Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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Having come to civilized regions we thought we would act accordingly, and therefore, last week, invited our friends and neighbours to tea and tennis. We have an excellent gravelled court, close to the bungalow, which was originally the barbecue of a now disused store.

Two things about it would strike a new comer; the ends are protected by a stockade of bamboo stems; and the courts instead of being marked out with whitening, or white paint have lines of thin rope tightly drawn and securely fastened. At first this struck me as being a very dangerous plan, I expected every moment to see a player catch his foot in the rope, and fall headlong; but I was assured "it was the custom of Ceylon," and that no accident ever happened.

"It is the custom of Ceylon" is the stereotyped reply all over the island to any suggestion of improvement or progress, and strange to say it is expected to be quite conclusive. Anything that was good enough for the grandfathers is good enough for the grandchildren; and suggestions for saving time or labour are quite resented. It is not only the dark races who are so conservative, but native born Europeans, and old settlers all seem to have caught the non- progressive disease, and their remarks often make me wish that I could turn a few hundred enterprising Americans loose in the island.

But to return to our party, the guests arrived in most various vehicles, a dogcart, an American buggy, and two bullock hackerys, whilst a couple of horsemen brought up the rear. It was a curious sight to see the fine, humped white bulls lying lazily under the shade of a clump of tall bamboos awaiting the pleasure of their masters.

We had tea and cakes in the verandah and then adjourned to the tennis court where four native boys awaited us to pick up the balls. Here some capital sets reminded me of summer afternoons in England, but all too soon the waning light warned our friends, they must hurry away to reach home before dark. The very short twilight is one of the great drawbacks to tropical countries; no sooner does it become cool enough to play active games, than it gets too dark to go on with them. Walks, and rides, and all out-door amusements have to be curtailed, unless you are prepared to run the risk of taking your pleasure under a tropical Sun or else in the dark.

SEPTEMBER 5th. - This place is much infested by snakes. Since we came here two cobras have been killed in close proximity to the fowlhouse, and two days ago it was thought prudent to burn the long grass in a dry gully, running just below the cattle shed, with the result that three cobras and one tic polonga fell victims to the flames. But yesterday we nearly had a tragedy. A poor woman was bitten by a snake whilst weeding; happily it turned out to be a very small baby tic. She was at once taken in hand by one of the Kanganies, who is supposed to have a native specific for snake bite, and beyond giving herself and us a great fright, she seems to-day none the worse for the accident. The natives have a superstition that if you kill the snake that bites you, you will die, consequently it is often difficult to ascertain what kind of snake it really was; but in this case it was clearly proved that the delinquent was a very young green tic polonga, a snake which is exactly the colour of the cocoa, and coffee leaves, and therefore very difficult, for those working amongst the bushes, to see and avoid.

There seems little doubt that some of the natives have real specifics for snake bite. This Kangany lately cured a man on a neighbouring Estate who had been bitten by a cobra. He says he got the stuff from India. Of course, the ingredients are a secret, like the Burling drink in Kent which cures hydrophobia. I often wish St. Patrick had paid Ceylon a visit on his way to Ireland, for the danger of snakes precludes many a tempting ramble in fern clad ravines, and in grass fields, the summits of which promise magnificent views; in jungles where I imagine I could find flowering creepers lovelier than anything I have ever seen before, the snakes have it their own way, and I am obliged to walk sedately along the uninteresting road, not that we have much to complain of, for every Estate is intersected with miles of roads and paths, so that one has always an infinite variety of walks to choose from.

This is English letter day; a day to which we all look forward with delight. Even a postcard from home is welcomed with glee, and the hours are always counted until the mail arrives. I would have every one in the old country realise how much pleasure they can give their absent friends by a few lines of remembrance, or even a newspaper, still more a birthday card, showing they are not forgotten, or an occasional book. Most of us here lead a dual life, our mind is occupied by our daily occupations and work; but our heart is following in imagination the lives of those we love in England.

In the planting districts of Ceylon, books are even more valuable than they are in Europe; here, where one has so little human society, one makes friends of the heroes and heroines of romance, their joys and their griefs help to pass many an hour of heat and discomfort, which would otherwise be wearisome in the extreme; while as for solid books, one has leisure and freedom from distraction enough to read and thoroughly digest works which one could only skim through in a busy life passed amongst crowds. I find the Kandy Town Library which contains nearly a thousand volumes of well chosen books, a great resource. The subscription is so moderate that anyone could afford to join, and the committee are most liberal in the number of books (six sets at a time) that they allow country members. The Library contains an excellent supply of travels, biographies and books relative to Ceylon, and a great number of novels. The so called new books are perhaps the least interesting to me, because they are just what everyone had been reading during the last five years in England, and one hasn't yet had time to forget them. I should say that a taste for reading was a most useful one for anyone coming out here, adding considerably to their happiness.

In the course of my attempts to learn Tamil, I lately found in "Inge va," the popular phrase book, a most interesting selection from Percival's "Tamil Proverbs." I give a few of the most striking:-

"Must the loaf be broken to prove it is bread."

