Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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We are, at present, suffering from a perfect plague of common black house flies. They cover everything eatable, and, in common with a much smaller variety, are perpetually flying into one's eyes. This nuisance is in part caused by the cleaning out of a large cattle-shed just below the bungalow, and the flies will, I am told, disappear when the monsoon really bursts. I sincerely hope so.

The Ceylon cattle-sheds are built in such a curious fashion, that I must describe one. In the first place it must he borne in mind that the stock on a Cocoa Estate, with the exception of the working bullocks, is kept to provide manure for the enrichment of the crops, therefore everything is arranged to facilitate the handling of that product. The shed here is a long building with an iron roof, built so to speak, in three terraces, each about eight feet higher than the other. In the top terrace there is room for thirty cattle to stand abreast in a long line, with a similar number ranged at their back, with their heads in an opposite direction. These cattle are stall fed with grass and poonac and are bedded down with a coarse kind of grass almost like straw. When fresh bedding is required, the old is thrown into the next terrace, which is occupied by a number of pigs; these have layers and layers of bedding thrown down for their use, till the surface becomes so much raised, and forms such a rich manure that it is thought time to remove it, and to place it in a stack outside the shed ready for use when required. Then da capo. The third terrace is used as a cart shed, though a small portion at one end is enclosed with a bamboo stockade and divided off into pig styes where the young litters of pigs are reared before they are old enough to be turned loose with the others. Nine coolies under a Kangany are told off to attend to the two cattle sheds, and to cut grass for their inmates; and each grass cutter is obliged to cut eighty bundles a day measuring two and a half feet each way.

Besides these stall fed cattle, there is quite a herd of young stock and animals which belong to outsiders who pay so much a month for agistment. These graze on the grass fields and are herded to prevent straying. It is a very pretty sight in the early morning to see them grazing on the hill side, and reminds one much of a mountain farm in Wales or Scotland.

OCTOBER 7th. - Last night I was called out to see two large snakes which had been killed by one of the watchmen. One a cobra measuring five feet six inches; the other, a brown tic polonga, a very beautiful snake with diamond shaped marks of a darker brown.

OCTOBER 12th. - At present the store is a most interesting sight: full to overflowing with coffee which had come here to be pulped from a neighbouring Estate, their own pulper having suddenly broken down. Coffee in sacks - mounds of coffee on the barbecue, coffee spread in orderly layers in the drying room, parchment coffee, black coffee, and prettiest of all, red and green cherry, just picked and brought in. I have before described a hand pulper, but the one used here is worked by water power, and is on a much larger scale. A series of little buckets arranged like a dredge, pick up the cherry and throw it into the pulper, a stream of water flows over it, driving the coffee into the inner recesses of the machine (which I am too ignorant to describe), from which it issues in two streams, one carrying the bean into a receptacle from which, later on, it is collected and dried, the other taking away the refuse husks which are afterwards conveyed to the manure stack previously described. Yesterday, there were several hundred pounds worth of coffee in the store, and it is still coming in daily in large quantities. Where such valuable crop is stored, an extra watchman is put on, not only to keep the usual store watchman company, but as an extra precaution to safeguard him from yielding to the temptation of stealing therefrom; a temptation which must be very strong, when you consider the poverty of these people, and the facility with which they can dispose of stolen goods to the keepers of village caddies (shops).

In the afternoon we had a most exciting episode. The English mail had just arrived, and I was sitting in the verandah enjoying my budget, when, lifting up my eyes for a moment I saw an astonishing procession. First came our Appu in a great state of heat and excitement, followed by the two watchmen with their guns, driving in front of them a couple of wretched-looking, half naked Moormen, with their hands tied fast together; a number of coolies bringing up the rear. Rob was quickly on the spot and ascertained that our servant when walking home by a short cut through the village, had come upon these men stealing cocoa. He tried to seize the bags which contained the pods, upon which a scrimmage ensued. He contrived to knock two or three teeth out of the jaw of one of the thieves; they in turn tried to stab him. In spite of their being two to one, happily the Appu managed to hold his own, and to bold on to the men until one of our coolies appeared on the scene. Between them they secured the Moormen and likewise the stolen cocoa and knife.

