Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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We spent last Saturday and Sunday at P---, Mr. M. and Rob played in a cricket match at Kandy, and the rest of us stayed at home, and indulged in croquet and tennis. It is a delightful house to stay at, for you cannot only count upon a kind and hearty welcome, but can have your choice of amusement from golf to cards, including tennis, croquet, tent pegging, leaping and ball and bucket, and you are sure of finding someone ready to join you in one or all. These little outings send people back to work with fresh zest, and only the most confirmed misanthrope could grudge "the hard worked planter" this little break in his monotonous life.

To-day arose one of the often recurring worries consequent on caste. On this Estate at present we have oniy three low caste coolies; all the others are of such very high caste that they will not work as kitchen coolies, or be horsekeepers, or go to Kandy with our beef-box. On this present occasion, one of these precious three was away on leave, and the two others were ill with fever, so after early tea, the Appu appeared in the sitting-room with a very long face to say, "Please sir, there is no kitchen coolie to-day." However, Rob soon settled the matter by pressing into the service an orphan boy whom he keeps to look after the dogs and poultry. But the more important problem of who is to fetch our supplies tomorrow still remains unsolved. It behoves housekeepers on remote Estates to lay in a stock of tinned provisions in order to provide for emergencies. It is wonderful what appetising dishes can be made from them by the Ceylon cooks; indeed, in the absence of kitchen ranges, and modern utensils, all their cooking is perfectly marvellous. Here we have not even a proper oven; only a fire on the hearth, and a clay oven improvised to cook the Christmas turkey; and yet some of the entrees, and the scones and hot cakes our "boy" sends up would do credit to a pupil of the Kensington School of Cookery. I am so struck dumb with admiration that I feel quite shy of making any culinary suggestions. The native cooks are also artistic in their work: stewed fruit, for example, is sent up covered with a most delicate tracery of white whip; iced cakes are perfect marvels of elegant decoration; cucumber appears with scalloped edges, and mashed potato is often moulded into the form of a fantailed pigeon, or takes the semblance of one huge potato - even the angularities and depressions are copied, and so complete is the deception, that the first time this dish was handed to me I exclaimed (much to the amusement of the company), "Oh what an enormous potato! I think it is the largest I have ever seen." The cooks seem to have a real love of their art. Our "boy" is at this moment revelling in Miss Young's "Domestic Cookery." He can read just enough English to make out the recipes, which are very clearly and simply expressed. He generally manages to carry them out correctly; but one day it was a little perplexing to have "Exeter Stew" sent up with what ought to have been suet balls, made into a pudding paste, whilst inside it reposed the meat made into balls, thus reversing the usual process. We benefit by his experiments, though I much fear that a box of stores, which I have just had up from Colombo, will in consequence come to an end much sooner than I expected.

FEBRUARY 2nd. - Last night Rob and I were going for our usual evening walk, when an enormous buffalo rushed through the cocoa close to us. Then began an amusing chase, Rob put five coolies on his track, and after about an hour, they brought the beast tied with ropes, in triumph to the bungalow. Then as usual the Arachi was sent for, and this morning it has been marched off to the nearest Courthouse, there to await identification, or failing that, to be sold, the Estate exacting a fine of ten rupees. These great lumbering animals do incalculable harm to the young cocoa plants, so war is perpetually being waged against their incursions. They belong in the main to neighbouring villagers, who use them for ploughing their paddy (rice) fields: but as we have on one side a good deal of unoccupied jungle, probably some of the buffaloes may really be wild and unowned. This particular animal had a magnificent pair of horns which I longed to annex for the walls of our little sitting-room.

The episode of the buffalo had no sooner ended than a coolie came to announce the birth of his little son, and to ask for the usual present on such occasions of two rupees. As I mentioned elsewhere in the case of both births and deaths the Ceylon Government requires the superintendent of an Estate to make a notification of the same at his earliest convenience on a printed form, containing a number of questions such as (in case of a birth):- Names of father and mother - nationality - whether they are married - date of birth, sex and name of infant, etc., etc. It is quite right that it should be so, considering that coolies are foreign emigrants, isolated from their own friends, and very much at the mercy of their employers. Their existence should be safely guarded in every possible way by the State.

