Chapter 8 - Coffee Cultivation

The best season for starting on a project was from July to September when the dry south-west wind is blowing. The initial clearing of the land and preparation of ground prior to planting is of major importance; the success of subsequent operations and the eventual prosperity will depend upon it to a large extent. Clearing jungle for a coffee plantation is a major undertaking and trained elephants are used extensively in this work. They can manage any kind of terrain and can carry or pull great weights.

Clearing Jungle for Coffee Plantation

The jungle clearing is described by John Capper in his book ‘Old Ceylon-Sketches of Ceylon Life in the Olden Times’ in which he calls the ‘merry chimes’ of axes felling the glorious forests which then clothed the central mountains of Ceylon.

First the undergrowth is cleared, followed by the felling of trees and other heavy growth, after which the area is burnt. In forest-clearing, the wielders of ‘merry’ little axes were Low Country Sinhalese craftsmen who were adept at plying their small axes with rapidity and precision that was truly marvelous and who excelled in this work.

Two axe-men are used to fell the small trees, with three and sometimes four to larger ones, their little bright tools flung back over their shoulders with a sharp flourish and then with a ‘whirr’ dug into the heart of the tree, with such exactitude and in such excellent time, that the scores of axes flying about seem impelled by some mechanical contrivance, sounding as one or two instruments. The trees are not cut through, but each one is left with just sufficient of the stem intact to keep it upright.

Jungle Cleared and Ready for Planting

In half an hour a signal is made to halt, by blowing a conch shell. The axe-men would then take a break for a drink and later form a line at the periphery of the jungle. Obeying the order of the superintendent, the manager sounds the conch shell at which the axe-men with a shout, their bright axes are gleamed high in the air and sunk deeply into the trees, which at once yield to the sharp steel, groan heavily, wave their huge branches to and fro, like drowning giants, then topple over and fall with stunning crash upon the trees next to them, these having been cut through previously, offered no resistance, but followed the example of their neighbours and fell booming on those next to them.

Elephants are then used for the removal of the heavy timber that will be used later to build a house for the planter or the building for the storing and treatment of the coffee seeds. The burning-off process is then completed. The ash and other decaying matter are left to enrich the soil. The cleared land is then surveyed for drainage, roads and building sites for a Pulping House to be near a stream, Store and drying ground or ‘barbecue’ and a bungalow.

The burning-off process is described by another keen observer, Miss C.F.Cumming. ‘There is great luck in the matter of burns. Sometimes the fires die out too soon and the timber is insufficiently burnt. Sometimes they rage too furiously and the soil is scorched to such a depth as to be grievously injured.

Working Elephant

No sooner is the land cooled than an army of coolies overspread it and cut square holes in every possible corner, no matter how rocky the soil (indeed the rocky the better), or how dizzy the precipitous height; wherever a crevice can be found, there a precious little bush must be inserted and after a while as its roots expand a small artificial terrace to afford them space and prevent the rains from washing all the earth from their roots. Nothing can be more hideous than the country at this stage. To prevent soil erosion, before the coffee bush was planted, some small twigs and leaves of he trees that had been felled earlier were spread over the soil and where possible buried in the hole together with the ash of the larger branches that had been burnt.

Preparation for planting

Manuring of trees combined with draining and trenching is vital to ensure that the crop produces an adequate yield. Mr Sabondiere states, that “Draining to prevent wash and waste of soil, and a system of manuring while the trees are still young and vigorous tend to prolong the age of estates. There is no doubt that under such a system coffee trees may have as long an existence as other evergreens; excepting of course other contingencies as overbearing, attacks of grubs, the taproot coming in contact with rock, or becoming rotten from swampy soil, all of which bring the tree to premature decay. Preference is given to cow dung that is readily available. A much smaller quantity of cow dung than is ordinarily used or pulp will have all the effect of a larger quantity if mixed with a proportion of bone-dust or better still super-phosphate. Manuring with cattle dung, where the cattle are stall fed, sided by bone-dust or artificial manure, could be so managed that with an average expenditure of Three Pounds per acre per annum, properties of even medium soil might be kept to an average bearing rate of Ten Hundredweights per acre, which would fully repay the cost, and leave a large profit besides. All the prunings should also be buried. If labour cannot be spared for so necessary an operation as this, the out look is a bad one. Also, twigs should be buried in trenches or be burnt into ashes, while the larger branches could be converted into charcoal. It is an immense advantage to be to be close to inexhaustible reserves of humus and potash.

After a while, however, matters improve and by the time the coffee shrubs attain their proper size, the whole country becomes densely clothed with glossy green, and though the black stumps and great charred stumps remain standing for many years, they do gradually decay, or else become so bleached by the sun that the coffee fields resemble a gigantic cemetery, with headstones utterly without number’.

