COFFEE PLANTING IN CEYLON.

1840 - CHAPTER THE FIRST.

IN the month of September, 1840, I started from Kandy, the ancient capital of Ceylon, to visit a friend who was in charge of one of the many new coffee clearings then in progress. I was accompanied by a young planter well acquainted with the country and the natives, and who had offered to act as my guide. The clearing was distant about twenty-five miles. The route we took has since become famous. Rebellion and martial law have stalked over it and concerning it, the largest blue books of last session have been concocted.

We mounted our horses a good hour before day-break, so as to insure getting over the most exposed part of our journey before the sun should have risen very high, an important matter for man and beast in tropical countries. Toward noon, we pulled up at a little bazaar, or native shop, and called for Hoppers and Coffee. I felt that I could have eaten almost any thing, and, truly, one needs such an appetite to get down the dreadful black-draught which the Cingalese remorselessly administer to travelers under the name of coffee.

The sun was high in the horizon when we found ourselves suddenly, at a turn of the road, in the midst of a clearing. This was quite a novelty to me; so unlike any thing one meets with in the low country, or about the vicinity of Kandy. The present clearing lay at an elevation of fully three thousand feet above the sea-level, while the altitude of Kandy is not more than sixteen hundred feet. I had never been on a Hill Estate, and the only notions formed by me respecting a plantation of coffee, were of continuous, undulating fields, and gentle slopes. Here it was not difficult to imagine myself among the recesses of the Black Forest. Pile on pile of heavy, dark jungle, rose before my astonished sight, looking like grim fortresses defending some hidden city of giants. The spot we had opened upon was at the entrance of a long valley of great width, on one side of which lay the young estate we were bound to. Before us were, as near as I could judge, fifty acres of felled jungle in thickest disorder; just as the monsters of the forest had fallen, so they lay, heap on heap, crushed and splintered into ten thousand fragments. Fine brawny old fellows some of them; trees that had stood many a storm and thunder-peal; trees that had sheltered the wild elephant, the deer, and the buffalo, lay there prostrated by a few inches of sharp steel. The fall had taken place a good week before, and the trees would be left in this state until the end of October, by which time they would be sufficiently dry for a good burn. Struggling from trunk to trunk, and leading our horses slowly over the huge rocks that lay thickly around, we at last got through the fall, and came to a part of the forest where the heavy, quick click of many axes told us there was a working-party busily employed. Before us, a short distance in the jungle, were the swarthy, compact figures of some score or two of low country Cingalese, plying their small axes with a rapidity and precision that was truly marvelous. It made my eyes wink again, to see how quickly their sharp tools flew about, and how near some of them went to their neighbors heads.

In the midst of these busy people I found my planting friend, superintending operations, in full jungle costume. A sort of wicker helmet was on his head, covered with a long padded white cloth, which hung far down his back like a baby's quilt. A shooting-jacket and trousers of checked country cloth; immense leech-gaiters fitting close inside the roomy canvas boots; and a Chinese-paper umbrella, made up his curious outfit.

To me it was a pretty, as well as a novel sight, to watch the felling work in progress. Two ax-men to small trees; three, and sometimes four, to larger ones; their little bright tools flung far back over their shoulders with a proud flourish, and then, with a whirr, dug deep in the heart of the tree with such exactitude and in such excellent time, that the scores of axes flying about me seemed impelled by some mechanical contrivance, and sounding but as one or two instruments. I observed that in no instance were the trees cut through, but each one was left with just sufficient of the heart to keep it upright; on looking around, I saw that there were hundreds of them similarly treated. The ground on which we were standing was extremely steep and full of rocks between which lay embedded rich veins of alluvial soil. Where this is the case, the masses of stone are not an objection; on the contrary, they serve to keep the roots of the young coffee plants cool during the long dry season, and, in the like manner, prevent the light soil from being washed down the hillside by heavy rains. My planter-friend assured me that if the trees were to be at once cut down, a few at a time, they would so encumber the place as to render it impossible for the workmen to get access to the adjoining trees, so thickly do they stand together, and so cumbersome are their heavy branches. In reply to my inquiry as to the method of bringing all these cut trees to the ground, I was desired to wait until the cutting on the hill-side was completed, and then I should see the operation finished.

