Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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I was always fond of seeing new countries, so when I received a pressing invitation from my son to spend the winter with him in Ceylon, I quickly made up my mind to accept, and took my passage in the Bibby Liner "Cheshire," only too glad to escape the damp and cold of an English winter. I sailed from the Mersey one murky November morning, but quickly emerged into sunshine, and after an exceptionally fine voyage with the pleasantest of company, arrived in Colombo early in December, where I was met by my son.

He had written of a delightful bungalow with tennis court, and rose garden, within a short distance of Kandy, and surrounded by pleasant neighbours. Imagine my disappointment when I found that, with the uncertainty appertaining to everything in Ceylon, he had been transferred to an estate lately bought by the Company (his employers); an estate so isolated that there were no neighbours within visitable distance; where he had to send sixteen miles for provisions, and, worst of all, where the bungalow only contained sufficient accommodation for a bachelor. There was nothing to be done but to make the best of an awkward situation. I obtained permission to add a room to the house, and made up my mind to face a certain amount of roughing with a cheerful countenance. I have since found out, that what I missed in civilization and comfort, I gained in novelty and interest.

To beguile the long long hours when I was alone I began to write my impressions. I don't think they will be of any general interest, for I am neither a botanist, entomologist, or geologist, and must necessarily take a very superficial view of my surroundings; but I think there are many mothers who will like to have some idea of the sort of life their dear ones lead in Ceylon; and perhaps some young English girls whose love-dreams include a possible home in this delightful island, may be interested in reading a few details of our daily routine. It must, however, be well understood that I do not write of the older estates, which are as comfortable as a well- appointed English house, but of the everyday life of a young planter in a rather out of the way place.

The first thing that strikes one is the intense loneliness - day after day passes without a glimpse of a white face. I would urge anyone, sending a son to Ceylon, to study his disposition and count the cost. To an English boy fresh from the cricket and football fields of a public school, or the companionship of the University, the isolation must be terrible, and many are the sad stories one hears, of moral, mental, and physical breakdown. But, to a young man who does not mind solitude, who interests himself intelligently in his work, is fond of reading, and has the luck to be under a kind and judicious Peria Dorei (or Superintendent) the life is a very pleasant one.

I must here explain the rather complicated system of management of Ceylon Estates, where everything possible is done to safeguard the interests of the absent proprietor, or shareholders as the case may be. First in importance comes the V.A. or visiting agent. He may, or may not be, a partner in the firm of Colombo shipping agents who ship the produce, and through whose hands most of the business passes. He visits the Estates once in three months, audits the accounts monthly, in some cases arranges about the shipment of crop, and is a sort of final court of appeal. Under him is the Peria Dorei (or great master) usually called P.D. The manager of the Estate, or group of Estates, has one or more Sinne Doreis (or little masters) under him according to the size of the property. The P.D. gives general orders, interferes when necessary, and has daily reports of work and monthly accounts sent him; but does not interfere much in the details which he leaves to his S.D.'s. In our case, my son Rob has charge of an Estate ten miles away from his P.D., who only visits it about once in ten days; so necessarily Rob has more responsibility, and a freer hand than most S.D.'s would have. This adds much to his interest in his work, and as he has a strong liking and personal regard for his P.D., as well as complete faith in his technical knowledge, the relations between them are on the pleasantest footing possible. The terms V.A., P.D., and S.D. will have to be used so often that it is quite necessary to understand them thoroughly.

After considering a good many pros and cons, and setting masons and carpenters to work, the first week in January found me on the Estate which we will call Raneetotem. The bungalow is a long, low, tiled edifice, more like a glorified barn than anything else I can think of. It is whitewashed within and without, and has a white ceiling cloth, lining the high pitched roof. In the space between, rats hold high carnival every night. Substantial stone partitions, reaching to within a few feet of the roof, divide the bedrooms from the one sitting-room. A verandah surrounds three sides of the building, while at the other end, store-room and bath-room are added. The kitchen and servant's room are in a separate hut. This has its advantages inasmuch as it keeps the house cool to have no fires, but makes it extremely irksome and throat scraping to give loud shouts whenever one wants anything.

