Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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JANUARY 19th. - Yesterday a message came from the Lines to say that a poor woman was very ill of fever. Rob asked whether she would like to have a doctor or to go to the hospital at Teldeniya five miles off. "To the Hospital," was the reply, so a cart was ordered, and in the course of my morning walk I met the procession under weigh. I saw nothing of the invalid but a limp mass of cloth lying on the floor of the bullock cart which had on its top a light wooden framework covered with layers of plaited cocoanut leaves, which makes a capital protection from both sun and rain. Near the cart walked a man, presumably her husband, and he and the bullock driver kept up a kind of melancholy chant as long as I was within hearing. On getting to Teldeniya the doctor pronounced the illness to be pneumonia, a disease both very common and very fatal to coolies in Ceylon. They seem to have no stamina to stand against it, and a few hours often sees them dead. This woman utterly declined to stay in hospital, and came home again in spite of the long drive, so we are anxious about the result. Last week the head kangany had an attack of pneumonia, we found him (in spite of feeling desperately ill) rolled up in his blanket in a corner of the cocoa store. My son asked him what he meant by running such a risk and not taking care of himself.

"But I must do my work, and see that everything is going all right," he replied. However, Rob ordered another man to carry him off to to his home, and before many hours had passed he was in high fever and delirium. If it had not been for Rob and the Appu attending to him themselves, applying mustard poultices, and so forth, whilst waiting for the doctor's arrival, he could not have recovered.

When a coolie is seriously ill the superintendent in charge of the Estate sends a printed form to the district medical officer, giving a few particulars, and his own diagnosis, also mentioning whether the case is in his opinion urgent. The doctor then, if he thinks it necessary, comes out as soon as he can, but there is often considerable delay, and this is quite unavoidable. When the district is an extensive one, the medical officer may be many miles away at one end, whilst he is anxiously waited for in the opposite direction. In a case such as that of our coolie woman where the patient goes to head-quarters for advice, a printed paper is returned by the doctor, stating the illness and medicines and treatment prescribed. At stated times the superintendent has to fill in and send to the Government Agent a printed form enumerating all the births and deaths amongst the coolies on the Estate. I should strongly advise any young man coming out to Ceylon as a planter, to learn something of the science of medicine, and the treatment of different diseases, as well as to go through an ambulance course. My son had in his boyhood the great benefit of having the run of the surgery of one of the cleverest of doctors, and kindest of friends.

Last week, at Pongol time, Rob's horsekeeper asked leave to go and keep the feast with his friends about ten miles away. He was allowed to go, and faithfully promised to return last Friday, but alas! he has proved faithless. Ne'er a sight of him have we had, and yesterday we heard he had run away to another district, for some inscrutable reason of his own. It is the more provoking because his master had had him properly trained by a good groom. However, his week's wages are due to him, and these he cannot recover, as the Ceylon law does not allow a coolie to vacate his place without leave unless sixty days wages are due to him. The masters generally take very good care to keep their wages debt within this limit.

During the afternoon two shots in quick succession made me run out to see what was the matter; then I found that the Appu had shot an enormous rat-snake six and a half feet long. They are handsome creatures, beautifully marked, and are harmless to human beings, but devour young chickens, and of course rats, hence the name. We often hear them on the roof at night in pursuit of the rats, who have a happy hunting ground between the ceiling cloth and the tiles. These rat-snakes are extraordinarily quick in their movements, and may be almost said to run, as they glide, head in air across the ground.

JANUARY 21st. - The poor woman with pneumonia is I am glad to say much better. One feels so helpless when any of the coolies are ill, for the distinctions of caste make it so utterly impossible to help them. They would rather die than eat any food cooked in our kitchen, and much prefer trying charms, and native medicaments rather than any treatment we could prescribe.

The great excitement to-day has been the hatching of a brood of turkeys, which we have all been anxiously watching. Five were hatched, but alas! a stray hen trampled one little chick to death. Here, as elsewhere, they are difficult things to rear and proportionately expensive to buy. It is two o'clock, and the bungalow has awakened to life once more. An hour ago, I slept in my room, the servants slept in the kitchen, the carpenter and mason slept beside their work, and the dogs slept in their kennels, reminding one of the ancient fairy tale; but here no enchanted prince came to break the spell. We all awoke of our own accord, when the afternoon siesta was over. If you try getting up at 5 a.m. on a hot summer day you will find how very sleepy you do get by midday. I tried in vain to prevail upon Rob to take a rest but he declared he must be off to watch the shade lopping, for if he left the coolies for a moment they would be sure to cut down the wrong branches. The shade lopping is an important business on cocoa Estates. Cocoa will not grow without shade, but too much is equally fatal, so it is quite an art to decide upon the right kind, and the right amount of shade to leave. Much anxiety is felt just now about the cacao disease which has done deadly damage in many parts of the island. Some planters aver that it attacks plants grown with too little sunlight, whilst others again advocate as an antidote more frequent manuring and forking at the roots.

