Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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JUNE 7th. - The "Big Monsoon" has come. This is the one topic of conversation; our correspondents repeat it, and so do the local newspapers. You, too, would think it an important event if you had been longing and wearying for it for weeks; we have been panting and gasping under a cloudless sky with the shade thermometer registering over 90 degrees day after day; with nights little cooler than the days; miasma mists creeping and crawling up the course of the two rivers; sick coolies found fever-struck lying about the Estate, and numbers coming morning and evening up to the bungalow for medical treatment.

Barring one, this is the latest monsoon on record. Clouds have, for same days, been banking up in the south west, and on the night of June 5th, the real burst was upon us. A furious gale from the south west sprung up suddenly, bringing with it a deluge of rain; it has gone on blowing for the last two days. A real good old gale, that reminds one of the Equinoctials at home. The wind has all the freshness of its landless home in the southern ocean, and blows straight across Ceylon, carrying all the miasma and stagnant air away to the Bay of Bengal. We have all revived under its influence; the animals are quite frisky, and the cocoa and coffee have lost the drooping aprarance which the great heat produced. Superintendents now work with redoubled energy, and very requisite this is, for during monsoon time all the planting of the year has to be done, and the contents of the cocoa nurseries, which have been reared with such care during the hot season, have now to be placed in the holes already prepared for their reception. The importance of supply will be understood, when it is taken into consideration that cocoanuts usually take seven years, and cocoa four to six years to come into bearing; so if trees die, and are not replaced, a time must come when the owner will find himself without any crop.

June is a particularly busy month, for not only is there the work of supply, but there is the spring crop of cocoa to be picked and cured, as well as rubber to be collected and cotton to be picked. All the work comes with a rush. At Raneetotem, we are now mustering at five a.m. to get more time, as it frequently rains in the late afternoon, and wet weather suits neither cotton nor rubber. Ceylon is not the place for any lazy young man who likes to lounge down to nine o'clock breakfast, unless he means to turn over a very new leaf.

I have mentioned before the necessity of a Planter knowing something of medicine, and during this unhealthy season, I have become more and more convinced of the need. During the last mouth my son has had to treat cases of chicken-pox, measles, acute rheumatism, violent and prolonged bleeding from the nose, dog bite, numerous bad cuts, ophthalmia, as well as fever of a more or less bad type. From four o'clock in the afternoon until half past, and in the early morning, patients may always be seen about our bungalow waiting to be prescribed for. Yesterday a baby was brought with bad ophthalmia in one eye; the poor little thing had its head plastered over with a kind of mash of green leaves, which on the advice of a Tamil woman had been applied, fully expecting a speedy cure. In all urgent cases the doctor is sent for, but as he lives five miles off, and has an enormous district to travel over, it is sometimes two days before he can come. There is an excellent hospital for coolies at Teldeniya to which any cases are sent who are too ill to be nursed in their own lines. It not only adds greatly to the comfort of the labourers, but it is a great saving to an Estate, when the superintendent can treat the less serious cases, without calling for the services of the medical officer, as fees and mileage come often at the end of the year to a good round sum. Here I should like to mention a very simple cure for chicken-pox, which Tamils firmly believe in and which we have found in every case to be quite effectual. It is to drink the milk of unripe cocoanuts called a coorimba. Two or three coorimbas usually cure a mild attack of chicken-pox. They are indeed, at any time, a most refreshing drink, and are much used by Planters during an exhausting day's work in the field, or on shooting expeditions.

