Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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JULY 6th. - I have just returned from a visit of a few days to a very fine tea estate in the Matale district. You will have some idea of the magnitude of the operations carried on there, when I tell you that lately fifty thousand pounds of made tea was turned out in three weeks. It has the finest factory I have yet seen; and here I was introduced for the first time to a machine called a packer, which by dint of a judicious shaking motion packs the tea into its box more evenly and firmly than can be done by human agency; with the additional advantage of greater cleanliness, for the old method was for the coolies to pack the tea, pressing it down with their hands, and even sometimes, in the larger boxes, with their feet.

The neighbourhood of Matale is very beautiful. The town lies at the foot of a precipitous mountain which appears to be the end spur of a range of hills trending away to the south west. On its heights are several tea Estates, and I caught sight of bungalows perched like eagles' nests on what appeared from below to be mere platforms crowning pinnacles of rock. Near the foot of this rugged mountain mass is the famous rock temple of Aliwooharie, much more interesting to my mind than the temple of Buddha's tooth at Kandy. Aliwooharie is only about a hundred yards from the north road to Jaffna, one of the main arteries of traffic in Ceylon. It is said that here the Buddhist doctrines were first reduced to writing about a century before Christ. The temple is approached by a flight of steep stone steps, which are nearly worn away by the feet of the many pilgrims who, for over two thousand years, have worshipped in this curious place - a huge mass of rock cleft by fissures of various dimensions.

The principal one, which lies nearly north and south, is many feet in width, and has on its western side various caves which have been artificially enlarged and even in some degree, built up with masonry, into which doors are fitted. Inside each of the caves are colossal statues of Buddha, far larger than life. The Buddhas recline each on a stone platform, and have faces expressive of the utmost gentleness, and a calm, suggestive of the blissful state of "Nirvana," to which all good Buddhists desire to attain. One cave, however, contained a very alert-looking, sitting up Buddha, with no beauty of expression, only a great deal of cunning and cleverness. Other colossal painted figures, carved in relief, stand round the caves. The walls are decorated, with rather grotesque frescoes depicting the punishments of the wicked, or else with lovely arabesque patterns that would delight the heart of the Kensington School of Art Needlework, so graceful and original are the designs. I was astonished at the freshness of the colours, but the friend who accompanied me, an old resident of the district, tells me that it has all been touched up within a few years. There is a small hut built for the priests amongst the rocks. I should think many offerings must find their way here, as it is on the direct road to India, and, therefore, very accessible to pilgrims. The smaller rock fissures are inhabited by thousands of bats. In the day-time they hang from the projecting portions like torn black banners, at night they come out in ghoulish hosts, the priests, however, like to have them there. I put my head into several of these clefts, but quickly withdrew for the horrible odour was unbearable. There is another much larger rock temple at Dambulla, but this I have not seen.

With the customary hospitality of Ceylon I was invited to accompany my friends to breakfast at a planter's bungalow about nine miles from Matale, still further on the Great North Road. It was a most interesting drive. Every minute one kept passing typical scenes of tropical life, both animate and inanimate. Every variety of palm lined the road. Here hedges of aloe, throwing up their tall blossom spike high in the air, there perennial sunflowers made a blaze of yellow. Now and then one came to avenues of cotton trees, the lower trunks clothed and interlaced with the luxuriant foliage of the pepper plant. Whilst all along the road we met groups of coolies in their costumes of orange, every shade of red, heliotrope, and white. This was once the main route by which the coolies went and came from Southern India. The route was closed by Government lest plague might thereby be imported, but it is much to be hoped, in the planting interest, that it may soon be re-opened.

At Matale, which is the railway terminus, there was a quarantine station at which the immigrants were detained if they had not been sufficiently long on their journey to fulfil the regulation number of days between leaving India and going to an Estate. To cater for the wants of these travellers, native shops line the road at frequent intervals, where chatties, curry stuffs, rice, dried fish, fruit and cakes are sold. There are also many shady ambulams wherein they could rest from the heat and glare of the mid-day sun, and cook their simple food. As I pass along I am struck for the thousandth time, with the happy contented faces of the natives, so different from the careworn, weather-beaten countenances of the same class at home, and am more than ever convinced of the influence of climate on happiness. In this favoured country, so little suffices for sustenance. Necessary clothing is reduced to a minimum, and a few logs of wood, which in the low country can be picked up in five minutes for cooking purposes, is all that is needed for fuel. On the Estates, comfortable rooms and medical attendance are provided, free of expense, and villagers make their own huts of wattle and daub, thatched with straw from the neighbouring paddy fields. So there is none of the strain and privation, and anxiety to make both ends meet, which takes the heart out of the English peasantry, and makes them old before their time.

