Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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MARCH 10th. - A long time has passed since I last wrote in my journal. An attack of fever necessitated my going for change of air to the higher country, and I had the great delight of an utterly new experience, namely being carried four miles almost straight up hill in a chair, the poles thereof resting on the shoulders of four coolies. It was an experience. To begin with, I am by no means a light weight, and one of the four coolies was such a short, slight, weak looking little man, that I felt very much as if I ought to carry him, and not he me; the difference in height between him and the others gave the chair a lurching, as well as a swinging movement. Sometimes, my little friend put the pole on his head instead of his shoulder, and then we got on better; but at the most critical moments he had a tendency to totter, which kept one on the "qui vive." In returning, I had four men of the same height, and it made a wonderful difference in my comfort. The chair was of light cane, with a head well thatched with palm leaves. It was much after the pattern of the old sedan chair, excepting that it was open instead of being closed in. The road by which we went was simply a mountain path, leading first through groves of palms, the gigantic white plumes of the blossom of the talipot palm outtopping all others; then we went through paddy fields, forded an unbridged river where I expected momentarily to be deposited in the water, and then up the side of a mountain gorge, where huge boulders encroached on the already narrow pathway, on the lower side of which, without the slightest parapet, was a precipice of several hundred feet. One false step and, for me, there would have been an end of all things. But the false step never comes, the native with his bare feet, and prehensile toes is as surefooted as a goat or a monkey.

At last we arrived at our destination, a bungalow literally covered with Cape jessamine, bougainvillea, thumbergia and other lovely creepers, built on a small plateau overhanging the gorge. Every inch of plateau has been turned into garden, or ornamental shrubbery, and in the cooler mountain air many English flowers and vegetables flourished that would pine and die in the hot low country. One hears the distant roar of the mountain torrent which works the machinery of the tea factory below, and what with the crisp air, the rush of water, and the English flowers, one could almost imagine oneself in some remote Highland shooting lodge. Inside, the bungalow was very homelike and cosy. Carpets, piano, harmonium, lovely china, glass, and silver, and above all, loads of books and magazines, left one nothing to wish for. It was a perpetual mystery to me how all these things could have been brought to their present abiding place.

On enquiry, my host told me that the piano had taken twenty-two men eleven hours to bring it the last four miles. Stranger than all, it arrived in good tune, which speaks well for ironstrung instruments. I should like to describe my walks about this mountain eerie, the giant stags' horn moss, and lilac rock cistus that I picked, my visit to the factory and the various processes of tea growing and tea making, but as Rudyard Kipling says, "That is another story." The cool bracing air soon drove the fever fiend away, and I returned home as well as ever.

Some time ago a coolie ran away from Raneetotem and hid himself in a neighbouring Estate, owned by a native. He had behaved badly to his Kangany here, who had quite properly punished him, and he persuaded the owner of the place he fled to that he was afraid of ill-treatment if he returned: so when a man went to fetch him they declined to give him up, and in fact hid him away. After about six weeks of parley, Rob got a warrant for his arrest - a run-away coolie can always be arrested if less than sixty days' pay is due. The policeman brought him here to be identified by Rob, and the Kangany. I shall never forget the scene I overheard in the verandah. Such a jabbering in Tamil and English, for the native policeman seemed to think it more dignified to talk in broken English. The poor prisoner was handcuffed, and dreadfully ashamed of appearing thus on his own Estate. Rob at once ordered the handcuffs off, saying he himself would be responsible for his safe keeping, then he addressed the man very seriously. He and the Kangany made him take a "Saami" oath that he would not run away again, which he did, prostrated on the ground, clasping his Master's feet. After a great deal more jabbering and vociferating from the policeman, and the Kangany, he was taken off to the police station there to await the sitting of the court, two days later. He is now back here, friends with everyone, and working splendidly. A "Saami" oath is so binding amongst the Tamils that no one seems to be afraid of his breaking it. On his return from Court he again prostrated himself at Rob's feet begging for forgiveness.

