Chapter 4 1825 - Pioneers of Coffee in Ceylon

The origin of the coffee plant in Ceylon has been traced to the coffee trees growing in a natural state in the Royal Palace Gardens at Hanguranketa, in the Kandy district and were said to have been brought over by Arabians for the purpose of growing a sweet-smelling flower for the Buddhist temple. The Dutch began the cultivation of coffee in the low-country as early as 1740, but were never able to export more than 1,000 cwt. Sir Edward Barnes who was Governor for two periods – from 1820 to 1822 and again from 1824 to 1831 – showed an intense interest in the agricultural development of the Colony and to this end commenced and completed the great central road into the hill country.

In order to encourage military and civil officers of the administration and new settlers to take up land, 1825 Sir Edward Barnes established his own plantation at Ganoruwa, adjoining the newly opened botanical Gardens in Peradeniya. The example of Sir Edward Barnes bore fruit and soon Kandy, the ancient Capital of the mountain kingdom which for so long had defied the British invader, became the centre of activity for the opening up of new plantations.

Coffee Blossoms

The moment was rendered propitious by a concurrence of favourable circumstances; the use of coffee had been largely increased in the United Kingdom by the remission of one-half the import duty in 1825 – a measure under the impetus of which the consumption nearly doubled itself within three years and went on augmenting until it outstripped the powers of production in the West Indies and raised the value of coffee to such a pitch that the produce of India and Ceylon came into rapid demand at highly remunerative prices. Coupled with these fiscal facilities another important change was in progress, which vastly enlarged the demand for coffee, not only in the United Kingdom, but over a great part of Western Europe; and especially in Belgium and France; - this was the annually diminishing consumption of wine, concurrently with the increase in consumption of coffee and tea. In England, coffee had come to be a necessary of life for the poor as well as a luxury to the opulent classes.

Lt Col Henry.C. Bird who arrived in Ceylon in 1823 and was the Military Commandant of the Kandy District commenced coffee planting in the Kandy district and in 1824 opened a coffee plantation in Sinnapitiya, near a town named Gampola, at an elevation of 1,600 feet.

The estate was opened and run by his brother George Bird who has also been a Cavalry Officer and came out to Ceylon to take up Planting, as Lt-Col H.C.Bird was not able to work an Estate himself. William Northway Senior was appointed Superintendent at Gangaroowa.

British civilians and military officials resident in Kandy provided initial Capital for coffee cultivation and behaved more like coffee planters than Government employees. The new landowners were mainly public servants stationed in Colombo, had absolutely no knowledge of planting, so were obliged to employ outsiders who had some background knowledge of agriculture, or who at least possessed a spirit of adventure necessary to open up the tracts of virgin jungle that had come into their possession.

Operations at Sinnapitiya became so paralyzed after the death of Lt-Col Henry Bird from Cholera in 1829 that Mr George Bird was induced to abandon the property in 1833 and remove to Kondasally and subsequently to Imboolpitiya in Oudabulatgamma.

George Bird

Obituary notice in gentleman’s magazine volume 146

Lieut.-colonel Bird.

3rd April 1829, At Colombo, in Ceylon, Lieut.-Col. Henry Bird, of his Majesty's Ceylon regiment. He entered the army as Ensign in the 29th foot; was promoted Lieut, in the 94th in 1794, and afterwards Captain in the 112th; and was on the half-pay from the reduction of the last-named regiment in Aug. 1795 till Feb. 1797, when he was required to serve in the Supplemental Militia, and continued therein till Jan. 1800. He was appointed Captain in the 5th foot in 1803, and brevet Major Jan. 1, 1805, in which year he served in the expedition to Hanover. In 1806 he went to South America, and was present at the storming of Buenos Aires; in 1807 to Portugal, and was in the battles of Rnleia and Vimiera. In 1809 be served under Sir John Moore in Spain ; in the same year in the expedition to Walcheren; and was in the actions of the 1st and 7th of August, and at the siege of Flushing. He was promoted to be brevet Lieut.-Colonel Jan. 1, 1812; Major 5th foot 1813, and 7th foot 1816; and, having been some time on the half-pay of the latter reg. was appointed Major of the 16th foot in 1822, and subsequently Lieut.-Colonel. He has left a widow - Frances Maria (nee De Fer), born 1784 in France, died 6th January 1869, Goytrey, Monmouth and family.

