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Sherman Stanley

The Story Behind Tea

(September 1939)


From New International, Vol.5 No.9, September 1939, Page 266-268.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


THE ISLAND OF CEYLON lies at the southern extremity of the vast sub-continent of India. Within the confines of this beautiful island, known as the Pearl of the British Empire, a bitter struggle has been in progress between the masses of Ceylonese people (Sinhalese) and the handful of British plantation owners, militarists and imperialist gangsters. Below the reader will find the story of Ceylon, further indication of the malignant and vile characteristics of dying British “democratic” imperialism, and the agressiveness and vitality exhibited by the colonial masses of the British Empire in the efforts to remove from their throats the hand that threatens to strangle them.

* * *

Ceylon is a large island, one-half the size of England and 5/6 the size of Ireland. In the military and strategic sense it is of major importance to the British since it straddles the two sections of the vast Indian ocean created by the jutting out of the Indian peninsula. Ceylon is another “knot” in the British life-line of supply and communication that leads from London to Hongkong. Like the other centers of British naval and war strategy, Ceylon has been turned into a naval and air base.

Economically, the island is overwhelmingly agricultural, the predominant system being that of the plantation. The sole industry that exists is that connected with docks and transportation (railways). There are a few factories that perform elementary steps in the preparations of the various raw materials produced. The largest factory, employing 1,000 workers, is situated in Colombo, the leading city (300,000 population).

An analysis of the population reveals the dictatorial and predatory nature of the British rule. Out of a population of 5,306,863 (1931 figures—there are now closer to 6,000,000), there are exactly 9,500 Europeans, including the small aristocratic caste of Ceylonese Dutch Burghers who have polluted the island with their presence for 150 years. That is, the white rulers constitute 0.156% of the population!

In addition, there is a large and important minority of Indians who have been imported over a period of years from Southern India (Madras Presidency, Travancore, etc.) to work on the tea plantations. They number 659,311 (1936)—over 10% of the population—and constitute a major problem in the national and revolutionary movement.

The 5,000,000 odd Ceylonese workers and peasants have little or no racial or historic connections with the Indian people, contrary to popular belief. They come from a distinct, semi-Mongolian-Malayan race and speak their own language (Sinhali) which is unrelated to the language of the southern Indians (Tamil). Their traditional religion is Buddhism, to which (contrary to its backward, slothful nature) reactionary Christian missionaries have endeavored to impart an aggressive, proselytizing nature. The object of this has been to create communal differences between Indians and Sinhalese. British “divide et imperatore” policy assumes the most amazing forms, even to the extent of trying to make “better” Buddhists out of Buddhists!

There are about 1,400 plantations on the island, on which are grown tea, rice, coffee, rubber, tobacco, tropical fruits and the coconut tree for copra. 85% of the plantations are British owned. Since tea forms over 60% of Ceylon’s export trade, the tea plantation system is most important. All tea farms are worked by agricultural, landless proletarians who draw an average wage of 10 cents to 15 cents per day for their labor. There are under cultivation on a large-scale basis the following products: tea, 442,000 acres; rubber, 475,000 acres; coconut, 900,000 acres; rice, 834,000 acres.

What are the general living conditions of the population? (For the sake of contrast, we must bear in mind that they are quite superior to those of the Indian masses. India is still the world’s most exploited colony.)

The average wage in Colombo is approximately 1 rupee (30 cents) per day. This holds for dock workers, tramcar workers and general laborers. There is no unemployment or sickness insurance; no form of relief beyond that engaged in by bourgeois charitable institutions. Widespread malnutrition and primitive sanitation create conditions naturally conducive to those fearful epidemics and plagues that sweep over Asia: malaria, bubonic plague, etc. In 1933, there were 1,000,000 cases of malaria, out of which 250,000 died! Maternal and infant mortality is very high, averaging 197 per 1,000 in the ten years ending with 1936. The reason is simply, the fact that there are practically no midwives.

Aside from the capitalist plantations, a considerable feudal land system still exists. In return for a small piece of land on which rice is grown, peasants work the estates of the landed aristocracy. No land has been given to these impoverished peasants. On the plantations, the workers live in what are known as “tied cottages” in England. They are owned by the planter who, in addition, runs the company store. This system naturally makes the agrarian worker the complete slave of the British planter. Anybody visiting a plantation worker without permission of the planter commits a criminal offense.

Ceylon is a Crown Colony of the British Empire. This means it is ruled politically direct from London and the Colonial Office. The British-appointed Governor-General has complete powers, equivalent to the Viceroy of India. There is a State Council of 60 members, elected by adult franchise and controlled by the party of the planters. The feeble strings that go to make up Crown Colony “democracy” are all held in the hands of the plantation owners. Such in brief outline is the scheme of things on Ceylon.

* * *

There are two “special” problems, both linked up with the basic struggle for independence, that confront the revolutionary socialists of Ceylon. First of all, there is the problem of Buddhism, the religious issue. To quote from a report written by a recent revolutionary visitor to the island, “As in most countries where the peasantry forms the bulk of the population, religion not only plays an important part in the cultural life of the people, but is also used by the aristocracy to consolidate its position.” The problem is essentially that outlined by Lenin in his pamphlet on Religion. That is, drawing a dividing line and thrusting a wedge between the upper Buddhist priesthood and the poor, more progressive lower stratum. We shall see below what progress is being made along these lines.

