Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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AUGUST 25th. - Since I last wrote in my Journal, much that was unexpected has happened. In the first place we have been moved from Raneetotem to an Estate some miles nearer Kandy. Rob's lingering malarial attack pointed out only too surely that he had remained already too long in that exhausting climate, so his employers ordered an exchange of billets. In consequence we find ourselves in a charming bungalow in a much better climate, with refreshingly cool mornings and evenings, with near neighbours, bicycling roads, and even a good tennis court. It is rather humiliating to find the effect a good house has on one's sensations. When I sit writing here in my pretty little drawing-room, surrounded by photographs of my dear ones at home, and look across a broad white pillared verandah on to a rose garden in which my old friends, Gloire de Dijon, Triomphe de Rennes, Marshal Niel, Baroness Rothschild, Captain Christy, Fellenberg, and many others flourish, I feel as if I had returned once more to this century, instead of living as at Raneetotem in an environment which constantly reminded one of the times of the patriarchs. However I am glad to have had the experience and to have seen what the daily life of a remote low country Estate is like.

Our move was performed by the help of bullock carts and a curious sight it was to see the process of loading. Three carts stood in a row, each the nucleus of a busy group of coolies; a few yards away lay the six bullocks patiently chewing the cud until they were wanted, and not in the least disturbed by the barking of dogs, the screams of the monkey, the cackle of geese, and the crowing of cocks, as they were each and all caught and deposited in their respective carts. A great difficulty was how to convey three broods of chickens which were really too young to face the shaking and the hot sun; ten of these eventually died, but all the rest of the beasts and birds reached their new home safe and sound.

Another problem was the conveyance of the numerous pot plants, which are the ornaments of the verandah, and the pride and joy of almost every planter's heart.

At last everything was got under weigh, and amidst the salaams of the kanganies, and the open eyed curiosity of a number of little black children, Rob and I took our leave of Raneetotem, where I, at least, have spent a most interesting and never to be forgotten eight months.

I am told by the older inhabitants that we are having unusually dry weather for the time of year, little or no rain has been measured for the past month, and in consequence the cocoa looks drooping, shows yellow leaves, and many of the pods are turning black. Everyone is watching for signs of coming rain, for this long drought on the top of cocoa disease makes planting at this moment an anxious occupation.

Rob's arrival at this place, where he had once before acted as superintendent, was welcomed by a troup of native dancers. A party of five of the coolies, dressed in picturesque glittering costumes, suddenly appeared in front of the bungalow. A middle-aged man with the inevitable tom-tom, and a younger man with a kind of flageolet, and a pretty young woman composed the band, while two very graceful children, a mass of jewellery and tinsel, danced delightfully and in perfect time to the instruments. At intervals the music and dancing stopped, and then the men chanted Rob's praises in Tamil. Then the children once more began their pretty movements, and so it would have gone on ad infinitum had we not conveyed to them as politely as we could, the fact that we had now had enough, presenting at the same time a little token of our friendship and good feeling in the shape of some welcome rupees. This was the prettiest dancing I had seen. Usually the female dancers are personated by men, and in consequence the movements are heavier and more laboured than they ought to be: but these children were fairy-like and dainty, and the glitter of their jewellery and especially of the little brass cymbals worn like wings on their shoulders made an extremely bright, pretty picture. There is scarcely a day passes without my longing to have the brush of an artist to paint these scenes, sometimes so exquisitely beautiful, at others so exquisitely comic. It is impossible with pen, ink, and paper, to depict what I see, or to convey to my readers a true impression of the charm of this beautiful country.

The fine bungalow which we now inhabit is a relic of the old coffee days when salaries were higher and prices lower, and the rupee had a two shilling purchasing value. A good deal of the furniture has at one time or another been removed elsewhere, but enough solid, handsome pieces remain to give a clue to the history of the past: and with the addition of sundry odds and ends of our own in the shape of dhurries, curtains, pictures, books, cushions and table-cloths to make very comfortable and habitable quarters for my son and myself. Here, I should like to again urge those coming to Ceylon for the first time, to bring with them any pretty cretonnes, muslins, bits of bright silk, art serge, curtains, pictures, and ornaments they can lay their hands on, for they are simply invaluable in making the rooms look homelike. In the low country the dining-room is usually separated from the drawing-room by a broad arch, and unless you have long, full curtains, and a screen, the two rooms might as well be one.

Don't grudge a few extra boxes, but bring out everything that is in the slightest degree decorative. All such things are very expensive here.

The shipping companies are most liberal in the amount of luggage allowed, and even if you have to pay a little extra freight, the satisfaction you will derive from the contents of the boxes will be cheap at the price. The necessaries of life are inexpensive, but luxuries, medicines, and articles of household gear, are ruinous in price. Many and many a time have I longed for an English sixpenny halfpenny shop from which to replenish our stock of kitchen utensils and common articles of glass and earthenware.

