Robert Knox and Tea

Robert Knox was a sailor with the English East India Company, who was captured along with a number of his shipmates by the King of Kandy. He was born in 1641 to a poor family. His father was a sea captain, and his mother a very pious Christian. Knox first sailed in 1655, at age 15, on his father's ship, returning two years later. His second voyage was in 1658, on his father's ship which was sponsored by the English East India Company. After the ship was damaged and forced to land, the sailors were taken prisoner by the King of Kandy and Knox's father died within a year. They were not held in prisons, but separated and given houses in a number of villages surrounding Kandy. Knox and the other captured sailors learned to speak Sinhalese fluently, dressed in Kandyan clothing, grew their hair similar to Kandyan men, and lived in a very similar manner to most of the other villagers. Many, like Knox, came from a background in Britain where living conditions were similar to life in the the Sinhalese villages. Knox, unlike many of the other sailors, never married a Sinhalese woman. He travelled around the island as a peddler for six years, meeting a variety of people and living in numerous villages, so his impressions of Kandyan culture are thought by many to be reliable (Saparamadu 1958).

He wrote his memoir soon after his escape on the sail home for personal reasons, not intending to publish, or allow others to read it. He had little to hide, and little motive to present Sri Lanka differently than what were his own personal interpretations. Many of his interpretations of Kandyan customs are written about in European terms, which creates a difficulty in understanding them (Saparamadu 1958). For example he was unable to understand Buddhism, as he remained a devout Christian throughout his twenty years near Kandy. Even though he lived in amongst villagers for twenty years he never really seemed to understand them, because of this misunderstanding of their "pagan" religion.

According to Knox, Kandyans drank only water and arrack, an alcohol distilled from the sap of the Kitul Tree. Not only was tea not a part of their daily life, but no hot herbal infusions were drunk on a regular basis. Although certain infusions may have been prescribed by Aryvedic doctors for purely medicinal reasons, they were not consumed in a similar manner to tea in present day Sri Lanka. Betel nut played a vital role in Kandyan social relations similar to the role tea plays in Sri Lanka now. Knox describes betel as the nut of the betel plant which is mixed with lime and spread on a betel leaf and chewed, rubbing one's teeth with the mixture turning the teeth and mouth black. Other sources, however, explain that betel is the nut of the Arcea palm, which is then wrapped with the leaf of the betel pepper plant and mixed with lime (Tennent 1859). In either case it is, like tea in that it is a mild stimulant which can make people "giddy or drunk" if eaten when ripe (Knox 1681).

Knox describes a population very fond of betel and chewing it constantly. One would be offered betel immediately when visiting another's house, it was chewed during large gatherings of friends and relatives, and it was chewed in lodges where strangers and travellers would sit together and discuss politics and other affairs. An upper class woman is described as sitting around all day doing nothing but chewing betel. A mouth blackened, or reddened, by chewing betel was considered a sign of beauty, and betel was thought to be wholesome and refreshing to the mouth. Knox favorably compared chewing of betel as similar to the drinking of wine in England (Knox 1681).

In 1821 a doctor named John Davy who was traveling through Sri Lanka had similar comments about the social life of its inhabitants. He described all classes and both men and women as visiting each other often, and while visiting they chewed betel, which was served by servants, and entertained themselves with conversation, as well as telling stories, playing music and singing (Davy 1821). Because Davy stayed a relatively short time he may not have been able to observe much about the daily habits of Sri Lankans, but it is likely this description of social life is accurate, due to its similarity to Knox's descriptions and social life in contemporary Sri Lankan culture.

In the late 1650's, when Knox left England with the English East India Company, tea had not yet become common in England, and would not be common until thirty or forty years after his return in 1680. Descriptions of betel chewing in Sri Lanka, however, sounds remarkably similar to later tea drinking in England. In fact, if the word "betel" is replaced with "tea" in the descriptions by both Knox and Davy they would fit the tea drinking habit Britain was about to develop over the next hundred and fifty years. I do not intend to imply that the British modeled their usage of tea after Knox's description of betel nut chewing as such an assertion would be absurd. However, considering the implications of such a scenario is interestingly amusing in that it reverses the expected assumptions of cultural influence spreading from colonizers to the colonized, and not in the reverse direction.