Of far greater significance is the problem of the large Indian minority. With the fall in Ceylonese trade and the marketing value of its products, and with the sharp rise of a revolutionary socialist movement, the plantation bosses are endeavouring to practice the familiar British “divide and rule” tactic. The 600,000 Indians living in Ceylon are in the position of aliens without any legal status. The government has decreed that all those who are unemployed must leave or be deported. This would immediately affect at least 10,000 of them—a mass deportation.

In his 1935 report, the Indian agent said, “The plight of the Indian laborer who loses his job ... is indeed a sad one. He has no asylum here [Ceylon]—and if he were to drag his weary limbs to the land of his birth ... his position would be no better.” The Indian Nationalist Congress has sent Jawarharlal Nehru to discuss the problem with the Ceylon government, but the socialists of Ceylon will be acting wisely if they keep their eyes on this chronic capitulator and tool of the ever more impotent Mahatma Gandhi. The Indian minority problem is of basic importance to the Ceylonese movement precisely because the fate of Ceylon is bound up so closely with that of India. It would be fatal indeed if the revolutionary Marxists would concede one inch to the reactionary “solution” proposed by the Ceylon government and which will, with certain petty modifications, be accepted by the spineless Nehru.

The real solution to this problem is the revolutionary solution, that is to say, a full understanding that the Indian and Ceylonese masses belong together, in joint struggle against the imperialists and their agents. Concretely this means a campaign that will allow the Indians to become citizens of Ceylon, with full democratic liberties; a campaign to merge and unify the Sinhalese and Indian trade unions that exist; a joint agricultural union that will include all workers in its ranks, etc. The plan to drive out the Indian workers, to make them the scapegoat for British imperialism must be fought tooth and nail! The Indian workers have the same economic problems as the Sinhalese workers and peasants, except in more aggravated form. They have the same desire for national independence and freedom because they too come from a subject country. Is it not perfectly clear that they can be the most loyal and militant fighters in the independence struggle and the struggle against plantation landlordism? Beware of another Palestine in Ceylon!

At the head of the workers and peasants of Ceylon stands the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (the Ceylon People’s Equality or Socialist Party). In 1935 there was not a single workers’ party on the island. In December of that year a group of 50 students and workers formed the LSSP which had a phenomenal growth because of its cleverly combined electoral and mass activity. Its membership is now several thousand and has an unquestioned leadership over the 6,000,000 island workers and peasants. In its first election campaign the Party won two seats in the State Council and could carry 10-15 today. Its two Council members forced through a Shop Hours Act limiting the working day to 10 hours (it had been 12 to 16 previously); obtained milk and food supplies for children in the schools, etc.

The LSSP publishes its propaganda in 3 languages: English, Sinhalese and Tamil. Its Sinhali paper has a regular circulation of 8,000 copies and is read by 8-10 times that number. “In outlying villages, all the adults read the same copy.” Pamphlets and leaflets on colonial and world affairs are frequently published in the 3 languages.

The Party has organized unions of railway and tramcar workers and is at present organizing a union of all general laborers in Colombo. It is likewise active among the plantation laborers and small peasants. It is among these people that the LSSP attempts to expose the pro-imperialist character of the upper Buddhist priesthood by forcing them into the open on specific issues. Often support is won from the poorer local priests who are brought into the fight for specific reforms. The LSSP has developed a dramatic technique of conducting work among the masses while linking up these struggles with the goals of national independence and socialism. It is a mass party with mass influence. And as such it offers a serious threat to the Chamberlain slave masters and the Ceylonese plantation owners.

The bourgeoisie has organized its own political organization: the Sinhali Maha Sabha—consisting of brown industrialists, remnants of the landed aristocracy and white plantation overlords. Its overt aim is to smash the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, set up a colonial military dictatorship and put an end to the nationalist movement. Its immediate tactic is to prevent the LSSP from making gains at the forthcoming Council elections by creating bureaucratic constitutional barriers.

At the same time, this imperialist party intensifies its direct attack against the LSSP and the workers. Police brutality, arrests, victimization on the job, breaking up of meetings by hired goondas (hoodlums), etc. These are the every-day tactics of the British, driving relentlessly toward their dictatorship. They are attempting to hermetically seal the island of Ceylon while they fulfill their criminal work in the dark of night. But they face an adversary who is not paralyzed by the treacherous doctrine of a Gandhi! They face millions of workers and peasants who are led by a Party that has solemnly declared in National Conference its determination not to support British imperialism in any war it may conduct and which has rejected as laughable the idea of unity or capitulation to imperialism, as advocated by the Stalinists.

* * *

Ceylon, conquered and ruled by the sword, has been in British hands since the year 1796. It is today unquestionably one of the weakest links in the chain of empire. While far ahead of all the other British colonies in militancy, aggressiveness and leadership it is nevertheless only typical of its sister colonies in its irresistible desire for self-determination and freedom from British rule.

“It may be that the first successful revolt against the chain that binds the colonies to Britain will be that of the inhabitants of this island. Ceylon’s workers and peasants are fully prepared to take their part in the fight for the establishment of world socialism.” (ibid.)


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