Having Tamils over for Tea


by Rumbold
21st May, 2009 at 11:19 am    

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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  1. pickles

    New blog post: Having Tamils over for Tea http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/4610


  2. Having Tamils over for Tea | Free Political Forum

    [...] Original post by Rumbold [...]




  1. Sajini — on 21st May, 2009 at 11:33 am  

    Rumbold – you’ve told the story of the Indian Tamils, who tend to live near the tea estates of Kandy, central Sri Lanka. Example – Mutthiah Muralitharan.

    These Tamils were not involved with the separatist struggle.

    The Tamils who were involved had been in Sri Lanka long before that; mostly residents of the North and East of Sri Lanka.

  2. munir — on 21st May, 2009 at 12:15 pm  

    The reason for the conflict is clear – its the religious intolerence implicit in monotheistic religions. If only they could be more like those Eastern religions.

    Oh wait.

  3. sonia — on 21st May, 2009 at 12:49 pm  

    Eh? Wouldn’t it be more suprising if they weren’t as ‘multiple-axis discriminatory’ as the other ethno-linguistic groups of the indian subcontinent?

    Good question though – why are we all like that and so keen on keeping up so many divisions?

  4. munir — on 21st May, 2009 at 12:56 pm  

    Another reason Sri Lanka is ignored is it disproves the far right theory that Muslim minorities cause trouble wherever they go (and so should be expelled or killed). In Sri Lanka the Muslim minority has suffered greatly at the hands of sections of the Tamil Hindu (often potrayed as exempleray minorities vis a vis Muslim) minority . It is elements of the Hindu not Muslim minority who have been engaging in terrorism.

  5. qidniz — on 21st May, 2009 at 1:31 pm  

    …Muslim minorities cause trouble wherever they go…

    Or wherever they are.

    And only upon attaining sufficient numbers. Sort of like a critical mass. Such is the theory advanced by Peter Hammond.

  6. Naadir Jeewa — on 21st May, 2009 at 4:29 pm  

    Can we stop invoking the Islamo-Godwin Law, even in jest?

    On a serious note, Mark Lieberman of Language Log has an article on the lingual roots of the conflict.

  7. Amrit — on 21st May, 2009 at 6:17 pm  

    Excellent article Rumbold – v.interesting!

    Good to see you spreading the knowledge. ;-)

  8. Rumbold — on 21st May, 2009 at 7:21 pm  

    Thanks for the information Sajini. I wonder though whether migration caused resentment against Tamils in general.

    Good point Sonia.

    Thank you Amrit.

  9. Laban Tall — on 21st May, 2009 at 9:22 pm  

    If wikipedia is right, the Indian Tamils have little to do with the separatists, who ave been in the island far longer.

    I did notice this in wikipedia though :

    “In 1949, the United National Party government, which included G. G. Ponnambalam, leader of the Tamil Congress, stripped the Indian Tamils of their citizenship. This was opposed by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the leader of Tamil nationalist Federal Party.

    Under the terms of an agreement reached between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments in the 1960s, about forty percent of the Indian Tamils were granted Sri Lankan citizenship, and most of the remainder were repatriated to India. By the 1990s, most Indian Tamils had received Sri Lankan citizenship”.

    If this is true, more than half the Indian Tamils were forcibly “repatriated” from the land of their birth to the land of their forebears’ birth. Hmmm. I don’t remember anyone demonstrating about that in the 60s.

  10. Mango — on 21st May, 2009 at 10:16 pm  

    Actually Munir, its even more about language rather than religion. Tamils include Hindus, Christians and atheists. I’m not sure whose version of hell will receive Prabhakaran.

    The LTTE attacked & ethnically-cleansed the Tamil-speaking from the north because they (the Muslims) were pro-unitary state. Muslims have in fact been highly active in the Armed Forces.

    Here’s a tribute to one of the most famous, Col. Thuwan Nisham Muthaliff, who played a key role in creating the much-feared Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) unit.

    http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~lkawgw/muthaliff.htm

    Just don’t tell this to Mad Mel. It might melt her brain.

  11. Vikrant — on 22nd May, 2009 at 12:35 am  

    I wonder though whether migration caused resentment against Tamils in general.

    I might be mis-informed, but isn’t the resentment against Tamils, primarily due to the fact that they ruled substantial parts of Sri Lanka in pre-colonial times?

