As refreshing as Ceylon Tea! | Daily News

As refreshing as Ceylon Tea!

Saga of a planter: 45 years of passion and commitment

In the last two centuries, our tea plantations have become a prominent feature of the cultural picture we paint of Sri Lanka both for ourselves and the outside world. Indeed, these plantations have shaped not just our economy but our cultural imaginary, with many a postcard depicting tea pluckers working within vast green expanses. However, just as much as the plantations have had an influence on Sri Lanka, they have themselves been shaped by the various social and political forces at work in the country.

The plantations have undergone many changes in the last few decades from a perceived golden age immediately after independence, to their nationalisation during the advent of the closed economy, through to their subsequent reprivatisation. The Daily News had the rare opportunity to speak to one of the few individuals who had a ringside view of the plantations industry in all its post-independence incarnations, former planter Shirley Rodrigo.



Shirley Rodrigo. Picture by Sulochana Gamage

At the age of 91, Rodrigo is still as sharp as ever, walking us through the corridors of his memory with nostalgic fervour. With over 45 years of experience in the sector, he is a veritable treasure trove of anecdotes about Sri Lanka’s booming mid twentieth century tea and rubber industries.

Rodrigo’s career as a planter began in the 1950s when he joined James Findlay’s, one of the many British owned plantations operating in Sri Lanka at this time. This career path was always a clear one for Rodrigo, who had wanted to pursue such a career since childhood.

“It was always an ambition of mine to become a planter, at that time it was a very prestigious job. I always had an interest in plants, in fact in school I won the prize for botany,” he recalls.

“In 1954 I joined James Findlay’s as senior SD (Sinna Dorai or ‘small master’) of Opatha. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s sister Patsy was married to one Hector Divitotawela, he was the senior SD and was a very honourable man, but he left to another company, I was the one who succeeded him at Opatha.”

Strict standards

Rodrigo recounts the strict standards maintained on the plantations at this time. “It was a real experience, the standards they maintained. The superintendents, their integrity and honesty,” he continues “Punctuality was very important, you say 8 o’clock you have to be there at 8 o’clock, that gave a grounding in discipline. They really drilled it into us and we always maintained those values. They were also ruthless, if you were corrupt it was hire and fire.”

“The workday started at 6 in the morning, with the daily ‘muster’ where we assigned the labourers for plucking and the various cultivation works after which they go to their prospective fields and continue their work. After that we’d do the field rounds. The SD’s were expected to have a motorcycle to go from one field to another. However, in my case, I didn’t have a motorcycle because my mother didn’t want me riding one, so I had to get a car instead,” Rodrigo recalls, smiling.

“The leaf was weighed at around 11.30, which we would supervise. After lunch we’d be out in the fields again and then we’d go back again for the evening muster and thereafter the books are entered. The creeper (a trainee) would have to do this, at that time there were no calculators, so this would go on for 2 or 3 hours.”

“When my daughter was small, she would always like to play with the creeper. Often even when he would have a lot of work to do, doing these check-rolls in the evening, she would come down and want to play. He didn’t want to disappoint her, so he would be cursing and have to come and play with her. He had to burn the midnight oil to finish his books” Rodrigo recounts with a sympathetic smile.

The social make-up of the plantations that Rodrigo describes is one that is unrecognizable to us today, with only very few Sri Lankans working as planters in the early stages of our independence. Despite this, Rodrigo’s experience of the plantations is not one that involves the kind of racial discrimination that one may expect in such a context.

“There were few Sri Lankans and many Europeans but there wasn’t any discrimination or anything like that, we were all treated equally. However, there was no nonsense, they were very particular about things like integrity and punctuality.”

“My superintendent was one Harry Clark. Mr Clark was short of hearing, he used to wear a hearing aid. The visiting agent (VA) would come every 6 months and he was very strict. The joke was that when he went with the VA and he knew that some of the fields were not properly maintained, they say he’d pretend not to hear and go in the opposite direction when the VA asked to visit a particular field,” Rodrigo recounts, chuckling to himself at the memory.

After his stint as a senior SD at Opatha, Rodrigo moved to Wellandura, looking after 1200 acres of tea and 1000 acres of rubber, first as an SD from 1957 to 1963 and then as a manager until 1980. Despite the strict standards maintained, the planters were able to enjoy an active social life, so long as this coincided with the discharging of their duties.

“SD’s from all the estates used to meet and occasionally we got together in the evening and go for parties in Colombo, in full suit to go for dances and things like that. When we come back it would be 2 or 3 in the morning, we’d go back to the bungalows, have a bath and by 6.30 we’d be back to work, punctuality was a must.”

Social life

Social life at the plantations revolved to a large extent around the planters’ social clubs, a set of institutions built during the colonial era. “These were residential clubs; we would often go there with our wives to play tennis and relax with the other planters. There were very high standards, with staff in full uniform, and food served in fine silverware” Rodrigo recalls. However, these institutions were not to last for much longer, being the targets of the nationalisation projects of the 1970s, by one particular politician who Rodrigo, out of respect, prefers not to name.

“One of the other SD’s at Wellandura would go on to become a politician. He was transferred to Opatha and even at that time he was very keen on politics and addressing meetings whilst still being the SD. At these meetings he was criticising the Europeans. This went up to the top and he was asked to leave. He was very angry with them. Later at a big political meeting he said that if I am elected as an MP for this area, I will go the planters club and take it over.