Coffee Arabica Plant

Mr Sabondiere also states that; “There are large direct benefits derived from a complete system of paths and cart roads through an estate (as well as the indirect benefits from the loosening of the soil in making them). The thorough roading of a property must be one of the earliest operations and even the sacrifice of coffee bushes on older estates is as nothing compared with the benefits conferred by paths and cart roads for which they are sacrificed.

It is said that the early pioneers coupled madness with courage and enthusiasm when they selected such places to plant at a time when there was no dearth of land.

Next was the construction of a planter’s bungalow and the factory, using the timber that was felled earlier. Kandyan carpenters and masons built the estate Pulping House, Store, bungalows and lines for the Coolies and when completed, they went back to their villages and the ancient communal life.

The budget for the buildings that were required was as follows;

Store 500 Pounds
Pulping House 500 Pounds
Bungalow for Proprietor or Superintendent 500 Pounds
Bungalow for Assistant Superintendent 300 Pounds
Lines for Coolies and families 500 Pounds
Total 2,300 Pounds
The Stores would be constructed of stone pillars, roof of galvanized Morewood’s tiles, sawn timber and coir matting floors in three stories.

The Pulping House would be constructed of Solid masonry, pillars and cisterns; a double floor for curing purposes and a corrugated iron roof.

John Capper in his book gives a description of a planter’s bungalow that he visited in the early days of coffee planting.

Workers at start of a Coffee Plantation (Picture)

‘On learning that we had reached the bungalow, I looked about me to discover the locality, but in vain, here was no building to be seen, but presently my host pointed out to me what I had not noticed before – a low roof thatched place, close under a projecting rock and half hidden by thorny creepers. I imagined this to be a fowl house or perhaps a receptacle for tools, but was not a little astonished when I saw my friend beckon me on and enter at the low, dark door.

This miserable little cabin could not have been more than twelve feet long, by six foot wide and as high at the walls. This small place was lessened by heaps of tools, coils of string for ‘lining’ the ground before planting, sundry boxes and baskets a rickety table and one chair.

At the farther end, if anything could be far in that hole, was a jungle bedstead formed by driving green stakes in the floor and walls, and stretching rope across them. I could not help expressing astonishment at the miserable quarters provided for one who had so important a charge and such costly outlay to make. My host, however treated the matter very philosophically – indeed he told me, that when he had finished putting up his little crib, had moved in his one table and chair and was seated cigar in mouth, inside the still damp mud walls, he thought himself the happiest of mortals’.

Sanitary facilities were completely lacking. Like his labourers, the planter had no choice but to use the fringe of the forest. Fires had to be lit to keep the wild animals at a safe distance; there had been instances where people had been killed and carried off. Disease struck time and again; malaria and dysentery were the worst predators.

Record of Productivity of Coffee trees kept by E.Barnes

Life in the Colony of Ceylon was not a bed of roses as the Government Gazette of 1836 shows.

Ceylon Government Gazette 1836

Published Weds & Sats.  All issues available except Wed 9 Nov, Sat 12 Nov & Wed 30 Nov. Unlike the 1834 Gazette, many issues contain no BMDs, so I will only note the dates that do.  I have also included some interesting Probates.
Wed 6 Jan: Married: At Jaffna, on the 28th December 1835, by the Rev William Adley, Edmund James Wood Esq, District Judge of the Wanny, to Sarah Ann, eldest daughter of the late Lieutenant Burke, Ceylon Rifle Regiment.

Sat 9 Jan: [Long list of the principal Burghers of Colombo, requesting establishment of a school.]

Birth: At Cotta, on the 8th instant, Mrs W Ridsdale, of a son. 
This morning, the Lady of Captain Parke, HM’s 61st Regimentt, of a son.

Sat 16 Jan: Birth: At Kandy, on the 12th instant, the Lady of L Kelly Esq, MD, of a son. 

Wed 3 Feb: Died: Suddenly, on the 10th September last, at Putney, Surrey, Mrs Fugion, aged 73.

Sat 20 Feb: Died: At Point de Galle, on the 14th instant, aged 19 years 6 months and 16 days, Gerald Benjamin, only son of the late Lieutenant Giesler, Second Ceylon Regiment.

Sat 27 Feb: Died: At Colombo on the morning of the 26th instant, Henry Arnold Rickerman, Head Clerk of the Trincomalie Cutcherry, aged 37  much regretted by his relatives & friends.

Sat 5 Mar: No BMDs. Probate of Will of the late Mr Christoffle Andriesz granted….to Messrs J D Andriesz & J B Misso of Colombo, the Executors…..

Sat 12 Mar: Birth: At Kandy, on the morning of the 7th instant, the lady of W H Whiting Esq, Civil Service, of a daughter.