This morning a trespassing buffalo was caught. After remaining tied up here for some hours until a neighbouring Arachi (or village headman) was fetched to see that it was really caught here, and to assess the damage, the beast was sent to the nearest Courthouse, there to remain until claimed, or in case of no one claiming it, to be sold after the lapse of a certain time. These straying buffaloes belong to neighbouring villages, and do infinite damage to the cocoa, knocking down the pods, trampling them under foot, and breaking off tbe branches.

Other enemies are the wild pigs, who eat the cocoa and dig up quite large holes in the ground, whilst hunting about for rubber roots, which attract them by their sweetness. We have a great many wild pigs on Raneetotem. One morning whilst out walking I came close upon a huge boar, and his two wives. Rob promises himself and two friends a good pig drive, as soon as he is not quite so busy.

On January 22nd the M.'s hackery arrived by half past six in the morning to fetch me to spend Saturday and Sunday with them. I arrived at P--- just in time to see the commencement of the eclipse of the sun; it was only partial in Ceylon, but nevertheless was a most interesting sight, and though the sky was cloudy the sun appeared often enough to enable us with smoked glasses to watch all the phases of the eclipse. The coolies, and even the Tamil Bungalow servants, acting on orders from their co-religionists in India, observed a strict fast all day until 4 p.m. The idea was that the day after the eclipse was to be marked by some awful and mysterious event. So great was their anticipation, that I don't feel sure as to whether they were pleased or disappointed, when it passed in the same uneventful style as most other days in Ceylon.

On Sunday I went with Mr. M. to the little schoolhouse, where preparations were being made for a short Church of England service to be held in Tamil. The catechist showed me the books be intended using, which consisted of a selection from the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible, and a volume called Tamil Lyrics which I conclude meant hymns. At my request he read me part of the Sermon on the Mount in Tamil. He did so in a most impressive and sonorous voice, it sounded grand, but I am told that the translation of the Bible is in such high Tamil that very few coolies (who usually speak a kind of low class dialect) can understand it. He afterwards introduced us to his wife, a sweet looking young girl, and their child, a dear little baby of eleven months, very much disfigured by wearing on its head a knitted atrocity of pink and white wool such as one sees in village shops in England. On many Estates there are small school-rooms, and where there are a sufficient number of Christian coolies, a Sunday school, and now and then a short service is held in them on Sundays. Perhap school-rooms is a misnomer, they generally consist of a room standing on pillars - a kind of piazza - with a small room at one end for the schoolmaster. The fittings include "tats" to keep out the sun, a large blackboard, benches for the pupils and a few books. The question of education is interesting so I will quote from "The Ceylon Summary of Information by the Messrs Ferguson."

"Through the Agency of a Government Department of Public Instruction, and a grant in aid system, chiefly availed of by the various missionary societies, 110,000 children, or one in twenty-seven of the population, are receiving instruction in English and the vernaculars. Private schools, not connected with missionaries or religious bodies are few and ill supported. A knowledge of vernacular reading and writing, generally very imperfect, is communicated in some of the Buddhist temples, 'Pansalas,' and private native schools. A large proportion of the population can sign their names, who can do little more. Education in missionary schools is, of course strictly Christian. In Government Schools the custom is, where no objection is offered, to read the Bible during the first hour. Attendance during that hour is not compulsory, but pupils seldom or never absent themselves." They then proceed to describe the splendid educational colleges in the large towns, but that has nothing to do with our subject.

On Raneetotem there are no Christians, and only about half a dozen children attend the school. The pupils are nearly all the children of the head Kangany, who believes in the "higher education," and is therefore having his children taught English.

Our coolies have a Saami house (praying house) on the Estate, where they keep a sacred cobra, which they occasionally propitiate with offerings of chickens and also milk, a spot which I carefully avoid, but one evening Rob took me to see it. The devotions performed there must be of a very primitive kind. The temple is simply a roof of thatch supported by wooden posts, built in the midst of the cocoa bushes, quite out of the sight of any path or road. At one end is a huge ant hill of conical form in which lives the cobra, and in this lies the sacredness of the spot. At the foot of the ant-hill is a small earthen chatty, and a square stone, about the size of an ordinary brick, a few ashes, and a small piece of galvanized iron roofing on which some offering has evidently been placed. From post to post near the top hung a garland of threaded pendant cocoa leaves; at the opposite end to the ant hill, were two rows of stones, rather irregularly placed, with a space of about a foot between the rows, the space being filled with ashes of a blue colour. The blue shade caused probably by kerosene oil having been used for fuel. Just outside the Saami house a triangular stone, with some signs cut on it, had been set on edge; at the foot of this there were also traces of ashes. Similar triangular stones I have noticed on other Estates, and wherever you see them, there are always traces of burnt offerings having been made.