Kabristan Archives in “Graveyards in Ceylon – Kandy Region Vol IV” on page 85 states that “GEORGE SAMUEL BIRD, coffee planting pioneer, died March 1857, aged 67. His wife CHARLOTTE CARPENTER died at Kundesale on 26 June 1842, aged 35. She was the daughter of Lieut-Colonel Lionel Hook, Ceylon Rifles and was born at Colombo on 22 March 1806.

William Rowlands

In 1834 Captain Henry.C.Byrde, Lt-Col Henry Bird’s son who resorted to the original spelling of the family name, came to Ceylon on the sailing ship “Symmetry” having been transferred to the Ceylon Rifle Regiment, joined his uncle George Bird and established Black Forest Estate, in Pussellawa at an elevation of 3,000 feet and started planting coffee. Black Forest was so named from the dark foliage of the forest, where the Doon trees were growing to a height of 100 feet before branching. It was the success of the first clearing on Black Forest that led to the ultimate rush for land to grow coffee.

One night in early 1850 at the Mess Hall, Captain Byrde gave a talk to the British soldiers and their families about his experience in establishing this estate, the trials and tribulations of the harvest and getting the coffee to Colombo, with a view to encouraging more soldiers to take up coffee planting.

William Rowlands who was to leave the army in July of that year was present with his three sons, 23 year old John Henry, 18 year old, Richard William and 10 year old Charles Benjamin.

Captain Henry.C.Byrde

The talk would have included the following; “To start clearing the jungle work gangs of low country Sinhalese axe men were organized to move out into the trackless forest which clothed the mountains to axe the trees and transform the land. The huge felled trees were then burned. Later, an army of Tamil coolies cut square holes in the mountainous terrain, ready for coffee bush planting. Tree stumps were left to rot and also prevent soil erosion. The field resembled a gigantic cemetery with hundreds of head stones.

Following the advice of Mr Robert Boyd Tyler who arrived in Ceylon in 1827, after having gained some experience in coffee-planting in Jamaica picked up mainly in a book written by Mr Laborie, a Planter of St Domingo, there was a complete change in the method of growing and curing coffee. Coffee was now to be grown on one stem only; the plants were to be raised from seed and the trees to be topped at a certain height. The coffee fruit was to be put through a “Grater Mill”. Barbeques were to be laid down for drying the parchment and a “Peeling Mill” used for grinding the coffee when dry. The introduction of his method of planting and curing created a complete revolution in the industry, coffee thus cured being called “Plantation Coffee’ and the remainder were termed “Native Coffee”.

Clearing Jungle for Coffee Plantation

The first Planter’s house was a 12 foot by 6 foot log hut with mud to keep out the weather, a thatched roof with a hammock for a bed and a table and chair. The Planter’s clothes consisted of a wicker helmet covered with a long padded white cloth that hung down his back. A shooting jacket and trousers of checked country cloth, immense leech gaiters fitting inside canvas boots and a Chinese paper umbrella. He rode a horse to inspect the plantation.

Early Planter’s House
The Planter’s life was both solitary and very monotonous with no railways and very few roads. On a Saturday he treaded his way through the forest on horse back to meet with his fellow planters. The Saturday night get-to-gether was a riotous event where they let their hair down. The small bungalow in which the protracted revels were held ended up with a mountain of piled up empty bottles.

When the plants matured, in March, under the influence of showers, the buds burst into bloom with the entire estate profusely decorated with snowy garlands and the air heavy with their perfume against a backdrop of dark luxuriant bushes.

The factory was built near a stream so that water troughs could be used to transport beans and then pulp the fruit before they were fermented and dried in the sun.

Crops came in but once a year, about November, December or January. The berry was pulped on the estate, and the parchment coffee was dried in barbeques and sent to Colombo. This in itself was no easy matter.