Rob sent for the Arachi (village headman) and they were marched off to the nearest police station, but before the arrival of the Arachi one of them offered Rob a bribe of thirty rupees (L2) to let them off. Needless to say, it was indignantly refused. My son is rather glad to have such a clear case of stealing to bring forward, and hopes the thieves will have a sufficiently severe sentence to deter others from the same practice, for cocoa stealing is a source of great loss to the proprietors of this and the neighbouring Estates. Though armed watchmen patrol all night, the extent of ground to be covered is so great that thieves have always a good chance of evading detection. It is, I fear, not a very difficult matter for anyone knowing the place to steal cocoa, and also to dispose of it profitably. A single full-sized cocoa pod fetches ten cents at the village caddies. As they can get enough fermented toddy to make them drunk for five cents, coolies have thus a great temptation to steal.

A reformer is much needed in Ceylon to wage war against native dishonesty and untruthfulness. Of course, these are the besetting sins of all Eastern nations, but here the lying and pilfering is done with such childlike simplicity, that were it not so grave a matter, it would be quite laughable. A coolie will tell a lie in a most assured manner, though if he exercised any thought, he would know that in the course of two or three minutes the lie would be found out, and when detected he only smiles. If caught in the very act of purloining, he still smiles and makes the most fatuous excuses, either that he thought we "didn't want the article in question," or that "he was only taking it to use for a little time," or this, very often "the Appu had given it him." A young boy of fourteen that Rob had taken into the bungalow to be trained for a servant helped himself to a rupee which he found on his master's dressing-table. The Appu caught him red-handed, and as he could not deny the theft he said he had put it into his pocket to keep it safe for Master. Shame at being found out seems not to enter into their nature at all.

In connection with this prevalence of dishonesty, I must here give the sequel of the little romance which took place when we were at Raneetotem. It may be remembered that I wrote of the young daughter of the head Kangany who was taken to India to be married because no one of suitable caste and standing could he found in this district. Poor little girl, her marriage has had a sad beginning. The highly respectable husband who was found for her, is now in an Indian prison for stealing a boat, and she has had to return to her parents at Raneetotem till his sentence expires.

It is only fair to say that there are many and brilliant exceptions to the rule. I am sometimes astonished at the honesty of the beef coolies, and also of untrained servants, who, coming into a bungalow, perhaps for the first time in their lives, must see many articles to arouse both their curiosity and cupidity, and yet refrain from appropriating them. Only last week, before spending the afternoon at a friend's house, I carelessly left three diamond rings on my dressing-table. I remembered what I had done soon after I had started, and did not much enjoy the party in consequence. I said nothing and when I came home I found the rings arranged in a little open box on my table, so they bad evidently not escaped observation, but were perfectly safe.

OCTOBER 26th. - The cocoa stealing case is over, the thieves having each been sentenced to three months' imprisonment. A sentence, we trust, sufficiently severe to act as a deterrent amongst our native neighbours for some time to come.

During the last week I have been visiting in one of those hospitable houses which are scattered everywhere amongst the planting districts of Ceylon. Whatever accusations may be brought against Ceylon planters and their families, lack of hospitality cannot be one. The Biblical injunction to entertain strangers is carried out to the fullest extent. So kindly and sympathetic are the hosts and hostesses that in a few days, acquaintanceship ripens into friendship, and, as far as I am concerned, I can say with truth that some of the pleasantest memories of my life will be of those happy days spent in the homes of people whom I now count as friends, but who, a few short years ago were unknown to me even by name.

