Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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JANUARY 14th. - The Festival of Thai Pongal has come round once more. It was kept by the coolies this year on the 12th and 13th inst. The Lines, being some distance from the bungalow, we were not disturbed by their festivities, although we heard distant tom-toms betokening that the revels were in full swing somewhere. The first day Rob spent playing golf on a neighbour's links, whilst I amused myself at home, taking care to confine my wanderings to the garden, lest perchance, if I went further afield I might meet some too ardent devotee of the Arrack Tavern, which to the annoyance of the planters on this group of Estates, is situated only about a mile away. The great idea of many of the coolies on these occasions is to get drunk, and every effort is made to prevent arrack being brought into the Lines. The second day we remained at home, and were visited in the afternoon by a party of dancers, one was dressed to represent the devil, his body was painted in green and white, and on his bead he wore a cap representing horns, and wings. The other dancer had a bow and arrow, with which to shoot the demon, who continually beckoned him away but evaded the arrow. At last after a good deal of bye-play, the bow and arrow were snatched away, and the owner of them shot dead, lying limp at full length on the ground. The devil then took him up with his teeth by his loin cloth, and lifted him some yards away, a veritable tour de force for the victim was a strong built young fellow. After this he suddenly revived, snatched the weapon from the devil, and drove him away vanquished. All the movements were accompanied by the deafening noise of tom-toms, so that we were quite glad when the time came when we could politely dismiss the party with the usual "santhosem."

No sooner had they departed, than another set appeared. This consisted of two families, who said they had brought their children to salaam to us, really an excuse for getting a little present for the children, who were a boy and girl of about the age of four and two years.

It was a truly comic sight to see the mothers, who were covered with jewellery, take up the children, and push them down with their faces touching the ground, this they did two or three times; rather reminding me of the way in which I have seen a strong minded bathing woman dip poor frightened babies in the sea. The dress of the little creatures added much to the comicality, for the boy was clad from head to foot in a suit of orange and black broad striped flannelette, made on the pattern of pyjamas; and the girl wore a very long cotton frock, of the most approved pink colour. Next day, we had a visit with which I was much gratified. Our visitors were the little garden boy I had employed it Raneetotem, and the runaway coolie whom I before mentioned as having been brought there in handcuffs, and for whose good conduct Rob made himself responsible. They brought with them offerings of fruit and vegetables. Five months is a long time to live in the mind of a coolie, and I was very pleased that they had taken the trouble to walk twelve miles to pay us a visit. January 15th found the holiday ended and all once more busy at work, at least all who had feasted wisely and not too well.

This morning Virapen Kangany's Lines have been in a state of commotion. In his room was found an evil charm hidden by some enemy; and all the coolies are fully convinced that a great disaster will befall him, though I don't think he himself is much alarmed. Rob begged that he might have it to bring to me as a curiosity. The charm consists of two dirty little bits of bark about one and a half inches long by one inch broad, one bit has a Sinhalese, the other a Tamil inscription. In addition to these there are a few pigs bristles tied up with a little bit of coir, and a splinter of white wood about the size of a match, supposed to represent a needle. These were all tied up in a very dirty bit of rag, which I discarded, and they all now fit into a small match-box.

When anyone wishes to do his neighbour an injury, he places one of these charms either in, or just outside, his Lines, even burying them does not destroy the efficacy of the charm, which is supposed to produce madness, or some other horrible misfortune.

I must here give an instance of how the superstitious nature of the native is worked upon to his detriment by the priests. For some time we have noticed the great scarceness, and difficulty of obtaining, poultry and eggs. When I first went to Raneetotem a year ago, the villagers constantly brought cages of live chickens for sale, the price varying according to size from three to four rupees a dozen. We could also obtain any amount of eggs for thirty-seven cents a dozen. Now we never see such a thing as a cage of chickens, a full grown fowl is seventy-five cents instead of fifty cents, and eggs are fifty cents a dozen, and difficult to get even at that price. The reason of all this is that last year the priests went about amongst the people telling them that the end of the world was coming, and with this awful event impending, it would be very wrong to set hens, or to make preparations for the future. In some instances the "goyas" even neglected to sow their paddy fields, but happily the bulk of the villagers, although still expecting a catastrophe, keep at the same time a weather eye open to this world, as it is now constituted. As nothing remarkable happened in November the prophets postponed the event. When the date arrived our Appu brought a mat and insisted upon sleeping outside his master's door, saying he was going to take care of master, but really the mortal terror was for his own safety.

"The Ceylon Standard" in its column of country news from local correspondents often had allusions to the subject. I copy a paragraph which appeared under the head of Galle news:-

"Meretorious Acts. - Almsgiving and preaching of 'Bana and Petit' are indulged in by the inhabitants of that place in anticipation that the end of the world would soon come, as predicted, but for all this, there is no visible reform in morality amongst the poorer classes."

It reminds one of what history records of the time in the twelfth century, when the fair fields of England were left barren in dread expectations of the same event.

JANUARY 2Oth. - A gang of twenty new coolies arrived yesterday with their Kangany. They are fresh from the Indian coast, and looked bewildered at their new surroundings, as well as way-worn and weary, having walked many miles to reach this Estate. The two women appeared so utterly exhausted that I longed to give them some refreshments but alas they were of so high a caste that they would have scorned to partake of anything from our bungalow, so nothing could I do, except watch the curious procession file past, the Kangany leading the way, whilst some fine strong men, carrying on their heads all the worldly goods of the party, brought up the rear. Some of the coolies carried little children on their shoulders, or astride on their hips, whilst others had fowls of nondescript character under their arms. One old crone was scarcely human in her ugliness, but poor creature, one's heart went out to her in compassion, for she appeared almost too tired to put one foot before the other.