The little axes rang out a merry chime merrily to the planters ear, but the death-knell of many a fine old forest tree. In half an hour the signal was made to halt, by blowing a conch shell; obeying the signal of the superintendent, I hastened up the hill as fast as my legs would carry me, over rocks and streams, halting at the top, as I saw the whole party do. Then they were ranged in order, axes in hand, on the upper side of the topmost row of cut trees. I got out of their way, watching anxiously every movement. All being ready, the manager sounded the conch sharply: two score voices raised a shout that made me start again; forty bright axes gleamed high in air, then sank deeply into as many trees, which at once yielded to the sharp steel, groaned heavily, waved their huge branches to and fro, like drowning giants, then toppled over, and fell with a stunning crash upon the trees below them. These having been cut through previously, offered no resistance, but followed the example of their upper neighbors, and fell booming on those beneath. In this way the work of destruction went rapidly on from row to row. Nothing was heard but groaning, crackling, crashing, and splintering: it was some little time before I got the sounds well out of my ears. At the time it appeared as though the whole of the forest-world about me was tumbling to pieces; only those fell, however which had been cut, and of such not one was left standing. There they would lie until sufficiently dry for the torch that would blacken their massive trunks, and calcine their many branches into dusty heaps of alkali.

By the time this was completed, and the men put on to a fresh cut, we were ready for our mid-day meal, the planters breakfast Away we toiled toward the bungalow. Passing through a few acres of standing forest, and over a stream, we came to a small cleared space well sheltered from wind, and quite snug in every respect. It was thickly sown with what I imagined to be young lettuces, or, perhaps, very juvenile cabbage-plants, but I was told this was the Nursery, and those tiny green things were intended to form the future Soolookande Estate. On learning that we had reached the Bungalow, I looked about me to discover its locality, but in vain; there was no building to be seen; but presently my host pointed out to me what I had not noticed before a small, low-roofed, thatched place, close under a projecting rock, and half hid by thorny creepers. I imagined this to be his fowl-house, or, perhaps, a receptacle for tools; bitt was not a little astonished when I saw my friend beckon me on, and enter at the low, dark door. This miserable little cavern could not have been more than twelve feet long by about six feet wide, and as high at the walls. This small space was lessened by heaps of tools, coils of string, for lining the ground before planting, sundry boxes and baskets, an old rickety table, and one chair. At the farther end if any thing could be far in that hole was a jungle bedstead, formed by driving green stakes is the floor and walls, and stretching rope across them. I could not help expressing astonishment at the miserable quarters provided for one who had so important a charge, and such costly outlay to make. My host, however, treated the matter very philosophically. Every thing, he observed, is good or bad by comparison; and wretched as the accommodation appeared to me, who had been accustomed to the large, airy houses of Colombo, he seemed to be quite satisfied; indeed, he told me, that when he had finished putting up this little crib, had moved in his one table and chair, and was seated, cigar in mouth, inside the still damp mud walls, he thought himself the happiest of mortals. I felt somewhat curious to know where he had dwelt previous to the erection of this unique building whether he had perched up in the forest trees, or in holes in the rocks, like the wild Veddahs of Bintenne.

I was told that his first habitation,when commencing work up there, was then suspended over my head. I looked up to the dark, dusty roof, and perceived a bundle of what I conceived to be old dirty, brown paper, or parchment-skin. Perceiving my utter ignorance of the arrangement, he took down the roll and spread it open outside the door. It turned out to be a huge talipot-leaf, which he assured me was the only shelter he had possessed for nearly two months, and that, too, during the rainy season. It might have measured ten feet in length, and possibly six in width; pretty well for a leaf; it was used by fastening a stout pole lengthways to two stakes driven in the ground; the leaf was hung across this ridge-pole, midway, and the corners of it made fast by cords: common mats being hung at each end, and under the leaf.

The Lines, a long row of mud huts for the coolies, appeared to be much more comfortable than their masters dwelling. But this is necessarily the case, for, unless they be well-cared for, they will not remain on a remote estate, such as this one was then considered. The first thing a good planter sees to is a roomy and dry set of Lines for the people : then the Nursery of coffee plants; arid, thirdly, a hut for himself.

The superintendent assured me that none but those who had opened an estate in a remote district, could form any idea of the difficulties and privations encountered by the planter. Folks may grumble as they like, down in Colombo, or in England, said my friend, about the high salaries paid to managers, but if some of them had only a month of it up here, in the rains, I suspect they'd change their notions.