A curious example of Tamil marriage customs has just come to my notice. About three weeks ago, our kitchen coolie asked for leave to go to the "burying" of his brother - one Muni Andi of Hanikawelle. Rob remarked to me, "You will see he will marry his brother's wife." Sure enough, last Saturday he reappeared having married the widow, who accompanied him, also her two children. This is thought strictly proper and correct in Tamil circles. Also a girl may, and often does, marry her mother's brother; but it would be thought quite improper for her to marry her father's brother. In the reverse way a young man may marry his father's sister, but he must not marry his maternal aunt. The Kaniganys are particular who their daughters marry, and our head Kangany is just going to take his daughter, a very pretty girl of about sixteen or seventeen, to India to be married, because he says there is no one suitable about here. Some of the young girls are particularly graceful and pretty, but they go off very quickly, and women of thirty look quite haggard and old. Indeed both men and women look at their last stage of decrepitude at the age of sixty.

The "Ceylon Standard," the recognised organ of educated native opinion, has lately contained several letters and paragraphs relating to a change in Sinhalese marriage customs, which they call the dowry system. These letters show such an extraordinary divergence from the western mode of thought that I am tempted to quote (the italics are my own). The whole gist of complaint is that within the last fifty years the custom has come in of the father being expected to portion his daughter, instead of the bridegroom giving a dowry to the father. To quote from the letter in the "Standard":-

"It has now became the fashion among certain classes of the Sinhalese, to make the fitness of the partner one chooses for life, entirely a question of money. A dowry Rs1000 (L70 _at_present_rate_ _of_exchange_) is what a person who is fairly well off is expected to give a daughter. A dowry of Rs100 (L7) is what a domestic servant or a day-labourer is expected to give. Generally amongst the lowest classes dowries range between Rs100, and Rs200, and amongst the next higher classes it mounts up to a Rs1000 or Rs2000 or Rs3000 and so on. Among the lower classes it is considered a point of etiquette to ask for dowry. Matters have reached such a point that now it is a great calamity to a man to be blessed with a few daughters. In the natural course of things people will be obliged to consider their daughters a curse to their families. Besides all this, landed property must eventually become the exclusive possession of the wealthy. The middle class is threatened with extinction. The dowry system is not quite fifty years old. The dowry system which prevailed in the East from almost time out of mind like many an Eastern institution which has been discarded was the reverse of the present detestable system. That system required the bridegroom to give a dowry to the parents of the bride, instead of securing a dowry from them. Traces of this custom are to be found in the Bible, and in many sacred books of the East. But sad to say old times are changed, old manners gone. This practice of dowry seeking which is the result of the lowest forms of selfishness is certainly not a sign of the advance of civilization, but rather it is just the reverse. It is an evil which threatens to _subvert_Sinhalese_society_, and to introduce misery and discontent in place of happiness and contentment. This is a subject which should be taken up by the press and the pulpit. The system I have already referred to, virtually degrades women to a low level, in spite of the rapid advance which has been made in recent years in the higher education of females," and so on, and so on.

To our European minds it is much more degrading to a woman to be bought by her future husband for so much gold, or so many acres of land, or so many head of cattle, than that the father, to whom she owes her existence, should in his lifetime provide for her comfort, and give her for immediate use some of the worldly goods, which with his other children, she has an equitable right to inherit after his death. But as Rudyard Kipling so truly says:-

"Oh East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till earth and sky stand presently at God's great judgment seat".

This afternoon, flights of white butterflies passed over the bungalow. For several hours we watched them, as they winged their way from south east to north west, sometimes in twos, and threes, sometimes in quite a cloud. I am told that this occurs every year when the N.E. monsoon is dying away, and for some weeks before the S.W. monsoon breaks. The poor butterflies fly across the island right out to sea, and there perish. Mr. Darwin in his "Voyage of the Beagle" speaks of a similiar phenomenon in South America. Miss Gordon Cumming, also, in her happy years in Ceylon mentions similar flights of butterflies in November and December during the setting in of the north east monsoon, but in most of the instances she quotes, the butterflies were a dark colour and yellow, while, so far, all the swarms we have seen have been pure white. There is a curious superstition amongst the natives of Ceylon that in flying over Adam's Peak they change their colour.

