in Colombo bolstered the industry to become the mainstay of the island’s economy in the 20th century. While most elements of the plantation culture remained unchanged or saw improvement, the move from coffee to tea affected the circumstances and organisation of Indian immigrant labour. Being a perennial crop that required year-round maintenance, there was now a need for a permanent resident labour force and opened a new chapter in the history of the Sri Lanka plantation worker.


Breckenridge, S.N. (2001) The Hills of Paradise, British Enterprise and the story of plantation growth in Sri Lanka, Stamford Lake Publication, Sri Lanka

De Silva, K.M. (1981) A History of Sri Lanka, Hurst, California

Forrest, D.M. (1967) A hundred years of Ceylon Tea 1867-1967, Chatto and Windus, London

Knox, R. (1681) An Historical Relation of Ceylon, (London), reprinted 1958 (Colombo)

Moxham, R. (2009) A brief history of Tea, the extraordinary story of world’s favourite drink, Robinson, London

Part Two

A brief history of the Up-country Tamils of Sri Lanka through song

Nadine Vanniasinkam

‘Tea Estate, Ceylon’, photograph from an 1891 collection, courtesy of the V&A.

Echoes rise and fall

To the rhythm of pickaxe

Mammoty, fork and crowbar

Eight hours in a day

Seven times in a week;

Thus their life blood flows

To fashion this land

A paradise for some

(Velupillai, 1963)

For most in the world, Sri Lanka is synonymous with ‘Ceylon Tea’ grown predominantly in the highlands, but also in the lowlands. A visit to the Hill Country is on almost all tourist itineraries and at the airport, images of dusky-skinned tea pluckers amidst verdant rows of tea bushes invite visitors to experience “a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”–‘a paradise for some’  as observed in the poem above (Said 1978, 1).

Sri Lanka is the fourth largest tea producer in the world after China, India and Kenya and produces around 17 per cent of the world’s tea crop. Though experimentations with tea in Sri Lanka began sometime in the 1820s during British occupation, it was James Taylor who first succeeded in growing tea and sent the first shipment of 10kg of Ceylon tea to England in 1873 (Weerasinghe 2022). When the coffee industry collapsed in the late 19th century, tea took its place. Tea was the highest foreign exchange earner for Sri Lanka until the 1980s and continues to contribute significantly to the nation’s GDP (10.6 percent to agriculture).

The community that shoulders the tea industry are the Malaiyaha Tamils (Up-country / Hill-country Tamils, descendants of migrant workers from South India who were brought to Ceylon by the British between the 1830s and 1930s as indentured labourers to work on coffee, tea and rubber plantations in the island’s central highlands. Despite their integral contribution to the social and economic fabric of the country, they continue to be one of the most underserved communities and have been living in the margins of Sri Lankan society and politics.

At Independence, Up-country Tamils formed a significant proportion of the population of Sri Lanka (11 percent) causing political “fear of their increasing electoral power” (Bass 2013, 82).  The other communities in the country also saw them as migrants of Indian origin. These perceptions were formalized with the passage of the Citizenship Acts in 1948 and 1949 which subsequently led to the traumatic repatriation of approximately 40 percent of the community to India, commencing in 1967 following the Sirimavo – Shastri Pact. The outbreak of war in 1983 ended repatriation, but led to further problems as violence engulfed much of the Island which affected the Up-country Tamils as well. It was only in 2003 that citizenship was granted to all Up-country Tamils in Sri Lanka on passing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, No. 16. One song reflects this history:

In 1948, they made us landless,

Carried out cunning deeds,

Made us loiter like dogs 

They grabbed everything from us 

And made us horrid creatures

Inflicted loads of atrocities.

Now, if you ask us to vote for them,

Would we cast our vote…?

(K. Vimalanathan in International Centre for Ethnic Studies 2020)

Despite their long history in Sri Lanka and more recent assumption of full citizenship, the Up-country Tamils straddle an ambiguous space amidst the Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka and continue to face perennial challenges of access to proper housing, education, sanitation, healthcare, nutrition and protection from gender-based violence.  Little is known about the realities, struggles, traditions and cultural practices of the Up-country Tamils by members of other communities and their literary and cultural contributions often go unrecognized. 

Folk music

Up-country Tamil folk music in particular captures the lived and felt experiences of past and present struggles and constitute an oral tradition which provides vivid and moving glimpses into all aspects of everyday life as indentured labourers on the plantation:

There is rice

There is dahl

But no time to cook

Next door

There is a girl

But no time to look

(Sivalingam 2007, 21)[1]

“Music and art is in our blood” states journalist, folklorist and trade unionist, Pasarai. K. Velayutham “whereby we break out in song when we are happy and when we are sad…[Our] religious worship, cultural events, folk dance, theatre and everyday lives were infused with music and song which took the form of lullabies, work songs, love songs, nuptial songs, devotional songs and lamentations, oftentimes composed and performed spontaneously and accompanied by instruments in ritual settings” (Personal Interview, 19th October 2019).

