Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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The weather is getting very hot in the daytime, but the nights are generally pleasantly cool. The thermometer all last week stood close upon ninety degrees in the shade and draught of our verandah. I find the best way not to feel the heat is to keep oneself constantly employed with writing, reading, or needlework. The difficulty is to get enough books. Friends are kind in lending them to one another, and a new work or magazine often goes the round of a whole district. Our great standby is the "Book Tambi," who is a sort of circulating library in himself. He and his attendant go from house to house with a bundle of books, some extremely uninteresting, but there are always others to be found one has not read before, and often very good novels issued in the "Home and Colonial Series." A man who buys new books and soon gets tired of them is a perfect boon to a district. Such a one we had, but he lately brought out a bride from England, and to our great disappointment, when the Tambi last paid us a visit and we asked for some of G--- Dorei's books, he gave a broad grin and said the new Dorel Sani (lady) would not let him sell any. We can only truly and devoutly hope that when she has read and re-read her library, and the novelty of the surroundings has worn off, that she may want some new books. The terms for the transaction are an old book and sixpence, which is certainly not an exorbitant sum. I would strongly advise any newcomers not to leave behind them the books they brought for the voyage. Never mind how trashy they may be, you will find them appreciated even if only for the purpose of exchange. I have even seen old lesson books in the bookman's bundle, and constantly, I am sorry to say, religious books of an antiquated school. There are "Tambis" with all kinds of merchandise, but the most useful is the man who brings calicos, prints, towels, and sheets. Khaki, flannel shiris, flannel suiting, Cannanore cloth, needles, pins, buttons, tape, ready-made coats (as worn by Kanganies), Dhurris, and other useful odds and ends. This arrival is quite an event both in the Lines and at the bungalow. First comes the Tambi, usually a Moorman in a fez, short coat, and coloured cloth put on like a petticoat, and always grasping a huge black cotton umbrella, behind him, three or four youths with bundles on their heads, each bundle being covered by a large piece of talipot palmleaf to keep off sun and rain. They stand in battle array in front of the verandah, are told to let us see what they have got, and then begins a regular battle over prices. The Tambis invariably ask twice the proper price at the beginning, and lower by very slow degrees. The best way to bargain with them is to offer exactly half what they ask, and then gradually go up a little until you see by their expression that they begin to look pleased. This sort of conversation usually occurs. "Tambi, how much will you take for that cloth." N.B. - calico always called cloth in Ceylon.

"Seventy-five cents a yard, lady."

"Oh, I could not think of giving you more than forty cents."

"No, lady. Can't take it. This cloth cost me fifty cents. I am very poor man, and can't lose money. No lady, can't take it."

"I very poor too, Tambi, can't give more than forty cents."

She goes away.

The Appu comes and tells her he has just bought a quantity from the very same piece for thirty cents. She returns, and tells the gentleman who is also bargaining for some khaki. He flies out on the Tambi.

"You are a very bad man. How dare you cheat the lady. You have just sold the same to my Appu for thirty cents, and you ask the lady for seventy-five cents. Boy (turning to the Appu), tell him he is a cheat, and a swindler, and he is never to come here again."

The man seems quite impervious to these little amenities, but smiles sweetly, and says, "The lady can have it for thirty cents." After this, business proceeds on a more satisfactory footing, everybody makes good the deficiencies in his & her wardrobe, and the Tambi leaves, you may be sure, not having got the worst of the encounter.

MARCH 24th. - To-day our head Kangany, by name Cuitlingen, starts for the Indian coast with his very pretty daughter, in search of a husband. He has heard of a possible one, and goes himself to see if he is suitable, if not, she is to be brought back again, and married here. The poor girl is quite in good spirits, and looked very bright and cheerful when she came to say good-bye, and she told Rob she would get her husband to bring her back here to live. As she knows no English I was not able to speak to her, much to my regret. A iittle brother accompanies her, who is to be left in India. The father came to Raneetotem from India, when quite a little child, in the old coffee days, and has lived here ever since, and is therefore a very valuable help to the superintendent. In spite of his very good wages, and the head money of a large gang of coolies, his wife goes out cocoa and coffee picking, but the daughter has never been allowed to work in the field. The wife is usually distinguished by a profusion of handsome gold jewellery, earrings, nose ring, bracelets, anklets, and necklaces. We gave the bride a present of ten rupees, which seemed to give great satisfaction. I cannot help feeling sincere pity for the poor ignorant child going to face a new world, and to marry a man she has never seen, and who may prove a most undesirable husband.