My last visit has been paid in the mountains of East Matale, the bungalow where I stayed is at an elevation of 2500 feet, but the highest point of the Estate is more than 1000 feet higher. The cool nights and breezy mornings, and evenings, made a refreshing change from the lower elevation and warmer climate of Dumbera. Let me try and describe the surroundings; a semicircle of mountains open only to the west, where through gaps in a mountain chain glimpses are caught of the great plain, where the wonderful ruins of the ancient city of Anaradhapura still stand, a monument of departed grandeur. To the north and east the tops of the hills are clothed with belts of jungle and the lower slopes are a mass of tea. The southern end of the semicircle reminds one of the grassy hill-sides of Dumfriesshire, covered as they are with close green turf, but I was told that in the good old days when King Coffee reigned, these slopes were covered with the all pervading crop of the island. Rocky mountain streams run down the hill-side in all directions. In the midst of all this natural beauty, on a slightly projecting knoll stands the bungalow with trim kept lawns, a tennis court, roses everywhere, even to hedges of crimson roses. Within is everything that cultured denizens could wish, piano, violin, paintings, and best of all an excellent collection of books. I mention all this to give some idea of the pleasant cultivated life that can be led by Ceylon planters, even though they may be, as in this case, fourteen miles from a railway and thirty-five from anything we in Europe would consider deserving the name of town. This is rather an exceptionally favoured spot, for within a mile of it may be found a small church where occasional services are held, a doctor, and dispensary, as well as a post office.

I had the privilege of witnessing a magnificent thunderstorm. It was grand to see the vivid tropical lightning in zig-zags, in chains, in flashes sometimes blue, and at others rose coloured, or yellow, flashing across the sky, and to hear peal after peal of thunder, re-echoed from hill to hill. Next day came the burst of the N.E. monsoon when three inches of rain fell in as many hours, one felt sympathy with anyone obliged to face such a pitiless torrent, and very thankful to have a water-tight roof over one's head and a warm English dress to wear.

When once the monsoon has burst, for some weeks the afternoon weather is uncertain, so I took advantage of a fine morning to start on my homeward way, 6.30 a.m. found me in my hostess's rickshaw and before nine o'clock, four very active coolies landed me safely at Matale station; a run of fourteen miles, without change of coolies, in two and a half hours; a feat of strength and agility I don't think many Englishmen would care to emulate. It is a most exhilarating feeling being rushed downhill in the brisk morning air, but when I was whisked round corners at the same furious rate, my feelings were not quite so joyous, and I must confess to calling out vociferously two of the very few Tamil words that I have picked up, "Pia po, pia po," which means "go more slowly." To my surprise on my arrival at home; I found the monsoon had not yet burst in Dumbera.

This was only one of many pleasant visits I was privileged to pay to friends residing in different parts of the island. The first time I went "up country" to the mountain zone was to stay near Hatton. I was enchanted with the magnificent scenery - Switzerland without the snow. The railway zig-zags slowly up and up, now crossing a roaring torrent, anon gliding along the side of a mountain pass. Now and then, doubling upon itself, in order to achieve the necessary ascent from 1600 feet at Kandy to 4160 feet at Hatton, and 5292 at Nanuoya. The palms are left behind, and in their place acres and acres of tea everywhere meet the eye, whilst on the mountain side giant ferns, a large kind of stag's horn moss, and mauve cistus may be seen. Hatton boasts of an hotel from which excursions can be made to Adam's Peak and is the centre of a large and rich planting district, the very pick of Ceylon for residential purposes. The climate, excepting for the hot sun at noonday, is a cool one, and the mode of life up here in Dikoya, Maskeliya, and Dimbula, is more English than it is any other district where I have been. Many men own their own Estates and in consequence have more available leisure for social functions; on a club day at Darrawella, the pretty dresses of the ladies, and the smart carriages, added to the bracing breezes, make one imagine oneself at some garden party at home. My friend's drawing room is very English, papered walls, carpeted floors, and above all, a real fire-place, give it a most cosy air and I have known a bright fire in that altitude, 4500 feet, to be decidedly comfortable.