I hope all the good housewives won't be utterly shocked when I say, I have never yet been inside the kitchen. I was strongly advised not to do so, as being rather fastidious, a sight of the native methods of cooking might seriously damage my appetite, and as the one panacea everyone gives for avoiding fever is "Eat - eat - eat," this advice was not to be deprecated. I believe there is no proper fireplace in the kitchen, only a fire on the hearth and a clay oven, and the water for my bath is always heated in an empty kerosene tin (but of course it has been thoroughly purified from its original aroma). The breakfasts and dinners that are produced out of this primitive kitchen would do credit to the most orderly Western menage.

We have done all we can to make our very unpromising-looking rooms homelike. Photographs, and pictures, antlers, and various ornaments adorn the walls; numberless cushions make the chairs and sofas comfortable, and books, newspapers, and work lie about in all directions. Flowers give colour and cheerfulness, such flowers as you in England have in greenhouses, here they grow wild, and are generally brought me by the coolies who have observed my love for them, and are quite pleased with a few cents in return. As I write I have before me, pink oleander, the golden mohur, scarlet hibiscus, a kind of mauve greenhouse periwinkle; a yellow trumpet flower, and champac from which frangipani is distilled, it is here called the "temple flower" as it is usually one of the offerings at the Buddhist temples. In Kandy, on one of their high festivals, I saw a Sinhalese lady, followed by her servants carrying champac blossoms on silver trays, proceeding to offer them on the beautiful silver altars prepared for the purpose. In the verandah we have many pots filled with ferns, caladiums, and other foliage plants.

Our little establishment consists of two servants, and a kitchen "coolie." The "appu," or headservant, who has been some years with Rob, is a kind of Admirable Crichton, he cooks an excellent dinner, looks after the poultry, superintends the garden, gives a general supervision to his Master's clothes, and when meat runs short goes out and shoots a hare or some pigeons. He is only twenty-two but besides the qualifications I have mentioned, he speaks Malay, Tamil, Sinhalese, and English, and is most useful on emergency, as an interpreter.

Next in importance to him comes a boy of seventeen, a Malay, who lives for his smart caps and coats, and is as stupid as his fellow-servant is clever. He was chosen on my arrival because he thinks he can understand English. His business is to sweep and dust the Bungalow, attend to my room, wait at table, and act generally as a sort of house-parlourmaid. The kitchen coolie does the usual work of a between-maid in an English house, and also gets the necessary firewood. In addition, Rob has a horsekeeper who grooms and looks after his horse, and occasionally condescends to lend a hand in the Bungalow or to bring me a jungle fern, but this is quite an extra piece of civility on his part. The kitchen coolie and horsekeeper are allowed us by the Estate; at least they allot two allowances to this Estate, and we have chosen these two. The other "boys" only cost L2 a month in wages between them, and a certain amount of rice, and keep themselves.

It is the cheap labour which makes it possible to live in Ceylon on the small salaries given to the assistants, and younger superintendents, which I do not hesitate to say are decidedly inadequate. It is scarcely worth while to leave home, country, and friends to live out here in an exhausting climate with heavy responsibilities, and often almost in complete isolation, on the salary of a junior clerk in a London office; unless as in my son's case, you are thoroughly interested in your work for its own sake, and love the sunshine, and the heat. It is the old story of supply and demand; here, as in England, for every vacant post, there are numberless applicants, and the equally well worn tale of the depreciation of the rupee. The salaries were arranged when one hundred rupees represented ten pounds; now, they only count for seven pounds; and though meat and poultry and eggs cost little more than their old price, every imported article, whether of food or clothing, has gone up in proportion as the rupee has gone down.

This is a thirsty land, and one fertile source of expense is the necessity of drinkables of some sort. All doctors seem to agree that some stimulant is necessary for most people, in face of the hard exercise taken and the exhausting heat. Suppose, however, an unusual case, that a man can do without any stimulant, he must even then spend nearly as much on mineral waters, for in very few situations, in the low country, can the water be drunk even boiled and filtered, without the risk of enteric fever. Perhaps in a few years salaries may be readjusted.

