Colombo Telegraph

Part 2: Indian Plantation Workers Overseas – Ceylon

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

The descendants of Indians brought to Ceylon (since 1972, Sri Lanka) are particularly unfortunate because the attainment of independence has worsened their plight, bringing disenfranchisement, “race” riots (and the accompanying humiliation and terror; assault, rape and murder) and expatriation. Though these “wretched of the earth” have left little literary testimony (for reasons already explained), C.V. Velupillai has tried to ensure that their lives and experiences are not entirely forgotten. Velupillai, a “coolie” who joined the trade union movement and then entered parliament, participated in satyagraha (non-violent protest, on the model of that practised by Mahatma Gandhi) against the racially discriminatory policies of the government, was arrested and briefly imprisoned. Born in Ceylon, he never visited India. I have been able to trace only two of his works: In Ceylon’s Tea Garden (1957) and Born to Labour (1970). The stories and songs by and of a people exploited and discarded are simply told but are all the more effective for it:

They lie dust under dust

Beneath the tea

No wild weed flowers

Or memories token

Tributes rise

Over their humble mound

(Velupillai 1957, 2).

The first group of “coolies” was brought to Ceylon as early as 1817 to build the road from Colombo to Kandy (Daniel 31). Later, many more came to work on the coffee plantations (1830-1880) and, when that crop crashed, to labour on tea estates. When reading statements that the government of India came to an agreement with the government of Ceylon (or with that of any other imperial territory) over the export of labour, it must be borne in mind that India was then under British rule. The agreement was between British officials, and the natives played no part in the decision, though they were affected by the consequences. In the early years, except for the short sea crossing from India to Ceylon, coolies, both men and women, literally walked from the north of Ceylon where they were landed, through the jungles of the North-Central province to the central hill country. The coolies were a miserable lot, ill-fed, ill-clothed, travelling through jungle, sometimes without a drop of water, sometimes knee-deep in swamps (Tinker 93). Food being scarce, survival depended on a speedy completion of the journey, and anyone unable to keep up was abandoned, left in the deep recesses of the forest amid wild beasts, serpents and insects, with a handful of rice and a shell of water to meet death all alone (Tinker 173.) Britain gave land free of charge to would-be British planters – a foreign power gifting that was not its own to its own. Later, land was sold at the nominal rate of a few shillings per acre. All land for which there was no proof of ownership – in the form and manner recognised by British law – was regarded as waste or Crown land, and expropriated (Thondaman 1987, 7). The people of the hill country deeply resented this intrusion but, unfortunately, their resentment and hatred were directed not at the rulers and the plantation companies, but at the hapless plantation workers, the miserable victims of a rapacious commercial enterprise

(Fries and Bibin 13).

The coolie found himself a bonded serf, burdened with a debt he could never redeem, however long and hard he worked (Thondaman 1987, 78) As on plantation in other countries, a breach of a labour agreement was “tantamount to a penal breach of the law … a criminal offence” (Thondaman 1987, 79). The employer was judge supreme against whom there was no appeal, no redress. The workers were, and are, segregated in their “lines”, shrouded in their daily work, a grey existence in the vast panorama of lush, green, rolling hills (Velupillai 1970, 1). “A family unit of father, mother, two children and a grown up daughter” occupy a line room, a living space of ten feet by twelve (Velupillai 1970, 1). A survey found that over seventy percent of plantation-children were severely malnourished (Gillard 14): hospitals can offer no cure for arduous and long hours of work, poverty, debt, malnutrition, and unhygienic living conditions. The experience on plantations in other territories was no different: in Old Dam (Guyana), the worker lived on a mudflat without drains, walked barefoot in the sticky mud when it rained, and the logies were choked with large families (Shineboume 32). On the plantations, the superintendent (the dorai) was a king, a planter Raj, and in his presence, the coolie cringed, and stepped off the estate path into the drains:

When the P.D. [Periya Dorai; the big master, the boss] came on his “rounds” no special courier ran ahead of him to announce his arrival. Nature itself spoke forth …. A pack of sleek brown and white dogs, with flaming tongues lolling out, ran along the bridle-­path. Fast behind them came the thud of the horse and then the animal itself shot into view with P.D. poised in its saddle. (Velupillai 1970, 74).