These songs, often sung by women and men “when work is done and people get together for an evening chat” (Pasarai. K. Velayutham, Personal Interview, 19th October, 2019) can be viewed as a means of articulating feeling, lamenting discrimination and also function as a form of resistance to the authoritarian rule of estate administrative structures. As the community was isolated into different estate enclaves, each estate had its own unique set of folk songs which were sung to the accompaniments of drumming pots, water jars and metal containers (Sivalingam, 2007). However, this does not mean that popular folk songs did not percolate among estates.

The contemporary status of the Up-country Tamils stems from the colonial style of estate management based on a model of indentured labour beginning in the coffee plantations and continuing during the era of tea. Life and work on the estate involved long work hours with abysmal pay and living conditions.

Writers from the Up-country community often compare the struggles and predicament of their people to the experience of slavery[2] of the African people. However, unlike the anti-slavery movements which used music and song to rouse the masses towards their cause, the folksongs of the Up-country Tamils play a more subtle, non-confrontational role where humour and satire function as literary ammunition against their oppressors.  The systemic denial of a proper education, the division of the community into a hierarchy of estate roles, separation into different estate enclaves, the introduction of alcohol to preoccupy the workers and confining them into miniscule and dark laiam (line houses) among other injustices may have prevented the community from mobilizing as a whole.

Thus, by and large, the protest element in the folk songs of the Up-country Tamils perform an introspective function of reminding the community of their past and current struggles and allowing for catharsis through the performance of memory and its reinterpretation. Furthermore, it also provided a safe and permitted space to attack their oppressors.

Two predominant themes run through the folksongs of the Up-country Tamils – their relationship and struggles with the natural environment and their treatment at the hands of the estate management.

The Natural Environment

Near Castlereigh Reservoir,  Nadine Vanniasinkam, 2019. 

a) The Journey to Kandi (Ceylon)

    The Up-country Tamils of Sri Lanka first started migrating to the country from South India in the late 1830s drawn to the news that “comparatively well-paid employment was available in the Colony” (vanden Driesen 1997, 19). Although this migration was voluntary and in pursuit of better prospects, the migrants were faced with many natural hazards on the way which they recount in their folksongs which have been recorded most notably by C.V. Velupillai and also more recently by folklorists including M. Sivalingam, Anthony Jeeva, V. Vimalanathan, Pasarai K. Velayutham and V. Kathirkaman. For instance:

    The Northern storm strikes

    The wild wind shrieks

    The spray beats madly

    On the ship we came together

    (Velupillai 1970, 34)

    In the Tuticorin ship, without estate and family

    We came on board grieving in the ship

    Amidst vomiting, diarrhea and cholera on the ship

    (V. Kathirkaman in International Centre for Ethnic Studies 2020)       

    While these songs depict the dangers of the journey by sea, the journey by land from the ports, cutting paths through the jungles of Ceylon were equally hazardous and terrifying for the new migrants and is exemplified in the following lullaby:

    Aaraaro… Aariraro – my darling

    Leaving a good village

    Life in the forest

    Jungle and mountains

    With bear, leopard, elephant, lion

    Also living here

    In this dangerous forest … go to sleep!

    (Sivalingam 2007, 165)[3]

    b) Work on the Estates

    On the estates too the land proved to be a challenge to the workers. Whilst on a field visit in 2016 to conduct a survey, a randomly chosen shop keeper in Badulla stopped us for a chat. “Do you know why tea is stained red?” he asked and did not wait for a response. “It is the blood that flows from leech bites of all the women who work on the estates and mingles with the soil that stains the tea red. You must make a film,” he said:

    Of leeches that suck the blood

    Of sharp-toothed tumbling stumps

    Strewn along the pitiless trek

    You can see in Kandi

    (Velupillai 1970, 34)

    Abuse and discrimination at the hands of estate management is also a predominant theme of their folksongs and the kankani (foreman) who recruited labourers from South India, brought them to Ceylon and was also their supervisor, is a recurrent figure, so much so that folklorists refer to kankani songs as a category on its own. The fact that the kankani was Indian, also led to him being considered a traitor:

    I dug up the pits

    Numbered out to me;

    As I stood up

    With a broken spine

    The jobless kangkany

    He goaded me:

    “Ai, dig on, dig on”

    (Velupillai 1970, 37)

    The women too faced abuse and the wrath of the kankani:

    [My] basket is not full

    [I] don’t feel like plucking leaves

    [But] the kankani’s words

    Are making tears flow

    (Sivalingam 2007, 142)[4]

    Continuing Struggle for Decent Pay

    Estate workers are also the most abysmally paid workers in the country and are struggling to raise their day-wage to this day.  It was only in early 2021 after much activism that the day wage was increased to LKR 1000 (GBP 2.50) per day. However, more than half of the estate companies do not adhere to this revision and demand a minimum harvest per shift (Sunday Times, 2022). Songs such as the following comment on this predicament:

    ‘We pluck the leaves and fill the baskets

    Carry them and empty them

    They weigh it nicely and give us half pay’

    (Pasarai K. Velayutham in International Centre for Ethnic Studies 2020)

    Activism and Protest

    Workers, rally together this minute

    Be brave and find a way

    (Meenachi Ammal 1940, 4)[5]

    Slightly outside of the definition of folksongs are the songs composed by Meenachi Ammal, a labour activist and the wife of trade-unionist Natesar Aiyar in the 1930s.