He had had the greatest difficulty at first in keeping but a dozen men on the place to clear ground for lines and nurseries : so strong is the objection felt by Malabars to new and distant plantations. On one occasion he had been quite deserted: even his old cook ran away, and he found himself with only a little Cingalese boy, and his rice, biscuit, and dried fish, all but exhausted. As for meat, he had not tasted any for many days. There was no help for it, he saw, but to send off the little boy to the nearest village, with a rupee, to buy some food, and try to persuade some of the village people to come up and assist him. When evening came on, there was no boy back, and the lonely planter had no fire to boil his rice. Night came on and still he was alone: hungry, cold, and desolate. It was a Sabbath evening, and he pointed out to me the large stone on which he had sat down to think of his friends in the old country; the recollection of his distance from them, and of his then desolate, Crusoe-like, position, came so sadly upon him that he wept like a child. I almost fancied I saw a tear start to his large eye as he related the circumstance.

Ceylon planters are proverbially hospitable the utmost stranger is at all times sure of a hearty welcome for himself arid his horse. On this occasion, my jungle friend turned out the best cheer his small store afforded. It is true we had but one chair among us, but that only served to give us amusement in making seats of baskets, boxes, and old books. A dish of rice, and curry, made of dry salt fish, two red herrings, and the only fowl on the estate, formed our meal; and, poor as the repast may appear to those who have never done a good days journey in the jungles of Ceylon, I can vouch for the keen relish with which we all partook of it.

In the afternoon we strolled out to inspect the first piece of planting on the Soolookande estate. It was in extent about sixty acres, divided into fields of ten acres by narrow belts of tall trees. This precaution was adopted, I learnt, with a view to protect the young plants from the violence of the wind, which at times rushes over the mountains with terrific fury. Unless thus sheltered by belts or staking, the young plants get loosened, or are whirled round until the outer bark becomes worn away, and then they sicken and die, or if they live, yield no fruit. Staking is simply driving a stout peg in the ground, and fastening the plant steadily to it; but it is an expensive process. The young trees in these fields had been put out during the previous rains of July, and though still very small, looked fresh and healthy. I had always imagined planting out to be a very easy and rough operation; but I now learnt that exceeding care and skill are required in the operation. The holes to receive the young coffee-plant must be wide and deep they can scarcely be too large; the earth must be kept well about the roots of the seedling in removing it and care must be taken that the tap-root be neither bent, nor planted over any stone or other hard substance; neglect of these important points is fatal to the prosperity of the estate. The yellow drooping leaves, and stunted growth, soon tell the proprietor that his superintendent has done his work carelessly; but, alas! it is then too late to apply any remedy, save that of re-planting the ground.

I left this estate impressed with very different notions concerning the life and trials of a planter in the far jungle, from those I had contracted below from mere Colombo gossip; and I felt that superintendents were not so much overpaid for their skill, patience, privations, and hard work.

1846 - CHAPTER THE SECOND.

Having seen almost the commencement of the Soolookande Coffee Estate, I felt a strong desire toward the end of the year 1846, to pay it a second visit, while in its full vigor. I wished to satisfy myself as to the correctness of the many reports I had heard of its heavy crops, of its fine condition, its excellent works, and not least, of the good management during crop-time. My old acquaintance was no longer in charge; he had been supplanted by a stranger. However, I went armed with a letter from the Colombo agents, which would insure more attention than a bed and a meal.

I journeyed this time by another and rather shorter route. Instead of taking the Matelle road, I struck off to the right, past Davy's Tree, celebrated as the scene of the massacre of a large body of British officers and troops by the treacherous Kandians, and crossing the Mahavilla Ganga, at Davy's Ferry, made the best of my way across the beautiful vale of Dombera, and thence toward the long range of mountains forming one flank of the Kallibokke Valley. At the period of my former excursion this long tract of fertile country was one unbroken mass of heavy jungle; now a dozen large estates, with bungalows and extensive works, were to be seen, enlivening the journey, and affording a much readier passage for the horseman; for wherever plantations are formed, good jungle paths are sure to be made. The ride was a most interesting one; mile upon mile of coffee lay before and around me, in various stages of growth, from the young seedling just put out, to the full-bearing bush, as heavily laden with red ripe coffee berries as any currant-bush in England with its fruit.

It was then the middle of November, and the very height of the planters harvest. All appeared busy as I rode along, gathering on the old properties; weeding and supplying, or filling up failures on the young estates. I halted but once for a cup of good, wholesome coffee, and gladly pushed on, so as to reach my destination in good time for breakfast.