  12. Anon — on 22nd May, 2009 at 7:00 am  

    Rumbold’s post is an extreme example of one of the central problems of the blogosphere, namely that it encourages people who have an exaggerated opinion of their own abilities to hold forth on subjects about which they know little or (as in this case) nothing.

    Even when I disagree with Sunny I find his posts generally well informed and coherently argued. Unfortunately, most of the time his co-bloggers like Rumbold and Sid just write crap. They do the reputation of Pickled Politics no good at all.

  13. Ravi Naik — on 22nd May, 2009 at 7:41 am  

    Rumbold’s post is an extreme example of one of the central problems of the blogosphere, namely that it encourages people who have an exaggerated opinion of their own abilities to hold forth on subjects about which they know little or (as in this case) nothing.

    This post is about historical events that seem relevant to understand the current conflict. If you want to criticise, then you must state clearly what parts of the post you object.

    I might be mis-informed, but isn’t the resentment against Tamils, primarily due to the fact that they ruled substantial parts of Sri Lanka in pre-colonial times?

    I got the feeling that society in Sri Lanka makes a distinction between Indian Tamils and indigenous Tamils, and that the Tigers are comprised by the descents of these Indian migrants. I wonder if the relation between both types of Tamils is amicable, and whether this conflict has affected the indigenous ones.

  14. justforfun — on 22nd May, 2009 at 8:36 am  

    http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/4576#comment-163449

    my comment on another thread.

    Ravi – read the following

    http://www.infolanka.com/org/srilanka/cult/28.htm
    http://www.infolanka.com/org/srilanka/cult/29.htm

    “The problem facing Tamil dissidents on the position held by upper caste Tamils and suppression of liberties under the LTTE could be seen from the fact that Ravikumar, the author of the article I quoted above, had to obviously write under a pseudonym. Speaking of the situation under the LTTE, he says, after observing that the rise of the Tamil armed struggle after 1983 and the consequent fall of democratic movements became a major hurdle in the way of an independent Dalit [so called Scheduled Tamil castes] movement, that ‘ Since nationalism could not concede even the slightest hint of an inner contradiction, writers who echoed continuously focussed on the problem of ‘panchamars’ [Dalits] were dubbed enemies of the nation, that the Tamil national liberation movement suppressed the voice of the Dalits; and the discrimination that followed from Sinhala majoritarianism in education and employment largely affected caste Tamils.” He says that ‘But the ethnic conflict drew Dalits into the circle of violence. As the conflict heightened, well-to-do caste Tamils fled to foreign lands, but Dalits who lacked the resources to follow suit remained in Eelam’ and consequently were recruited into the armed struggle. This trend intensified in the l990s and today the majority of the LTTE cadres happen to be Dalits.”

    but in the next paragraph the author of the article questions whether this is a correct analysis.

    All this tells me is that it is a complex 3 way problem and that simplistic analysis will not really be of much use. I expect a a Part Deux to Rumbold piece :-) . The first offering is always a warm up for the main event.

    To repeat myself “If there is a Tamil here who can explain the differences in detail it would be enlightening, …

    justforfun

  15. Rumbold — on 22nd May, 2009 at 8:42 am  

    Laban Tall:

    Interesting. Given that the Tamil diasporas is very active in supporting the LTTE, I don’t doubt that forcible deportation increased their sense of injustice.

    Mango:

    Although the Muslims in Sri Lanka are having a rough time of it too.

    Vikrant:

    The Kings of Kandy ruled for hundreds of years before the British arrived:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kandyan_Kingdom

    Anon:

    So everything I wrote was wrong then? Please go through line by line and point out my errors, as I know nothing about the subject.

    Ravi:

    Thanks. I too wonder how wide the distinction is.

    Justforfun:

    Sadly, this was meant as a standalone piece. But I am working on a piece of the tea industry in Assam…

  16. justforfun — on 22nd May, 2009 at 8:59 am  

    “Thanks. I too wonder how wide the distinction is.” – well it is probably a key part to the issue.

    However whatever the distinctions were pre-83 – its probably a safe bet to think there will still be distinctions now , but that they will be different. I know that sounds obvious, but without a real grip on these, any real meaningful comment or suggestions are not possible. I would suggest Sri Lankans are left to get on with finding a peace in peace.