It is an impressive scene but the description, with its mocking undertone, is not without its subversive element. Power not only corrupts but is also habituating, and the planter came to believe that he was more than mortal, that he deserved such obedience and obeisance. At the receiving end, the coolie’s sadness was such that it couldn’t sigh; the pain so great it couldn’t cry, and God was far away (Velupillai 1970, 84).

The songs Velupillai records tell of hardship and loss. The “work” of the kangany is to see that his coolies work:

I dug up the pits

Numbered out to me:

As I stood up

With a broken spine

The jobless kangany

He goaded me:

“Ai, dig on, dig on”

(Velupil1ai 1970.37)


By the river’s fringe my contract –

It bristles with cootch grass.

By scraping the roots out all my days

My life has been cut short.

(Velupillai 1970,41)

Statistics cannot convey the actual experience undergone by individual, sentient beings, such as the young woman whose right hand is accidentally burnt while cooking: “I can’t use my hand and the dorai has refused me work.” Her husband has run away with her sister: “Not his fault. We all lived in one room. Fire and cotton can’t be safe together. I pray that they may be well. I want work only to help my mother’ (Velupillai 1970 111). The woman, hardly more than a girl, shows remarkable dignity and courage, understanding and love. “Kandi” in the song immediately following refers not only to Kandy, the capital of the hill country, but to the whole Island. Hardship is accompanied and accentuated by a sense of loss:

I lost my dear country

With it my palm grove

In this far famed Kandi

I lost my mother and home.

(Velupillai 1970, 42)


In yonder field

Strung with pegs

Where coffee plants sprout

I lost my beloved brother

(Op. cit., 35)

Exploited, despised, enduring the unendurable, the “coolie” managed to preserve something of his original culture; to create some joy, to experience love: in other words, the human capacity to create patches of happiness in the midst of an otherwise unrelieved gloom was not lost. During marriage ceremonies, certain leaves and plants are placed near the couple, symbolising procreation and prosperity. The life force is represented by seven pots in pyramid form:

The first pot at the base contains water – the life-giver;

the second contains rice – the sustainer; the third one

contains salt – the leavener; the fourth contains nine

different pulses dedicated to the nine planets ….

The next three are left empty for the Trinity, namely

Shiva, Brahma and Rudra.

(Velupillai 1970. 19)

Velupillai has a special sympathy for the “coolie” woman who, like the man, labours the whole day but, in addition, is also wife, mother, housekeeper. In traditional Tamil literature, she is the one who sleeps last at night, and is the first to get up next morning.

Weary grow her limbs

On midnight’ mat:

Her star-centred eyes

Between wake and sleep

Dream of dawn’s white grin

And the tom-tom’s throb.

Thus her nights enfold

A round of broken days

And empty years.

(Velupillai 1957, 6)

Velupillai records (1970, 71) the old plantation saying, “What wife for a coolie?” – (wife’ with its connotation of regard, protection and exclusive possession. Those within the hierarchy of authority, first the British and then their Sri Lankan successors, casually made sexual use of “coolie” women. It was not only le droit de seigneur but of any and all men who had some power on the plantation. At the highest levels, the attitude was either one of “They don’t mind it” (that is, they don’t have “our” niceties of feeling; our moral standards, being a foreign and subordinate species) or, more frankly, “We don’t care even if they do.” Those with twinges of conscience deceived themselves with, “They come willingly,” not realising that their alacrity itself was both indication and indictment of the system, revealing the power of a few (starting with the Peria Dorai at the top) over hundreds of unfortunates beholden for employment, wages and accommodation in a hostile country. As a Colonial Secretary wrote in 1921, the man with power took his pick of the indentured women, and never realised (or if he did, didn’t care) that their readiness to come was the most damning indictment of the whole system (Lal 43). I was told with pride by a retired Sri Lankan P.D. now living in Germany that of the many women he had made sexual use of in his long career, not one had accepted payment, or even gifts, from him. He did not realise that this refusal was the only way open to them of preserving a modicum of self-respect; of not allowing themselves to be turned into prostitutes by accepting money for services rendered. Besides, they would save up what little sense (if any) of obligation the P.D. felt for the crises and calamities which would inevitably befall them, sooner or later. (For a wider perspective, readers may wish to turn, for example, to Doris Lessing’s story, “’Leopard’ George”: Who will want to marry her now? These girls, what happens to them? No decent man will have her (161-62).