We have only been here a week but already feel much revived by the change of climate. Sickness is a terribly anxious thing, when you are miles away from the nearest European, and sixteen miles from an English doctor and a chemist's shop. When one is oneself the victim, especially in malarial diseases, one is too ill and too stupefied to care much what may happen, but when it is someone near and clear who is attacked, the perpetual effort to appear calm and cheerful, the constant anxiety and fear of new developments without a doctor at hand, and the strain of deciding, unaided, what is the right course to take, is most trying to bear. When recovery ensues, one's feelings of gratitude and relief are proportionately great, and one quickly forgets the time of stress and anxiety. But I would venture to say that for no amount of salary or kudos, is it worth while venturing into a bad climate; for many of the planting districts in Ceylon are as healthy as any place in England, indeed more so, for those who have any tendency to delicacy of chest.

Judging from the remnants of expensive works to be seen in all directions, this in the old coffee days, must have been a very lucrative property. Amongst other things there are the remains of a vast system of irrigation. Water was led from the river Mahavillagange along a watercourse for a mile or so to a huge turbine by means of which it was forced through miles of iron pipes, to the different parts of the Estate; the pipes in some places being carried over aqueducts, at others buried deep in the ground.

For some reason it was not found to answer, and now nothing remains but the turbine, the ruins of the aqueducts, and here and there huge iron pipes cropping out of the ground in most unexpected places, looking like the open mouth and head of some unknown monster.

When the great engine employed at that time was first set going a little child crept in, unnoticed until too late to save it, and was ground into such small pieces that not an atom of it was seen again. The tradition has grown in the lapse of time, and the coolies now believe the place where it occurred to he haunted by "Presassies," and declare that this neglected and now useless machinery invariably works all night. They say they both see and hear its movements, but when Rob begs that they will call us, that we too may see, they always say it is no use, for the "Pressassies" won't work when a "Dorei" is there. It is inconceivable how they can persuade themselves into this belief, but I am quite convinced that it is with them a genuine delusion, and not a pretence to take us in.

Another relic of the days of unstinted expenditure is the broad terrace high up on the side of a hill. It extends for about half a mile in length, and is in many places supported by walls of masonry from ten to twenty feet in height. There is a tradition that just below it was the most productive bit of coffee in the whole of the island; now the coffee has been replaced by cocoa. This terrace is my favourite walk; it stands high, and commands a most magnificent view. Stretched at our feet is a great part of the fertile valley of Dumbera, and away beyond it to the north-east rises like a giant wall the mountains of Hunasgeyria, Madulkelle, Rangalla and Madamanura, whilst far away to the right as far as the eye can see are the distant hills of Badulla. I love to go there just before, or after, sunrise, when the peaks are tipped with rosy or golden light, and the gorges lie in purple gloom, and the courses of the two rivers the Mahavillagange, and the Hulugange are marked by a trail of white mist like a silver veil, lovely to look at, but alas, deadly to those living within the malarious influence of its filmy folds.

To a lover of scenery, this place has endless delights, for from another hill we look across the valley of the Mahavillagange to the flourishing tea estates of Hewhetta, and Deltotte, and from yet another to the vast plain stretching away from the high grounds of the Central Province to the sea on the western Coast. The sea itself is not visible, but the light horizon denoting its presence is there, and one can draw on one's imagination for the rest. No one who has not been in what the Bible calls a far country can realise the fascination which the sea has for emigrants. To us it symbolises the link that binds us to home. On its bosom glide the great ocean steamers that bring us tidings of our dear ones, and it is the friendly medium that will at last help us to reach the haven where we would be - the shores of dear Old England.

SEPTEMBER 2nd. - On returning from our evening walk, Rob and I were surprised to see a number of Sinhalese. They turned out to be a Colombo man with his employees, who has bought the cinnamon growing here, and comes from time to time to collect it. Cinnamon, of a kind, is indigenous throughout the jungles of Ceylon, but has to be cultivated before it is suitable for an article of commerce. Sir S. Baker in his "Eight years in Ceylon" thus describes the mode of treatment:-

"The tree (when wild) grows to the dimensions of a forest tree, the trunk being usually about three feet in circumference, but in its cultivated state it is never allowed to exceed the dimensions of a bush, being pruned down close to the ground every year. This system of close cutting induces the growth of a large number of shoots, in the same manner that withies are produced in England.

"Every twelve months these shoots attain the length of six or seven feet and the thickness of a finger. In the interim, the only cultivation required is repeated cleaning. The whole plantation is cut down at the proper period, and the sticks are then stripped of their bark by the peelers. These men are called "Chalias," and their labour is confined to this particular branch. Their practice in this employment naturally renders them particularly expert, and in far less time than is occupied in the description they run a sharp knife longitudinally along a stick, and at once divest it of the bark. On the following day the strips are scraped so as to entirely remove the outer cuticle. One strip is then laid within the other, which upon becoming dry, contract and form a series of enclosed pipes. It is subsequently packed in bales and carefully sewed up in double sacks for exportation."