"If given without measuring it is a gift; if measured it is a debt."

"Can a somersault be turned at the bottom of a chatty." ("Chatty" - earthenware pot.)

"Although you take a leech and place it on a cushion, it will seek the rubbish."

"Though you cry, will the flood that has burst its bounds return."

"A sluggish foot is the goddess of poverty, an active foot is the goddess of fortune."

"There is neither salt nor acid in your talk."

"The fruit is numberless on the unclimbable tree."

"An eightieth part of laziness, a crore of loss."

"Say little and give full measure."

"No priest can change one's nature."

"The thief and the gardener are one."

"Time passes, but sayings remain."

"A master without anger, a master without wages."

"A moneyless man is a corpse."

"There are no mistakes in silence."

"The top of the skilful will spin even in sand."

"Even grass is a weapon to the powerful."

"The dam must be made before the flood comes."

"Will the barking dog catch game."

"A hero at home, a coward in the jungle."

"Even to a monkey, its young is as precious as gold."

"The young calf knows no fear."

"Is a reward given for eating sugar cane?"

"The flower out of reach, I dedicated to the god."

"Where there is anger there is love."

"Will burnt and moist clay cohere?"

"A thorn must be extracted by a thorn."

"If the somersault fail it is death."

A few of their proverbs are identical with our own, as for instance:- "Where there is smoke there is fire." "Can the blind lead the blind." "Many drops make a great flood," etc. etc. Probably the learned in such matters would tell us that our version is of Eastern origin.

SEPTEMBER 7th. - Yesterday was Rob's birthday. We had a little dinner party to celebrate the occasion. Our servants made a great effort to turn out a creditable dinner, and took infinite pains to decorate the table. It really was lovely. Natives have a perfect genius for decoration. In this case, the cloth was covered with a geometrical pattern formed of petals of bougainvillea (which look red at night) and a bright yellow flower, ferns with pendants of poinsettia petals, whilst here and there at the junction of lines a scarlet hibiscus gave a finish and redness to the design. If no flowers are to be obtained they cut the young fronds of the cocoanut palm into many shaped geometrical sections and arrange them in patterns on the table. All their decorations are laid flat on the cloth, they seem to have little idea of floral arrangements such as we are accustomed to in England. It was a pleasant change for us, after the solitude of Raneetotem, to feel we had neighbours near enough to come out to dinner; and a rubber of whist with which we finished the evening was to us quite an interesting novelty.

SEPTEMBER 11th. - A very sad event happened yesterday - the death, after two days illness, of the young wife (the ninth successive wife I am told) of one of the Kanganies. Rob had seen her several times, and finding she was in a very high fever, had sent for the nearest doctor, who was momentarily expected when the poor thing passed away. She was only a fragile looking girl of twenty years of age, and had already three little children, to whom she will be a great loss. She must have been a kind, tender-hearted woman, for only a fortnight ago she nursed one of her husband's coolies through a dangerous illness. No sooner had the poor creature died, than the death tom-tom began to beat as a kind of knell. The coolies and also our servants were all in a state of great excitement (I must confess, I think, somewhat pleasurable excitement). A request was sent to me for flowers, which of course I sent; and messengers went hurrying backwards and forwards collecting materials for the feast which is held after the funeral. Work was knocked off at the half day, and by three o'clock in the afternoon the poor girl was reposing in her grave beside the Mahavillagange river. All the rest of the day, tom-toms were beaten in a monotonous way, that quite got upon one's nerves.

It is extraordinary in what a variety of ways this gong-like instrument can be played. There is one tune (so to speak) for muster, another for a wedding, and a third for a death: the significance of the different sounds being well understood by the coolies.

There appears to be no special spot set apart for graves - but everyone seems to be buried (provided, on this Estate, that it is not close to a road), just where their own fancy may have led them to direct, or their friends may choose. Many graves are found beside the Government road, some of them being quite imposing mausoleums, either built of brick and coloured white, or of mud afterwards covered with chunam. These are usually the Kanganies of the Estate bordering that portion of the road. Sometimes in passing I have noticed an ornamental lantern suspended close to the grave, to scare away jackals, and other beasts, and almost always there is some little attempt at a garden. In our district there are a good many Roman Catholics, so one often sees little white crosses of wood or iron, marking the last resting-place of one of their creed.

I am told that the Tamil coolie is an emotional creature whose grief is at the outset almost uncontrollable, but so evanescent that a few days or weeks sees the deepest sorrow assuaged, and smiles quickly follow tears. In the words of the wise old Book - "Sorrow may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." A temperament which they share with Celtic nations; and one I think, much to be coveted, for to such, sorrows and cares press lightly, and do not cut into the very soul as they do in a deeper nature. I am often struck by the similarity in the Tamil character to that of the Celtic branch to which I belong. Both in faults and virtues they are singularly like the Welsh; but the Sinhalese are of quite a different type.

SEPTEMBER 14th. - We have had another proof of the efficacy of Mutivale's cure for snakebite. Two days ago, a bull and two cows were, whilst grazing, bitten by a brown tic polonga; they each fell down sideways quite suddenly - and were very ill for some hours, but the Kangany took them in hand and by next day they were convalescent, and seem now, the second day, to be as well as ever again.