And 0, how often

While in harness

Factory or field,

Authority forgot

The original shame

Unknown to Eve

And crucified the flesh!

Mother earth then

Her bosom laid waste

Raped and ravaged

Sighed and sobbed

For lost womanhood

Their dignity defiled

[They] lie broken and profaned…

And the tom-tom throbs.

(Velupillai 1957, 6)

Ceylon became independent in 1948 and its first act was to decitizenise and then defranchise the Hill-country Tamil population (Thondaman 1994, 49). The British who had imported the Indians into Ceylon, sold them down the river in order to secure the political and commercial goodwill of the Sinhalese, the majority group, in whom power was now vested, and with whom they would have to do business in the future (Thondaman 1994, 50). Attempts by Upcountry Tamils to register as citizens were deliberately frustrated by bureaucrats – they were dealing with “foreigners” whom they disliked intensely; with those who were illiterate; those who had no proper documentation. In the successive waves of violence unleashed against the Tamils in general, Plantation Tamils were included, thus further encouraging them to emigrate. “But it was the [Upcountry, Tamil] plantation workers who suffered the most. Their line-­rooms were burnt, their possessions looted, the men beaten, the women gang-raped” (Sivanandan 1984, 28). During the 1970s, the tea plantations were taken over by the state, resulting in the forced eviction of the “coolies;” resulting in destitution and death on the roads of Nawalapitiya and Gampola and Hatton (Sivanandan 1984, 23). “At least 1,000 people were dying every month around the plantations in 1975” (Kurian 85).

Sivanandan’s novel, When Memory Dies (1997), is an epic work that takes in its sweep almost the whole of Sri Lanka’s twentieth-century history. He traces the failure of the trade union movement, the horizontal division of class being replaced by the vertical division of race; the growth of a virulent and ugly “racism”; the legitimisation of racism so that, far from being ashamed, racists were proud, flaunting hate and racism as a measure of their patriotism and therefore, ultimately, of their virtue. Sivanandan is very conscious of, and compassionate towards, the “coolies,” the estate (or so-called “Indian”) Tamil. In the first decades of the 1900s, the British used “Indian” labour to break trade-union strikes organised by the Sinhalese, and this practice of divide and rule left an unfortunate legacy. The chief source of Ceylon’s income was tea, and yet the workers who produced it, toiling from morning to evening, received but a pittance (Sivanandan 1997, 96). The excuse given, first by British and then by successive Sri Lankan authorities was one of, “They don’t starve, and they’ve got a roof over their heads” and, secondly, “They are used to it” – even the children (Sivanandan 1997, 100). A common humanity is denied, and the convenient belief was that the coolies are different; they don’t have “our” needs; they don’t experience pain and hardship as we would; they are incapable of feeling as “we” do. “Filthy, unclean. They live like pigs, these people. Have you seen the drains? Shit everywhere… But they are used to it … It’s we who feel bad for them, but they were born to it” (Sivanandan 1997, 102). The degradation caused by poverty is used as an excuse for continuing exploitation and poverty; that they have suffered long, is the justification for prolonging suffering. Christopher Rezel (Sri Lankan journalist and writer now settled in Australia) in a communication to me describes a Sri Lankan planter whose guest he was briefly excusing himself, going out and assaulting a worker. Returning, cleaning his hands with distaste, the “P. D.” explained that the man had been accused of incest. Living in one room with female members of the family, his sense of self-worth damaged, inclined to alcohol, incest was not uncommon, but rather than dealing with the root causes, the planter feels contempt and, having beaten up the man, moral superiority. The same planter regularly beat up “troublesome” workers in the evening, and if a worker complained to the police they, having been generously entertained at the “bungalow”, gave him another beating and sent him back to the “lines”.