Palm Sunday found me attending the lovely little church - a village church in miniature - standing alone at the head of a mountain gorge, in the midst of a small but very well kept churchyard. Sad, sad was the inscription on many a white cross; young lives cut off in their prime resting here so far away from all who loved them; but, barring the width of the ocean between them and the graves of their forefathers, no sweeter spot could be found to rest in. Still one thinks with pity of the last hours spent amongst strangers, and of mothers at home wearying for one farewell look.

Hatton, and the village of Dikoya, both contain long streets of native shops, and a few European warehouses, in which a little of everything is sold. Both these places are on the direct route for pilgrims to Adam's Peak, and at certain seasons of the year, troops of weary men and women may be met along the road returning from this, to them, sacred spot.

On the other side of Hatton, where I have also spent happy days at a friend's house, is Ambagamuwa, which rejoices in the reputation of being one of the wettest districts in Ceylon, where the average rainfall is 199 inches annually, falling on 233 days, and where 9.92 inches of rain have been known to fall in twenty-four hours.

Another visit I paid to a friend of my girlhood at her pretty house in picturesque Pundaloya. Every inch of ground round the bungalow bore evidence of a lady's taste, and had been laid out to the best advantage, and planted with ferns, flowers, and ornamental shrubs. A rocky mountain stream wended its way in tiny cascades through the garden, which added greatly to the beauty; roses and lilies as well as scarlet geraniums grew along its banks; and from the verandah and also from my room, could be seen a view extending almost to Kandy, forty miles away. It was most cheering in this land of strangers to be once more called by my Christian name, and to have what the Scotch call "a good crack" about old days and old friends.

I must not omit to mention a very pleasant week that I spent on a fine tea Estate in Udu Pusselawa. I passed through Newera Eliya to reach the house of my kind and hospitable friends. The Sanatorium is, I can imagine, a bright, gay place to stay at in the season, if you are in the "swim," but my acquaintance with it was on two grey days, and I was not struck by any natural beauty in the situation. The houses are also scattered and uninteresting. Doubtless, had I seen more of the place, I should have fallen a victim to its enchantment, like the rest of the Ceylon world.

From Newera Eliya to B., I had to be taken in a rickshaw ten miles. To make sure the coolies knew exactly where I was going, I got the manager of the hotel from which I started, to cross-question them. He was quite satisfied, and to make things doubly sure, told me the turn off was at the tenth mile-stone. This landmark duly appeared, the coolies stopped, I got out, they loaded themselves with all my impedimenta, and I proceeded to follow them up a winding road evidently leading to a bungalow. On and on we went for about a mile, until at last we arrived in front of a very pretty gabled house, surrounded by a lawn and flower garden. I thought it curious that nothing was to be seen or heard of the large family whose guest I was to be; at last a smart looking boy appeared with his eyes round with surprise at the sight of a lady evidently come to stay; then his master came on the scene. I am sure equally horrified, at the unexpected apparition. He quickly explained the matter, which was that the stupid coolies had taken the road to the left, which had landed me at a bachelor's bungalow, instead of to the right, which would have taken me to B. He was most kind and hospitable and invited me to tea, hut I thought I had better quickly retrace my steps to the Government Road, and thence make a fresh departure, and afterwards when I met him at dinner at the house of my friends, we had a hearty laugh over the occurrence. A large and merry party of young people made this a most enjoyable visit, music, games and dancing filled up the time, and when I was not otherwise engaged I was nevet tired of visiting the garden with its wealth of English as well as Ceylon flowers. Thanks to the kindness of friends I have thus been enabled to visit many parts of the island which an ordinary globe trotter would not see, and have also got an insight into phases of planting life, so to speak, from the inside, and not the usual outside view of a mere traveller.

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