Whilst I was away, two deaths occurred at Raneetotem. One, that of my pet monkey who had become quite my friend and companion. Poor little thing, she accidently took some iodoform, and was poisoned. The other death was that of an old man who had spent forty-five years on this and the neighbouring estate. Latterly he had been too old and weak to do much work, so was given the office of beating the muster tom-tom. From long practice he had beacome quite expert, and rattled off a tattoo with great effect. He died from that illness so fatal to coolies - pneumonia, because he would not stay in his lines, but insisted upon being helped into the sunshine and even the wind. I must say I rather sympathise with him in his desire to escape from the dark, windowless room. I have always thought how pleasant it would be to die out in the open, with nothing between you and the blue canopy of heaven.

JULY 16th. - All appearance of the monsoon has passed away, we are again panting for rain, and what is still more important so are the cocoa and coffee bushes, and we tremble for the fate of the eight thousand young supplies that were so lately planted, in full expectation of the customary rains. So far this has been a year of drought, which has materially diminished the amount of crop and consequently the returns which ought to go into the pockets of the owners. There is ever a pleasing uncertainty attending tropical agriculture, and for this reason eight or nine years purchase is considered a sufficient price to pay for planting property, excepting under very exceptional circumstances. For example, the land being situated close to a railway, or in a good residential neighbourhood with an unusually healthy climate, and then the value is of course higher.

"It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good." The drought that has been the bane of the spring cocoa crop, has been most beneficial to the cotton crop, and has enabled it to be picked in first rate condition. There is something to me most attractive in the sight of great bales of snow white cotton wool (for that is what it looks like), and I have been amusing myself by making cushions of all that I could glean about the Estate, for in spite of the vigilance of the Kanganies a few pods here and there escape notice. Just before leaving home, I popped into my box a number of stray pieces of bazaar odds and ends, such as bits of cretonne, art muslin, silks, art serges, etc. I have found them most useful in decorating this most undecorative bungalow. I should strongly advise anyone coming out here to bring with them everything and anything of that sort that they can lay hands on. Also a few cheap picture frames. Articles that would seem tawdry and makeshift in an English drawing-room have quite a different aspect when it comes to filling an apartment with four bare white-washed walls, and coir matted floors.

The ants have made another assault on my bedroom. This time they began by making one of their nests in the floor, and gradually worked their way through the coir matting, to a place that was covered with a strip of grass matting. However, a good dose of oil has for the time put them to flight. Yesterday, I saw a wonderful example of the work of white ants. For some time hollows and holes had appeared in one of the roads. On investigation Rob found that a huge colony of white ants had completely undermined the road. When the surface was removed it left a cavity twelve feet by ten feet. This had to be filled with large stones to prevent their returning, as doubtless they will try to do.

I am much struck by the seasons in Ceylon apparently repeating themselves twice in the year. The identical trees which flowered last January are now blossoming again in July, the birds are pairing for the second time, and everything gives one the impression of a second Spring.

I have just seen the most beautiful tree I have ever had the good luck to meet with. It is called by Europeans "The Ceylon Laburnum," and by the natives "Connoopoo." It bears a striking likeness to laburnum in form of growth, in colour and in leaf, but the flowers instead of being shaped like a pea, resemble a large buttercup with very long stamens, and the sprays of blossom are very much longer. I measured several, and they were from twenty four to twenty seven inches in length. The Botanical name of this extraordinary tree is "Cassia fistula." The seed pods it produces are as curious as the flowers are beautiful. When ripe they look as if the trees were hung with ebony rulers, as they are black and round and from two to three feet long, and about an inch in diameter.

In the Pavilion grounds at Kandy, I saw another vegetable monstrosity. What flowers the tree bears I do not know, but when I saw it, it was in full leaf, and from many branches depended what from a distance I should have declared were bunches of tallow candles, the veritable old tallow dips of long ago, which may still sometimes be seen hanging from the ceilings of very remote village shops. On nearer approach I found that even the wick at the end was mimicked by these curious appendages. The number of flowering forest trees is a most noticeable feature in Ceylon scenery, and they give a richness of colour to wooded landscapes that I have never noticed elsewhere. Our young bungalow servant takes a delight in dressing the dinner table with flowers and leaves, and makes lovely geometrical designs that would astonish and fill with envy an English parlourmaid. The correctness of his eye, and the lightness of his touch are quite remarkable.

