In 1969 Colombo Cold Stores celebrated its Diamond Jubilee by bringing out a small book (155 pages) on the “history” of Ceylon from 1894 to 1969. Naturally, Cold Stores being a business entity, the booklet is focused heavily on the then business leaders and commercial developments that took place during the period. The references, particularly as to the early years are predominantly from European sources; the idea of keeping notes, records and diaries being unfamiliar to the native population.
Nevertheless, the book can be read with interest for its historical perspective. Most “histories” are about kings and their courts. ‘Ceylon from 1894-1969’on the other hand, endeavours to give the reader a more vivid picture of the times, of various personalities and events, opinions and attitudes, that would not generally make into a standard history book. It gives him an insight into a part of our not-so-distant history, the then prevailing realities, of which we have very little memory now.
“One of the factors that swung official opinion in favour of Colombo instead of Galle as the premier commercial port was the existence of the Colombo-Kandy railway (opened in 1867). Until the railway came to Ceylon, transport of commercial products was by coolies or bullock carts. Mr. Alexander Brown told young members of the Planters Association of the days ‘we had to transport our coffee on coolie heads for 30 miles on end…The coolies were wonderful carriers and generally travelled through clumps of forest so that their heads were protected…’ Transport from Kandy to Colombo was by bullock cart which travelled in convoys at night. The transport of coffee from the estate stores to Colombo was often a business of many weeks, sometimes even months. The railways revolutionised life in Ceylon, not only by providing cheap transport for commercial products, but in making good things available to the planter up-country. RWJ in his memoirs of Ceylon recalled how ‘Old Wood’, a planter, had laboured on an estate in Uva for 30 years without once coming to Colombo.”
Life and rhythm of the East
The Europeans soon adjusted to, or perhaps came to even enjoy, the life and rhythm of the East. They found plenty of ceremonious courtiers and abject minders now happy to serve the new masters; infinitely more advanced, resourceful and powerful than the former kings.
“Ceylon’s first Governor Frederic North had a big entourage on his first tour of Ceylon. It included 160 palanquin bearers, 400 coolies, two elephants, six horses and 50 lascars. The enormous entourage was necessitated by the almost complete absence of roads.”
But however powerful the King’s representative in the colony was, the Governor was not beyond accountability. A later Governor, Viscount Torrington, is on record pleading with the Colonial Secretary not to turn down his travel claims because “to move I am obliged to take everything, kitchen, cooks, beds, servants, and often I may say – house”.
“The 1840s saw considerable progress in road construction – in the metalling of existing roads and in the construction of bridges. Many roads required iron bridges and Skinner acted on his own initiative while on leave in the UK (in 1856) in ordering a dozen.”
“Governor Ward found that the state of most rest-houses was disgraceful and sanctioned extra expenditure. He also introduced a tariff of charges and stopped the practice of Government officials staying free of charge at rest-houses – ‘let everyone who uses a rest-house pay, from the Governor downwards,’ he decreed.”
Death’s heavy toll
“Death took a heavy toll in the pioneering days. Skinner in his ‘Fifty Years in Ceylon’ refers to dysentery as the ‘disease of the country’. Persons suspected of having contracted cholera were simply left to die. Skinner contracted ‘jungle fever’ (probably malaria) and the treatment was as follows ‘my doctor bled me till there was scarcely a drop of blood left in my body. He then gave me 40 grains of calomel and in the evening as the fever was still raging he ordered me to be taken out to the yard of my quarters , laid on a bare rattan couch and buckets of cold water thrown over me for about 20 minutes. To make matters worse, Skinner heard the melancholy call of an owl, named by the natives as the ‘devil’s bird’, because its cry is a precursor of death. Skinner survived the water treatment and the devil bird!”
Withdrawal of the horse carriage
The latter years of the 19th Century saw the gradual withdrawal of the horse carriage. “Moreover, the ill-treated coach horse, and rigid, badly built and uncomfortable coach would soon disappear. Ceylon is not a horse-breeding country and in consequence the natives know nothing of horses or how to treat them, hence a miserable life for the horse once he becomes the property of a local coach contractor.”
“If the introduction of (push) cycles in 1896 aroused a certain amount of cynical amusement, the advent of motorcycles and cars soon after caused consternation. To Mr. C. Harn of Messrs. Bohringer belongs the distinction of importing the first motorcycle into Ceylon (early 20th Century). His experience was not a happy one, lack of petrol was his grievance. Mr. Money imported the first car, a loco-mobile. Soon car followed car. The writer goes on to list 21 cars but only two Ceylonese names, Mr. E.L.F. De Soysa and Mr. N.D. B. Silva figure among car owners.”