At this season, owing to the swarms of small eye flies, sewing becomes a work of difficulty, and one is apt to get behindhand with the household mending; piles of underwear and socks, to say nothing of larger garments, remind one that something must be done to lessen the heap. Not feeling equal myself to the effort of fighting the flies, and at the same time sewing with half-closed eyes, I bethought me of an ayah living on the next Estate. Here she is now, sitting on a mat on the floor of the back verandah, sewing away for dear life, and looking quite a picture. She is clothed in many folds of white Indian muslin, with a three inch border of crimson and yellow, her hair smoothly braided, and twisted into a knot at the back, through which gold-headed ornamental pins are passed; a necklace of large gold beads, a nose ring formed of a good sized garnet set in gold, gold earrings, silver armlets, bracelets, and rings complete her costume. She is a Roman Catholic, and has been educated by the nuns at the Roman Catholic school for Tamil girls at Kandy, where she is now about to send her own little girl. For the sum of five rupees a month, the children are boarded, taught Sinhalese, Tamil and English, the "three R's," and to sew neatly. If they show any great ability they are educated to be teachers, otherwise when old enongh they are drafted off to respectable situations as lady's or children's ayahs. Anatchi lived in good situations until she married, and speaks English particularly well, with a refined gentle accent, very refreshing for me to hear. She is now a widow and lives with a married sister, until such time as her baby boy is old enough for her to leave him, to take another situation as ayah.

This is another instance of the strength of the ties of family affection amongst the Tamils. None of them would ever think of refusing an asylum to an unfortunate near relation, and the sons even take over the debts of a dead father and mother, and make them their own, even when the departed ones have left absolutely no property to which the son might succeed.

Amongst other information, Anatchi gave me a list of Tamil names, which I append for anyone interested in nomenclature.


Anatchi Iyanco Minatchi Viavery Velitchi Villane Amara Mutucarpen Carmatchi Marthan Sandana Shavaran Sagoma Armoghan Jesseli Ramasamy Ponamoni Verapen Vrigama Perinal Verama Sinasamy Parlama Carpen Carpie Raman Papachie Supiah Arnamaly Velaithan Vuleama Samhan Mootama Vitie Odaya Ringosamy Sinama Arlandy Marthaka Torasamy Veri Arnamally Cathari Kutalingen Poonama Arawally Soorama Mayapen Maria Kana (Mary) Marimutte Uisabet Muniandi Maru Sinatamby Parpoo Colundayan Selumbi Cevittia Multama Ponayab Adaki Katheravale Rami Sinnia Soonderen Nargan

Strange to say Elizabeth is quite a common name amongst the women.

To our great disappointment and sorrow, our pet mouse deer has died. It had learnt to be quite tame and even to follow us about in the rooms of the bungalow. When it was first brought here by one of the watchmen it was so young that we had to feed it with a baby's bottle, but it had long passed that stage, and five minutes before it died appeared in perfect health. A convulsion seized the poor little animal and it was gone in a few moments. The loss of a pet is really quite a grief in our isolated existence. Puppies and all young animals as well as poultry seem extremely liable to be attacked with convulsions, and the first fit is generally fatal.

The monkeys thrive; we call them Punch and Judy. Judy has taken a fancy to me and creeps up my dress into my arms to be petted. The other day she was allowed to go at large for a short time, and when it was time to put her back in her cage for the night, she climbed up a pawpaw tree, and performed a series of most amusing gymnastics. When her would-be captors reached her branch she swiftly swung herself on to another, hanging sometimes by her tail and sometimes by her hands and feet to twigs far too slender for anyone heavier than herself. At last, after amusing us for at least a quarter of an hour, she was caught and put into durance vile. Punch is of a more sedate disposition, he is very greedy and always cries out piteously for food, whenever be sees the servants carrying dishes to or from the kitchen. We feed them on boiled rice and fruit, but they much appreciate bread, sugar and lettuce leaves.

JUNE 15th. - We have had a tremendous southwest gale; at times I thought the roof of the bungalow would have been blown away. Large branches of trees were snapped off like so much match wood, and occasionally we heard a mighty crack, and then a thud, telling that some exhausted rubber tree had fallen a victim to the blast. The gale was accompanied by heavy rain, which dripped through the badly tiled roof in all directions; so you may imagine it was not a comfortable experience, but uncomfortable as it was, we bore it with cheerful equanimity, for we knew that the fresh cool breezes brought renewed health in their train, and the drenching rain meant a good planting season, and revived life to the drooping cocoa, and coffee.