The many lovely prospects opening before me caused some little delay in admiration; and, by the time I had ridden through the last piece of jungle, and pulled up at the upper boundary of Solookande, it was not far from mid-day. The sun was blazing high above me, but its rays were tempered by a cool breeze that swept over from the neighboring mountain-tops. The prospect from that lofty eminence was lovely in the extreme: steep ridges of coffee extended in all directions, bounded by piles of mossy forest; white spots, here and there, told of bungalows and stores; a tiny cataract rushed down some cleft rock, on one side; on the other, a rippling stream ran gently along, thickly studded with water-crosses. Before me, in the far distance, lay outstretched, like a picture-scroll, the Matelle district, with its paddy fields, its villages, and its Vihares, skirted by a ridge of mountains and terminated by the Cave Rocks of Dambool. At my feet, far below, lay the estate, bungalow, and works, and to them I bent my way by a narrow and very steep bridle-path. So precipitous was the land just here, that I felt rather nervous on looking down at the white buildings. The pathway, for a great length, was bordered by rose-bushes, or trees, in fullest blossom, perfuming the air most fragrantly: as I approached the bungalow, other flowering shrubs and plants were mingled with them, and in such excellent order was every thing there, that the place appeared to me more like a magnified garden than an estate. How changed since my former visit! I could scarcely recognize it as the same property. The bungalow was an imposing-looking building, the very picture of neatness and comfort. How different to the old talipot-leaf, and the dirty little mud hut! The box of a place I had slept in six years before would have stood, easily, on the dining-table in this bungalow. A wide verandah surrounded the building, the white pillars of which were polished like marble. The windows were more like doors; and, as for the doors, one may speak of them as lawyers do of Acts of Parliament, it would be easy to drive a coach-and-six through them.

The superintendent was a most gentlemanly person, and so was his Bengalee servant. The curry was delightfully hot; the water was deliciously cool. The chairs were like sofas; and so exquisitely comfortable, after my long ride, that, when my host rose and suggested a walk down to the works, I regretted that I had said any thing about them, and had half a mind to pretend to be poorly.

The store was a zinc-roofed building, one hundred feet in length, by twenty-five wide; it was boarded below, but the sides upward were merely stout rails, for insuring a thorough circulation of air through the interior. It presented a most busy appearance. Long strings of Malabar coolies were flocking in, along narrow paths, from all sides, carrying bags and baskets on their heads, filled with the ripe coffee. These had to pass in at one particular door of the store, into the receiving-floor, in the upper part of the building. A Canghany was stationed there to see each mans gathering fairly measured; and to give a little tin ticket for every bushel, on the production of which the coolies were paid, at the end of the month. Many coolies, who had their wives and children to assist them in the field, brought home very heavy parcels of coffee.

Passing on to the floor where the measuring was in progress, I saw immense heaps of ripe, cherry-looking fruit, waiting to be passed below to the pulpers. All this enormous pile must be disposed of before the morning, or it will not be fit for operating on, and might be damaged. I saw quantities of it already gliding downward, through little openings in the floor, under which I could hear the noise of some machinery in rapid motion, but giving out sounds like sausage-machines in full chop. Following my guide, I descended a ladder, between some ugly-looking wheels and shafting, and landed safely on the floor of the pulping-room. ``Pulping'' is the operation of removing the outer husk, or cherry, which incloses the parchment-looking husk containing the pair of coffee beans. This is performed by a machine called a pulper. It is a stout wooden or iron frame, supporting a fly-wheel and barrel of wood, covered with sheet copper, perforated coarsely outward, very like a huge nutmeg-grater. This barrel is made to revolve rapidly, nearly in contact with two chocks of wood. The coffee in the cherry being fed on to this by a hopper, is forced between the perforated barrel and the chocks the projecting copper points tear off the soft cherry, while the coffee beans, in their parchment case, fall through the chocks into a large box. These pulpers (four in number) were worked by a water-wheel of great power, and turned out in six hours as much coffee as was gathered by three hundred men during the whole day.

From the pulper-box the parchment coffee is shoveled to the cisterns enormous square wooden vats. In these the new coffee is placed, just covered with water in which state it is left for periods varying from twelve to eighteen hours, according to the judgment of the manager. The object of this soaking is to produce a slight fermentation of the mucilaginous matter adhering to the parchment, in order to facilitate its removal as otherwise it would harden the skin and render the coffee very difficult to peel or clean. When I inspected the works on Soolookande, several cisterns of fermented coffee were being turned out, to admit other parcels from the pulper, and also to enable the soaked coffee to be washed. Coolies were busily employed shoveling the berries from one cistern to another others were letting on clean water. Some were busy stirring the contents of the cisterns briskly about; while so me, again, were letting off the foul water and a few were engaged in raking the thoroughly-washed coffee from the washing platforms to the barbecues.