To-day I saw in the tool store a delightful implement of husbandry, which I wish we had in our English gardens. It is called a transplanter and is used for transplanting young tea, coffee, and cocoa plants. It is difficult to describe, but I will try to do so. Imagine, then, an iron cylinder about three inches in diameter, and fifteen inches long; a light iron rod bent square at the top is attached to each side of the cylinder thus forming a handle. When a plant has to be moved it is first heavily watered, then the cylinder is put over it and driven into the ground its entire length. With a hoist of the hand the plant is uprooted and raised with a ball of earth attached. Then comes the second part of the process. When the young plant has been taken to its destination, it is forced out by the lower end of its iron receptacle being placed over a wooden block which exactly fits it. As this fills the cylinder the plant and its ball of earth are forced out without any of the roots being injured. How useful a small transplanter would be in a kitchen garden, to move lettuce, and cabbage and indeed all vegetables and flowers that want thinning.

To go to a domestic detail, I have been very busy this morning in converting a pair of strong boots into walking shoes, by cutting the uppers away to the fourth button, and then binding the shoe. Boots are far too hot to wear, and the roads are so rough and stony (at all events on Raneetotem) that the destruction to shoes is terrible. I have worn out two pairs in a month. When the nearest shoemaker is sixteen miles away one has to set one's wits to work, and I feel quite proud of my success as a disciple of St. Crispin.

My kitchen garden is proceeding apace, it is a plot of ground of about 20 ft by 30 ft - fenced in by a rough pallisade of rubber branches; across this, bamboo battens are tied with a kind of creeper called "jungle rope," and then branches and twigs are inserted and interlaced. Cut boughs of rubber have a knack of sprouting, so we hope these may do so, and make the place a little less ugly. The gate is of a very primitive kind, but answers its purpose well - two uprights of bamboo with little cross-pieces tied to it in the form of a ladder. I intend sowing English leeks, cabbage, lettuce, radishes, beans, carrots, turnips, tomatoes, &c., also some good melons and cucumbers, and - I feel rather shy of mentioning it as I have been so much laughed at - egg plant, which it seems is only another name for the bringal, which grows almost wild in Ceylon, but which a London seedsman gave me as a rarity likely to do well in a tropical climate. N.B. - I would say to people coming to Ceylon - don't bring bringals, for it is carrying coals to Newcastle, and you will be unmercifully chaffed.

FEBRUARY 7th. - The kitchen garden is going on well, we have mustard and cress, radishes and lettuces, already beginning to show themselves. The locale of Jack and the Beanstalk must surely have been in Ceylon; for in no other country have I seen seeds grow so quickly into plants. Both beans and cucumbers made an appearance in three days. The garden wants a good deal of watering, and all the water has to be brought from a neighbourng well in a cask on wheels drawn by a small black bull.

As I pass this well in the late afternoon, and see its protecting circle of masonry, its canopy of overhanging roof, and the Eastern women hastening after work to take their turn in drawing up water to cook their evening meal; it takes me back to the old Bible stories, and makes living realities of Rachel and Rebecca, and the woman of Samaria, such as they never were to me before.

Though plant life is exuberant in this climate, its enemies are many, cocoanut palms, cocoa, and coffee have each a special insect (to say nothing of fungus) that makes them its prey. At muster the other evening, one man came up to Rob holding a curious string of something in his hand, reminding me much of the grass strings of wild strawberries of my early days. On nearer inspection these proved to be a kind of red and black beetle about half an inch long, having a sharp proboscis with which it bores into, and through the soft pith of the young cocoanut palms, and eventually kills the tree, unless it is discovered and eradicated in time. At intervals skilled coolies are told off to search for cocoanut "poochees;" when caught they string the beetles and also the larvae on a thick bit of grass and bring them to muster to shew how many have really been caught. In this case - seventy eight beetles had been cut out and impaled by one man, and this was thought a good day's work.

We have had a great excitement. One of the dogs was suddenly found to be mad. It had for some days shewn signs of extreme irritability, and made night hideous by its howls and yells, at last it became unmistakably mad, and Rob shot it, first having a very narrow escape of being bitten, as the animal flew at his wrist, fortunately he was wearing his wristband unbuttoned, and the dog seized the wristband instead of the wrist, biting it through and through. He was beaten off, and in two minutes more had ceased to exist. This dog had some time ago, had an abcess in the ear which we thought was cured, but now believe to have been the cause of the outbreak. Rob has given orders that the other dogs should always be tied up during the hottest hours of the day, and should have an unlimited supply of drinking water.

