Island’s coffee plantation turns 200 | Sunday Observer
Contribution of Sir Edward Barnes to Sri Lanka’s plantation sector

Island’s coffee plantation turns 200

11 June, 2023
Coffee harvest
Coffee harvest

As the Indian-origin Tamil workers in Sri Lanka’s plantations observed the 200th anniversary of their arrival in the island recently, President Ranil Wickremesinghe shone a light on the fact that the thriving plantation sector of today owes its birth to Sir Edward Barnes, who was Governor of Ceylon in two stints between 1820 and 1831.

It was due to Barnes’ prodding that a British military officer, George Bird, established the first-ever coffee plantation in Ceylon in 1823. Tea was to come later in the second half of the 19th Century after a blight wiped out most of the coffee plantations.

Speaking at the National Law Conference (NLC) on June 4, President Wickremesinghe commended the choice of the venue for the conference, namely, the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya. It had historical connotations through its association with Governor Barnes who kick-started Sri Lanka’s plantation and commercial economy, the President said. Grand Hotel was formerly known as “Barnes Hall”, which Barnes built to be his residence set amidst lush plantations.

Barnes had two stints as Governor, the first in an acting capacity from 1820 to 1821 and the second as a full-fledged Governor from 1824 to 1831.

Roads, a vital prerequisite for development

According to H.A. J. Hulugalle (author of British Governors of Ceylon published in 1963) Barnes was a British Army officer who had been an Adjutant to Gen. Arthur Wellesley at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He came to Ceylon in 1819 to take charge as Commander-in-Chief.

As C-in-C he toured the length and breadth of the island. Appalled by the state of the roads, he concluded that Ceylon needed “first roads, second roads, and third roads” as roads were “a vital prerequisite for industry to develop”.

Being a military man, Barnes also believed that the British could not possess Ceylon “securely” nor could they make the island “commercially successful” if communications were so poor.

When he became Governor, Barnes resolved to build roads especially in what is now the Kandy district and the Central Province (CP). The Kandyan Kings had deliberately avoided building roads to keep invaders away. Hostile forces which attacked Kandy were defeated by the hilly jungle terrain and malaria.

Barnes was very keen on building the Colombo-Kandy road as it was a crying need of the hour. The British had taken over Kandy in 1815 but getting there was a challenging and perilous endeavor. Chief Justice Harding Giffard described the “road” to Kandy thus:

“Marshes and quagmires,
puddles, pools and swamps,
Dark matted jungles and long plushy plains,
Exhaling foetid airs and mortal damps,
By Kandy perfidy miscalled as a road,
Through which the luckless traveller must wade,
Uncheered by sight of man or man’s abode.”

Full-fledged Governor

In 1820, Governor Sir Robert Brownrigg relinquished office but his successor, Sir Edward Paget, took time to come. Therefore, London asked Army Commander Barnes to be interim Governor. As such, and also later as a full-fledged Governor, Barnes built roads to link Colombo and Kandy with all other towns. But the Colombo-Kandy road was his priority for commercial and security reasons.

Barnes also saw tremendous potential in coffee cultivation. It was Barnes who identified the hill districts as being more suitable for coffee growing than the low country.

“Barnes, who had his own coffee plantation, was also responsible for many political decisions that supported and promoted the coffee industry, from tax exemptions, to land grants,” the website says.

Commendable service

Since he was only an Acting Governor, he had to vacate his position on February 2, 1822 when the appointed Governor, Sir Edward Paget, arrived. Barnes was, in turn, posted as Commander-in-Chief of neighbouring India. But he could not get along with the British establishment there and returned to England.

However, he had created such a good impression in London as Acting Governor of Ceylon that the Colonial Office sent him back to Ceylon as Governor in 1824, transferring Edward Paget to India to be its Commander-in-Chief.

Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya

An inveterate builder of infrastructure, Barnes stopped unnecessary military expenditure like building forts and put the money thus saved into roads and bridges. He commandeered peasants and the Ceylon Pioneer Lascars, a body of Indian workers commanded by British military engineers. He built a bridge spanning the Kelani River. The Maha Oya was spanned by a bridge at Mawanella and the Mahaweli River was spanned by a satin wood bridge at Peradeniya. Apart from such civil engineering feats, Barnes ordered the first census of the population.

Simultaneously, Barnes was looking to develop plantations, a sector pioneered by the Dutch but never really developed. In 1810, Governor Maitland asked London to repeal an 1801 regulation that Europeans should not own land except in Colombo. Maitland said that this prohibition was “striking at the only chance that we (the British) have of making this a very valuable colony.”

Thanks to Maitland, in 1812, the Government said that Europeans could get grants of land up to 4,000 acres, free of taxes for five years. But as per a 1800 rule, native Ceylonese could get only 100 acres.

Exploiting the liberalisation, Barnes asked George Bird, a fellow military officer, to establish a coffee plantation which came up in 1823 to be Ceylon’s first. In 1825, Barnes himself became a coffee planter by setting up an estate in Gannoruwa in Kandy, which is now part of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens.

Luxurious life

The Colonial Office was not pleased with the Governor himself becoming a planter. But disregarding the frown, Barnes made money and lived like a “Nabob”. His dinner parties were elaborate. He built houses for himself in many places. In Nuwara Eliya, he built Barnes Hall, the Pavilion in Kandy, and what is now Mount Lavinia Hotel, just 12 Km from Colombo. According to one writer he lived “more luxuriously than a Park Lane millionaire.”

But Barnes felt for the people of Ceylon. Desiring to give the Ceylonese a secular education, he was appalled to find that the education system had gone into the hands of the Christian clergy. The clergy were using their hold on the schools for conversion and not for “improvement of civilisation,” Barnes said.

Good financial administrator

Barnes wanted civil servants to acquire a “tolerable proficiency in Sinhala or Tamil” for promotion above the post of Assistant. He wanted them to be people-friendly. A good financial administrator, he stopped Governor Brownriggs’ practice of presenting deficit budgets. He cut down military expenditure and encouraged the production and export of copra, coconut oil, fibre, tobacco and pepper, besides coffee. He also got the authorities in London to bear a part of Ceylon’s expenditure.

When he demitted office in 1831, a left a surplus of Sterling Pounds 73,615 (almost eight million Sterling Pounds in today’s money) in contrast to Brownrigg who left him with an empty Treasury. However, in the political sphere, Barnes was totally against sharing power with the Ceylonese. When in 1823, the Colonial Office sent the Colebrook-Cameron Commission to Ceylon to study and report on the administration and it recommended greater involvement of Ceylonese in the administration, the establishment of an independent Judiciary and the setting up of a Legislative Council, Barnes fumed. He called the suggestions “ludicrous”.

In a strongly worded letter to the Commissioners, he said: “A popular Government or one wherein the people have a share appears to me quite out of the question. I am decidedly of the opinion that people cannot, or ought not to have, under existing circumstances, any greater share in the Government than at present.”

Ceylonese who had no European education could not be given responsibilities of governance, he maintained.

However, the Colonial Secretary did not agree and Barnes’s successor, Sir Robert Wilmot Horton, was tasked to implement the Colebrook Commission’s recommendations.

Barnes was asked to proceed to India to take over as Commander in Chief. He did go to India, after renting out his favorite abode Barnes Hall to Governor Horton. But in Calcutta (now Kolkata), then capital of India, he was unable to get along with Governor General William Bentinck. He returned to England to pursue a political career. In fact, just a year before his death, he became MP for Sudbury. Barnes, who has also served as a Governor of Dominica, passed away on March 19, 1838.

Barnes has one other claim to fame – his statue in Colombo is “Point Zero” for measuring distances in Sri Lanka.