On returning last night, from my evening walk, I saw Rob standing outside the bungalow, laying down the law, surrounded by a number of angry men, all gesticulating at once, whilst the servants were peeping round the kitchen, craning their necks to see what was going on. I am by this time too much accustomed to scenes to be frightened, so went into the bungalow another way, and waited to hear the story. It was this - one of our coolies protested he had been attacked by the "Arachi" of a neighbouring village, had been beaten and had had his earrings stolen. The "Arachi" on the contrary declared the man was drunk, and had a row with a Sinhalese man about a deer, and that the Sinhalese took the earrings. Both men came up here to Rob to complain. As they not only contradicted each other, but also themselves over and over again he told them they must come next day with witnesses. Probably we shall hear no more about the affair for these rows subside in a wonderful way. When natives have blown off steam by a good deal of vociferation and gesticulation, and complained to their Master, they seem content to let matters drop, and in a few days we find them, and their quondam enemies the greatest of friends. We felt anxious to know the truth in this particular instance; for if the maa was really waylaid in a spot which our tapal (post) coolie passes every day, it would be a serious matter. Sometimes even the government post runners are attacked. Not long ago there was a case of the kind between Kandy and Teldeniya. The postman was waylaid and beaten, and the mail stolen from him. Now two men go together with the night mail between those places, and very curious objects they look, each carrying a long spear with a bell attached - the bell to clear the way, the spear a relic of the days (not so far distant) when they required a weapon against wild animals especially elephants, who infested the wayside jungle. Their clothes are tucked up as high as decency will allow, so that no artificial impediment may interfere with their speed. And really it is wonderful with what regularity they perform their daily task.

MARCH 26th. - The bookman has repeated his visit very quickly this time, but he had nothing very new, or interesting. Certain books appear over and over again; such as "Vanity Fair," "Pickwick" and some of Charles Reade's, also "Midshipman Easy," and books of Mayne Reid's. However, we managed to get a story by John Strange Winter, and another by Florence Warden, and as we gave two new books of a new edition, had only to pay a few cents for the exchange.

To-day another most useful itinerant has turned up. A chair-mender. He brings with him a bundle of cane, sits down in the verandah, and in a trice all your chairs are mended. It is quite wonderful with what dexterity and deftness he plies the cane backwards and forwards, doing his work with the utmost neatness and exactitude. He reseated two chairs for seventy-five cents, which, considering the distance he has to come to this out-of-the-way Estate, no one can think exorbitant.

This morning finds me the fortunate possessor of a pair of very fine Minorca fowls, won in a raffle which a lady got up to help a poor widow in Kandy. The cock and hen have just arrived, and there has already been a skirmish between our own Minorca cock and the newcomer. With the result that the homebird had an easy victory. We find Minorcas a very useful kind of poultry to keep, they are hardy, good layers, and produce fine large eggs. Raffles are frequent in Ceylon, and I have known two different people who have been fortunate enough to win a carriage and horse. I suppose the love of chance is engrained in the English character, for even I must plead guilty to finding great pleasure in winning a raffle.

Amongst our pets has long been a small Wanderoo monkey. The poor little thing was so timid that she never seemed particularly happy. Therefore, on hearing that a native had a monkey for sale, I determined to buy her a companion. Jacko duly appeared. Such a grotesquely human-looking little beast. In one ear he wears a gold earring; and earring and all only cost five rupees. At first he was very shy and made us all shriek with laughter at the way he put a sack over his head like a shawl, wrapping it round him just like any old woman. He is now getting a little more accustomed to us. I have just shown him himseif in a hand looking glass, which seemed to perplex him considerably. Our original monkey eats toast and bread, but Jacko will take nothing but boiled rice, which he demolishes in a very vulgar way - filling his mouth and the pouch at the side of his cheek over full and then giving the pouch a great slap with his hand, just as you sometimes see little children blow out their cheeks and then slap them to make a noise. They both like oranges, and deftly pick out the pips, which they eat first, evidently thinking them the "bonne bouche," then with their hand they tear the inside pulp to pieces eating it with great gusto. Of course the orange has to be cut in half, as the whole would be too large for their little hands to manipulate. Sometimes, I give them a plantain, and it is quite a pretty sight to see the neat way in which they peel the fruit before eating it. The little monkey seems much happier now she has a companion. Occasionally they sit on the round side by side, with their arms interlaced round each others neck, just like a pair of affectionate school girls.

