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.”

Revisiting ‘The Ghost from the Grand Banks’: Arthur C Clarke’s Titanic novel of 1990

The Ghost from the Grand Banks - many covers, one story


Writing the Foreword to the book on ‘Communicating Disasters‘ that I co-edited in 2007, Sir Arthur C Clarke said: “I was born five years after the biggest maritime disaster the world had known: the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic while on her maiden voyage. My home town Minehead, in Somerset, was not more than a couple of hundred kilometres from Southampton, from where the Titanic set off. All my life, I have been intrigued by the Titanic disaster.”

The Titanic — whose wreck not discovered at the time — made a cameo appearance in his 1976 novel, Imperial Earth. For the Quincentennial of the United States, the wreck is raised and carried to New York.

But he continued to be haunted by the mighty ship (as did, and do, many others). He finally had to write a whole novel to exorcise it from his mind.

One day in early 1989, Sir Arthur asked me: “Does ‘Ghost from the Grand Banks’ mean anything to you?”

It didn’t — but that wasn’t surprising as I’d been raised on the other side of the planet, in an entirely different generation.

The Grand Banks of Newfoundland are a group of underwater plateaus southeast of Newfoundland on the North American continental shelf. The cold Labrador Current mixes with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream here — making it one of the richest fishing grounds in the world.

It is also close to where the Titanic sank on the night of 14/15 April 1912, and has served as the launching point of various shipwreck expeditions.

That heralded the genesis of an entirely new Arthur C Clarke novel. For me, it was the beginning of an exhilarating journey across space and time, supporting the creative process of one of the finest science fiction writers of the 20th Century.

I was working as Sir Arthur’s research assistant at the time, two years into my fascinating association with the late author (which lasted 21 years).

Over the next few months, I was to research and/or cross-check all sorts of records, data and other nuggets of information, which Sir Arthur — the master weaver of narratives — then worked into an entirely new novel.

The novel, published in late 1990 as The Ghost from the Grand Banks, was an ocean-based thriller set in the (then) near future. It revolved around rival British-American and Japanese teams trying to raise the legendary ship’s wreck in time for the centenary in 2012. Both teams mobilise mega-bucks and cutting edge technology: while one team relies on 50 billion little glass balls, the other’s ambitious plan involves making the world’s largest ice cube…

Two weeks before the centenary of the Titanic‘s maiden voyage – and its tragic sinking – I re-read the novel. On the information society front, at least, I found that The Ghost from the Grand Banks stands up remarkably well in 2012.

Living as we do at the time when his story culminated, we can now compare Sir Arthur’s ‘extrapolations of the future’ – he carefully avoided labelling any of his ideas as ‘predictions’ – with what has become our reality.

I then wrote an essay comparing his imagined world of 2012 with what we are living and experiencing now. It has just been published by Groundviews.org: Arthur C Clarke’s World of 2012: Insights from his Titanic Novel

Arthur C Clarke and Rubik’s Cube 2.0 – are we there yet?


Science fiction writer and futurist Sir Arthur C Clarke knew how closed economies and restrictive cultures stifled innovation. He once said the only memorable invention to emerge from Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe was the Rubik’s Cube!

Rubik’s Cube is a 3D mechanical puzzle invented in 1974 by Hungarian sculptor and professor of architecture, Ernő Rubik. Since then, its huge worldwide success has led to several variations.

I just came across an interesting suggestion for an enhanced Rubik’s Cube, by Arthur Clarke himself, while re-reading his 1990 novel The Ghost from the Grand Banks.

It was an ocean-based thriller set in the (then) near future. It revolved around British-American and Japanese teams competing to raise the Titanic‘s wreck in time for the centenary in April 2012.

In the novel, Sir Arthur talks about the Rubik’s Cube making a comeback 30 years after its first appearance — and in a far more deadly mutation.

As he describes: “Because it was a purely mechanical device, the original Cube had one weakness, for which its addicts were sincerely thankful. Unlike all their neighbours, the six centre squares on each face was fixed. The other forty-eight squares could orbit around them, to create a possible 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 distinct patterns.

“The Mark II had no such limitations; all the fifty-four squares were capable of movement, so there were no fixed centres to give reference to its maddened manipulators. Only the development of microchips and liquid crystal displays had made such a prodigy possible; nothing really moved, but the multicoloured squares could be dragged around the face of the Cube merely by touching them with a fingertip”.

A quick check on the official Rubik website, and a Google search, shows no such device being on the market.

Do you know if anyone has attempted this?