Chapter 7 - Training

Richard is now a Trainee Superintendent with a pioneer coffee planter named William Sabondiere who was one of the authentic grass-roots coffee men, since he started in Ceylon at the age of 16 at Black Forest Estate, in a region known as Pussellawa, near Kandy, under Lt-Col H.C.Bryde, who was a relative of his mother. In 1852, William Sabondiere was chosen by Baron Delmar Rothschild to develop the Delta Estate close to Black Forest and was now its Manager with plans to make it the largest and best equipped Estate in Central Ceylon. The Delta Estate was owned by Countess Gaston de la Rochefoucault (Mrs G.H.Cavendish).

Richard traveled on horseback from Kandy to Delta Estate and spent his first night in the one bungalow on the estate. The next day Richard would begin his training to become an Assistant Superintendent of a coffee plantation. He would be trained by William Sabondiere on the plantation – Delta Estate, whose Agent was Messrs J.M.Robinson. Delta Estate was adjacent to Black Forest Estate, but a good half day’s horse ride away.

Richard would spend the next six months with Mr William Sabondiere who would teach him all he knew about coffee planting in Ceylon.

William Augustus Sabondiere

Mr William Sabondiere was a hard task master and demanded close attention to every thing that he said. His philosophy was simple but effective. The experience of years of coffee planting and watching the mistakes made by others gave him the knowledge that he would impart to Richard.

He said: “The mistake that some people make is to believe that any half-educated person will do for a coffee planter; that less of natural intelligence and acquired knowledge is requisite for the tropical agriculturist than for his brethren, who are destined for the walks of commerce or the ranks of the civil and military services of government, this has resulted in the loss and disappointment that proprietors of coffee plantations have had to mourn over. To make a good coffee planter, as to make a good anything else, a man ought to have a sound mind in a healthy body. A robust constitution is perhaps more to be desired in this line of life than those in commerce, banking, the civil service and learned professions. A conscience guide by Christian principle, too, is of the most importance. Moral principle has not been strong enough to enable men to resist temptations to which solitary life, distant from social amenities and religious constraints and privileges, resulting in so many that began a planting career so well, have broken down. Comfort is found in stimulants; the man takes a drink that leads to habits and associations which deprive the victim of his own self-respect and the respect of even the coolies, it is his business to command. Rapidly or gradually the depths of degradation are reached and the once bright youth is a broken-down loafer. To be a good coffee planter it is not enough that a man should have a good constitution and industrious habits, with the power of controlling his appetites. He must have at commencing or acquire as he goes along, a faint acquaintance with many in Ceylon, to be thoroughly careful, successful and be well up in colloquial Tamil, at least. He attributed his own good relations with his coolies to his ability to communicate with them directly by fluent use of their own language. A great advantage is possessed by the Superintendent, who is able with precision to convey his directions to the workmen in their own language and perfectly to understand reports, written or oral, of his Kanganies (overseers of gangs) and the representation of coolies who may consider themselves aggrieved.

To be a good Superintendent, a man then, must be a bit of a psychologist. He must have a knowledge of the law at least so far as the relations of master and servant are concerned, and the relation of the planter and the owners of adjoining land and their animals that may trespass on to the Estate. He must be well up in sanitary science, especially “his philosophy of smells”. The planter ought to know and act on the conviction that while nothing is as deadly as dirt in the wrong place, nothing is more useful in the right place. Bone dust and ash are just like “line manure”, dirt. Each requires to be manipulated and utilized instead of being allowed to run to waste. He must know how to convert dirt from a source of disease to a source of fertility. He must know at least enough of the principles of medicine and surgery contained in the Medical Hints which have been prepared for his use, to be able to treat or guide the treatment of decease and ordinary accident among his workers. Even on the healthiest of Districts, fevers and bowel deceases will occur; collies will cut their fingers or toes or get bitten by noxious reptiles. The Superintendent must be ready to treat simple cases and have intelligence enough to know where cases are beyond his control and conscience enough to give such cases at once the benefit of those splendid and well-regulated hospitals in Gampola.

Kangani of 2007

It is in the natural and chemical science that the planter must possess and be ever acquiring knowledge. Acquaintance with the principles of geology and mineralogy will enable the planter to form a fair idea of the soil he is called to work on. Knowledge of its constituents will enable him to judge what the soil requires for a continued and healthy growth of a plant over severely pruned and handled to yielding the maximum of a most exhausting crop. Big word such as, geology and mineralogy ought not to frighten any planter.

The planter above all, perhaps, should have a competent knowledge of the science of agricultural chemistry. If able to try a few simple experiments, so as to test soils, or to enable him to judge the quality of the fertilizer imported and sent to the estate, so much the better. Bone dust may be impure or almost inert and even super phosphates may differ most materially in percentage of fertilizer qualities. There must be no slavish adherence to the results of mere analysis. Substances poor in fertilizer properties may yet be eminently useful from their mechanical and chemical effect in warming and disintegrating soil that is naturally stiff and poor. A good example is “manna grass” which when its ashes are analyzed yields only 3 per cent of potash and 2 of chloride of potash, against 81.5 of silica. What help therefore, can so wretchedly poor a substance, yield to the planter? It is most useful, both bedding for cattle and a litter to be applied to the surface of soil. The effect of the surface littering is much increased by the digging up of the soil, previous to the application of the manna grass. It may be buried in trenches cut longitudinally across the face of a hill; the trees not only benefit from the decaying grass, but from the loosening of the soil. The benefit is most marked.

This shows what scope the planting enterprise presents for the intelligent and discriminating application of the laws of agricultural chemistry to substances within easy reach of the planter, as well as imported fertilizers.

The planter should also be a botanist and horticulturist enough to have a faint acquaintance with the laws of vegetable life so as usefully to guide the operations of topping, pruning, handling and even manuring. Entomology, too, must be studied so as to enable the planter to have an intelligent knowledge of the history and habits of such “enemies of the coffee plant” as grub and bug.

Descendant of Indian Pluckers - 2007

The planter must be a bit of an architect, so as to judge of the fitness and purpose of the plan and elevation of bungalows, stores and pulping houses. He must also be a bit of a mechanical engineer to do justice to water power machinery and asphalts and of the best mode of applying them. Finally, the planter ought to be a good financier, for it is clear that the cost of starting and maintaining a coffee estate must be clearly understood and borrowings as much as possible avoided. Richard was given a number of books on these topics, to study and discuss with his teacher during the course of the next six months.

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