MARCH 28th. - Everyone that can be spared from other work is now busy rubbering. We have only "Ceara" rubber, which is not quite so valuable as the "Para" species; but even this fetches a remunerative price. The rubbering season commences when the tree is leafless. For some weeks large yellow rubber leaves, and the red tint of the almond trees, have given an autumnal glow to the woods, but now the rubbers stretch their great limbs leafless to the view, and the tapping has commenced. Rubber is a milky sap lying between the inner bark and the wood. The process consists of first taking off a yard or so of outer bark, then making incisions in the inner bark from which the milky sap slowly oozes. Just below the foot of these incisions a little piece of bark is lifted and a frond of cocoanut palm is inserted into the slit, which acts as a trough down which the rubber runs into a cocoanut shell below. Every half hour, or so, the men go round to empty the shells, if full, into a large earthen chatty, and to cut each incision a little larger so that the flow may continue, otherwise it quickly dries up. Rubber will not run during the great heat of the day, so the coolies commence work at day-break, knock off at 11 a.m., begin again at 3 p.m. till 5 o'clock. When, having first washed it, they bring their collection of rubber to the store to be weighed. Each coolie collects daily from 3 to 5 lbs and it is work of which they are extremely fond.

The rubber sap is at once put into shallow earthen chatties. When sufficiently coagulated, acetic acid being sometimes added to hasten the process, the mass is turned out, all the moisture pressed out by rolling, then dried in the sun. When finished the flat semi-transparent discs form the "rubber biscuits" of commerce.

The white mass, as it is turned out of the chatties, where it has partly solidified looks like a quaking mould of most tempting blanc-mange or lemon sponge. Healthy trees, where the bark has healed, can be tapped year after year, but each season many die under the process. Some years ago, it was thought that Ceara rubber trees would form a good shade for cocoa, and accordingly many were planted on the various cocoa Estates, but it was found to be rather injurious than otherwise, for during the hottest time of the year, when cocoa requires shade most, the rubber trees are bare, and in monsoon time the foliage is so dense that it gives the undergrowth no chance of getting the little sunshine that there is. Pneumatic tyres have given quite a fillip to rubber culture. The rumour of the invention of a rubber separator, which should minimise the cost of production, makes the Ceylon planter watch for developments. It is probable that in the future, rubber may become a very valuable article of export. Several kinds, including Para and Castilloa are being planted in the island.

APRIL 22nd. - The little monsoon is now upon us. From time to time we have clouds which veil the scorching sun, and often the evening brings us refreshing thunder showers. No one who has not lived in the Tropics can imagine the delight with which we hail the rumble of distant thunder, and the eagerness with which we watch the course of the storm lest (as is sometimes the case) it should move round in a distant circuit, leaving us rainless in the centre. I have known rain fall heavily within a mile on both sides of us, leaving Raneetotem high and dry, with barely a few drops of the coveted moisture. At this time of year we exist all day in the sweltering heat dripping from every pore. Rob in the field is occupied with his work, and has to drag his dripping weary limbs about thinking as little as possible about the heat. Whilst to me, sitting alone in the bungalow, the day seems interminable. I cannot write or do any needlework, on account of the swarms of minute eyeflles which are continually making a dash at my eyes, so I have to read as much as I can, with a book in one hand, and a fan in the other, and when I can read no longer, I meditate. Needless to say my meditations do not take a cheerful tone. Even the flowers and the pot plants droop in the sultry air, and the dogs lie stretched out on the earthen floor of the verandah with scarcely a wag of the tail left in them. At last - the clock strikes four - a slight breeze springs up, clouds are banked high in two directions. The skirmishers of the S.W. monsoon meet the nearly exhausted forces of the N.E. Peals of thunder, like a discharge of artillery, reverberate from mountain to mountain, flashes of the most vivid forked and chain lightning cleave the black clouds, then comes the deluge of the much desired rain, and, hey presto! all is changed. The flowers lift their heads, the dogs get up and shake themselves, the flies vanish as by magic, and in spite of leaking roof we cast all our gloomy thoughts to the winds, and say, "After all, Ceylon is not such a bad place to live in."

This miraculous change of front occurs, just at present, two or three times a week; but we have yet a spell of great heat before us ere the S.W. monsoon bursts in full force, bringing cool weather in its train. Rob is preparing for its beneficent reign, by having thousands of holes cut for the young cocoa plants he has raised in his nurseries, in order to supply vacancies on the Estate caused by disease and neglect. The nurseries are first fenced in with stakes placed close together, then long raised beds are dug, in which the cocoa beans are placed, about a thousand in each bed. Great care is taken to throw away the end beans of each pod, as these produce inferior plants. It is wonderful to see the rate of speed at which the plants grow. They remain in the nurseries three or four months, and are then transplanted to the holes which meanwhile are being prepared for them. The transplanter which I have previously described being used for the work of moving.

Strange to say the holes are not filled in with the soil originally taken out; for what reason I cannot learn. This work of supply is one of the most important on the Estate, especially in these days of cocoa disease, when in some districts, hundreds of trees in one field have had to be cut out, and destroyed; and if they were not at once replaced, the proprietor would soon find his profits disappear. When I use the term "field" you must not imagine a division of land fenced in by walls or hedges, it is here used simply to designate different divisions of the Estate with almost imaginary boundaries. These divisions are used for the convenience of classifying work.

