Sir Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C Clarke: How Ceylon Tea kept Britain ticking during World War II


Nalaka Gunawardene

Sir Arthur C Clarke, who lived in Ceylon/Sri Lanka from 1956 to 2008, was an avid tea drinker. Every day he used to gulp down half a dozen or more mugs of Ceylon Tea.

So much so that he was fond of saying: “I’m a machine that converts fine Ceylon Tea into science fiction!”

But when did he first come across Ceylon Tea? That is an interesting story – and worthy of at least a footnote of history, too.

At the end of the 1930s, young Arthur C Clarke was employed as an executive officer in HM Exchequer and Audit Department – his first job. Soon after World War II broke out in September 1939, he was assigned to the Ministry of Food that dealt with rationing. And because White Hall – seat of many British administrative offices -- was vulnerable to attacks, the Ministry was evacuated to North Wales.

It was there, when dealing with the important matter of rationing, that Clarke first came across the name Ceylon.

Someone at the Ministry realised that all of Britain’s tea stocks – much of it coming from Ceylon – was being stored in warehouses along the southern coast where they had been landed.

“If the Luftwaffe attacked these and destroyed one of the mainstays of British morale – both civilian and military – the war would be over in one afternoon,” Clarke recalled six decades later.

“So thousands of hundred-pound chests (many of them bearing names of strange places in Ceylon which would one day be very familiar to me) were hastily scattered all over the British Isles.”

Then came the problem knowing exactly where stocks had been moved to – a logistical challenge in the days before computers. The young servant was tasked with this tracking.

“So masses of documents arrived on my desk, bearing the exotic names of the estates where tea had been grown. I never dreamed, as I went through bills of lading, that half a century later some of these names would be as familiar to me as those of my native Somerset,” Clarke wrote in a foreword written to a coffee table book Bogawantalawa: Life And Passion In The Golden Valley Of Tea, by Margaretha Haglind (Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2002).

So was it Ceylon Tea, or its efficient distribution, that helped keep the British going as they resisted Hitler and the Third Reich?

We can only speculate. But surely this must be captured as part of Ceylon Tea’s colourful history as it marks 150 years.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene worked with Sir Arthur C Clarke as his research assistant for 21 years from 1987 to 2008. Many of his tweets from @NalakaG are inspired by Ceylon Tea.

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