Yesterday, as I sat in the verandah, I was forcibly reminded of my childhood, when as a good little girl with my hands behind me I was wont to stand up and repeat the well known lines "On a chameleon." There, straight in front of me, crawling up the stem of a loquat tree, was a real live chameleon. Instead of moving away, when it saw it had attracted my notice it remained perfectly still for about ten minutes, changing colour, from red to green, then brown, then blue, then yellow, and finally once more red, in all cases (excepting when its feet became blue) the hideous head of the creature appeared the first part of it to change.

In the early morning I had a disagreeable experience. As I was plucking a small kind of edible passion-fruit from a tangle of creepers lying on the ground, a tic polonga snake wriggled its green body from almost under my hands; giving me a shiver of fright, and a great feeling of thankfulness that I had escaped from the deadly poison of its bite. Twice before, I have just avoided treading on snakes. The knowledge that they are lurking about in the grass, and amongst the creepers, and that every leafy thicket may possibly hide one or more, rather detracts from the pleasure of my walks and makes it imperative to avoid, as much as possible, short cuts, and excursions into the jungle.

Down here in the low country, we are debarred, owing to the danger of snakes, from having our bungalows covered with the wealth of beautiful creepers, which make an up country home a perfect bower of loveliness. But we have, and especially on Raneetotem, one great compensation for many other disadvantages, that is a superabundance of fruit. I use the word superabundance advisedly, for at present we have a number of pawpaws, about sixteen pineapples, also mangoes, custard apples, pomegranates, and limes all wanting eating. I only wish I had a fairy wand, and could transport divers young nieces and nephews into their midst. My favourite fruit is the pawpaw; it has very much the appearance and taste of a superlatively good rock melon, but with the addition of a peculiar flavour of its own. It is said to contain a large amount of vegetable pepsine. Some scientific men are trying experiments in order to find out if the pepsine can be profitably extracted, and pawpaws grown for commercial purposes.

This is a land of surprises. This morning I passed a coolie woman washing clothes at the dam, to my astonishment she suddenly said, "Bon jour, madame." The mystery was soon explained, she is one of a new gang of coolies just come to Raneetotem, and is a native of the Isle of Bourbon. Unfortunately the French of the Mauritius and Bourbon coolies is a curious mixture of Tamil and French, so I fear I shall not be able to understand much that she says to me.

Last night we were sitting down to dinner, when most unmistakable sounds of a row came up from the Lines, not by any means an ordinary row, but such sounds as you might expect to attend an Irish faction fight. Shrill penetrating women's voices seemed to lead the way, then the deeper shouts of many men, and the barking of dogs - which together made a very pandemonium of noise. Rob and I expected them every moment to appear at the bungalow, and sometimes the shouts seemed ominously near. However, he sent a messenger to tell them if they did not stop that noise at once, he would fine every Kangany in those Lines. Immediately there was comparative peace, although one could occasionally still hear low mutterings. Eventually the rival factions did come up. The dispute turned out to have been begun by a quarrel between two women. One had borrowed from the other three rupees which she would not repay. So the lender took the law into her own hands, seized the gold earrings from off the debtor's ear nearly slitting an ear and losing one earring which, as they were a valuable pair, costing Rs19 was much resented. Whereupon the woman and her husband went and beat the husband of the money-lender, who happened to be store watchman. All the other coolies took sides and joined in the fray, and hence the hubbub. Doubtless in a day or two they will all be the greatest of friends; this is coolie nature.

JULY 20th. - "Peter Piper picked a peck of pepper" persistentIy repeats itself in my brain to-day. Our Peter Pipers are picking not only pecks but bushels of pepper, and a very pretty crop it is. It grows in clusters about two inches long, depending from a vine with oval, deeply veined leaves, which twine in luxuriant masses up the stems of forest trees. The pepper berries when first picked and piled up in the store are a study in greens and reds, for as they ripen they turn a lovely coral colour, becoming when dried the ordinary black peppercorns we are accustomed to use in England. The cultivation of the pepper vine is said to be increasing in Ceylon. Chilis are another product which do well in the low country, and would surely pay to grow when it is taken into consideration that more than one million are imported annually into this island from India. We have numbers of the smaller chilis growing in various parts of the Estate. They are much appreciated by the coolies, who use them in their curry, and also by our Appu who makes from them chili vinegar. In Ceylon the cooks do not use readymade curry powder, but send to the market for a pound of "curry stuff," which consists of a most miscellaneous collection of articles divided into separate parcels, the names of some I did not know, and when I enquired from the appu, he only replied vaguely. "They are just curry stuff, lady." So I was none the wiser, but I recognised garlic, chilis, maldive fish, ginger, aniseed, and grated cocoanut. From these the cooks compound a mixture of their own, and it is generally excellent, especially when we eat with it, as a condiment, home made mango, or tamarind chutney.

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