Chapter 9 - 1855 - Life of the Coffee Planter

It is now May 1855; Richard has finished his theoretical training with Mr William Sabondiere, with some practical experience on Delta Estate and has now begun as Assistant Superintendent of Delta Estate, South Division.

As he learnt during his training period, the greatest problem Richard has to overcome is loneliness. He knows that a person who is unable to live with himself for the greater part of his time, rarely made a success of a planting career. He would often not meet other planters in the district for weeks and the only human communication he had was with the labourers. He kept a dog as a companion and someone to share his evening meal with. He lived and slept rough. After a days work, when his band of coolies retired to their huts for the night, he would have to feed his horse, visit the sick on his estate and deal with estate correspondence. Later, he had a servant who lit a fire in the evening and prepared a meal of sorts. He had to be paymaster, clerk, doctor, judge, and surveyor, learning as he went along.

Coffee Beans and Blossom

His dress consisted of a wicker helmet covered with a long padded white cloth that hung down his back like a baby’s quilt, a shooting jacket and trousers of checked country cloth, immense leech-gaiters fitting close inside the roomy canvas boots and a Chinese paper umbrella made up his singular attire.

Richard could afford only infrequent visits to towns such as Kandy, and in the absence of recreational facilities, spent the better part of the day absorbed in his work.

A typical day would be – Breakfast before dawn, make a sandwich for lunch which he would carry in his pocket, to eat by a water course during the day spent covering his territory on foot or on horse back along the bridle paths and footpaths that had been laid out, returning home to dinner, starved as a wolf, late in the evening.

Picking Coffee

At harvest time the coffee plantations were at their scenic best. A quotation from Sir Emerson Tennent who was positively lyrical reads; ‘A plantation of coffee as at every seas on an object of beauty and interest … the polished dark green leaves … flowers of the purest white … jasmine-like perfume so strong as to be oppressive … bunches of crimson berries resembling cherries in their appearance and size’.

E.C.P.Hull was also almost moved to a prose poem: ‘Under the influence of the showers which usually fall in March … the advance relay of buds bursts into bloom, and the planter rises one morning to find the entire estate profusely decorated with snowy
garlands and the atmosphere heavy with their perfume … the millions of snowy wreaths resting on their background of dark green luxuriant bushes … produce altogether an effect not readily forgotten’.

When the coffee plants on the other Division of the estate were ready for harvesting, Richard was required to help the other planter overs ea the gathering of the crop. This occupied only two or three months of the year. This began about the beginning of November 1858 and went on till mid-January 1859. The ‘store’ was built rather lower down the estate by a stream so that water troughs could be used to transport the beans. ‘Spouting’ – the transport of the beans to the factory by water running through metal troughs – anticipated by more than a century a modern technique – applied in America even to coal. There was a drying ground next to it called a ‘barbecue’, where the beans were fermented and dried in the sun.

Sorting Coffee Beans

At the factory the main processes were: pulping; fermenting in huge vats in order to make it easier to remove the skin and drying in the sun on what were called ‘barbecues’ of whitened stone.

To get the coffee to Colombo was almost a greater problem than to grow it. Often there was no cart road from the estate and the coffee had to be carried in two bushel bags on men’s heads to a point where bullock carts could take over. The coolies were used to carry the coffee and this involved the proprietors in immense loss of time and labour just when the latter was most in need for “crop” as harvesting was called.

Tally of Coffee Beans

The coffee was taken over at the cart roads by contractors such as the de Soysa brothers, a class of men about whom the senders generally knew absolutely nothing, and in whose honesty they had every reason to disbelieve. Richard’s friendship with Charles Henry de Soysa was crucial in this regard and he made sure that the cart men saw that the coffee was measured and a way-bill signed, undertaking to deliver a like quantity in good order at Colombo within a given number of days.

A particular hazard to which this transport system was exposed was the taverns that were multiplying rapidly on all roads leading to Estates. Having escaped the depredations of the cart men, the coffee was delivered to depots in Colombo at a transport cost of about 3 pence a mile. Owing to erratic weather in the coffee-growing country, the beans usually needed a further week or so of the strong Colombo sunshine, and vast drying-grounds were laid out for this purpose. After that came the picking over of the beans, largely done by women, and massive machines that removed the “parchment” envelope.

Bullock Cart Transport

They received news of the death of Mr. George Bird in Kandy on 1st March 1857 with great sadness as he alone was instrumental in making Black Forest Estate the showpiece that it was.

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