In my last post I wrote that “…the family appears to have had minimal involvement in the major theatres of British Imperial reach – North America, India and Africa …”. I was promptly pointed to The Journal of Vicary Gibbs Journey around the World 1883 to 1885 and intrigued to delve into Antony Gibbs & Sons investments in Ceylon.
On Saturday 1 November 1884, Vicary writes “On reaching the office, I found a telegram telling me to go at once to Ceylon. Very much worried, both at having to go and at the cause, as I fear there must be some serious trouble there.” Vicary had nearly completed his long voyage visiting family businesses, crossing the Americas, via Honolulu and South Pacific Islands to New Zealand, and was looking forward to the long cruise home from Australia.
Shirley Hinkly’s 2014 book “From Guano to Gold” is based around Vicary’s journal, but adds some further insights and references. The chapter on Colombo is available here. The Firm had expended large sums on the production of coffee and tea in Ceylon, but now the income from coffee was being threatened by the coffee blight. Profits were further at risk from mismanagement on the estates and financial irregularities, with heavy drinking by one or two of their superintendents leading to careless discipline. Vicary needed some radical reorganisation of the senior staff ! Shirley notes that we don’t know the exact details of these problems because the Firms confidential telegrams were so cleverly coded that even today their meaning is unknown, and there are 17 missing days from Vicary’s diary on the voyage to Colombo at about the time he may have been describing the situation he faced … did they contained information too sensitive to release?
Vicary describes his visits to various plantations (he mentions Rock Cave, Ellagalla, Honoocuta, Hennewelle, Penylan, Moonerackanda, Lamostotte, Dambetenne and Maha Uva estates) between 19th December 1884 and 8th Jan 1885, very lame with gout.
In the beautiful city of Kandy he visits “a very fine Singhalese Temple with curious frescos representing the sort of hell tortures that await various breaches of Buddhist Law”, followed by “the Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya; in their way I should think that most lovely in the world”. He attends a Christmas dinner party with 5 or 6 planters coming from the neighbouring places, nearly all ruined by great prosperity followed by great adversity, but none the less festive and even rowdy.
After Christmas Vicary “took a drive with Freudenberg, an intelligent German merchant, and sucked his brains about Ceylon. He thinks tea, too, will be overdone.” Philipp Freudenberg was the Imperial German Consul, he invited Vicary to stay at his home in Colombo for his final four weeks in the country. Vicary finally left Ceylon on 17th Feb on the steamer ‘Brindisi’ to continue home. As a result of his advice it seems that the Gibbs family later made the decision to sell most of their estates to Freudenberg who grasped the opportunity to sell several of the estates to Sir Thomas Lipton, no doubt making a handsome profit.
Vicary’s political leanings are revealed in a diary entry of 7th Feb. “Heard of the fall of Khartoum, and fear Gordon must be killed. I hope Gladstone’s Government will be held responsible for his blood. I wish Gladstone and Gordon could change places – so would it be better for England.”
The History of Ceylon Tea website gives a year by year list of all the estates owned by AG&S from 1870 up until 1925 and shows that after 1893 they only held onto the Forest Land estate (the last one acquired, in 1883) and sold off their other 6 estates. The site also gives a history of Ceylon Tea which is celebrating its 150th anniversary.
Robert Wilson of Ceylon Teas website also gives some history of ceylon tea from the early 1800s when the British arrived to replace the Dutch and established coffee plantations. It mentioned James Blackett, great great grandfather of the current owner, who was visited by Vicary.
Vicary’s visit to Ceylon was evidently at a difficult time on the islands coffee and tea plantations. Did AG&S pull out too easily; could we now have been drinking Gibbs Tea rather than Liptons?