Why has there been so much antagonism between Tamils and the Sinhalese in recent decades in Sri Lanka? After all, Tamils and Sinhalese have co-existed on the island for several thousand years. There are many factors involved of course, but tensions began to rise in the second half of the nineteenth century as hundreds of thousands of Indian Tamils came to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). By 1900 Indian Tamils made up around 7.5% of the population (roughly 300,000 out of 4,000,000). Why did they come? They were invited around for coffee and tea, as Roy Moxham demonstrates in his excellent book, A brief history of tea, from which this article takes its information.
Prior to the nineteenth century, Sri Lanka exported little, with high grade cinnamon being the only notable crop, albeit an incredibly lucrative one. Once the British took over from the Dutch though, they began to experiment with planting other cash crops, firstly coffee, and then tea. Coffee was planted in the mid 1820s, and the industry expanded, until 1869 when it was hit by a fungus, causing production to drop to less than 10% of its 1869 peak in 1890. Workers were needed on the coffee plantations, as very few of the native Sinhalese wanted to abandon their own subsistence holdings to work for someone else. The plantation owners (who were mostly British) turned to South India. Coffee was a seasonal crop, so Indian Tamils could travel to Sri Lanka to harvest coffee for four or five months, then return home to harvest their own rice.
Conditions were pretty horrific, as the Indian Tamils, bussed by gangmasters, had to take boats to North West Ceylon, then walk 150 miles, some of the way through jungle. The gangmasters always hired surplus workers, as they knew that some would die on the journey. Nor were the plantations accommodations much nicer, with unsanitary overcrowding the norm. It is estimated that between 1841-1849, perhaps 70,000 Tamil immigrants died, or over 25% of the total. This marked the low point, and pressure from the press and public both in Sri Lanka and Britain forced significant improvements in conditions for the remainder of the century (as opposed to Assam, which remained an effective death sentence for many).
Emigration from South India increased in the second half of the nineteenth century as severe famine and drought became more common. The area had been hit by several famines in the mid-1850s which caused half a million deaths and massive decreases in the levels of cattle. Worse was still to come, as in 1877 a long drought and a late monsoon killed millions, causing 167,000 Tamils to leave for Sri Lanka, and only around half came back to India. Sri Lanka had added attraction because more and more workers were needed for the tea plantations. By 1900 Sri Lanka exported nearly as much tea (150 million lbs) as India. The Indian Tamils went from being migrants to permanent settlers.
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