The British Empire provided direct employment for several of my forebears, as administrators, soldiers, magistrates, and missionaries.

For others, the Empire (like the Pax Romana of earlier times), meant opportunity for trade and enterprise somewhere within the shelter of the red on the map.

One of the latter was my great great grandfather Wentworth Cavenagh (1822–1895) who in the 1840s left his home in Ireland and travelled the world becoming, successively, a farmer in Canada, a coffee planter in Ceylon, and a gold miner in Victoria.

He seems to have trained in Wexford as a pharmacist, but when the economy collapsed with the potato famine of the 1840s Cavenagh realised there was no future for him in Ireland. He emigrated, to find employment where employment might be found, moving on when better prospects came in view.

His attempt at farming in Canada appears to have been not entirely successful, and we find him next far from the frozen north, in the British tropical possession of Ceylon, involved in the coffee industry.

Wentworth Cavenagh’s travels

Today the main export crop of Ceylon (Sri Lanka, ‘Resplendent Island’) is tea. In Cavenagh’s day Ceylon was known for its coffee.

The Dutch had begun coffee cultivation in Ceylon as early as 1740, though never on a large scale. The British took control of the island in 1815, but it was not until the 1820s, when plantations were established in the hilly central-south country more suitable for the crop, that planting and production substantially increased.

Over the next two decades planting grew substantially, and by 1850 coffee was the most important component of the Ceylonese economy.

The abolition of slavery in the West Indies in 1834 meant a sudden decline in coffee production there. Ceylonese coffee exports filled the gap, with the British selling land acquired from Kandayan rulers and importing labour from southern India.

Unfortunately, in 1869 coffee plantations in Ceylon and other parts of Asia were devastated by leaf rust. Coffee never recovered its former importance as a crop in Ceylon, and by 1900, it had been almost entirely replaced by tea.

I do not know exactly when Wentworth Cavenagh was trying his hand at coffee planting in Ceylon. It was probably in the late 1840s or early 1850s.

Wentworth was the third surviving son of James Gordon Cavenagh, an Irish surgeon in the British Army. His oldest brother Matthew remained in Ireland, and his second brother Orfeur joined the British Army. It was a familiar pattern, with the oldest brother inheriting the estate and the others finding their own way in the world and, “in a fit of absent mindedness”, helping to build an Empire.


WikitreeWentworth (Cavenagh) Cavenagh-Mainwaring (1822 – 1895)