These low country bungalows are built for the hot weather, and are not suited for wind and rain, as you can well imagine when I tell you that our small sitting-room has two double glass doors, two windows opening outwardly, another door, to say nothing of a high unceiled roof, only lined with thin white calico, no fireplace, and a large open space at the top of the partition dividing it from the next room. This airiness of build is essential in the great heat, but last night we longed for a cosy fire, and an English room, in spite of the thermometer in the verandah standing at seventy degrees at ten p.m. It is wonderful how cold we feel in what in England would be thought a high temperature, so accustomed have we been during the last three months to a thermometer ranging somewere from eighty-eight to ninty-flve degrees. By force of contrast now, anything in the seventies seems cold and pleasant, nor do we ever feel oppressed until eighty-four is passed. The other day Rob was wearing a warm Norfolk jacket, originally worn for shooting in Wales, and he was only just comfortably warm in it, with a temperature in the verandah of seventy-two degrees. I am beginning to wonder whether the garments are yet invented in which I can face an English "nor'easter."

We had a serious scare last night. At afternoon muster, two little girls aged respectively eleven and thirteen, and a boy of nine were missing. On enquiry it was found that neither of them had been seen since 2.30 that afternoon when the elder girl told her father that they three had been ordered to work in another field. Rob at once organized a search party, for as there is much waste ground and a good deal of jungle on outlying parts of the Estate he feared the children had strayed and lost their way, and when benighted would probably get frightened and lie down in the jungle and perhaps, it being monsoon time, get seriously ill from exposure. Added to this, cheetahs have been killed here as well as other wild animals, so it was imperatively necessary that the children should be found before darkness set in. He took the precaution to send messengers to the neighbouring villages and even to the nearest railway station, lest they might have been decoyed away by someone anxious to get extra child labour. When these steps had been taken, Rob and the majority of the men hastened to search the Estate. They returned about seven o'clock to snatch a hurried meal and to fetch every available lantern and then continued the search, looking behind every rock and into every patch of jungle, but with no result, excepting that the baskets the children were using were found on an outlying grass field, far away from where they were said to have been at work.

The search was continued more or less all night - the fathers and mothers meanwhile had worked themselves into a frantic state of hysterical grief - the women throwing themselves on the ground shrieking, and the men exercising scarcely more self-control. When morning broke the father of one of the girls remembered he had relations at an Estate about four miles distant, and that his daughter had once accompanied him there, so with very faint hope of success he set out to see if she could have gone thither. This was what had happened, and the children were found bright and happy, and much enjoying their new surroundings, they had planned a little tour of the neighbourhood staying three days on each Estate. Needless to say they were brought back at once - and at the next afternoon muster presented before the Dorei to be punished. Rob fined each of the girls. The father of the boy made a special request that he would beat him, but when cross-questioned his answers were so funny that Rob could only laugh, as did all the coolies. He said, Adam-like, that the elder girl was the ringleader, that she promised him one eighth of a bushel of rice, a new cloth, and to work in the same gang as herself; that, when he refused to go, she and the other girl each seized one of his hands and ran away with him until they had taken him so far he was afraid to come back. He was dismissed with a severe reprimand. All's well that ends well - and child nature seems much the same, whether the faces be white or brown.

The work of "supplying" goes on apace. More than four thousand cocoa plants have been put out in less than ten days. It is interesting to see how this is managed. The young plants have grown in their nurseries to the height of about eighteen inches. One coolie gets them up with the transplanter (already described), another wraps them up in semi-circular pieces of plantain stem, whtch a third man is preparing by cutting the pieces of stem the exact length of the ball of earth raised by the transplanter; a fourth ties them round at the top and bottom, whilst a fifth carries them off in baskets to the holes in various parts of the Estate already prepared to receive them. Where time and expense is an object, there is a cheaper way of supplying, namely by planting seed in much smaller holes, but many planters think that the cocoa does not come on so fast as that grown in nurseries.