The barbecues on this property were very extensive: about twenty thousand square feet, all gently sloped away from their centres, and smooth as glass. They were of stone, coated over with lime well polished, and so white that it was with difficulty I could look at them with the sun shining full upon their bright surfaces. Over these drying grounds the coffee, when quite clean and white, is spread, at first thickly, but gradually more thinly, until, on the last day, it is placed only one bean thick. Four days sunning are usually required, though occasionally many more are necessary before the coffee can be heaped away in the store without risk of spoiling. All that is required is to dry it sufficiently for transport to Kandy, and thence to Colombo. where it undergoes a final curing previous to having its parchment skin removed, and the faulty and broken berries picked out. Scarcely any estates are enabled to effectually dry their crops, owing to the long continuance of wet weather on the hills.

The dry floor of this store resembled very much the inside of a malting-house. It was nicely boarded, and nearly half full of coffee, white and in various stages of dryness. Some of it, at one end, was being measured into two bushel bags, tied up, marked and entered in the packed book, ready for dispatch to Kandy. Every thing was done on a system; the bags were piled up in tens; and the loose coffee was kept in heaps of fixed quantities as a check on the measuring. Bags, rakes, measures, twine, had all their proper places allotted them. Each days work must be finished off-hand at once; no putting off until to-morrow can be allowed, or confusion and loss will be the consequence. Any I heaps of half dried coffee, permitted to remain unturned in the store, or not exposed on the barbecue, will heat, and become discolored and in that condition is known among commercial men as Country Damaged.

The constant ventilation of a coffee store is of primary importance in checking any tendency to fermentation in the uncured beans; an ingenious planter has recently availed himself of this fact, and invented an apparatus which forces an unbroken current of dry, warm air, through the piles of damp coffee, thus continuing the curing process in the midst of the most rainy weather.

When a considerable portion of the gathering is completed, the manager has to see to his means of transport before his store is too crowded. A well conducted plantation will have its own cattle to assist in conveying the crop to Kandy; it will have roomy and dry cattle-pens, fields of guinea-grass, and pasture grounds attached, as well as a manure-pit, into which all refuse and the husks of the coffee are thrown, to be afterward turned to valuable account.

The carriage of coffee into Kandy is performed by pack-bullocks, and sometimes by the coolies, who carry it on their heads but these latter can seldom be employed away from picking during the crop time. By either means however, transport forms a serious item in the expenses of a good many estates. From some of the distant hill-estates possessing no cattle, and with indifferent jungle-paths, the conveyance of their crops to Kandy will often cost fully six shillings the hundred weight of clean coffee, equal to about three pence per mile. From Kandy to Colombo, by the common bullock-cart of the country, the cost will amount to about two or three shillings the clean hundred weight, in all, eight or nine shillings the hundred weight from the plantation to the port of shipment, being twice as much for conveying it less than a hundred miles, as it costs for freight to England, about sixteen thousand miles. One would imagine that it would not require much sagacity to discern that, in such a country as this, a railroad would be an incalculable benefit to the whole community. To make this apparent even to the meanest Cingalese capacity, we may mention that, even at the present time, transit is required from the interior of the island to its seaports, for enough coffee for shipment to Great Britain alone, to cause a railroad to be remunerative. The quantity of coffee imported from British possessions abroad in 1850, was upward of forty millions of pounds avoirdupois; and a very large proportion of this came from Ceylon. What additional quantities are required for the especially coffee-bibbing nations which lie between Ceylon and this country, surpass all present calculation; enough, we should think, sails away from this island in the course of every year, the transit of which to its sea-board., would pay for a regular net-work of railways.


From Cornell University proto-type Digital Library Collections - Making of America
Reformated Text in HTML put Online at lakdiva.org with their Permission.

Title:Coffee-Planting In Ceylon
Author:
Journal:Harper's new monthly magazine.
Print:Vol. III, Issue XIII - 1851 June, p. 82 p. 83 p. 84 p. 85 p. 86
Publisher:Harper & Brothers, Publishes, New York.

For more information about Coffee Tokens of Ceylon, highlighted in text above as tin ticket please read http://coins.lakdiva.org/coffee/

Editors Note: Text Proof read by Kavan but more OCR and reformating errors, probably still remain.

Please also see notes on other interesting articles like this that have been put online in the Digital Library Collections of MoA.