The other day, I accidentally came upon a smaller, evidently less important, Saami-place; the space between the two huge buttresses thrown out by a banian tree had been carefully swept, and at one end the usual square stone and small earthen chatty had been placed. Poor people! it is very sad to see their religious aspirations so mis-directed, one can only hope that the true God, whose children they also are, may listen to their ignorant prayers and take pity on them.

I returned home on Monday in time to see and hear a magnificent thunder-storm. The rolling of the thunder, re-echoed by these wooded gorges was very fine. Later in the evening one of those scenes took place which are the perpetual worry of a planter's life. A coolie has to go twice a week into Kandy to fetch our provision; which he has to carry home on his head in a ventilated tin box. The orders are all written by us in a book called a "beef book," this he takes with him. Obviously we must have food, but we are sixteen miles from Kandy, the nearest market, and it is not an enviable task to walk thirty-two miles, returning with a heavy load, and the coolies much dislike it. On this particular evening the "beef coolie" flatly declined to go, and threw the beef book on the floor of the kitchen. Of course, such a breach of discipline could not be allowed. My son was told, he sent for the delinquent, who could not be found in his Lines. Messenger after messenger having been despatched without any result, at last Rob said, "Well, if he doesn't come to-night he will be punished much more severely tomorrow."

Soon after, he appeared, having been in hiding in the branches of a jak tree. Needless to say, he was punished, and ended like a naughty child in being very repentant, and saying he would never refuse to go again. These natives have to be treated exactly like children, and managed with a perfectly just, but very strict rule, they take advantage at once of any laxity of discipline, and only respect a firm hand. They appear never to resent punishment when their conscience tells them they deserve it.

JANUARY 26th. - This morning alas, we found three out of the four little turkeys dead in their nest - killed in the night by black ants. The mother hen was all stung about the head in defending them. Rearing poultry out here is a disheartening business. What with insects, snakes, and sun-strokes, the poor things lead a precarious existence. The other day one of the ducks apparently quite well, walked into the open, and suddenly dropped down dead, it is supposed from heat apoplexy.

Yesterday the Peria Dorei, coloquially P.D., the manager of this group of estates, came for his usual visit of inspection; and very glad we always are to see him, bringing as he does, a whiff of the outer world, and a little outside news; for toujours cocoa, like "toujours perdrix", becomes at times a little wearisome. We always hope he will arrive when our beef coolie has just brought the bi-weekly supply from Kandy, but yesterday, in spite of its being one of our "banian" (Sinhalese for "Maigre") days, our appu managed to produce a most creditable menu. Mulligatawny soup, turbot with white sauce, chicken pie, cold beef and mince pies with first rate coffee to follow. On Ceylon Estates there is a very complete system of supervision. Where several belong to the same company, the manager is supposed to visit each frequently to see that the assistant superintendent is doing his work properly; and once in three months the visiting agent comes to look up the manager, and also each of the assistant superintendents, so that any thing going wrong, or any slack work, would be at once detected. In the same way the accounts pass through the manager's hands and have also to be examined and passed by the agent. All this carefulness ought to be very reassuring to English investors, for their interests are most strenuously guarded; but the risk of failure to crops owing to bad seasons and disease no one can forsee or avoid.

Raneetotem is so surrounded by jungle, that it seems to be a happy hunting ground for wild animals. Besides wild pigs and buffaloes, we have wild deer of three kinds, who are, however, very shy, and seldom show themselves; also an occasional cheetah - one was seen lately in a grass field close to the bungalow - jackals, hares, and porcupines. The jackals now and then make night hideous with their horrid howls, and are sometimes so daring that they come up almost to our verandah in search of poultry; which, however, they never get here, for our poultry are shut up at sunset in a comfortable wattle and daub-house of their own. It has a roof of plaited palm leaves called here "cadjans." A most picturesque Tamil boy in a red turban attends to their wants. The porcupines are dangerous foes to dogs who have to go into the long grass to hunt hares. The porcupine darts his quills at the dogs, and Rob says he once saw a dog die out hunting after having three porcupine quills through his throat. They were darted with so much force that the quills absolutely went through the dog's throat and remained.

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