Verily, Ceylon is a land much troubled with insects. Just now I am waging war with the white ants; only yesterday they spoilt my black serge skirt. I had converted an unused doorway which stood in a recess, and was one of five doors in my room, into a hanging wardrobe, first nailing clean grass matting over the door. I flattered myself when it was completed with a pretty cretonne curtain that it was both ornamental and useful, in fact quite a work of genius. For the last five months it has answered its purpose admirably, butyesterday I took down my dress, which I had only worn last Sunday, to find it covered from hem to waistband with a raised zig-zag pattern in red clay. This was all the work of white ants who make their home in these little red tunnels of clay. On further inspection I found the grass matting riddled through and through, and behind it quite an architectural structure, which the ants had formed to help them to climb the walls and thus reach the roof. It wasn't the work of many minutes to tear down the matting, scrape away the clay, and pour kerosine oil in all the crevices of the door, but alas my poor dress required a longer process to restore it to anything like a wearable condition, and it will never quite recover from the onslaught. We have to keep continually watching the verandah posts, lest they may some day suddenly collapse, turned into powder by these depredators. I believe there is one wood, red toona, which withstands them.

Not content with doing all the mischief they can in the bungalow, they also attack the roads, and it is not an uncommon sight to see a large hole, or holes, in the very middle of the roadway, where it has been undermined by ants of one kind or another, so it behoves a horseman to keep a bright look out.

This is one side of the question, but as in most things there is another. Ants are valuable scavengers and are of the greatest use in destroying decayed vegetable and animal matter, dead leaves, and branches of trees, rotten fruit, and even dead insects and birds disappear by their agency as if by magic. The work achieved by ants is a constant sermon on the power of numbers when united for a given purpose; and also a reminder of the old Scotch proverb, "Mony a mickle, makes a muckle." We have here numbers of the high ants nests so ably described by Professor Drummond in his work on "Tropical Africa." In our part of Ceylon the larger nests that have been deserted by their original builders are often inhabited by cobras, which are held sacred by the coolies, and we see the mouth of the holes sprinkled with ashes of fowls which have been sacrified in their honour. In connection with ants Rob yesterday observed a curious occurrence:- In passing a tree coated with red clay by the white ants, he knocked it all down thereby depriving the little creatures of their home. In a few seconds a colony of large red ants, which he had not previously noticed, were on the spot. They carried off the white ants bodily into their own nest, and in a few more seconds not one was to be seen.

JUNE 20th. - To-day I have been giving an object lesson to our new Dhobie or washerman. We have tried all the Dhobies around, but find one and all quite ignorant of the rudiments of starching and ironing. All are alike destructive to anything in the shape of lace or frills, and all equally unpunctual and dilatory. To-day our specimen of the tribe brought my pocket handkerchiefs unironed, so I had a flat iron heated, ironed them myself; and then sent some out for his inspection. I believe he had the grace to be ashamed and promised better things next time.

I carried on my laundress operations in the verandah and was surrounded by a group of openmouthed spectators, the horse-keeper, poultry-boy, appu, kitchen cookie, and Nipper all watching the process with deep interest. Here, I should like to recommend any ladies coming to the planting districts of Ceylon to have the greater part of their garments made plainly, and to eschew the temptation of dainty and fragile trimmings. I would also strongly advise them to bring with them a box-iron (I could not get one in Kandy) with which to smooth their ribbons and laces. Servants cannot be made to keep the other kind of iron clean, and as it has to be heated in the ashes of the cooking place, it is very apt to get greasy and otherwise dirty.

