By Malinga H. Gunaratne
A rejoinder to Rex Hermon LLM ( Monash) Barrister at Law (Lincolns Inn), former Director of George Steuart and Company from Malinga Herman Gunaratne — 5th Standard S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia, 6th Standard St. Servatius College, Matara, and The Pembroke Academy.
No, there was no delusion at all. I knew already that Rex Hermon was very much alive. Now, I know he is live, and kicking. Mr. Hermon has waded into the debate of The Suicide Club with enthusiasm enlivening the whole book and the enormous support it has gathered from the reading public in Sri Lanka and overseas. He has not lost his imperious disdain for the truth and his propensity for prolix discourse. So I will deal with his article as exhaustively as he has dealt with mine. For this, I seek the kind permission of the Editor of The Sunday Leader. It saddens me, however, to enter into a debate with a former Director of GS & Co., a company for which I have the highest respect. I only wish to set the record straight.
Let me make it clear that it is not I, who thought that he (Rex Hermon) was no longer alive. It is Rex Hermon LLM (Monash) Barrister at Law, Lincolns Inn, who knew for sure that John Rajakone Kunanayagam was no more, and has chosen to denigrate him even after he has passed on to meet his God. I lack your erudition and learning. But I will place facts in perspective so that the ultimate judge will be the reader. It is only the reader who matters to me.
Before I proceed to do so, let me at the outset state that the name Jonklaas given to the Hermon brothers has absolutely no connection or reference to the distinguished family of Jonklaas’ who worked on the plantations at that time. It was just a name given to tell the story. Nothing more. Nothing less. Bryan Jonklaas, Anthony Jonklaas and Barry Jonklaas were successful planters and my unintentional use of the name of Jonklaas if it has in any way disturbed the members of the Jonklaas family, I tender my unreserved apologies.
Now, to Rex Hermon. He was perhaps the only Barrister at Law (Lincolns Inn) that worked on the plantations, first presumably as an Assistant Superintendent and then as a Superintendent on Elpitiya Group, Elpitiya. An unusual choice of careers one would think, but each to his own. A Barrister earns his living by advancing well articulated, concise and reasoned arguments! My son Vishva Gunaratne, also Barrister at Law from the Middle Temple, tells me that the profession is not unrewarding.
He left Elpitiya Group for reasons that are not relevant to this debate but will make interesting reading at a later date. He then joined the distinguished firm of George Steuarts as an Executive Assistant. He was made a Director some years later. That he has chosen to cast serious aspersions on the efficiency and ability of the late John Rajakone Kunanayagam a very senior planter held in the highest esteem by George Steuart’s is indeed most regrettable. Kunam has passed to meet his maker and has no right of reply or rebuttal. He cannot rise like Lazarus from his tomb to defend himself. To malign a man who is no more, is not in the best traditions of civilised conduct. ‘Not done, old Rexie boy’ his peers at the Inns of Court would have told him!
The remedy that he has suggested for the elongated plucking of resting or abandoning low yielding fields is indeed one that only a man with little knowledge will make. And little knowledge is a dangerous thing! Does he realise the consequences of resting or abandoning low yielding fields and the enormous problems that will flow from such a reckless act? It is like saying that if you do not get good prices you shut down the factory! If your supervision of the manuring of fields is unsatisfactory, you do not apply fertilizer! If your office is unable to send the estate accounts before the 10th of the succeeding month, you shut down the office. Are you serious Mr. Hermon? The whole of Ury was low yielding. You do not rest low yielding fields. You simply do your best to increase the yields. What you do Mr. Rex Hermon is to rest, not the low yielding fields, but the fields that are due for pruning!
Our job Mr. Hermon was to improve the yield on low yielding fields, not to abandon them or rest them. The problem of the elongated plucking rounds was in the process of being solved. It was we who eventually solved this problem by increasing the output per plucker and this was done under Kunam’s guidance and instructions. Our Visiting Agent may not have mentioned this as he, being a practical planter knew that we were moving towards solving this issue and took an overall view of the problems of shortage of labour and low output per plucker etc. and the other multifold problems on Ury.
John Davis was brought along by you because he was your colleague on the Board of the Nahavilla Company and was thus, singing from the same sheet of music. ‘Even the eye of a fly looks terrible under the microscope’. No problem on a plantation can be viewed in isolation. Yes, Davis did write a report dealing with the plucking rounds with Hermon towering above him. ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune’. Obsequious !
Brother Richard, my friend with whom we got on famously may have received the selective distinction of being given the opportunity to do, as he calls ‘rudiments of tea tasting’ as an assistant superintendent under the tutelage of that master tea taster Tony Peiris. This too, if true was a very unique distinction for an assistant superintendent. Very few assistants in GS were given such an opportunity. I will not say that Brother Rex had a hand in conferring special privileges on the Kid Brother. Learning the ‘rudiments of tea’ tasting does not make you either a tea taster or a manufacturing expert!