MARCH 12th. - Again the butterflies are passing but not in such great numbers as yesterday. We see hardly any until about one o'clock in the day. I went this morning to look at a part of the Estate where the coffee is in full blossom, and a most lovely sight it is. Coffee branches grow laterally, and all along them are white waxy flowers like jessamine, growing so thickly that each branch looks like a white wand. Imagine tier above tier of these branches against the background of glossy green leaves, something like Portugal laurel. Some of the trees are not only in blossom but at the same time are loaded with the red and the green berries (here called "cherry") of the ripe, and the unripe coffee. The scent of the blossom is almost overpowering, and reminded me of a mixture of orange blossom, and paregoric and squills, if such a scent can be imagined.

Our kitchen garden has proved a success, and we feel proud to cut our own lettuces, radishes, and mustard and cress and bye and bye look forward to peas, beans, carrots, turnips, cucumbers and melons, which all promise well. I have also planted a croton hedge, and have put down a number of rose cuttings, so I hope later on literally to make "the wilderness blossom as the rose."

MARCH 14th. - The beauty of the coffee blossom has already passed, and now we are almost praying to have no rain for a few days that the blossom may set. This morning I discovered a new and perfectly unexpectedly beautiful walk. I followed a very commonplace looking path, which I pass almost daily, and it led me into a most lovely gorge, something like an Isle of Wight chine. The path clings to the precipitous side, but below a stream meanders, sometimes through groves of broad leaved plantains and huge leathery ferns, at others precipitates itself over granite boulders. The banks ars lined with cocoa, coffee and cocoanut palms, whilst beyond where the gorge opens out into the valley, one catches glimpses of the Rangalla mountains - sapphire blue in the early morning light. In this sunless spot, damp and dark with dense folliage, I positively shivered with cold, and was glad of a warm wrap, whilst on the higher ground the thermometer was standing 70 degrees in the shade. The entrance is only a stone throw from our store, so I shall often go there, if only for the sensation of feeling cool, but shall always first take the precaution of swallowing a quinine five grain tabloid, for here chill inevitably means fever.

MARCH 10th. - I have just been with Rob on his round of work. He first visited the "poochee" men. Poochee is the generic Ceylon name for pestilent insects, and truly their name is legion. Cocoa has one destructive poochee, coffee another, and cocoanut palms a third. A number of coolies are told off to go the round of the Estate, field by field, to eradicate them. It is very pretty to see their agile way of springing up the branches, and deftly tapping the tree to see if it has been attacked: if it has, they cut out the offending insect with a sharp scimitar shaped blade, placing it in a piece of hollow bamboo which they carry with them suspended by a string. The trees are all planted in lines, each man takes two lines, and not only eradicates the poochees, but cuts off all the dead branches, stacks and burns dead cocoa trees, and lops off the unnecessary cocoa suckers. In these days of disease, if there should happen to be suckers at the bottom, one is usually left, in order to give the tree a chance of growing up from the root.

Weeding coolies also go round the Estate, field by field, in the same systematic order. Their duty is to weed, stack dead timber, clean and clear the drains, and sweep the paths and roads. When there is no crop to be picked, the women are much employed for weeding. If the coolies, and especially the watchmen, find any ripe fruit, they are supposed to bring it to the bungalow, though most superintendents are quite willing they should have the surplus. It not only pleases them, but keeps them in health, for it has been found that their rice diet requires a vegetable corrective, and where coolies have been forbidden fruit and deprived of kitchen gardens, there, fever has been much more prevalent. I know of one case where this happened, afterwards a new Manager restored the gardens, and fever declined in proportionate ratio. The fruits we have here in greatest abundance are limes, almonds, pine-apples, mangoes and pawpaws. The last most valuable as a digestive, on account of the quantity of vegetable pepsine it contains. Much has lately been written on this subject, and it is not unlikely that before long, the pepsine extracted from pawpaws, which are plentiful, may become one of the minor exports of Ceylon.

