Ice Men -1 (SL): Revealing Insights

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When Ceylon Cold Stores began its journey in 1894, Sri Lanka (Ceylon then) was a very different place. Pictured is the Colombo Clock Tower c 1880 – Image courtesy

Daily FT

In 1969, Ceylon Cold Stores celebrated its diamond jubilee. Unlike the usual ‘souvenir’ magazine with messages from ministers, chairman and business heavyweights, to mark the occasion the company thought it fit to produce a short history – ‘Ceylon in Our Times 1894-1969’. The foreword to the book describes their purpose, “not just our story, but the story of our times”.

We are the richer for that effort by the much-loved company; “dealing in soft drinks, milk, butter, ice-cream, ham, bacon and so on-from the necessities of a daily diet to the niceties of a bon vivant’s palate”. Befitting their business model, that of providers of wholesome foods to the community, the book is more cabbages than kings; a random collection of vignettes on a wide range of personalities and events, taken from a range of sources such as diaries, magazines, memoires and the press. They provide an interesting insight to the lives and the beat of an era.


A very different place

When the company began its journey in 1894, Sri Lanka (Ceylon then) was a very different place. Even in our childhood, there were old timers referring to a time when deities apparently had a role in the running of the affairs of the State. There was order in the land and norms in governance.

In our more cynical times we will not vouch for the historical accuracy of the rosy imagery of essentially unstable and unschooled sources. But while gods mingling among us may be pure conjecture, we cannot easily dismiss an index of consumer prices, as recorded by a Government Agent then. In 1894, an egg was 1½ cents, paddy was Rs. 1 per bushel, fish 10 cents a pound, a coconut five cents and a pound of mutton 25 cents !

“Railway extension was then a topic of the day and the Governor announced that plans were being finalised from a line from Kurunegala to Jaffna and from Galle to Matara.”

“It was an age when every able-bodied person had to work on the road or commute the labour by payment under the Thoroughfares Ordinance. The Governor told the Council that 525,913 persons commuted their liability, while 10,909 persons performed labour.”

Drastic changes

Drastic changes were happening, not organically, but from pressures and influences of an alien occupier. Many of the changes were welcome, if not grasped with pleasure. The alien dress, the foods, professions (new), education, schools, games; thrilled and also profited the islanders. Social mobility which came with European rule, opened new horizons, released suppressed talents. No longer was birth the overriding factor in a man’s life.

“In 1894 Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, the immortal Ceylonese (then, P. Arunachalam, Registrar-General) despaired of ‘modern’ civilisation. “Under the influence of this civilisation,” he told a meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society, “the more educated a man becomes, the more his wants increase, the more comforts and luxuries he requires, and he devotes all his time to making money in order to supply the increased needs of himself and his family. Simplicity of life disappears as well as leisure.”

The problem, he said was “not peculiar to Ceylon, but owning to the smallness of our community and the absence of a class of hereditary wealth or learning, the effect is more marked here…”

Arunachalam noted the voracity for comforts and luxuries among the colonials; wealth and the scope of learning that the new order made possible, was a novelty for them. These now offered undreamt of opportunities for a people who had until then led only very simple lives. Their economy produced only a few things, just enough to meet basic human needs; whatever high thinking them may assume, the truth is, their lives were spartan, in relation to the European occupiers.

Deep-rooted economic anxiety

Even today, everyday experiences suggest a deep-rooted economic anxiety; making money in whichever way is the only escape path from an existence of want and denial. To be in the lower rungs of a hierarchical society such as this is terrible indeed.

The much spoken of equality before the law is only a myth; for a feudal mind, all that matters is your place in the social order, not the right or wrong of a situation. Somehow, even in a queue, the mighty get served first. For some, escape lies in a job overseas, for others, in a profession or a business, practiced with no ethical considerations. And for a very small group; the path lies in becoming ‘leaders’, getting voted into public office.

On assuming public office, the first thing a man does is to ensure a good income, expensive vehicles and a comfortable bungalow for his family. Various ways of enrichment present themselves. The man once comfortable, will begin to enjoy his foreign trips, and if possible arrange for an education for his children overseas. These are opportunities not to be missed. He remembers his life before… there was no hereditary learning or wealth…

Revealing insights

1894-1969 also gives revealing insights to the attitudes and inclinations of the so-called emerging elite of the colony.

“The tables of the well-to-do families in ‘Victorian’ time were loaded with delicacies, but ice was so scarce that to have it at home gave Ceylonese then something to talk about and record, as they did in their diaries. The diaries of Edmund Roland Gooneratne, John Gerald Perera, and John Godfried Pieris throw light on the tantalising fare rich families had in their daily meals. They also shed light on one of the status symbols of Ceylon in that era – the serving of ice… Ice was difficult to get and more difficult to keep. Mr. Gooneratne noted how ‘Peter …and them were feasting on the 20 lbs. of ice which were brought from Galle but only about seven remained. They drank it with brandy.’”

Today, ice is no longer a marvel, but yet, ice making is beyond our industrial genius, for the purpose, the machines are imported.

The new order

The new order, required persons versed in reading, writing and arithmetic.

“In 1894, Ceylon school boys were fined one cent each time they spoke in Sinhalese in school. This happened not only in schools like Royal and S. Thomas’ but also at Ananda (then at Maliban Street Pettah). The money raised was used to finance the cricket club.

Those were the days of Cambridge senior, and among the Ananda boys who passed the examination was D.J. Wimalasurendre. He was destined to become the architect of the Laksapana hydro-electric scheme. In that year, the young boy who later proved one of the nation’s greatest benefactors joined the Technical School.

The Principal of Ananda College that year was A.E. Buultjens, an old Thomian, who was an educationist, historian, oriental scholar and linguist. He also was a pioneer of the labour movement, helping to form the first trade union when the late A.E. Goonesinghe was a three-year-old toddler. The principal of the Kandy Buddhist School, later known as Dharmaraja College was D.B. Jayatilleka.”

This was long before the advent of the ‘rag’, the outrage that discredits our institutions of higher education. The desperate tribalism of the ‘old boys’ culture was also yet to emerge. Imperfections in the understanding of what were essentially foreign ideas and institutions are to be expected.

This form of education, the curriculum and the higher status that was attached to the “educated”, were new experiences. The immoderation, the frenzy, the mindless homage to the memory of juvenile years by hoary old boys, can only be explained in terms of the new converts’ inadequacy or the inability to view the experience in perspective. Outside of their make-believe world, the country is going from crisis to crisis; poor, corrupt and overall standards, including in education, in steady decline.

Today, the school cannot be proud of its product, but the product is proud of his association with the school. Those norms which underpin education in the countries where they evolved, have been turned upside down here; like in every other introduced institution, politics, parliament, media, professions; normlessness has become the norm.

“The Principal of Royal College was in those days a power in the land. His most trenchant comment, ‘it would be impossible for boys to be worse taught than the majority of those who present themselves for admission here’”.

“The Royal Principal’s views did not go unchallenged. Writing in the first issue of ‘The Octagon’ an educationist said the Royal Principal’s remarks may have been true of the smaller number (157) who sought admission to Royal in 1893. ‘But they are not necessarily, nor in all respects, true of the thousands who have entered other schools’”.

Ceylon yet, ‘was’ a small place.

“In 1894, Peter De Abrew, a Buddhist benefactor, offered a free site in Brownrigg Street, Cinnamon Gardens, for a school. He had to indicate its location on a surveyor’s map. The offer was accepted but soon afterwards a Trustee objected that ‘the site is quite out of the way and not in a central locality…’”

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