Holing, though one of the most important, is also one of the most unpopular of the works. The surface of the ground becomes almost as hard as a brickbat owing to the great heat. A coolie has only a primitive kind of shovel to lift out the soil, being unable to use our English spade, on account of the sharp edge cutting his bare feet; and thus deprived of the use of his own weight in digging, it really is very hard work, and every possible excuse is made in order to shirk the task. Only this week, four coolies who had been put on holing work ran away, pretending they were going to the neighbouring villages to buy curry stuffs. Enquiries are being made as to their whereabouts. When found they will be arrested, and having no arrears of wages due to them, will be punished for leaving their employment without a month's notice.

Holes are made very large, 2 x 2.5 feet, for it is said to make the difference of two years in the growth of the plant if they are placed in small holes. When the seedlings are safe in the ground, they are carefully shaded with leafy branches to protect them from the direct rays of the fierce tropical sun, which we must expect when the monsoon is over. As the shade dies away and decays, the young plant gets strong enough to stand the heat, and shoots up, leaving its nursing shelter to fall to pieces, or to become a prey to the numerous kinds of ants, which soon clear away decayed vegetation.

Our "second boy," whose attempts at English were such an amusement, has left us. He found Raneetotem too dull, and hankered after the gaieties of Kandy, these with the added attraction of five rupees a month extra pay, proved too much for him. In his place we have, a young Sinhalese "podian," fresh from a neighbouring Rest House. He does not speak English, so most of my orders have to be given in dumb show. I am getting so expert at conveying my meaning by signs that I think I must be unconsciously training for the post of matron at a deaf and dumb asylum. The few English words our "podian" does know are obviously picked up from rather unceremonious young planters, who have frequented the Rest House. I have been endeavouring to-day to teach him that an off-hand "all right" is not exactly the most suitable way of signifying he has arrived at an understanding of my orders. However, he is very willing, and active, and will doubtless in time become a good servant. Sinhalese servants wear no head covering, the younger ones and those of low caste have their hair cut moderately short like a little boy in England. The older men of higher caste have circular tortoise shell combs, and their back hair arranged in a knot high up at the back of the head. Tamil servants wear their long hair all tucked up under a large white turban, while Malays wear a neat little round cap something like a smoking cap, which they make themselves by cleverly twisting a figured handkerchief over a paper foundation.

I don't think I have mentioned the beautiful fire-flies which make the moonless nights a lovely, almost magical sight. They dart high up in the air, and in and out of the dark branches of the trees, giving the effect sometimes of a shower of falling stars, and at other times of a distant torch-light procession. I was considerably startled last night on waking to find apparently a little lamp burning on my pillow, and another on the sheet at my side, whilst in different parts of the room were twinkling stars. Of course, as soon as I was fully awake, I knew at once that they were fire-flies, which had taken refuge from the fierce gale blowing outside. One night we found an extraordinary many legged insect climbing up the wall of my son's room. It was covered with hard scales, and was about three and a half inches in length. It carried in its tail two brilliant green lights resembling those of a fire-fly but much larger and more luminous. Before we could catch it, it had crawled away, which was perhaps as well for us, as the coolies afterwards told us the bite is very painful.

During this month the estate appears to be much frequented by wild animals. Lately one of the watchmen shot a spotted deer, it was quite young, and about the size of a kid with a lovely small head. We had it roasted whole, the flesh was white, and much resembled a tender turkey both in taste and appearance and had not the slightest gamey flavour. Last night he brought the quills and leg of a porcupine. Porcupine flesh is considered a delicacy, but I can't say I much liked it; it tasted like pork with a soupcon of musk. One morning a young drake was waddling about in front of our kitchen picking up any tit bit he could find, when a jackal crept stealthily up and gave one snap and carried him off before anyone could interfere. Rob intends having a hunt after elk and wild pig, and so perhaps I may soon have more to say on this subject.

Truly our life is such an uneventful one that I am often tempted not to write at all. It is just these trivialities which make up the sum of existence in this remote place, and no true idea of our daily round could be given, were I to omit this very "small beer." Life in the quietest, and dullest English village would be a vortex of gaiety compared to that of Raneetotem. And yet to a lover of Nature in all its forms - human and otherwise - how infinitely more amusing is this than the perpetual round of tea parties, which usually distinguishes village life. Above all, one is never bored, at all events by others, though I must honestly confess one does sometimes bore oneself, and one gets occasionally tired of the groove of one's own stupid thoughts when there is nothing to distract the attention.

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