Birth of the Ceylon mercantile community
“The birth of the Ceylon mercantile community can be traced to the eighteen forties which saw the establishment of Mackwoods (1841), George Steuarts (1844), Cargills (1844), JM Robertsons (1845) and Brodies (1846).Mackwoods was founded by the brothers William and Francis who were officers on a ship that called at Galle. The eighteen fifties saw a number of new firms entering the business scene. They were Delmage Forsythe (1850), Volkarts (1851), Lee Hedges (1852), Walkers (1854), the Mercantile Bank (1854), Carsons (1857) and Millers (1858).
“Walker, Sons and Co began business in Kandy, then the heart of the coffee industry. Its founder John Walker was a man a century ahead of the time in the treatment of his employees. He was the first Ceylonese employer to introduce a provident fund, profit sharing and medical assistance for his staff. Ceylonese and Indians were among those who initiated firms in the eighteen sixties; Don Carolis (1860), Moosajees (1861), John and Co (1865).
“V.A. Julius, the founder of the law firm Julius and Creasy, who shunned the limelight, was yet a man of many accomplishments. As a relaxation from legal problems he studied nature and wildlife and became an authority in the area. Julius was also a member of the Ceylon rowing team that defeated Calcutta in 1882. Henry Creasy, the co-founder of the firm, was a member of the Legislative Council for a number of years. He was the son of Sir Edward Creasy, a former Chief Justice of Ceylon and author of the book ‘Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World’.
“Tommy Lipton, who began life as a grocer’s boy in Glasgow, blossomed in manhood into an empire builder. On his first visit to Ceylon he is reported to have said ‘we could grow tea here’. Lipton made Ceylon and tea synonymous.”
Colombo Ice Company
“The production of ice on a commercial scale began with the formation of the Colombo Ice Company in 1866 (it became New Colombo Ice Company in 1894 and then Ceylon Cold stores in 1941). Its premises in Glenie Street became known as the ‘Ice Kompaniya’.The name lingered, now the entire district has officially become ‘Kompaniveediya’.
“The location of the firm on the banks of Beira Lake (in 1866) was influenced by the fact that the lake was then a vital link in communications in Colombo. It had a total of 22 employees. A German engineer, Arthur Von Possner was the manager. Glenie was the Archdeacon of Colombo but like most top men of his era had the coffee mania. He was even reprimanded by the Secretary of State for the colonies for making too many visits to his plantations. He owned as much as 1926 acres of land in N’Eliya alone.
“Von Possner lived an epicurean life in the days when there was no income tax. He used to take a short ferry ride from ‘Glenie House’ to the Galle Face Hotel across the lake, for a few drinks stronger than the aerated waters he manufactured. On one occasion instead of walking towards the ferry, he walked towards the sea and spotting a boat shouted ‘Yakko Boattuwa Geneng’. Someone kindly put him on the correct track.
“In Kew Cottage, lived the famous milliner and dressmaker Mrs. Laura Andree. The police station and the barracks were where they are now. Where the Slave Island roundabout is (was) and where six roads converged stood a large banyan tree under whose spreading branches a Salvation Army preacher pleaded for simple souls. At the end of Lily Street were two gateways, one leading to Mr. Wardrop’s bungalow belonging to the Commercial Company and the other to Dr. C.W. Van Geyzel’s spacious house, called the ‘Grange’.”
“The war years (WW2) also saw the introduction of tractors from Australia, which was to revolutionise paddy cultivation as it had existed from the earliest times. At first there was a shortage of personnel to operate the tractors, which were unfamiliar to the Ceylonese. The employment of Italian prisoners of war filled this lacuna.
Poverty of spirit
As recent as 1940, Mr. B.R. Shenoy in an economic survey of the Kurunegala District observed that the “keynote of the economy is poverty, and its foundation is the low return from the land”.
Even today Sri Lanka has a low industrial base, operating at a basic level, mainly in low income areas like the garment industry. In 1948, Sir Ivor Jennings the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Ceylon posed the question: “Where and what can Ceylon industries sell?” He further argued, “The industrialisation of Ceylon would require the transfer of large number of village labourers, accustomed to primitive sanitary conditions, to the towns. It is not pleasant to contemplate what would be the standards if large numbers of present villagers were collected in tenement blocks, especially if the sanitary arrangements of the towns were inadequate as they are at present.”
We ought to be grateful that a commercial firm like the Colombo Cold Stores decided to mark its diamond jubilee by publishing a history of this era. This was not a profit-making exercise. The task would have required long hours of research and collation. In a country where record-keeping is scanty, at best, such an undertaking demands painstaking effort. By getting this book together the company has ensured that at least a small part of this history is on record.
By 1969, the Ceylonese had almost completely replaced the European management of the Colombo Cold stores. That a project of this nature was undertaken is to the credit of the Ceylonese management that immediately followed the foreign managers of the company. Today, nearly 50 years later, it is difficult to conceive of a commercial firm having the intellectual inclination or the academic interest for a similar venture.
Such is the poverty of spirit today.