As described in Maniam’s (Malaysian) novel, some families tried to climb out, but the chances of getting away were (and are even now) slight, particularly in the Sri Lankan context where the very right of the “coolies” to remain on the Island is questioned. Sanji’s father, Raman, sets up a mud-built shop and struggles not to be “sucked back into the plantation and overtaken by tea bushes. Already four of his five sons … had succumbed to coolie life… Raman’s five surviving daughters were tea-pluckers” (Sivanandan 1997, 116). Sanji is the last, and the entire family strives and strains to keep him in school. “They dressed him up as one dresses up hope” (Sivanandan 1997, 117): he is the personification of hope but his clothes are shabby and one day when he comes to school without shoes, he is expelled.

The “coolie” victims of racial violence are driven to shame and silence and, contradictorily, to articulation in the interests of justice:

A daughter who had witnessed her father’s murdered body being

dragged away by the army jeep to which it was tied said at one point …

“take this story and tell the world” And at another point in the same

interview, she pleaded: “Please don’t tell anyone …. My father is

such a dignified man. He never comes to dinner without bathing ….

I don’t want anyone to remember him the way I see him”. (Daniel 105)

W/hen Memory Dies records something of the cruelty and violence unleashed on the defenceless: “lorry loads of masked men had suddenly appeared in the middle of the night and attacked the line-rooms, terrorizing the sleeping families and destroying their pitiful belongs” (185); a starving “coolie” child steals a piece of bread, is detected and beaten: “Yesterday they stole our land, today they steal our food,” despite the fact that it was the British who took the land (247). It also describes the forceful “repatriation” of the so-called Indians. The term “repatriation” is a misnomer since many of those expelled had lived for generations on the Island: it was to them a painful expatriation, for they had given their lives to and on the estates. ”Look at those tea-bushes…. That’s not leaves and buds they’re plucking you know, our women and children, but bits of their lives” (259). Velupillai’s treatment of forced expatriation is poignant in its indirection: Muttiah is forced to return (sic) to India, leaving behind Sooty, the dog which he and his now-deceased mother had loved: “The moaning of Sooty came from the distance and faded away like the cry of a child in the night. Muttiah felt as if it came from the grave of his mother … a handful of dust calling out to him from under the tea bushes” (Velupillai 1970, 89). Yvonne Fries and Thomas Bibin relate something of the human tragedy involved in the expatriation of Indian labour. As with slavery, families are split, some members being permitted to stay, others forcibly expelled, arriving in an India that was totally foreign to them and where they knew no one. The “fate of the Indian expatriates is a human tragedy to an extent yet to be realised. Nine out of ten expatriates end up as migrant seasonal labour, beggars or are untimely dead” (3). It is another story that waits, and deserves, to be told. Truly, the “coolies” in Sri Lanka have suffered to an extreme.

What man dare speak

[Of] His fettered, unbroken

Days of drudgery

That sole legacy

From sire to son!

Poverty and shame

Bound to the cart wheel –

A beast of burden

Cowed and bent

To a lesser beast;

An outcast

From the mainland

And here a helot

Stripped of his name,

A reproach and danger

To his kin ….

(Velupillai 1957, 8)

To stress similarities in the “coolie” experience, it should be noted that those who returned voluntarily to India from other British territories fared little better, as Marianne Ramesar records (1996).

The suffering of those of Indian descent in Sri Lanka is not a thing of the past. Carl Muller reports that estate workers are seen as human discards. Those who attempt to leave the estate and estate-existence are forced by failure to return. Fifty-two percent of the children of plantation-workers are underweight; forty percent of income is spent on alcohol and betel leaf (a mild narcotic); there is no electricity; little space, and the roof leaks. There is no proper sanitation, garbage disposal and maintenance (‘Works Cited’: Muller 2000).

To be continued…

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