Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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DECEMBER 28th. - Christmas has come, and gone. Not the snowy, blustering Christmas of northern latitudes, but a showery misty imitation! which is the best substitute Ceylon in the N.E. monsoon can provide. Christmas Day this year, being on a Sunday, I decided to have my little party on Christmas Eve. We were all up betimes decorating the bungalow; the arched doorways and windows were outlined with fronds (some 3.5 feet long) of the giant polipody fern, which grows abundantly in the gullies on the Estate; huge palm branches were fixed on the bare colour washed walls of the dining-room, whilst here and there bunches of red croton gave the suggestion of scarlet holly; the drawing-room decorations consisted entirely of sprays of bamboo, and bouquets of roses. The verandah, as usual, was full of pot plants, giant yams, caladiums, lilies, maidenhair ferns of many varieties, and large pots of single pink balsam; so that the general effect of the bungalow was a perfect bower of foliage and flowers. I must not forget to mention a curious native adornment which our Appu hung up in the archway between the two sitting-rooms. It consisted of a round stem (part of a banana tree) about 2.5 feet long, depending from this and fastened into it at each end were nine half hoops made of the centre of young banana leaves, with trefoils cut out and left at regular intervals - the whole formed a graceful kind of lantern, in which during the evening a lighted candle burned.

The decorations being complete, and mid-day breakfast over, the whole household retired to their respective quarters for a much needed siesta. At three o'clock the first of our guests arrived, preceded as usual by a box coolie carrying the inevitable tin box containing his master's changes of raiment.

In these solitudes one really does sincerely welcome friends. After all, the human race is naturally gregarious, and one has only to retire to the wilds to find out the truth of that fact. If you have not seen a fellow creature of your own race for a fortnight, when you do meet him, you are ready to receive him with effusion, so we all met prepared to be pleased with each other's society. Tennis followed tea. When twilight came we passed a pleasant hour in the verandah listening to a melodious voice and the sounds of a banjo, both the property of the musical member of the district.

At last the hour drew near for that time honoured English ceremony - the Christmas dinner. Of course the menu included the sacred turkey, plum pudding, mince pies, and crackers. Equally, of course, we all drank each other's health, and wished each other a happy Christmas. By this time the weather was all that could be wished. A lovely moon shone on palm and mango trees as we paced the terrace, enjoying the balmy tropical night. Our thoughts naturally turned to other scenes in dear old England, to other Christmases spent with those who loved us. A gentle silence fell on the merry group. Then one of the number, who had erstwhile been a chorister, broke out spontaneously into the sweet old carols "Noel," and "King Wenceslas" followed also quite spontaneously by the whole company singing with heart and soul "Hark, the herald angels," and "Come all ye faithful." It gave just the Christmas touch I wanted, and I felt as if even in our little corner of the earth we were permitted to join with Angels and Archangels and the vast company of heaven and earth, in the great and glorious Christmas Te Deum.

But this solemn mood did not last long. Rob's servant produced some unexpected fireworks, which he had himself manufactured, and which proved a decided success. As I don't suppose any adventurous youth will read this book, I think I may venture to say they were made of saltpetre and sulphur mixed with powdered charcoal, rammed into the empty skin of an orange and kept down by a plug of earth, a match being inserted at the lower end of the orange. I am often struck by the clever way in which the Tamils utilise the ingredients they have at hand, and produce excellent results from such very simple means. We finished the evening with a mild gamble. Commerce, which I insisted upon as being especially Christmassy, and vingt-un followed each other. At midnight our guests left to continue their celebration next day at the house of another neighbour.

