From Ceylon with Love: Tea for the Titanic?

This short feature was published in The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) of 15 April 2012. However, for some reason, their web edition didn’t include it.

A poster for A Night to Remember, 1958

From Ceylon with Love: Tea for the Titanic?

by Nalaka Gunawardene

Many consider the 1958 British movie A Night to Remember as the most authentic Titanic film of all time. Directed by Roy Ward Baker, it was based on the 1955 book of the same name by Walter Lord, and made in consultation with many survivors.

One scene unfolds inside the turbine engine room soon after the crew realised their ship was doomed. The chief engineer discusses how to keep the lights going for as long as possible. “I’ll give the word when it’s time to go — and then it’s every man for himself,” he says.

His deputy tries to calm down the crewmen: “If any of you feel like praying, you’d better go ahead. The rest of you can join me for a cup of tea!”

Even in such dire circumstances, the quintessentially British habit kept them going. But what kind of tea was served on board the Titanic? Did some of it come from Ceylon? That is plausible, given the cosmopolitan nature of the floating city and diverse tastes of its wealthy passengers.

Harney & Sons Fine Teas, a tea blender in New York, recently launched RMS Titanic Tea Blend as “a commemorative tea to honour the 100th anniversary of those who perished when the Titanic sank”. Their website says: “Reflecting the quality of tea that was served on the Titanic, this blend includes Chinese Keemun, one of the last teas the British still consumed in 1912, as Britain had mostly switched to black teas from Assam, India and Ceylon.” (see http://tiny.cc/TiTea for more).

Perhaps an aficionado of tea could dig (dive?) deep for evidence. Interestingly, Sir Arthur C Clarke once wrote a science fiction thriller where Ceylon Tea was indeed on board the Titanic — albeit for a different purpose.

In his 1990 novel The Ghost from the Grand Banks — where British-American and Japanese teams are competing to raise the wreck in time for the centenary — he imagined how crates of Ceylon Tea were used as the perfect packing material for precious and fragile cargo.

“The Chinese had discovered centuries ago that their wares could travel safely the length of the Silk Road if they were packed in tea leaves. No one found anything better until polystyrene foam came along,” he wrote.

In Clarke’s story, which culminates in 2012, a wealthy English aristocrat travelling first class had carried exquisite glassware – Medici Goblets from Venice – packed in standard 80-pound Ceylon Tea chests. Nearly a century later, his great-grandson uses deep remote operating vehicles (ROVs) to recover some from the bottom of the Atlantic.

Clarke describes the first item that came up: “The chest still displayed, in stencilled lettering unfaded after a century in the abyss, a somewhat baffling inscription: BROKEN ORANGE PECKOE, UPPER GLENNCAIRN ESTATE, MATAKELLE.”

Despite journeying across (most of) the Atlantic and then sinking four kilometres to the bottom of the sea, the glassware is found intact – thanks to the ship’s designers or the tea producers (or both)…

William MacQuitty

Clarke was well known for plugging his adopted homeland whenever possible in his writing, public speaking and global TV shows. ‘Addicted’ to the brew, he once called himself a ‘machine that turned fine Ceylon Tea into science fiction’.

In his novel’s acknowledgements, Clarke highlights another link between the Titanic and Ceylon, this time for real. William MacQuitty (1905 – 2004), the Belfast-born writer, photographer and filmmaker who produced A Night to Remember, had been based in Ceylon in the 1930s working for the Standard Chartered Bank. He returned to the island in 1954 to produce Beachcomber, a British movie that was partly shot on location here.

Having drawn much inspiration and insights from A Night to Remember, Clarke dedicated his own novel as follows: “For my old friend Bill MacQuitty – who, as a boy, witnessed the launch of RMS Titanic, and, forty-five years later, sank her for the second time.”

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