It was revealed recently that in 1970 an attempt was made to derail the train carrying the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh from Sydney to Orange in New South Wales. It failed. A few years earlier a derailment of sorts – to the career of a young planter was also attempted here in Sri Lanka by some small minded nevertheless crafty men. No comparison even by a long chalk between the two incidents is intended as it would be laughable if not ridiculous. Only when the former incident was established the latter came to mind and could now be written about without embarrassing the major players as they are no longer in the land of the living and their whereabouts are not known.
The event took place in a Sterling Company owned tea plantation – lets call it Shamrock – falling into the High Grown category consisting of about 2,000 acres. The three Divisions – two managed by Assistant Superintendents and a very small one under the direct supervision of the Superintendent (we’ll call him James) with the estate’s Head Kangany (a vitally important position on estates then) in charge. James was a Scotsman who had worked on the same property continuously for nearly forty years moving from ‘Creeper" (trainee), Junior Assistant Superintendent (JAS), Senior Assistant Superintendent (SAS) and finally for about the last thirty years as Superintendent. He was for a short while married to one of the company’s major shareholder’s relatives who took off with another planter to another country leaving what is called ‘no issue’.
The lonely James had hardly any friends, rarely left the estate even to the District Planter’s Club. His only outing for any length of time was when he went on furlough to England or wherever as he apparently had no friends or relatives even abroad. For that reason he traveled on Italian cargo ships which took three or four times longer than the normal passenger liners to complete the voyage. The food on those ships, he is said to have often related, was good, accommodation comfortable and liquor cheap which was important to the man as he drank a bottle of beer and about a quarter of a bottle of gin before lunch and about a third of a bottle of whiskey before dinner every day. Thus he was a near alcoholic, introvert, knew little of changes in methods of tea cultivation, new techniques in manufacture and still less of man management from his early days to the times of ever increasing labour union activity with union leaders wielding more and more power. Consequently the estate was ‘run down’ by the time his retirement was due.
In those times the normal adjustments to the management structure of large estates was for the Superintendent of a smaller estate in the Company to succeed the outgoing Superintendent, the SAS to move to the smaller estate as Superintendent, the JAS promoted Senior Assistant and a trainee Assistant, if found competent, filling the post of JAS. This particular incumbent JAS in Shamrock, from previous employment, appreciated the value of the voluminous past records available in estates and delved into those in Shamrock assiduously, drew graphs, diagrams and charts and discussed these with a view to correcting possible past mistakes with his two superiors; but much to their disdain and perhaps embarrassment. As time went on, he realized that his efforts were not to their liking and he was very probably being considered a smart cookie best left in his place as many past shortcomings, though not intended, may be brought into the open.
James’ closest friends were an English Superintendent and his attractive wife in a nearby estate. Both planters left the estate for Nilaveli, Kalkudah, Pottuvil etc. as often as they could as they were both keen on sport fishing and on money from the sale to their friends their excess catch! The friend’s estate had one Assistant Superintendent who not only attended to his boss’s official duties while he was away on his fishing trips but went further by taking care of his superior’s children, dogs, servants and bungalow. This kind of ‘bird’ at whatever time was rare and had to be rewarded for services rendered beyond the call of duty.
That reward was to be through a conspiracy hatched by the two Europeans, or rather the three with wife in a support role, to recruit the obliging ‘bird’ as SAS of Shamrock which would result in blocking the wise guy Junior Assistant’s succession to the higher post and who could be an embarrassment to the outgoing superiors by revealing shortcomings in the management of Shamrock. The planned move would not only give the intended incomer a push up professionally but also far better terms than his company could ever offer him. Of course, the JAS was blissfully unaware of all this, and awaited his due promotion.
The Head Clerk of Shamrock was Scottish by nature but a good Jaffna Tamil. Of his oddities one was to save paper – every scrap. Once used envelopes were turned over and reused for correspondence or as envelopes. One such was sent to the incumbent JAS containing a routine document – maybe a payment voucher for certification or something of that nature. The recipient quite by chance saw the envelope had first been addressed to "Advertiser – Box No. …… Intriguing. Unusual. What had the estate to advertise? He made a quick search in recent past newspapers and found it all. ‘Wanted Senior Assistant Superintendent for a Sterling Company owned tea estate …" No guesses, wild or otherwise were necessary.
This plan was not only unfair but blatantly unethical for a retiring Superintendent to recommend to his company the appointment of a senior executive and that too from outside the company just months before his departure for good.
The JAS got in touch with the incoming Superintendent through a senior mutual friend and a meeting on the very next Sunday was arranged. The incoming Superintendent knew of some machinations going on in Shamrock; shoptalk had its uses then as now and the discussion confirmed his suspicions. The JAS was assured that the next SAS would be selected by him alone in consultation with the Principals within six months of his assuming duties. If the Junior proved his worth he would fill the vacancy – and so he did. The new Superintendent and the new SAS together rapidly transformed the near clapped-out property indicating that it could in the future be one of the most profitable estates in that Planting District. Justice prevailed and thanks to the new Superintendent the JAS soon reached the top rungs of his profession winning the plaudits of the company all the way. Conspiracies like crime certainly do not pay.