Mark Bostock and a capsule of recent commercial history

Book review


Mark Bostock

by Arjuna Mahendran

‘Colonial Sunset, Republican Dawn’ by Elizabeth Bostock, published by ISBN 978 178462 3142

‘Nil illegitimi carborundum’ was a rallying call in dog latin used by Mark Bostock. Loosely translated to Minister R.G. Senanayake when he visited Bostock in Trincomalee during the Colombo Port strike of 1958, the latter said ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’. When Senanayake asked who the bastards were, Bostock replied ‘I’m not going to tell you who the bastards are. You know perfectly well.’

This episode pretty much exemplifies the pluck and courage of Bostock, one time Chairman of the John Keells conglomerate and arguably a Britisher who made a lasting impact on Sri Lanka’s fledgling mercantile sector. His widow says that he was far too modest to expect his biography to enthrall an audience. This makes the story even more compelling to those who bear a passing interest in the somewhat bumpy ride that post-independence Sri Lanka portrays as its economic modernization process to date.

Bostock was born in Ceylon. His grandfather was an engineer brought down to build the breakwater in the Colombo harbor. His father went into the then booming tea trade working for an agency house in Colombo. While doing this he would ride his motorbike up-country on weekends and managed to grow a personal 1000-acre tea estate and farm near Bandarawela.

The book is replete with intimate details of the extended Bostock family Nordic lineage and achievements. Like the poignant detail of how he broached marriage to his wife-to-be on a desolate beach in Mullaitivu. And had the wedding at the Garden Club, now known as the Sri Lanka Lawn Tennis Association.

I will not dwell on these since my main focus is on the manner in which Bostock navigated the frequently turbulent Sri Lankan economic and social landscape. His experience in business and the plantation sector, however, bear several important lessons for policy-makers and students of government administration and business policy in Sri Lanka.

For starters, he reports the effects of the aforementioned communist-inspired harbor strike on the tea trade, without the customary lament about a deteriorating business environment. One recalls that England was itself already facing the pressures of Fabian socialism inspired trades union militancy around this time. The Colombo harbor uprising would have been seen to be a part of a global trend.

To deal with the situation, a bunch of tea traders headed by Bostock sent their tea stocks to Trincomalee with a view to shipping it out of that port. From their description of it, Trinco had already subsided into disrepair after Prime Minister Bandaranaike despatched the British forces in the mid-50s. The traders formed themselves into the Trincomalee Tea Administration (TTA) and settled into the spartan surroundings of the Sea Anglers’ Club.

An episode that reflects their tenacity was when they had to manually push the tea-laden railway wagons in the shunting yard when the sole shunting locomotive driver had a dreadful accident and expired. And they made equally sure that the tea set sail to its final set of destinations without undue delay.

Bostock later expanded the tea firm Keell and Waldock into the conglomerate of over 40 constituent firms he bequeathed shareholders when he retired in 1986. He states that he bought Walkers Tours to assist Mrs Bandaranaike who asked him to help her develop the tourism sector. There is a rare photograph in the book of the young Mrs Bandaranaike looking uncharacteristically informal, speaking to Bostock and another Englishman with her arm slung over the back of her chair.

She is probably the sole Ceylonese politician who gets a good word, a tribute perhaps to her charm and the fact that Bostock pretty much grew and diversified John Keells during her 1970-77 government. In fact, diversification away from tea-related business was a smart move given that Mrs Bandaranaike’s government had already ushered in land ownership reform policies. Mackinnon Mackenzie was bought to obtain the P&O line agency. A legacy that spawned South Asia Gateway Terminals in the 1990s.

Mrs Bandaranaike is said to have complained to Bostock that she could not resist the pressures of her communist ministers to acquire plantation lands. And there were dark forebodings that even the agency and broking businesses would be acquired by the state as well.

These policies affected John Keells as well as the personal assets of the Bostock family. Colvin R de Silva and his ministry officials come in for some stern words. Officials and the police duly arrived at the head Office of John Keells to compulsorily acquire its Glennie Street stores and offices.

Bostock manages to thwart this by filling Glennie Street with lorries which makes it seemingly unapproachable and therefore unappealing as a workable office for its intended new occupants. They leave hot, bothered and disappointed and Bostock with a smirk on his face.

The family’s estate at Aislaby isn’t spared either. While the land is acquired the government authorities refuse to acknowledge the right of family members to keep the approved 50 acres each separately for each of themselves. Efforts to spirit away the estate vehicles, prior to confiscation by the state, are thwarted by the Police. While the unlikely pair of Norma Tennakoon, wife of a former Central Bank Governor, and the then Bishop of Colombo encourage the Bostocks in hiding a solitary tractor-trailer in the cathedral.

But a further personal blow arrives in the late 1970s when the Bostocks’ holiday home island on the estuary of the Bentota River is acquired to be developed as a tourist hotel. This episode seems to leave a bitter taste and is lamented. A replacement island site is found at the mouth of the Deduru Oya in Chilaw. In fact it sounds a rather terrifying site from these accounts, considering that the holiday bungalow gets partly submerged whenever the Oya is in spate.

This then, is where Bostock meets with an untimely death in 2000 when the upper floor rafters under his chair collapse one evening, plunging him to a concrete block below causing grievous injury from which he regrettably never recovers.

This book gives a highly personalized view of how the Bostock family made an enduring contribution to the business interests of Ceylon and later Sri Lanka. It is also a commentary, through the eyes of the departing European planting community, on how Ceylonese governments struggled to meet the rising aspirations of their newly independent citizenry by gradually nationalizing large swathes of the economy.

Given that the economy was largely run by white Englishmen like Bostock, with a few locals thrown in for a good measure, it could be said that nationalization of the banks, transportation, insurance and the plantations was the easy option. Nevertheless, while they were at it, the Bostocks made sure that they didn’t let the bastards grind them down, try as they might.

Mark Bostock probably deserves to be elevated to the pantheon of notable English expats in Ceylon, such as Thomas Skinner the great road-builder, who had a big hand in physically transforming the economic processes of the country. Bostock’s knowledge about minute aspects of the production of tea was legendary. And he undoubtedly laid the foundation for diversifying John Keells into the largest conglomerate in the country, by far.

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