I may mention that last week another cow was seized with identical symptoms in the same grass field, but no one seeing a snake, the cause of her illness was not suspected, and she died two or three hours after the attack. I can only say that I have myself such perfect faith in this cure that were I bitten by a snake on this Estate, I don't think I should even feel frightened. It is a great pity for the sake of humanity that some scientific man does not investigate the subject. It is quite conceivable and reasonable to suppose that living for generations in close proximity to venomous serpents, as natives of India have done, the accumulated wisdom of ages may have discovered an antidote in some substance, vegetable or otherwise, unknown or untested by Europeans. One thing I may mention is that the natives do not believe in the use of a ligature* or anything that impedes free circulation, and if one has already been put, they at once remove it. Also the remedy must be applied at once, otherwise it cannot be expected to have the desired effect.

* In the case of a snake-charmer that I saw bitten and cured a ligature was used for a few moments, perhaps this is done when the curative agent is a snakestone.

OCTOBER 5th. - At this season of the year there is little doing on the Estate, excepting the usual routine of weeding - attending to stock - clearing out drains preparatory to the burst of the N.E. monsoon - holeing for supplies, and this year, cutting off many dead branches, and even dead trees, the result of the long drought from which we have been suffering. Happily it has now broken up, a series of heavy thunderstorms have greatly refreshed everything. Trees are sprouting in all directions in a way which could hardly be believed by those living in a temperate zone; roses which I had pruned, in three days after pruning, threw out strong shoots; and a creeper opposite my window grows three inches a day. These thunderstorms warn us that the burst of the N.E. monsoon is at hand. So we are making all due preparation, by having every place made watertight. At this present moment two masons are perched on the roof of the bungalow, trying to stop the many leaks caused by the shrinking and cracking of the tiles; during the very hot weather the sun is often so hot that the only wonder is that they don't all crack.

We are having a kind of autumn, inasmuch as some of the trees put on autumn tints. A few of them are bright yellow, and in the distance hook like birches, whilst the almond trees are a brilliant red; but alas! the beauty is evanescent, for in two days the leaves all fall off, and in another two or three, the buds begin to unfold, and the young leaves to put in an appearance.

The beneficial effect of the cool weather is felt by human beings as well as vegetation. Our vitality and energy are restored, and life is again worth living. The nights are deliciously cool, a blanket is acceptable, and one wakes in the morning, after a night of refreshing sleep, quite ready for a day of active work.

As in England, this month is utilised for mending the Government roads, but the mode of procedure in the two countries is very different. Here, whereas in this district there is plenty of good metalling of a kind of granite to be obtained from quarries by the side of the road, government coolies break it up small, sitting meanwhile under the shade of cadjans (plaited cocoanut palm branches) to protect them from the direct rays of the sun. Women carry the metalling to the road in baskets on their heads, emptying them on the required spot, under the supervision of a Kangany, then return for more. This procession of women in their bright clothes and baskets empty or full, passing to and fro goes on for hours. When the stones are spread, other coolies appear to pour water on them. Usually the water is brought in an enormous cask on wheels, drawn by two bulls, but in remoter places, another procession, with chatties instead of baskets, does the work. Lastly the road is reduced to a proper surface by a huge roller, to which two pairs of bulls are attached, each pair having its own yoke, and its own driver standing between them - the foremost pair being attached to the roller by chains. The result of all this is a splendid road. The government roads of Ceylon, in width, in smoothness of surface, and general well-kept appearance, compare favourably with the best English high roads; and where the hills are not too long, they are the very beau ideal of what a cyclist would most desire. Albeit the method by which this result is achieved strikes a newcomer as very quaint and primitive.

The efficient state of the road department is due in great measure to the untiring energy and skill of the late Major Skinner, who began his roadmaking career in 1820, as a boy of fifteen, but already an officer in the Ceylon Rif1es. He was given two hundred Kandyan labourers, and told to make a section of the road between Kandy and Colombo. Although he had no experience of such work he carried it out successfully. This was the first trunk road made in the island, but when Major Skinner retired, forty-seven years later, in 1867, Ceylon could boast of nearly three thousand miles of made roads, one fifth of which were first class metalled roads, and another fifth excellent gravelled highways. Most of these were either surveyed by Major Skinner or made in some way under his auspices; and it was he who built the beautiful satin wood bridge over the Mahavillagange at Peradeniya, in which neither a bolt nor a nail is used throughout its structure. He remained long enough in the island to see the railway commenced between Colombo and Kandy which takes a passenger from the one town to the other in about four hours. A great change from the state of things early in the century, when it was said to take a traveller from Colombo weeks to reach Kandy, trudging through paddy fields, and beds of deep and heavy sand, or scrambling over rocks and precipitous ravines, with nothing but a narrow footpath to guide him through almost impenetrable jungle. I believe I am correct in saying that, in proportion to its size, Ceylon is now the best roaded of all the Colonies.

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