I am not aware of Brother Richard’s achievements on Mocha, but it could well be correct. Letters of commendation from the Produce Department go out almost every week to all those who obtained good prices at the auctions. It is by no means an isolated or unique occurrence. I, myself have received many such letters and so have so many others. This did not make us believe that we were tea experts. Ask Mr. Tony Peiris, that celebrated Head of the Produce Department and the Chairman of GS & Co. and he will confirm my statement.
We were able, under the JEDB to not only get top prices for a few estates, but alter the fortunes of the entire tea industry by comprehensively beating the Uva Estates with our Udapussellawas. This achievement has never been equalled before or after. It was a team effort Mr. Rex Hermon, not an individual effort by me. Every one of those superintendents got letters of commendation. They were the first to admit that this was a team effort.
Ohiya Estate that brother Richard was elevated to, came way down on the catalogue of estates at GS & Co. It may even have been considered a ‘punishment station’ for non performers or at best a first station for those receiving promotion from Assistant to Superintendent for the first time! Now, comes the appointment of Dickie (Richard) Hermon. It was not as simple as you make it out to be. Ury had almost 25 miles of cart roads. You, in the name of GS & Co. not only appointed Brother Richard as Factory Superintendent, but also removed Kunam’s Land Rover and gave it to your brother. This left Kunam with no transport to supervise Ury as the roads were in such a poor condition and supervision could not be done in the estate Zephyr 6.
This was a time when the maximum, intense supervision was necessary to turn Ury round. You did not stop at that Mr. Hermon, but Dickie was appointed Superintendent of the Factory reporting direct to you. A comfortable little arrangement, with the kid brother reporting to the elder sibling. What!
He did not come under the supervisory control of the Manager Mr. Kunanayagam. This appointment had no precedence in the past or since. No ship can have two Captains. GS & Co. never made such a ridiculous appointment ever before or after. They realised that this remedy was a catastrophe!
The Lincolns Inn would have taught you that ‘justice must not only be done, but must seem to be done’. Ceasar’s wife must be above suspicion — always. It was our perception that this was nepotism at the highest level. No less. Brother Richard like all of us was looking to advance himself. He is not to blame. You should have known the rudiments of justice. No judge sits in judgment of his brother.
I am a gambler Mr. Rex Hermon from The Suicide Club. Would you like to take a US$ 2000 wager with me that Kunam was not transferred to Noragolla? The money will be paid within one week anywhere in the world. You and I can even lodge the funds with the respected Editor of The Sunday Leader, if she agrees. The money can be disbursed to the winner. No, no, I will never call you senile. Nor that you have had a lapse of memory. It is far more serious than that, you are distorting the truth to mislead the readers of The Sunday Leader, and diabolically maligning a man who cannot defend himself. Come on, take the wager which I offer you, publicly through the pages of The Sunday Leader. Kunam was transferred to Noragalla, and this is not fantasy, Mr. Hermon, it is the truth.
Can I say that you seem to be altering the truth to suit your prolix attempt at justifying the unjustifiable? ‘Oh this tangled web you weave, when first you chose to deceive’ — Sir Walter Scott.
My statement that Kunam was transferred to Noragolla was denied by you thus; ‘This is pure fantasy to suit his thesis. That just did not happen. The Superintendent of Noragolla was Lloyd Fernando, a senior and efficient planter.’
Can you be more emphatic? Now place your money, where you garrulously put your mouth. I will give the US$ 2000, within seven days of your proving to the readers of The Sunday Leader that Kunam was not transferred to Noragolla. I will prove that he was, within 10 minutes. I am sorry, but to make sure that the winner gets the reward let’s lodge the money with an independent source. Frederica Jansz, a firm of lawyers, or even our most respected former Chairman of George Steuart & Co., Mr. Tony Pieris, who I am told is now living in Australia. Your statement is also defamatory. You are seeking to malign me in the eyes of the reading public around the world. I will deal with this later.
I was Tissa Bandaranayaka’s Senior Assistant. He is still around and he will tell you that he carried on Kunam’s policies with me and Harry Abeykoon playing a lead role in the operation. This was not magic nor wizardry it was simply attending to the basics, we just brought to a conclusion what Kunam started, with Tissa Bandaranayaka supporting us and backing us up all the way. Tissa was a man after my own heart. He stood tall and went out of his way to stand shoulder to shoulder with us.
We supported Kunam vigorously not because everything was perfect on Ury Group but because we realised that he was a victim of an unjust man. Most of these problems were inherited by Kunam and that is why GS & Co. sent him to Ury. He had no magic wand. Resolving long existing problems need strategy and tact. Kunam had to do it without upsetting the delicate balance on the estate and mostly because he was being hounded by you. For a superintendent to perform he has to feel secure in his job and be allowed to do it with the fullest support of the agents.