Why didn't Sri Lankans start to drink tea before it was introduced by the British? Sri Lankans had contact with the beverage previous to this time through ties with China and centuries of trade passing through the island, so why did they start to drink tea only when re-introduced by the British? It is partially due to a greater constant exposure to tea. By the time the British took control of the entire island in the early nineteenth century the daily habit of tea drinking was well established in Britain. Rather than only seeing tea passing through the ports, or while visiting a foreign country, tea was consumed regularly by the dominating classes. Many Sri Lankans realized that by emulating the habits and fashions of the British one could gain the favor of the colonizers and become part of the local ruling elite. Tea drinking was part of this emulation. The use of this strategy to gain power from western colonizers began earlier than with British rule..

During the Dutch colonization this ruling class had already begun to form. Mudaliyars, as the male administrators were called, usually converted to Christianity and were granted land, a title, and other honors. When the British took over in the early nineteenth century the Mudaliyars and their families remained a part of the ruling elite. They imitated the British in all manners of dress, speech, habits, manners, food, and names. Many of the local elite subscribed to British magazines such as "The Lady's Home Journal" and "Women and Home" in order to keep abreast of fashionable social habits in Britain. Tea drinking was imitated, and there are accounts of families of the ruling class drinking tea as the British did. Women held "at home" hours in drawing rooms for visiting each other, and tea was served at Christenings, as well as other social events (Gooneratne 1986).

The British knew the advantage a British educated and British oriented local elite to fall back on, and schools were set up in the coastal areas to educate local children. Sri Lankans quickly learned that to gain the favor of the British one should be western educated, and took advantage of the opportunity. They were taught not only reading and writing, but also that the British lifestyle was ideal, and to be emulated. Both the British A-Level and O-Level tests were available, and these, along with exams at the end of the school year, were sent to Britain to be graded. Students of wealthy families who wished to obtain prestigious careers travelled to Britain to attend university. For the first time in Sri Lanka money could raise one in social standing, and birth was becoming less important.

The spread of tea in Sri Lanka was initially due to emulation of the colonists, as it vital to the establishment of one's social position in relation to the ruling classes. Unlike the tea usage of the general population tea usage by the Sri Lankan elite is an example of the type of spread of cultural practices that Sidney Mintz would call intensification. It was used by groups of people who drank tea to establish similarities between themselves and the people who drank the tea initially. After tea had been in use for some time and became more widely available, however, it began to fit into the Sri Lankan culture in a way that suggests what Mintz would call extensification (Mintz 1985: 122).

Extensification implies a larger number of people drank tea on a daily basis, and that they didn't drink it to emulate another social group. Instead, tea had a different set of meanings to those who were not of the westernized elite class. They began to drink tea in the same situations in which betel was chewed. Offering a visitor tea upon arrival to one's house is a sign of one's hospitality, and an establishment of social connections, just as betel was, and still is. There are parallels between the British working class and the working class in Sri Lanka in that many who have little money for food in Sri Lanka also drink large quantities of tea to make a cold meal seem hot (Dharmasiri 1992).

Tea drinking in Sri Lanka, in spite of its unique cultural context and universal consumption throughout the island, is for some still a symbol of British colonization. When asked about tea as a symbol of the British Sri Lankan university professor Gunapala Dharmasiri, who was living briefly in America, agreed that although tea is universally consumed in Sri Lanka most still consider it to be a foreign substance. He and his friends drink an infusion of the crushed flower of a local tree in season that tastes similar to tea, so as to avoid drinking tea. A second university professor, Mahinda Wernake, who is also living in America, vehemently disagreed with Dharmasiri when asked as to whether tea was considered a symbol of the British in Sri Lanka. He spoke of tea as completely assimilated into Sri Lankan culture, partially because of Sri Lanka's economic dependance on the crop. These varying opinions call for further questioning about the tea drinking situation in Sri Lanka.

Both of the men interviewed were of similar educational and economic backgrounds, and had spent a considerable amount of time in the West. I would suggest, however, that the tea drinking Dharmasiri was referring to, are the customs intensified by the British, whereas Wernake was addressing tea drinking as a whole in Sri Lanka, and the customs that developed through extensification.

Modern colonization, won its victories through the ability to create secular hierarchies, not through violence, as other colonizers had. The colonization of the British in Sri Lanka colonized the mind and affected the world view of the colonized, as well as governing them physically. The cultural influence still remains after independence from political rule. This could also account for the difference in opinion between the two professors; one was simply more aware of colonial influence than the other. Western products, ideas, and values are often preferred, or seen as more civilized that the traditional equivalents. The west has become, to many post-colonial nations, not a geographical category, but a psychological state of mind that is often equated with success.

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