When I returned to the bungalow, one of the servants met me with the extraordinary statement that "the pigeons wanted buttons." The mystery was soon solved by his appearing with an armful of pyjamas. This boy's English is of the drollest. Another day be came and stood behind me, as they always do, waiting for you first to address them, if you take no notice they give a gentle cough to call your attention. On my enquiring what he wanted, he said, "Please, lady, I want a steam." This was a puzzle. At last after many ineffectual attempts to understand, he brought me a letter, and showed me the stamp as being what be wanted.

MARCH 22nd. - Yesterday I made a desperate attempt to get a view of the river. The Mahavillagange, the most important and the longest river in Ceylon, is one of the boundaries of this Estate, and yet, would you believe it? such is the thickness of the jungle, and the under-growth of gigantic coarse grass, a belt of which divides the cocoa from the river, that nowhere can I get down to the water's edge, or even in sight of it, although I have been so near, that I could absolutely hear the ripple of the stream. In the early morning, and at sunset, which are the only possible times for walking exercise, malaria haunts the lower ground, especially in the neighbourhood of water; but yesterday was peculiarly dry and clear, so I thought I would venture. Knowing I could not accomplish my object on Raneetotem, I tried a very promising looking path on the next estate. Down and down it zigzagged till I was evidently almost on a level with the river, which just there runs through a very narrow wooded gorge; but not a glimpse could I get, even though I climbed up a boulder. Still the beautiful but tiresome belt of jungle intervened. However I did not regret my walk, for I came suddenly upon a clearing, which presented to me a new, and curious sight; three terraces on which thousands of cocoanuts were laid close together; out of the middle of a hundred or so, young cocoanut palms were growing. When these nuts are exposed to the weather they become grey, and lose the brown shade we are accustomed to see, and at the first glance, and in the distance, I thought for a moment they were skulls, and that I might have come upon some weird scene of devil worship; but a moment's consideration showed me that it was the cocoanut nursery, looking very cool and picturesque with its surroundings of plantain trees and yams. A caretaker is very necessary, for I am told there is nothing more tempting to the natives than to steal cocoanuts out of a freshly made nursery. In this place fifty were stolen in one night.

Growing cocoanuts is a very paying business. After the first seven years they require scarcely any cultivation. They are enriched by grazing tethered cattle under their shade. A tree in full bearing is supposed to produce forty nuts. These can be sold for six cents each; or if you prefer a still easier plan, each tree can be leased for a rupee. I am of course speaking now of those that are grown amongst other products. On the large low country cocoanut estates, which belong principally to burghers or to natives, everything is done on a large scale, and money made from many products of the same tree. The natives in Dumbera grow them a good deal with bananas planted between. I call them bananas, having been accustomed to the tree in Queensland, where the good sorts are so called, but here it is a dire offence, and I am continually corrected and told to say plantain.

This reminds me of another mistake which all newcomers are apt to make, namely to speak of a tea, or a coffee Plantation. This is a terrible solecism. Here in Ceylon one must speak of Estates - a tea Estate, a coffee Estate, and so on. In India they are called Gardens, and in the West Indies Plantations. Each country has its own little nomenclature, and it is amusing of what importance they think it.

"If only I were a botanist" is my constant lament and especially to-day for I have found a (to me) new flower. It has something of the form and quite the scent of a white azalea, only the flower has four distinct petals, the upper ones marked with blotches, some maroon and some yellow, quantities of long white stamens, leaves rather like a large myrtle, a woody stem with thorns. It grows on a low bush, and is not common about here. I have only found two specimens, one on a hill, the other on ground near a river; the one from the upper ground having much smaller and more glossy leaves than the other. To understand one's excitement and delight over finding some new natural object, you must have experienced what it is to live an isolated life. I am often reminded of a remark made by the little Swiss maid at a pension at Villars where I was once staying. I said something to her about the cows, and how pretty and cheerful their bells sounded. She answered, "Oui, Madame, les vaches sont la distraction des montagnes!" (The cows are the entertainment of the mountains). Dogs, and flowers, and sunsets, and cloud effects are our entertainments at Raneetotem.

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