It was Kunam’s unfortunate dilemma that he had you, as his supervising Director, with of course your brother in a supporting role. His supervisory vehicle was removed and given to brother Richard by you. You do not seem to be aware of the impression that it creates on a plantation that is sensitive to the slightest nuances in the management.
We were not willing to serve God and mammon at the same time! We chose to support our boss who was an extremely competent planter working under the most stressful conditions. We were not in a ‘sil’ campaign. We did some unconventional things I must admit. There was nothing that we would not have done to safeguard Kunam because of the injustice perpetrated upon him by you. I am no puritan. You did the same Mr. Rex Hermon, ‘you ruled the waves and waived the rules.’
Yes the grapevine was our source for many of the goings on in Colombo. Is that not normal Mr. Hermon, and anyway I am not going to tell you what was told to me in confidence not only then, but also now. I am surprised at the spate of letters that I am receiving about the occurrences in the Head Office during this period. Glass houses you know!
Kunam entertained the Directors of GS & Co. long before he came to Ury. Was that not normal Mr. Hermon, to kill the fatted calf for your superiors! If any of my superiors visit me even today I will not spare any pains in entertaining them to the best of my ability.
We are a hospitable people Mr. Hermon, and I see nothing wrong in that. No, I did not suggest that you harassed Kunam because he did not invite you to Trincomalee. Your malice, and envy, in referring to an innocent incident which symbolises Ceylonese hospitality typifies texture. Coarse or refined the reader will judge. ‘Fools may our scorn not envy raise. Envy is a form of Praise’ — John Gay.
You say that ‘you rest satisfied that you did your duty by the Nahavilla Company’. No Mr. Hermon you did not. By your actions of nepotism and violation of the normal principles of plantation management you set back the progress of Ury by a long time. It was after Dickie was removed from Ury during Tissa Bandaranayaka’s stewardship that we were able to bring back Ury to better levels of management.
Kunam was working with one assistant less on Mapagalla Division. Harry Abeykoon and I were the only experienced assistant superintendents. You transferred Harry to Verellapatna leaving Kunam with only me as an experienced man to run this sprawling plantation which was beset with all kinds of problems and had four assistants on the cadre. It was after Kunam’s intervention with George Steuart’s that Harry’s transfer was cancelled. Do you call this ‘I did my duty by the Nahavilla Company’? You did everything within your power as a Director to show up Kunam’s management in bad light.
Yes, the tea and other thefts on Ury had been going on for a long time even before Kunam arrived on Ury. It was we, who looked after the interests of the Nahavilla Company by burning the midnight oil to stop the thieving of tea, which was going on for a very long time. This was done at enormous risk to ourselves in taking on the most powerful man around Ury. Nepotism and family advancement done in the name of the Nahavilla Company shattered the equilibrium of the property. It did not enhance the prosperity. In fact it had the opposite effect.
We did a lot of other things that may not have been in accordance with the Queensberry Rules or the Criminal Procedure Code that you deal with such righteous zeal. But we got the results. Ask Tissa Bandaranayaka and he will tell you so. I was promoted to St. Clair’s Estate Talawakelle In recognition of my services to Ury, upon the recommendation of Tissa Bandaranayaka.
Finally Mr. Rex Hermon permit me to answer your last paragraph. If I had a Superintendent on my own property which was bedevilled with the kind of problems that Ury had, I would have stood shoulder to shoulder with my Superintendent, supported him to the hilt. Asked him if he had any personal problems, sorted those out, and motivated him to perform to the best of his ability.
If I felt that the Superintendent was not up to the task. I would have had a heart to heart chat with him and transferred him to another property. I have done this on numerous occasions in the JEDB, where I had to total authority to take action in the best interests of the Government of Sri Lanka.
Sending your brother was not only unacceptable but an unthinkable solution to quite a simple problem. Depriving him of the supervisory vehicle was malicious and vindictive. You do not humiliate your men. That is the last thing you do in our business. It is all about morale. You break a man’s morale and he will not perform.
But of course you may not understand the nuances of tea plantation management, you were a rubber planter and a non practicing Barrister of one of the world’s most famous legal institutions — Lincolns Inn.
Finally Mr. Rex Hermon, you were my superior and I bear you no malice. None at all. Your review immediately increased the sales of The Suicide Club. The first edition is almost sold out!
I am replying this review in this manner, as I see an insidious attempt by you to distort the truth and paint The Suicide Club in the eyes of the vast supportive reading public all over the world as a book containing less than the truth. As for instance, your statement that Kunam, my most respected and venerated boss, was not transferred to Noragolla. I say he was. I also placed a veil upon you. You voluntarily removed the veil!
My wager stands.