These Sinhalese cinnamon men are allowed to occupy a disused store not far from the bungalow, and seem a cheerful happy set - indeed rather too cheerful for our comfort, for when not at work, they amuse themselves by either playing on a flageolet, or else reading aloud at the top of their voices, with a curious up and down cadence, reminding me more than anything of the sounds proceeding from a Welsh dissenting chapel when the minister is endowed with an extra portion of "Hwyl." Natives appear incapable of reading to themselves. It is a common sight in the streets of Kandy to see, and more especially to hear, a native reading aloud a news sheet, surrounded by a crowd of open-mouthed gaping listeners.

Besides cinnamon, we grow a good deal of vanilla - the pods are dried and oiled and tied up into little half pound bundles, looking very much like packets of cigars. The pods in their green state on the vanilla vine are curious looking things, they grow in clusters, and to-day I saw a cluster of five, which resembled five limp fingers. Vanilla is, as most people know, an orchid of a creeping type, throwing out little feelers like ivy, by which it attaches itself to any tree with rough bark which may grow near enough for its supports. It is a native of Mexico, and other warm moist regions of Central America, but some years ago was introduced into Mauritius, Reunion, and the Seychelles, in all of which places it has become an article of commerce. Lately Indian and Ceylon planters have turned their attention to its cultivation, which is both pleasant and easy, but curing the pod requires great attention and delicate manipulation. In Reunion, ladies are said to grow vanilla in their gardens, and to superintend its preparation for the market themselves as a way of increasing their pocket-money. Vanilla pods when well cured, and of sufficient size, are extremely valuable, not only are they used in confectionery and to flavour tobacco, but in Germany they are employed as a dye. I have been told of a well cultivated plantation of an acre, in Reunion, which yielded in one year six thousand rupees.

As the method of preparation is somewhat interesting, I will here set down a few notes that I have culled from translations from the Dictionaire du Commerce de la Navigation, and a paper by M. David de Florit of Reunion. In the first place vanilla flowers have to be artificially fertilized. In its original home in the forests of America, the flowers are fertilized by suitable insects, which do not exist in its adopted homes. This is a curious process - the manner in which it is carried out. I will copy from M. de Florit:- "In the flower of the vanilla the male organ is separated from the female organ by a light skin, which prevents the natural fecundation. It is necessary, therefore, after the flower is completely opened, to remove this skin with a little instrument and by a light pressure of the thumb and the forefinger, to cause communication between the two organs. Fecundation is made from eight to nine o'clock in the morning, till three o'clock in the afternoon, and may even be carried on till four or five; but the pods fecundated late never acquire the length and size of those fecundated earlier in the day. The instrument used for this operation is generally three or four inches long, and made thin and round at one end. It must be neither sharp nor triangular, in either of these cases it would wound the organs of the flower, or cause the pollen to fall. The spathes of the cocoanut palm, or plane tree are the best instruments to use." (When ripe for gathering the pods have a slightly yellowish tinge. Great care has to be taken that they do not become over-ripe, as in that case they are liable to split and their market value is decreased. - Dictionaire du Commerce et Navigation.) "The pods as received in Europe, are made up in packets of fifty each, and should be fresh and very aromatic. When ripe, the pods are plucked and plunged for a moment in a vessel of boiling water to blanch them. They are then hung up in any airy place; and at this stage there exudes from them a viscous liquid which must be removed. The removal is facilitated by light pressure, repeated two or three times a day. This dessication is a difficult operation and must proceed slowly. The pods are frequently oiled to keep them supple, and to preserve them from insects; they are also tied up with cotton thread to keep them from opening. These are delicate operations and the rareness of complete success explains the high price of the vanilla of first quality. As soon as the pods are ready, no time is lost in wrapping them in oiled paper, and packing them in tin boxes; for exposed to the air they would speedily lose their aroma." Vanilla is often covered with a brilliant silvery efflorescence (much like hoar frost). This kind is preferred to all others. Vanilla is despatched in tin boxes, each box contains about sixty packets of fifty pods each. And the price greatly depends upon the uniform size and length of the pod, and its arriving in a fresh and moist condition.

One of the difficulties of vanilla culture is to hit upon the exact amount of shade under which it should grow. Too much sun causes it to droop and quickly to become sickly, whilst there would be little or no crop under too much shade. There is much land in the low country of Ceylon which would be quite suitable for vanilla cultivation, and the day will come when planters will see that it is to their interest not to neglect such products as this, also spices - plantain flour - chilis, arrowroot and other minor products, to eke out the uncertain profits of tea, coffee and cocoa.

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