JUNE 21st. - The longest day. How different from England. Day breaks in Ceylon about five a.m. and it gets dark at seven p.m. One misses the long northern twilight which would he so delightful in this hot country where active exercise is unpleasant until four p.m. We have some compensation in the exquisitely beautiful starlight and moonlight nights, than which nothing could be more enjoyable. All the tropical flowers seem to give their choicest scent at night, and the weary frame draws in fresh vigour from the absence of glare, and the cool evening breeze.

Yesterday, as I was driving along the Government road I encountered something quite unexpected, a great big elephant with a Sinhalese man perched on his neck. They are much used for moving large pieces of timber or stone and can be hired for that purpose. There is a regulation that they are not to use the Government roads excepting at certain hours of the day, when there is likely to be little traffic; for they are alarming objects to other animals. If they should chance to meet a conveyance it is the custom for them to be taken into the jungle, at either side of the road. This particular elephant was guided into a patch of cocoa, until I had passed, but my little hackery bull did not take the slightest notice of him. At Katugostata, near Kandy, it is quite one of the sights to drive and see these working elephants bathed in the Mahavillagange River.

I was lately taken to see a new clearing meant for cocoa and coffee, and was much interested in the work. This is the routine - first the tract of land intended to be planted is cleared of jungle. The large trees being cut to within two or three feet of the ground. The whole is then set on fire, and allowed to burn until nothing remains but a few stumps, these disappear in the course of time by the help of ants and natural decay. When the fire has done its work, roads, and drains are traced and made; then an army of coolies set to work to make holes for the future plants. These holes are dug in regular lines; in this instance coffee was first planted, leaving space enough between for cocoa which, however, is not put in until a year later. Were the two planted simultaneously, the more vigorous growth of the cocoa would soon cause it to overpower and overshadow the coffee, which requires quite a year's start to enable it to hold its own. Should it be intended to add cocoanuts they would be planted at the same time as the coffee.

JUNE 28th. - At last I have seen our kitchen. Both the servants were seized with illness. I thought it would be quite inhuman not to go and see the little boy of thirteen, so I proceeded to visit them; heralded, unasked, by the kitchen and tapal coolies as well as the horse-keeper, all calling out in Tamil: "The Dorei Sani (lady) is coming. The Dorei Sani is coming." So when I got to their room which opens out of the kitchen, two figures stood at the door, wrapped head and all in folds of white muslin, looking very much like the old pictures of Lazarus, rising from the grave. Poor things! they seemed pleased and cheered at seeing me. Both ave been ill for some days, the one suffering from chicken-pox, and the other from influenza and fever, and we have been at the mercy of the kitchen coolie as regards cooking, and the horse-keeper as regards washing up, whilst I have been house parlour maid. These are little contretemps which ladies going to the Colonies must expect, but it isn't often one has the bad luck to have both bungalow servants laid up at the same time.

The kitchen was not nearly so bad as I expected, and everything seemed clean and tidy and orderly, hut the fire-place was a real curiosity. Picture to yourself a broad stone shelf, four feet high, extending the whole width of the room. On this the wood fire is made. Whilst iron bars laid on bricks support the saucepans and in one corner is a clay oven. When I saw it, there was only a small fire in the middle of the shelf, but obviously this could be extended to any width you might require, according to the number of saucepans in use. I have often seen a fire on the hearth in Wales and Scotland, to say nothing of Queensland, but never before have I seen a raised hearth, it is a capital idea and prevents the perpetual stooping which is so tiring to the cooks.

At Raneetotem an open window is close to the hearth on both sides of the room, giving the requisite light and air. Other bungalows where I have visited have nice large American stoves constructed to burn wood, but as I have mentioned before, this Estate is rather beyond the range of civilized ways, as far as the appliances provided for us are concerned. It is supposed only to be a berth for a young Sinne Dorei, and ladies are not expected. I am the first, and shall probably be the last who has ever lived here. Civilization and the Government road stop at Ma---ne, three miles nearer Kandy.

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