    Assam – are you going for a jolly to Assam? – the girls are very very beautiful in Assam. Well all the Assamese girls I met outside Assam were- I’ve never been there myself.

    justforfun

  17. platinum786 — on 22nd May, 2009 at 11:27 am  

    I stopped reading at this point;

    Once the British took over from the Dutch though,

    The English yet again at the root of a major international conflict. The empire strikes again. :D

    I jest, but having said that, I don’t personally know of a conflict, apart from the Chechen one, which does not have some sort of european, colonial roots.

  18. Anon — on 22nd May, 2009 at 11:44 am  

    “So everything I wrote was wrong then? Please go through line by line and point out my errors, as I know nothing about the subject.”

    See comment #1.

    It’s not a question of demonstrating point-by-point errors. Your whole article is just irrelevant.

    You attempt to explain why there has been “so much antagonism between Tamils and the Sinhalese in recent decades in Sri Lanka” by reference to the history of the so-called Indian Tamils, who live in the central hill country.

    They have not been party to the conflict you’re trying to explain, which has been between the Sinhalese majority and the so-called indigenous Tamils, who live in the North and East.

    The two Tamil communities are entirely different, as anyone with a basic knowledge of Sri Lanka would be aware.

    What is the point of writing about a subject that you evidently know nothing about and haven’t bothered to research? As I say, this sort of nonsense could only happen in the blogosphere.

  19. Rumbold — on 23rd May, 2009 at 3:28 pm  

    Thanks for that breakdown Anon.

  20. soru — on 23rd May, 2009 at 3:47 pm  

    ‘Your whole article is just irrelevant.’

    Have to admit, it does seem a bit like some Indian blogger commenting on Northern Ireland based on having read a book on King Arthur and the war between Britons and Saxons:-)

  21. Rumbold — on 23rd May, 2009 at 4:00 pm  

    Of course, Arthur wasn’t a king…

  22. Rumbold — on 23rd May, 2009 at 4:05 pm  

    And I was looking specifically at the migrations of Indian Tamils in the 19th century to coffee and tea plantations, which did cause tensions with the native Sinhalese. It wasn’t meant to be an overview of the history of the conflict.

    Heh Platinum.

  23. Laban Tall — on 29th May, 2009 at 11:11 pm  

    “I don’t personally know of a conflict, apart from the Chechen one, which does not have some sort of european, colonial roots.”

    Given that the European ‘colonialists’put themselves about pretty substantially in the last 300-odd years, you could find an excuse to blame colonialists for just about anything, if you had a mind to. Doesn’t mean it would be true though.

    The Sri Lanka conflict has little if anything to do with the Brits – apart from their leaving the place. As various people have pointed out, the Indian or Hill Tamils do not seem to be involved in this conflict – to start with, they’re not in the North.

    I wouldn’t blame the Brits for the various Muslim/Hindu unpleasantnesses in India either – excepting Kashmir. But even that was given to India at partition because Kashmir was previously in the hands of Sikh and then Hindu overlords.

    The one thing that marked the end of colonialism was that parties in the former colonial states (and in non-colonised states which nonetheless had been wary of antagonising nearby colonial power) were suddenly able to take advantage of the vastly more destructive military technology now available to them.

    (slightly off topic, but for those interested in modern Indian history, Neville Maxwells saga of the 1961 border clashes with China, ‘India’s China War’ is now online)

  24. blah — on 30th May, 2009 at 10:36 am  

    Muslim minorities cause trouble wherever they go…

    “qidniz
    Or wherever they are.

    And only upon attaining sufficient numbers. Sort of like a critical mass. Such is the theory advanced by Peter Hammond.”

    What about the theory advanced by Adolf Hitller about Jews? Sounds remarkably similiar. Nice company you keep qidniz. Front page magazine (who even Nick Cohen thinks are loonies)

    “Dr” Hammondd survey says
    “When Muslims reach 10% of the population, they will increase lawlessness as a means of complaint about their conditions ( Paris –car-burnings). Any non-Muslim action that offends Islam will result in uprisings and threats ( Amsterdam – Mohammed cartoons).”

    But Sri Lankan Muslims are 10% and they arent mentioned by him. (leaving aside the grotesque collective blame he indulges in) perhaps cos it destroys his nazi like theory

    He even blames Muslims for situations where their popultion has been substantially reduced in India (because of partition) , Israel (because of ethnic cleansing and mass immigration) and Bosnia (genocide)

    Incidentally one could do exactly the same for Christian or Hindu or any other minority

    So what are your “solutions” qidniz for when Muslim minorities reach “critical mass”

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