When once settled down in Ceylon the Indian coolie finds himself much better off than at home. Here, he gets regular wages, good Lines to live in, medical attendance, and (on a cocoa estate) plenty of firewood, jak fruit, chilis, and other curry stuffs, all free of charge, with a climate (at all events in the low country) not very dissimilar to his own.

Ceylon is in fear of the plague being introduced into the island, and therefore for three weeks after arrival, new coolies from Southern India are under careful observation preparatory to isolation, should the least symptom of the dreaded malady appear. Added to which, the important step has been taken by government of closing the great north road, the main artery by which most of the immigrants arrive in the planting districts. For the present all immigration is by sea, and a most rigid inspection takes place at the ports. Plague stations have been selected in various central and convenient situations; the district medical officers have had portable hospitals sent for their disposal; the village headman and Superintendents of Estates have had printed government instructions given them how to act in case of an outbreak; and we trust that every human precaution having been taken, we may be preserved from the awful scourge taking root in Ceylon, as it has done in India.

January is a charming month so far as climate is concerned. We have cool mornings with the thermometer often below 70 deg, the temperature for a few hours in the middle of the day rises to 80 deg, and then gradually lowers until, at four o'clock in the afternoon, it is cool enough to make a brisk walk or game of tennis quite enjoyable. This month is a busy month on a cocoa Estate. Crop is coming in fast, and has to be cured during summer weather out on the barbecue, which gives it the best colour; when damp and cloudy, in the clarehue on matting coarse enough to admit of the heated air passing freely through. Our store which a few weeks ago was stacked with coffee, is now full to repletion with cocoa.

In addition to picking and curing cocoa, lopping is now again in full swing. For this work Sinhalese are usually employed; they are excellent woodmen, understanding thoroughly the wood craft of their native forests, and can climb like monkeys. Cocoa will not crop under dense shade which also favours the development of pod disease. The growth of forest trees is so rapid, that lopping has to be annually, and in some degree biannually undertaken. This is also the season for manuring the plants, and for preparing the holes in which during the South West Monsoon supplies will be planted to take the place of the cocoa bushes, that have fallen victims to drought or disease. So altogether it is a busy time, and it is well that the cool North East Monsoon weather enables the work to be done without the exhaustion which would follow the same amount of exertion in the hot weather.

Yesterday afternoon we had a party of schoolboys from St. Edward's school, Newera Eliya, to tea and tennis. They are spending their holidays with friends and relations in this neighbourhood, and a more gentlemanly well-mannered set of boys it would be impossible to meet, they would do credit to any English public school training, without the expense and trouble of going to England. This school is in a lovely and most healthy situation, an excellent tone pervades among the boys, and games are much encouraged, as I had the benefit yesterday of seeing, for our guests quite distinguished themselves at tennis, especially a small boy of nine who played quite well enough to make a fourth in a good game, without points being allowed him. The same youngster plays an excellent game of croquet and billiards, but this last accomplishment was taught him by his father and not at school. In my opinion, unless a boy is delicate, and in that case requires the bracing air of Europe supposing he is eventually to become a planter, it is far better for him to be educated at St. Edwards amongst those who will be his future friends and compeers, than to go home to school in England, where he will lose the continuity of his Ceylon life, learn tastes which cannot be gratified, and make friends from whom he must eventually be parted. The Europeans here are to be congratulated on having such a good school as St. Edwards on the island, and should do their utmost to avail themselves of its advantages for their sons, and thus give it an amount of financial support, sufficient to enable the management to provide masters trained at English universities, and so keep abreast with the best educational methods of the day.

I have before mentioned the clever way in which coolies make use of the simple means at their disposal. I was much struck yesterday by an instance in point. Going down with Rob past the cart shed I saw some crooked looking branches heaped on the ground, each piece four or five feet long. He told me they were part of a jungle creeper which the men bark and then divide into longitudinal narrow strips, these are beaten into shape, even wetted if necessary, and form the tough so-called "jungle-rope," with which all the vanilla fencing is tied and also by which all our verandah flower baskets are suspended. It is strong enough to bear a heavy weight, is quite as tough, and does not rot nearly as soon as coir rope.

Just as children, where toy shops are non-existent, make their playthings of stones, and broken shards, and the hundred and one things at their own door, so do we in the dearth of organised amusements divert ourselves with anything which may be a little out of the daily routine. This afternoon Rob and I have been much entertained by watching the vagaries of some young bulls being broken in to go in a hackery. When about two years old their education begins, first a light rope is passed through the nose, over the top of the head and tied securely at the side of the face, to this eventually the rope reins are adjusted and by it the bull is guided (I must say, not very effectually guided). When the slit in the nostril is quite healed the training begins.

A light hackery is secured, the bull with many pushes and shouts is at last induced to enter the shafts, the yoke is fitted to the hump, the best and most fearless driver mounts the box, and the coolies place themselves on either side of the shafts, and two more at the back, all to exercise enough pressure to keep the hackery straight. Then begins a series of jumps and rushes on the part of the unfortunate and bewildered animal, generally ending in a furious gallop which it takes all the fleetness and the strength of the coolies to keep pace with, and to keep the vehicle on the right track. Sometimes the proceedings are varied by the young bull taking an obstinate fit, putting down his head, even trying to lie down, and utterly declining to budge an inch, but a judicious prick with a sharp stick, and moving the wheels soon brings him to his bearings. It is really wonderful with a little patience and regular exercise, how soon they become docile; but even the best and quietest of bulls is liable to attacks of obstinacy, then the wearisomeness of sitting behind them is only equalled by the wearisomeness of driving them.

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