Transport by Bullock Cart

The coffee was then transported in two bushel bags on men’s heads to bullock wagons and taken over the cart roads by contractors. The honesty of these men was less than adequate and many a load never reached Colombo. The multiplication of taverns along the roads also made the task of transporting coffee a hazardous business.

Sir Graeme.H.D.Elphinstone held sway at one time at Kotmale, where Capt.C.W.Forbes on Kadienlena and Capt.Payne Gallwey on Kataboola. Kadienlena was the first estate owned by Sir James H.D.Elphinstone. West hall was named after the property of that name in Garioch County, and later he was the owner of Logie Estate, named after his place in the same locality. Sir Graeme Elphinstone was a great planter, commonly called “Logie”.

When in charge of Logie Estate, to enable him to check the cart men, who were usually regarded as rogues in their way of overcharging and also stealing and mixing coffee en route to Colombo, “Logie” made a whole trip himself as a cart man, driving the bullock cart from Kotmale to Colombo via Kelani Valley, living much as the cart men did, and at a famous dinner given in honour of Sir James Elphinstone when he revisited Ceylon, challenged Sir James to compete with him in the art of driving a double-bullock cart.

Sorting Coffee in Colombo
Coffee was not shipped as parchment, but on arrival in Colombo, the parchment was milled in huge circular stone mills, even the silver skin being removed in the process and the coffee was thoroughly dried for shipment. Vast drying grounds were laid to dry the coffee bean and then the massive machines would remove the parchment envelope. The finished article was then packed in barrels, giving ample work for the Sinhalese who became expert artisans. Great mills such as Bloominghall Mill, The United Channel Island Stores and the New Banff Establishment were built to cater for the ever increasing amount of coffee being produced in the valleys of Dumbara, Ambegamuwa, Kotemale and Pussellawa.

Drying Coffee in Colombo

Shipping was intermittent, and the larger agency firms would often charter all the space of a sailing vessel to carry the produce consigned to them for shipment to London.

Delivery in London would take a further six months.

The motivation given by Sir Edward Barnes to encourage the cultivation of coffee could not have been better timed. As mentioned earlier, this moment was rendered auspicious by a concurrence of a series of favourable circumstances. This gave the industry a head start over others. The duty relief granted by the state in 1825 on coffee imports to Britain helped almost double the consumption of coffee in the country.

Packing Coffee in Colombo

Accordingly, coffee consumption in Western Europe began to rise. It became a necessity of life for the poor and a luxury for the affluent class. Before the first crop of coffee could be shipped to the U.K. Ceylon’s formidable rivals Jamaica, Dominica and Guinea were faced with internal discord, due to the conduct of the slaves just prior to their emancipation. Production from these countries steadily declined at a time when Ceylon was about to launch on a new career.

Ceylon almost overnight was transformed from a lethargic military cantonment into a resourceful British Colony.

Governor Barnes continued to encourage coffee growers. In addition to constructing a network of roads he pioneered a series of legislative reforms to assist the growth of the industry.

Consumption of coffee in Britain, detailed below:-
1824 7,993,040 lbs
1825 10,766,112 lbs
1826 12,724,139 lbs
1827 14,974,373 lbs 16,008 cwt
1828 7,072 cwt
1829 20,033 cwt
1830 16,900 cwt

Richard was all ears and it was in the spirit of challenging the unknown that Richard William Rowlands, seeking adventure and some sort of fulfillment decided that he would apply for a job on a plantation, with some idea of the new life he was going to lead. At the end of the talk, he asked his father to speak to Captain Byrde about finding him a place as a trainee Superintendent, which his father said he would do, after a family discussion. Richard spoke to his father and mother about becoming a coffee planter. The parents are most concerned about his welfare and agreed to speak to Captain Byrde at great length about the work he would be involved in and the dangers that he would face. Captain Byrde tells them that he had met lads as young as 16 who had started work on plantations and with good guidance and support had become coffee planters. He said that Richard would be working with friends of his and that they would teach Richard all that was required. Richard’s mother has some reservations, but would not stand in the way as he would be contracted to a reputable person and Capt Byrde had promised his father that he would looked after.