No account of Ceylon daily life would be true without a description of a day, such as the one we are now passing. A most uncomfortable day it is. Our small world is in decidedly low spirits. The Appu, because he has so little food to cook - the Master, because he has so little food to eat, and I because I feel somehow or other I ought to have provided against this contingency. The fact is that yesterday our whole meat supply was found to have gone bad. Picture to yourself that we are sixteen weary miles from a shop. Thirty two miles for the coolie to walk before he can bring our provisions back, that for some hours the meat has to be carried in a tin box under a tropical sun. Also that it is useless sending again before tomorrow, as the butchers only kill twice a week, then your will have some idea of the situation. I fear, now that the hot weather has begun, our week will consist of a series of alternate feasts and fasts. The alternative is to keep more poultry, and a large stock of tinned provisions, but alas! tinned provisions are extremely expensive, and this is one of the reasons why so many young men find themselves in debt. To show you the ingenuity of our cook, I will give you to-day's breakfast and dinner menu. At twelve o'clock breakfast we had eggs and bacon, and macaroni dressed with cheese and tomato sauce. Australian lambs' tongues, and a vegetable curry, which together with hot scones, apricot jam and butter made a very appetising meal. The dinner menu consisted of soup (a la Packet), boiled lulu fish with anchovy sauce, roast duck, and custard pudding. The lulu was an unexpected addition, it was caught in our own dam the same afternoon and was truly welcome.

Now all this uncertainty and discomfort, and the long journey to Kandy would be quite unnecessary if only there were a little more enterprise in the community. Only five miles away is a small township containing a post office, a Rest House, a blacksmith, a doctor, and a hospital, but no beef-shop. Will it be believed, it's the postal depot of a large planting district where the planters absolutely have to send twenty and twenty-five miles to Kandy for their meat?

When I exclaimed at this state of things, I was met by the answer; "Oh there was a butcher once, but he kept such bad meat that we preferred to send to Kandy." It never seemed to dawn upon them that where one butcher had failed, another, with more capital, might succeed. I am much too unimportant an individual, and too much a bird of passage to inaugurate reforms, but this is a reform ready to the hand of a suitable person. The universal motto in Ceylon (barring the planting industry in which progress does find a place) seems to be "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be." In some ways, this conservatism adds to the quaintness and interest of the country; but where it touches the details of domestic life it does make a western mind "squirm." Forgive this mood of dissatisfaction, it is all the result of "Banian" day, and the infectious low spirits of my companions.

FEBRUARY 8th. - For some years the sluice of the dam had been out of order and so jammed that it would not open; in consequence the water became covered with duckweed, which together with the stagnant mud festering under a hot sun, had lately sent out such a horrid smell, that it became absolutely necessary for the general health to let out the water, and clean out the mud and weed, without a moment's delay. So yesterday Rob gave orders that this should be done, but it proved a more serious undertaking than was at first expected, as owing to the depth of water it was necessary to have divers to go down and examine the injury to the sluice and to try to open it. In spite of the noxious odour and the dirty water three men took it in turns to dive, and after some hours, the obstruction was very gradually removed by their efforts, and at last the sluice worked again, and the water rushed out. Great was the excitement and delight of these child-like creatures, who love anything new and unusual. With shouts of joy, the boys, and even one girl, rushed into the mud, to be followed as soon as work was over by the bulk of the men. How they all paddled about! dashing the mud and water over each other's heads; catching the fish (which to everyone's surprise were found there) in their baskets and even in their hands. No London mudlarks could have been more at home. Not only were there fish, but also land turtle of various sizes. None of them however very large. I seized upon a few for the sake of their shells, but they were useless for food, not being of an edible kind. I believe, however, there are four different kinds of marine turtle to be obtained on the coast of Ceylon. I tried to preserve the brightness of the shell of those taken out of the dam, but I found they all became dull and ugly, and so my visions of using them for ornamental purposes melted away into thin air.

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