Raneetotem is, in the main, a cacao Estate with just a little coffee, also pepper, rubber, vanilla, cotton, and cocoanuts but no tea. In the old days it was all planted with coffee, but came to grief in the time of Ceylon's great disaster, when the coffee diseases ruined numbers of great Estates, which had to be abandoned, or sold just for what they would fetch. Since then cocoa has been planted here on several hundred acres, and bids fair to do well. Cocoa is a very handsome plant, or rather shrub, growing to a height of from 6 to 18 feet. The flowers are insignificant and appear almost stalkless on the stems and branches, but they produce large pods, five or six inches in length of every shade of red, and also yellow, according to the variety of cocoa. Caracas, which is the original kind introduced from Trinidad and still commands top price, has bright red pods, whilst those of Forastero, a coarser, and some think, a hardier variety, are in many shades of red, orange, yellow, and even white. Cocoa was first brought to Ceylon as an ornamental shrub some fifty years ago. There is an old tree of that age in Kalutera, another on Keenakelle Estate, Badulla, at 4000 feet above sea level, and several in different parts of Colombo. Its cultivation, however, as an article of commerce, seems to be a comparatively recent event, for I notice in an old Ceylon Directory of 1875 it is scarcely mentioned; the edition of 1881 gives 7000 acres, and the edition of 1887 12,500 acres as planted with cocoa. In 1902 the acreage in cocoa including native gardens is estimated at 31,136. In 1878 the export of cocoa is quoted as only 10 cwts, 1897 we have 34,500 cwts, and 1898 39,982 cwts, in 1901 it rose to 49,459 cwts.

To Mr. Tytler of Pallekelly Estate in Dumbera belongs, I believe, the honour of having first grown and prepared it systematically for exportation. All parts of Ceylon are not favourable for its culture; the high elevations are too cold, and in the low country bordering the coast, it appears not to be so productive as in the rich valleys of Dumbera, Matale, Kurunagala and Uva. Even here it has many natural enemies, in the shape of ants, a disease called Helopeltis, and two kinds of fungus, one of which attacks the bark, and the other the pod, and through the pod stem reaches the tree. Of late years, the bark and pod diseases have become so serious, that a scientific expert was obtained from England, who has done much in studying the evil, and in (it is hoped) finding a remedy. The cocoa tree produces two crops in the year, one the so-called spring crop, ripening from May to July, the other the autumn crop from November to February.

The picking is a pretty sight, many women are employed, and their gay clothes and glittering jewellery, and the heaped up red pods give a rich note of colour to the shaded groves in which they work. When the daily portion of pods has been collected, they are opened with a tap from a sharp curved knife, and the beans extracted with a turn of the finger, they are then placed in open baskets, and carried to the store for curing, and the empty pods are at once buried in holes already dug, any which by accident or carelessness remain unburied, at the end of a few weeks emit a most offensive odour. On arrival at the store the beans are weighed, and then piled up and covered, for the purpose of fermentation. Each proprietor has his own method of curing, which partakes of the nature of a trade secret; so I do not feel at liberty to divulge the plan carried out on this Estate; but a very usual way is to ferment for two days, then wash and dry in the sun until the cuticle of the bean becomes a reddish orange colour and quite brittle, and the inside a rich brown. In wet or cloudy weather the drying process is carried on inside the store, in the heated clarehue instead of outside, on the cemented barbecue in the sunshine.

As Ceylon cocoa has become more abundant, the price has gone down. It was at one time sold for one hundred shillings a hundred-weight, and even more, whilst now it only commands from fifty to eighty shillings according to the quality; but even at the lower rate it yields a handsome return. How true it is that no one can foresee the far reaching effect of their slightest action. The kindly impulse of our late Queen, to send a Christmas gift of chocolate to her soldiers in the field, proved a perfect godsend to Ceylon cocoa planters. The price immediately rose to nearly its old level, owing to the sudden and urgent demand, but fell again somewhat when that demand was over. Still, as I said before, it yields a very good, and sufficient profit.

An enterprising family of Planters have now established a flourishing Cocoa and Chocolate Manufactory. Although it has only been established a few years they have already a large business with Australia and India, as well as Europe, and it is much to be hoped that their enterprise and industry will be rewarded by financial success.

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