Sailing Ships in Colombo Harbour

Richard also talked to his friends about his decision and that he is looking forward to signing his contract. He spoke about the tasks involved in opening up virtually inaccessible dense jungle to expand the estate, preparing the mountain side for coffee plants, the various types of manure used to fertilize the crop and the process of cultivation and preparation of the coffee beans for shipment.

It was not until 1854, following the financial crisis of 1852, that Richard received a letter asking him to see Capt Byrde in Kandy, about a position on Delta Estate in Pussellawa, owned by his good friend Mrs.Cavendish and managed by a another of his good friend’s Mr William Sabondiere.

The Letter of Engagement that Richard signed would have been similar to that signed by James Taylor in 1851, and would have read:-

I hereby engage myself to Mrs G.H.Cavendish of Delta Estate, Pussellawa, Ceylon, to a space of two years to act in the capacity of Asst.Superintendent, and to make myself generally useful, and to obey orders of those set over me at a salary of One hundred pounds per annum, to commence from the time of my arrival on the estate, and to have deducted from my salary the amount of money advanced me for freight.

I am Gentlemen,
Your Obedient Servant,
Richard William Rowlands.”

An entry in the Baptism Register at Holy Trinity Church, Pussellawa indicates that George Bird (son of George Samuel Bird) married Eliza at St Andrews Church, Gampola on 27 August 1862 and a son Charles Henry George Bird was born on 4 December 1867 and Baptised on 23 December 1867 at “Wannendon”. The God-parents being, Charles Shelton Agar, Henry Charles Byrde, Maria Hayes and Louisa McPherson.

In the Kabristan Archives “Graveyards in Ceylon – Kandy region Vol IV” on page 40 the following entry reads:-

Iin the Kandy Cemetery a burial plot was purchased by Revd. E.A.Copleston on 25th February 1902 for JONATHAN BIRD and

On page 42 that a burial plot was purchased by Walter James Agar on 29th May 1913 for ELIZA.W.BIRD (wife of GEORGE BIRD).

Henry Charles Byrde married on 5th June 1837, Rebecca Mais, born 10th December 1809, Bristol and died 23rd December 1893, Pontypool. Captain Henry Charles Byrde, died 15th October 1895.

The London Gazette of 11 May 1875 states that Henry Charles Byrde Esq., was appointed Honorary Colonel 2nd Administrative Battalion Monmouthshire Rifle Volunteers on 12th May 1875.

Children of Captain Henry Charles and Rebecca Byrde:-
Captain Henry Byrde, born 3rd December 1837 - Ceylon
Charles Byrde, born 17th January 1839 - Ceylon
Rev: Frederick Louis Byrde, born 28th January 1843 - Kandy, Ceylon
Rev: Richard Augustus Byrde, born 4th March 1844, - Kandy Ceylon
Francis William Byrde, born 20th June 1846, - Kandy Ceylon
Evan Maberly Durand Byrde, born 22nd June 1848 – Guerney, Chanel Isles
Anne Elizabeth Byrde, born 1853 – Kandy Ceylon.

Principal events in the period to 1825, when the first coffee plantations started producing are as follows.
The ex-King of Kandy and his family sent to Madras..24th January.
Kandyan rebellion proclaimed in the Kandyan Provinces..21st February. Rebellious Chiefs captured and some of them beheaded in Kandy, while Ehelapola is sent to Colombo. Keppitipola, a leading rebel chief, defeated and captured by Colonel Fraser at Anuradhapura and the rebellion suppressed, two of the chiefs being beheaded and others banished to Mauritius..October.
First outbreak of Cholera…January.
Abortive Rebellion in Bintenna. Kobbekaduwa Disawa exites commotion and is captured…May.
Bridge of boats near Colombo completed.
Kandy road tunnel completed.
The Church Mission established the Kotte Station.
Unsuccesful insurection in Matale…May.
Building of the Pavilion, Kandy and of Mount Lavinia House near Colombo. Moon’s “Catalogue of Ceylon Plants” published.
Ehelapola removed to Mauritius. First English Steamer “The Enterprise” in India. Bishop Heber visits Ceylon, 25th August, arrives at Galle, 15th September, Kandy, 29th September, leaves for India. (Died at Trichnopoly 3rd April 1826).


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