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How can Sri Lanka celebrate Tea Industry ignoring the lands confiscated by the Kandyan peasantry?

The white man said Cecil Rhodes built Africa. However, Africans disagree and Africans are bringing down the statues of Cecil Rhodes. Ironically, in Sri Lanka the reign of the kalu suddas is such that we are celebrating the tea industry that came about by illegally confiscating lands belonging to the Kandyan peasantry! Those that are celebrating the tea industry conveniently forget the background on which the tea industry was established and it really is not anything to be at all proud about.

We were known as the granary of the East. We were a proud agricultural country. We didn’t need tea or coffee to survive earlier. We were a self-sustained nation and we grew our own food and we even exported to others. Then came the invaders. Murder, mayhem and conversions resulted in a history that not many whites would like us to remind them of and not many kalu suddas want that past to be brought up either. Thus, the quest to expunge or dilute that murky history. However, no celebration of tea can come about without looking back and bringing out the gruesome facts that surround the tea industry and how we became dependent on white crops bringing to ruin the fertile soil
that was nature’s gift.

The history of Ceylon Tea actually began with coffee by the Dutch in 1740 in the low country but was unsuccessful. Coffee was also started by British James Taylor. By 1860, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Indonesia, were the three largest coffee-producing countries in the world. In 1869 the coffee industry became a victim of a fungus (Devastating Emily it was called)

Then came Sir Thomas Lipton who introduced tea in 7 key districts – Kandy, Nuwara Eliya Dambulla & Uva Province. Let it be known that Uva Wellassa meant a 1000 paddy fields! British Scorched Earth policy reduced it to one of famine.

These foreign crops also paved the way for a capitalist system that meant the requirement for land & labor. The Kandyan villagers refused to abandon their traditional subsistence were too proud to work under harsh British conditions. Thus an unlimited number of Tamils from South India was imported to work on these plantations. It eventually left a future headache at post-independence. British having brought labor from other countries for their own profit, left handing over the headache of giving citizenship to these foreign ‘coolies’! The peasants soon became outnumbered by these coolies!

The 1st Kandyan War (1803/1804) was quelled by the locals. The 2nd Kandyan War resulted in the deposition of the King as a result of the betrayal by the aristocracy. Uva rebellion in 1817 resulted following the British renegading on their promises. The British order issued – ‘Kill every man, woman and child including the babes suckling at their mother’s breast. Destroy all dwelling houses. Burn all crops. Cut down all fruit trees. Slaughter all cattle; take what meat is necessary to feed the troops and burn the rest. Destroy all reservoirs, canals and channels. Poison the wells. Lay waste utterly the countryside denying any relief whatsoever to the rebels.’ Major Callabine – 19th regiment, raped women in the villages and left many children before leaving the country. All temples in Uva Wellassa were ransacked, palmleaves were destroyed. Irrigation works like ancient Horabora Wewa was breached.

The most alarming of all was the manner the schools were destroyed. There were no schools in Walapane, Uva, Wellassa upto 1886.

By the time the British quelled the rebellion only 30 houses were left in Uva-Wellassa. The genocidal crimes of the British have yet to be accounted for!

The next revolt took place in 1830. The Wastelands Ordinance resulted in the Kandyan peasantry losing their lands. Then came the 1848 Matale Rebellion. The occupiers began creating a new class of non-aristocrat ‘leaders’ and the aristocrats were made powerless. The unique identity of the Kandyan people was forcibly diluted.

The plan of the British occupiers was to create a group of sub-servient people prepared to carry out their capitalist production. The British mentality was sickening ‘The only way to get the Sinhala people to work on colonial plantations was to impoverish them.  Every peasant who had 2 and a quarter acres of land, fruit trees and vegetables did not have a reason to work in plantations.  Therefore, tanks have to be breached and villagers trying to repair them arrested.’

The British empire confiscated lands and sold these to capitalists resulting in large numbers of Sinhalese losing their traditionally owned and cultivated lands and not even getting compensation.

Crown Lands Encroachment Ordinance of 1840 and the Wastelands Ordinance of 1897. The British introduced many types of taxes (39types) – grain tax (a land tax on cultivated and uncultivated paddy/rice lands imposed only on the peasantry) this led to large numbers of peasants abandoning their fields unable to pay the tax while defaulters had their lands sold leaving peasants without lands!

The Crown Lands Encroachment Ordinance meant that anyone who could not prove private land ownership had that land taken over by the British and given to British investors. The old Kandyan law which gave the seller of any land and his descendants the right to re-purchase the land at any time was abolished by proclamation in 1821.  The
Sinhalese were reduced to the status of gypsies. Even the animals were not spared –elephants the mode of transport used by both King and villager alike for cultivation, tanks, religious processions soon became the target of huntsmen. These violations have never been compensated.

The quislings or traitors emerged no different to the progeny of personages that have continued their treacherous DNA presently. From agreeing to kill cattle and sell beef to the British, to those that adopted their culture & religion in exchange for land and titles like Mudaliars were many.

The kingdom of Kandy has been known by many names:

  • Kanda Uda Pasrata
  • The Senkadagala Kingdom
  • The Kanda Udarata
  • The Mahanuwara Kingdom
  • Sri Wardhanapura
  • Sinhalé
  • Thun Sinhalaya or Tri Sinhala

The Kandyan Peasantry Commission however covered only Central & Uva province only which was only ¼ of the total of Sri Lanka androughly 4million populace. Kandyan Peasantry Report 1951 identified landlessness, roads, irrigation, soil erosion and land degradation, education, health facilities, housing as the main problem of the Kandyans.

600, 000 acres of land was forcibly taken by the British from the Kandyans (roughly 4million people). The Kandyan Peasantry Commission was closed down in January 2015.

While many are preparing to celebrate the tea industry, many are even unaware of the existing crisis. Leaving aside the harsh conditions and other issues, we rarely question how much of our tea estates are now in foreign hands and foreign management, how much of our tea is actually ‘pure’ or whether they are being purposely blended with less quality foreign tea and sold as ‘ceylon tea’, what other juggleries and irregularities are taking place are all nicely swept under the carpet in view of the trade deal and other diplomatic niceties that prevail!

Notwithstanding all this what needs to be reiterated is that no one can celebrate the tea industry omitting and discounting the denial of human rights & land rights of the Kandyan peasantry on whose lands the tea was forcibly grown. It is time all those whose lands were taken away had their grievances addressed first.

By Shenali D Waduge

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