Then the elections came, and he won, he came with about 100 people and took it over. It was a beautiful club, over 100 years old, destroyed forever. The CWE (cooperative wholesale establishment) used it to store onions and potatoes. Despite all this he was an honourable man, he didn’t tolerate corruption and he was very popular with the people.”

The post nationalisation decline of the tea industry has been widely recognised, however Rodrigo notes that this did not happen immediately. Standards were maintained immediately after nationalisation under the stewardship of Colvin R De Silva.

“The first minister after nationalisation was Colvin R De Silva of the LSSP (Lanka Sama Samaja Party.) He was very good as a minister. After nationalisation there was a lot of interference, so through the planter’s association we made representations to the minister. He gave strict instructions, ‘don’t give into anything, you produce the goods and you’ll be alright. If there is anything, inform me and I will take it up.’ I know one or two instances where he had to pull up some MPs, he told them ‘don’t get involved in this, I am in charge of it’ and then he got the interference to stop. His secretary was Doric De Souza, who was a Professor of English, they maintained things very well. They were not there for very long, it was only after they left when things deteriorated, the discipline was completely gone. After Colvin left there was a lot of interference, very frankly I was not so popular with the politicians.”

During his time as a manager, Rodrigo had a reputation as a hard taskmaster, one that is hard to imagine given his friendly and gentle manner. Managing many large teams over a number of years, Rodrigo has come across his fair share of bizarre and amusing situations.

“When I was a manager at Wellandura there were two SD’s there, they were good friends earlier and they were sharing a bungalow. For some reason or another they fell out and were not speaking to each other. They took some paint and drew a line right in the middle of the bungalow. There was only one cook, that poor man had to do the cooking and bring it to two people on different sides of the house. I had to make arrangements to recondition another bungalow and relocate one of the SDs to stop the infighting.”

Despite Rodrigo’s sternness, he maintained good relations between labour and management during his time, in contrast to the tension which characterises labour relations in the plantations in the present day.

“We all had to learn Tamil, so what we’d do is we’d get the estate school master to come and teach us. We had good relations with the labourers. They were generally treated well and there was very little union action at that time even though most of them were in the CWC (Ceylon Worker’s Congress) with Thundaman. But a lot of this depends on the man management aspect. There was one particular division that had trouble, but that’s because the SD’s man management was not satisfactory.”

Other problems which now plague communities of estate workers, however, have been going on for decades. The suffering inflicted upon families by the illicit alcohol industry being one of them.

“The kasippu dealers used to stay on the boundaries of the estate. During pay time it was the husbands who came to collect the pay, the first thing they go and do is settle their kasippu bill, hardly anything to take home, even though women were doing most of the work.”

Personal difficulties

There were personal difficulties for Rodrigo as well. The difficulties of being a parent were heightened by the distance between him and his children that were necessitated by his work far away from schools in the urban centres.

“They had to be boarded at just the age of 5. At that time, there were no direct lines, so if our daughter was not well, there was no way to get a call and find out what is happening. It would take days to be able to contact them. In those days you had to book a call, tell them who you were and who you wanted to speak to and they would take five or six hours to ring back.”

Rodrigo would go on to become a visiting agent at a number of plantations across the country. Later his efforts would be rewarded, being appointed the Director and then the Chairman of the State Plantations Corporation Board, first in Ratnapura and then in Horana. He remained a strict but fair disciplinarian in these roles, sometimes with unintended comic effect.

‘When I was the chairman of the SPCB in Horana, before I went there, they had a big problem with pigeons on the roof. 50 or 60 pigeons would come and make a big row and no one was able to work there. They brought people from Colombo to see how they could stop this. They were never successful. Within 4 or 5 days of me coming, the pigeons left because I spoke so loudly and for the 4 years, I was there they never came back. This was told to me by an executive at my farewell.”

Even in light of his pigeon-scaring severity during his tenure as a manager and chairman, Rodrigo was and still remains universally admired and respected by his former colleagues and staff, with many continuing to visit him to this day.

Still active

“Even now, the SD’s who come to visit me, they tell me ‘we used to cry when you scolded us, but what we are now is because of you’. 4 or 5 of my SD’s were taken to the regional boards, they did a very good job, they were honest,” Rodrigo tells us, beaming with pride.

Though Rodrigo is now retired, he still lives an active lifestyle and is both highly engaged and invested in the tea industry to which he gave 45 years of his life. Despite the post nationalisation dip and the resultant loss of Sri Lanka’s dominant position in the global market, Rodrigo notes that those who are running the tea industry are doing what they can under difficult circumstances.

“It took some time, but the estates are very well managed again now. Unfortunately, I think the net sale average and the price of tea came down. They are not doing as well now, but there are so many reasons for this, I won’t say that this is down to bad management. The cost of production has gone up, the market is down, this makes it very difficult” Rodrigo notes.

As we try to regain a foothold in a market in which we once held the lion’s share, the insights and experience of the likes of Rodrigo are crucial resources in our endeavours to move the industry forward. Indeed, we would be lucky if those at the helm of this industry maintain the kind of high standards and integrity which characterised his long and fruitful tenure in our most celebrated industry.


Shirley Rodrigo with his staff when he left Opatha in 1956.


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