The Hills of Paradise by Dr. S. N. Breckenridge
Reviewed by Jayantha Jayewardene
The cover of the book has the caption British Enterprise and The Story of Plantation Growth in Sri Lanka. An illustrated narrative with reflections on the demography and destiny of the island. Indeed this book covers a very broad spectrum of the islands history, from the beginning and development of the plantation enterprise to the large scale industry it is today.
The plantation industry has been the backbone of Sri Lankas economy for a very long time and will continue to be so for many more years. However most Sri Lankans do not have any idea of even a few aspects of this gigantic industry and how it has developed over the years to what it is. Planters, proprietors and plantation companies alone did not develop the plantation industry in this country. Governments, the British Colonial Office, individuals with vision, purpose and commitment together with many formal and informal organisations contributed to this evolution and development. The plantation industry reflects many facets of Sri Lankan life.
The author comes from the Breckenridge family of Trinity College. This family has contributed to an benefited from the great traditions of Trinity. After a successful primary education at Trinity amongst contemporaries such as Kavan Rambukwella, R. Kurukulasuriya, W. Wadugodapitiya, Michael Abeyratne, Malcolm de Silva, K. Sivanadaraja, Ranjan de Sylva, Malcolm Jansze, H. W. Perera and Kingsley de Alwis, he entered the Medical College in Colombo in 1953. After passing out joined the Department of Health, which he served for 13 years.
He was appointed as Inspecting Medical Officer for Estates in the Department of Health Services. Dr. Breckenridge states "As my work carried me from one plantation district to another, I become overwhelmed with awe and admiration for the meticulous transformation of environment demonstrated by the plantation complex in Sri Lanka." This kindled in him an interest to go deeper into the history of the plantations. He was able to gather much information from a whole array (of records) characteristic of the British fetish for documentation. Dr. Breckenridge was possibly the last Inspecting Medical Officer for Estates, this post being withdrawn with the nationalisation of the estates. Breckenridge did not consider his work a chore but rather looked on it as an opportunity to carry out an intensive study of his work environment and its background.
According to Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda, "Breckenridge has flashed out his wanderings in the plantations in to a fascinating account of the history, the underlying philosophy and methodology, the ecology and geography, the sociology and character of the plantation microcosm, form the lofty heights of legendary managers to the humble levels of the near-anonymous yet vital workers. Dr. Breckenridges account has movingly captured the immense sprawl and unique flavour of tea plantation life. The mosaic of anecdotes, history, photographs, analyses and interpretations all in a flowing reader-friendly style will be an exercise of sheer delight and absorbing reading for many".
This book, which is written lucidly and not in the drab manner that history is often recorded, would be very interesting and useful to the working planter as well. It takes the reader through not only a detailed history of the plantations but also delves into the laws and ordinances that governed and still govern the labour activities on the estates. Maps and graphs included in the book make its content complete.
This book takes you briefly through the colonial period in Sri Lanka dwelling longer on the Dutch presence. Two chapters are devoted to the Kandyan Kingdom detailing land tenure, ecology, social systems and commercial activity. The author refers to the entry of the Malabars to the Kandyan Kingdom. He also goes into the reason for the influx of immigrant Indian labour to the plantations opened up in the hills and describes in detail the impacts of their presence. There is also a very interesting comparison of the characteristics of John DOyly and Governor Edward Barnes, two Britishers whose presence in the island turned the tide of its history.
Nine chapters are devoted to the coffee industry in this country, which give details from the initial planting to its sad demise many years later. Here we have, I think, the most detailed version of the coffee industry in Sri Lanka in one book. These chapters contain the agricultural, labour, social life of the planters, the government and its involvement in the industry. (any other aspect) Maps, photographs and illustrations spread liberally through these chapters give life to this interesting narrative.
With the unfortunate demise of the coffee industry in Sri Lanka due to the dreaded fungus Hemeleia vastatrix, the tea industry rose phoenix like form its ashes. Breckenridge continuing his tale of our plantation industry goes on to the efforts of James Taylor during the initial stages of this industry. He proceeds to describe the evolution of this industry upto recent times. Here too he goes in to the histories of the pioneers (planters, labourers and all others) involved in starting up this great industry and setting it on a course that it has traversed for the last 130 years or more.
The plantation labour is well featured in a large part of the book. This is a just tribute to those who came to the unknown and stayed on to be the mainstay of two great industries coffee and tea. Breckenridge portrays vividly their fears, troubles, difficulties, hardships whilst at the same time looking at the social system that they came from and the social system that they developed to enable them to exist in this alien land, which certainly was not the Utopia that they thought they were coming to. He also shows how the estate Superintendent looked after them from womb to tomb in that as far as the labour was concerned the sun shone though the Superintendent.
If one was to look for shortcomings in this book and there arent many, your attention turns to the many maps, which are done by the author himself. They are rather blurred and indistinct. A good cartographer would have helped to produce clearer maps. Then again these maps indicate a charming sense of authenticity in that they are in keeping with the old pictures that illustrate the book.
This is also a narrative of human endeavour of the men who made this giant an long-standing industry. It describes those involved from the lofty Governors through planters, government officials and the many others involved to the lowly labourer. It describes their strengths, weaknesses, their idiosyncrasies, their arrogance, their toil, their fears and little secrets. The human element that runs through this book is the blending that makes the book like a good cup of tea the secrets in the blending.
Planters, students of history and all those who like to read of the old times of this country will find this book both interesting and absorbing.