One reads in society papers that the custom of sending Christmas cards is dying out in England. However that may be, here they still hold their own. At home, where most people count their friends and acquaintances by the hundred, I can imagine that Christmas cards may become a tax both on time and money. The sending of them is a kindly custom, and I wish those thoughtful donors who sent their pretty missives to me could know how much they did to make my Christmas more homelike, in what, was once to me a land of strangers, but in which I hope I now count many friends. One word I should wish to say to those in England who have relations in the Colonies. Be as generous as you can in the matter of Christmas numbers, new books if possible, magazines, if books are too expensive, and any little trifle that may amuse or make the season more cheerful. Be a little extravagant in ephemeral literature and postage. You do not know how the whitewashed walls of many a bungalow are brightened by the pictures which you perhaps would only throw away in a lumber room. To gaze perpetually at whitewash is not enlivening, and here there are no cheap prints or photographs to be bought such as you see everywhere at home. Prints there are plenty, but not at a price suitable for an A.D.'s salary. I speak of what I have seen - the eagerness with which the Christmas mail is awaited, the delight with which the home letters are read, and then the disappointment when the newspapers are glanced at and no Christmas numbers found amongst them. Your boys who are in exile here lead terribly monotonous lives of duty for at least three hundred and fifty days out of the year. Do your very utmost to brighten even a few hours of this perpetual sameness. Above all, I would plead that they may always be made to feel there is a strong link of affection binding them to the old home life and the home circle; strong ehough to prevent their ever drifting away, whatever betides them here.

JANUARY 5th. - Even Ceylon planters are not quite without their seasons of gaiety, and the last week of the old year produced quite an outbreak of festivity at Kandy.

An afternoon reception at Government House. Three dances, a concert, a tennis tournament, and a gymkana, made quite a whirl in the little world of the mountain capital, and its surrounding districts, and gave food for conversation and meditation for many a week.

All the social events were voted a success, but as far as the gymkana was concerned, viewed from my unprejudiced standpoint, it could be summed up in very few words. The prizes were first rate, and the performances not quite to match. Much too long an interval between the events. As a spectacle it was all that could be wished. The ground of the Kandy Sports' Club is a wedge of flat turf running up between wooded hills. On the lower slopes of these the native spectators range themselves, their white, and orange, and red garments looking in the distance like a huge parterre of bright coloured flowers. The meets are always held in the late afternoon, and the brilliant tropical sunset, and the pretty dresses of the ladies as they stroll along the greensward, the better to see and be seen, makes a very vivid and striking picture, one that I am glad to have witnessed, and shall often think of on dull December days at home.

During the season numerous cricket and football matches are played on this ground, generally on Saturdays under the auspices of the Sports' Club. Superintendents of Estates cannot often find time to indulge in a match, but when they do, they thoroughly enjoy it, and have a merry time with both their friends and opponents.

New Year's Day falling also on a Sunday, I was glad to take the opportunity of once more attending a Church Service. The mid-day heat of the sun makes it impossible for anyone living a few miles from a church to go there, the service being held at eleven o'clock, a most unsuitable hour for this climate. One sadly misses public religious worship, and all that it implies. I often wonder what kind of religion (if any) children of the second generation will develop who are brought up in outlying planting districts, where churches are few and far between, and where outward observances form so small a factor in most people's lives, although, of course, there are many honourable exceptions.

But to go back to St. Paul's Church, Kandy, I was delighted to see so large a congregation at the early celebration at 7.15 a.m. True, the women predominated, but there was a good sprinkling of the masculine element, and here and there I rejoiced to see a few young planters who did not forget their mother's training in this far away land. Two native clergymen assisted the vicar, and there were numerous Sinhalese amongst the congregation, most of the native ladies wearing a scarf of spotted white net over their glossy black hair, but this was not universally the case. I was surprised to see so many natives attending an English Service as there are services in Sinhalese held for their special benefit. It shows that in the towns, at any rate, education must have made considerable strides.

The Church was delightfully airy, lancet shaped doors nearly the height of the nave take the place of windows, the double doors, excepting in wet, stormy weather are open during services, and thus every available breath of air finds its way into the Church. Outside, the ground allotted to St. Paul's is shaded by particularly fine spreading old trees, and under the shelter of their branches repose the rickshaw coolies and the hackery bulls with their drivers, all ready to convey their masters and mistresses home when Divine Service is ended. Both men and beasts are admirably quiet, never a sound does one hear to disturb one's devotions. Strange development of time. Almost adjoining this Christian Church are the grounds of the great Buddhist temple, the sacred shrine of Buddha's tooth. To many natives a spot so holy that pilgrims often arrive in Kandy from the different Buddhist countries of the Far East.