Sat 26 Mar: Died: At Colombo, on the 23rd instant, Henry William, son of  Mr C W Hoffman, aged 3 years, eight months & four days.

Wed 6 Apr: At Colombo, on the 3rd instant, the Lady of Lieut Henry, HM 97th Regiment, of a son. 

Letters of administration of the Estate of the late Segoe Sabordien, Cavalry Havildar of Madras…having been granted by the District Court of Jaffna to Mr F C Grenier, acting secretary of the Court as Official Administrator….   

Letters of administration of the Estate of the late Sangeren Winegetty Vellale of Venarpone having been granted by the District Court of Jaffna to Mr F C Grenier, acting secretary of the Court as Official Administrator….

Sat 16 Apr: Died: At St Sebastian, Colombo, on Tuesday night the 12th instant, Mr Charles Weinman, aged 34 years, leaving a wife & two children …..

Wed 20 Apr: Birth: At Nuwera Ellia, on the 9th instant, the Lady of Lieutenant J J Dwyer, Ceylon Rifles, of a son. 

Died: At Putlam, on the night of the 14th instant, Elewe Tamby Ambalagar, Proctor of the District Court of Putlam.

Sat Apr 30: Birth: At Colombo, on the 29th instant, the Lady of Major Charlton, of HM 61st Regiment, of a daughter. 

Married: At Colombo, on the 28th instant, by the Revd B Bailey, Senior Colonial Chaplain, the Honble William Ogle Carr Esq, to Elizabeth Maria, daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Clement, Royal Artillery.

Wed 4 May: Birth: At Trincomalie on the 28th April, the Lady of Charles St John Esq, MD, of a son. 

Died: At Trincomaliee on the 25th ultimo, deeply regretted by her family connexions, & a numerous circle of friends, Ann, the beloved wife of Hospital Sargeant H B Morris, 61st Regiment.

Sat 7 May: Birth: At Kandy on the 28th ultimo, the Lady of Lieut Colonel Fraser, Deputy Qr Mr General, of a daughter.

Wed 11 May: Letters of Administration of the Estate of the late Mr Peter Hendrik Koster, of Colombo, deceased, having been granted…to Mr G W Stork, the Secretary of the said Court…. 

Died: At Atipo, on the 5th instant, Mr John Gerrard, son of Mr M Freywer, Commander of the Government Barque Wellington, aged 23 years….

Sat 21 May: Died: At Colombo, on the 17th instant, Mrs Lourensz, the Widow of the late Mr J H Lourensz.

Sat 28 May: no BMDs. Probate of the Will of Aromogatta Pulle Coomarasamy Esquire, late of Colombo, deceased, having been granted to Mr Bernhard Alvis, Mr Hendrik Lubbert Alvis, Ederemonesingen, Morogeseratne Modliar Sangomam and Arnasalem Moottoosamy Pulle, the Executors….

Wed 1 Jun: Died: At Colombo, on the 14th May 1836, in the 52nd year of his age, Aromogattapulle Coomarasamy esq, Head of the Hindoos of Colombo, a Modliar of the Governor’s gate, & the first Malabar un-official member of His Majesty’s legislative Council of Ceylon, leaving behind him a wife and 3 children….. [brief biography follows]

Sat 4 Jun: Died: At Colombo, on the morning of the 1st instant, Gerrardina Ezonia Charlotte De Vos, wife of Lucas Fran├žois Schokman aged 33 years. 

At Colombo on the 2nd instant, Wilson Thomas, youngest son of Captain J D Bagenall, Ceylon Rifles, aged 2 years and 5 months.

Wed 8 Jun: Birth: At Colombo, on Thursday 2nd instant, the lady of Lieut T Bloomfield Hunt, 97th Regiment, of a daughter.

Sat 11 Jun: Birth: At Colombo, on the 8th instant, the Lady of Captain Schneider, of a son.

Sat 25 Jun: Birth: At Kornegalle on the 8th instant, the Lady of Captain Firebrace, 58th Regiment, of a daughter. 

Died: At Baddagama on the 9th instant, Godfrey Steers, youngest son of the Revd Geo Steers Faught aged eleven weeks and five days. 

At Jaffnapatam, on the evening of the 17th instant, Mary Ann, the beloved wife of Mr Louis Henry Koch (and only daughter of the late Lieutenant John Kennedy, Ceylon Rifles) aged 24 years & 23 days, leaving an infant child….

At Colombo, in child-bed, on the 23rd instant, in the 22nd year of her age, Mrs Elizabeth Jane Gambs, eldest daughter of Mr Joseph Swan, Chief Clerk of the Colonial Secretary’s Office, leaving behind her a disconsolate Husband (with the surviving infant)….