    Natesa Aiyar and Meenachi were labour activists, politicians and visionaries who used their the [sic] oratory and organisational skills, to mobilize the workers to struggle [and] mobilise for better working conditions and wages, as well [as] citizenship rights for all women and men on the plantations.

    (Kurian and Jayawardena 2016, p. 11)

    Meenachi Ammal set her songs to tunes of popular cinema songs to educate plantation workers about their state of slavery and rouse them to activism. The songs, which she sang at public platforms, address several inequalities faced by the planation workers including their right to vote, right to land, housing and equitable wages and also raise awareness against gender-based discrimination:

    Can we watch while the poor cry?

    Can we count those who deride as one of us?

    Let’s gather saying that we are not cowards

    (Meenachi Ammal 1940, 1)[6]


    The Up-country Tamils have come a long way since the 1920s, unionizing and  advocating for their rights and pursuing political representation.. However, though for 200 years ‘They [have been] ma[king] the sandy land a golden land’, they have, in their own words:

    Not found any gains Sinnathambi

    The fields and forests did not protect us Nallathambi

    (V. Kathirkaman in International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 2020)

    Photo: Kelburn Estate, Gill Juleff, 2013.


    Bass, Daniel. (2013). Everyday Ethnicity in Sri Lanka: Up-country Tamil identity politics. Routledge: London &New York.

    International Centre for Ethnic Studies, “Folk Music of the Up-country Tamils: Resisting Discrimination and Calling for Social Change,” YouTube video, 1:52:10, 14 October, 2020.

    Jayaraman, R. (1967). ‘Indian Emigration to Ceylon: Some Aspects of the Historical and Social Background of the Emigrants.’ The Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol 4(4), pp. 289-404.

    Kurian, Rachel, & Kumari Jayawardena. (2016). ‘Natesa Aiyar and Meenachi Ammal: Pioneers of Trade Unionism and Feminism on The Plantations’. Retrieved from (retrieved on23rd February 2023)

    Meenachi Ammal, K. N. 1940. ‘The Conditions of the Indians’ Lives in Sri Lanka: Opposing the Sri Lankan Ministers Who want to Drive the Indians Away’. [Reprint] Women’s Education and Research Centre: Colombo.

    Said, Edward W. 2003. Orientalism. Penguin Modern Classics. Penguin Classics: London.

    Sivalingam M. 2007. Folk songs of the Malayaaa Thamizhar (Anthologies). Trincomalee: Kurinji Thamiz Literary Society.

    Slavery—Atlantic Slave Trade, Sugar Plantations, and War Between the States, Britannica. 2023, May 6).

    Vanden Driesen, I. H. 1997.  The long walk: Indian plantation labour in Sri Lanka in the nineteenth century.  New Delhi:  Prestige Books

    Velupillai, C. V. 1963. Tea Pluckers. Afro-Asian Poems anthology, vol 1 part 1, pp. 6-7. Afro Asian Writers Bureau, Colombo

    —. 1970. Born to Labour. Colombo: M.D. Gunasena & Co.

    Weerasinghe, M.G.Dileepa. 2022. ‘Impact of the Tea Industry on the Sri Lankan Economy’. Asian Journal of Advances in Research, Vol 16(1), pp. 32-36.

    [1] Translated from Tamil to English by the author

    [2] Though they compare their situation to slavery under which humans were owned as property or chattel and deprived of most of the rights of ordinary free persons (Britannica 2023), the British had already abolished slavery (in 1833) as their model of agricultural labour by the time Indians were brought to Ceylon to work in the coffee and tea plantations. British colonial Ceylon adopted another exploitative system, a form of indenture, which involved contracting a person ‘voluntarily’ to work without a salary until the debt of his/her transportation from India to Ceylon was paid off. The Kankani (foreman), was a key figure of this system as it was he who recruited workers (independently or on behalf of an estate) and managed (among other things) repayment of their debt. (See Jayaraman 1967 for further details).

    [3] Translated from Tamil to English by the author

    [4] Translated from Tamil to English by the author

    [5] Translated from Tamil to English by the author

    [6] Translated from Tamil to English by the author

    Poster, ‘Where our tea comes from’, detail of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), c. 1948-1953. (Made) by MacDonald Mill, courtesy of the V&A.