On my return I had rather a novel experience. I crossed the Mahavillagange river in a primitive kind of catamaran. I left the town early on Monday morning in a rickshaw, which proved a most delightful mode of conveyance, my journey being mostly downhill. The morning air was unusually cool, my coolie ran down to the Ferry (five and a half miles) in less than an hour. These rickshaw coolies are fine athletic looking men, but they are said to die early owing to over strained hearts. As I expected my hackery to meet me on the other side, I paid my rickshaw coolie his fare, the small sum that equals one and sixpence of English money and embarked in the very primitive boat. Imagine the trunk of a big jungle tree about two and a half feet wide and perhaps twelve feet long scooped out in the centre, across which battens are nailed to act as seats, not one atom of freeboard is left above the seats and very little between them and the water. From one side of the trunk and at each end, pieces of bent wood project, and are attached to a long spar resting in the water. This is to give the necessary stability.

I looked rather aghast, and wondered how I was ever going to get in, without capsizing the boat; however, this feat was at last accomplished with the help of the venerable looking ferrymen, and much to the amusement of a gaping crowd of natives who only waited for me to be seated to take possession of the other vacant places. I must say it was a very curious sensation to feel oneself out in the middle of the broad swift river in so narrow a craft, that the slightest unexpected jerk or movement would land one in the water, and I think another time I should prefer to cross on the safe but ugly raft to which I am accustomed.

When in Kandy I visited the shop of a well-known native jeweller by name Casa Lebbe, who showed me a most tempting collection of unset gems. Amongst others, sapphires of many shades, rubies, pink garnets, moonstones, tourmalines, amethysts, spinels, and chrysoberyls. White sapphires, when well cut, have very much the sparkle of diamonds and something of the yellow tinge of Brazilian diamonds. I was shown lovely necklaces of native manufacture and design, gems merely encircled in a rim of gold depending from a coil of twisted gold-wire, others again of lightly set jewels forming a riviere long enough to encircle the neck. The cheapness of these beautiful ornaments astonished me, Rs150 (or at present rate of exchange L10) would procure a ruby or sapphire necklet whilst, for from Rs40 to Rs100 (L3 to L7) you could get rings of sapphire, ruby, or any of the stones I have named. Native shopkeepers are always open to "a deal," so I should strongIy advise visitors to Ceylon to bring with them any gold jewellery that they have become tired of, or that has got damaged or broken. A good price can always be obtained for the gold and credited in their favour in the purchase of new jewellery. The shops are full of Queensland opals, which the Australian passengers tire of, and exchange for Ceylon gems.

The common custom here is to buy up sovereigns, and unset stones, and then to have them made into jewellery by the natives, according to your own design. There is no mint law against defacing coins, so the sovereigns are melted down, as the readiest way of obtaining gold; and it is quite a common occurrence to see in the newspaper lists of wedding presents in Burgher and Sinhalese circles, so many sovereigns from Mr. So and So.

JANUARY 7th. - Just at this time of the year we are visited every day at sunset by hundreds of flying foxes. These extraordinary little bird-beasts have a head and body exactly like a miniature fox, barring the tail, where the tail should be, the huge bat wings end. They are destructive to fruit and vegetables, and are therefore a prey to the guns of the Estate watchmen who shoot and sell them for food to the coolies. Strange to say, the flesh of flying foxes is much prized by people who would not on any consideration eat a squirrel.

We are astonished to find to what a height in the sky they can rise, in spite of the size and weight of their body. We often watch their flight up, up into the air, till they appear a mere speck in the sky. Their home here is on an island in the middle of the Mahavillagange, to which it is to be presumed they retire in the daytime for we never see them until just before sunset. At day dawn they have again disappeared. Last night I beard the horrible cry of the devil bird, a most weird sound just like a human being in mortal agony, a sound which has a piercing poignancy that would penetrate through any number of more common-place noises.

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