Wed 29 Jun: Birth: At Kornegalle, on the 18th instant, the Lady of Captain Mcpherson, of a Son.

Wed 6 Jul: Died: At Colombo on Saturday the 2nd instant, Jane Charlotte, fifth daughter of Mr John Wootler, aged five years and four months….

Sat 9 Jul: Died: At Trincomalie, on the 2nd inst, Mrs Lavaliere, in her 56th year, daughter of the late Honourable P Sluyskens Esq…..

Wed 20 Jul: Birth: At Colombo on the 19th July, the Lady of Lieut Watson, 58th Regiment, of a daughter.

Sat 23 Jul: Died: At Colombo on the 22nd instant, Isabella, the wife of Francis Brooke Norris Esq, HM Surveyor General, aged 27 years. 

At Brussels on the 1st January 1836, aged 65 years, the Revd Dr Thos. Morgan, LLD, Chaplain to His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge, Prebend of Bath & Wells, and Vicar of Kingslangley in the County of Hertfordshire.

Wed 27 Jul: Died: At Chilaw, on the 22nd instant, Anna Pieres Wierecinhe [?] Hamine, wife of Saviel Junnies Pieries Mehedoconde [….?] Wieresinhe, Native Writer of the Cutcherry and Native Notary Public of Chilaw, leaving behind her a son and an infant daughter with a disconsolate Husband to lament her loss. [page badly worn]

Sat 6 Aug: Birth: At Colombo, on the 2nd instant, Mrs C W Hoffman, of a daughter.

Wed Aug 17: Died: At Colombo, on the 10th instant, after a short illness, Mr George Michael Nell, aged 38 years, 8 months and 25 days, leaving behind him a bereaved wife, five beloved children and an affectionate mother…..

Sat Aug 20: nil

Wed 24 Aug: Birth: At Colombo on Wednesday 17th August, the lady of the Honble J Perring Esq, of a son.

Sat 27 Aug: Died: At Trincomalie on the 21st instant, Catherine, the wife
of Sargeant Currin, 61st Regiment, aged 29 years…..leaving her husband and 3 infant children…

Wed 31 Aug: Birth: At Colombo on the 29th instant, the wife of the late Mr G M Nell, of a son.

Sat 10 Sep: Letters of Administration of George Michael Nell, late of Colombo, Shopkeeper and Auctioneer…having been granted to Mrs Petronella Nell, widow of Frederick Nell, mother of the deceased….. 

Died: On the 8th November 1835 at Enfield Wash in the County of Middlesex, James Emanuel Titterton Esq, aged 80 years.

Wed 14 Sep: Birth: At Nuwera Ellia, on the 8th instant, the Lady of  Captain Kelson, 97th Regiment, of a daughter. 

At Colombo, on the morning of the 11th instant, the wife of Mr G J Ohlmus, of a daughter. 

Married: At Putlam by the Reverend Joseph Knight, Mr Bernard Van Gunster, Salt Store-keeper of Calpentyn, to Miss Anna Elizabeth, third daughter of Mr P Koertsz of Negombo. 

Died: At Colombo, on the 11th instant, Adriana Wilhelmina, third daughter of Mr Charles Moldrech, aged 7 years, 5 months and 11 days. 

On the 12th instant, Gertruda Johanna, wife of Mr G H Ferdinandz, Apothecary, aged 25 years and 10 days.

Wed 21 Sep: Died: At Putlam, on the 18th instant, aged 1 year, Emelia Ana Brittoe, the eldest daughter of Philip Brittoe, Shroff of the Cutcherry of Chilaw.

Sat 29 Oct: Birth: At Colombo, on the 27th instant, the wife of Mr Dionysius De Neys, Librarian of the Colombo Library, of a son.

Sat 3 Dec: Died: At Colombo, on the morning of the 21 instant, Mrs Sarah Weinman, aged 26 years.

Wed 7 Dec: Died: At his residence in Colombo, on the 2nd instant, Don Abraham De Thomas, Modliar, aged 64 years.[Eulogy] … The deceased has left behind him a widow and child in somewhat indigent and helpless circumstances. 

Letters of Administration of…Fredrick Loret of Galle, deceased, having been granted… to Mrs C W Loret, widow of the deceased and Mr Daniel Ephraums…..

Sat 17 Dec: Died: At Colombo, on the 17th December, James Titterton Esq, Apothecary to the Forces, in the 47th year of his age.

Wed 21 Dec: At Colombo, on the 17th instant, Johanna Margeritta, infant daughter of M Gomes, Modeliar, Cashier of the Treasury, aged 2 months and 11 days.

Wed 28 Dec: Birth: At St Sebastian’s on the 25th instant, Mrs Marsh, of a son.

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