Edwin Lester Linden Arnold.

On the Indian hills : or, Coffee-planting in southern India (Volume 2) online

. (page 4 of 20)
Online LibraryEdwin Lester Linden ArnoldOn the Indian hills : or, Coffee-planting in southern India (Volume 2) → online text (page 4 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

siderably taken aback, but thinking this might
be a good opportunity to see what sort of a
man he was, I proceeded to ask him a question
or two. "Well, Sheitan," I said, "you told
me the other day you had been to a native
school ; now, what did you learn there ? Any
geography ? " This was rather a long word
for him, but he said, " Yes ; " so I continued,
" That's right. Now, where do Englishmen
come from?" Without moving a muscle he
answered placidly, "Palghaut, sahib," and he


obviously believed that was the rim of the
world, his Ultima Thule, beyond which there
was nothing but uncertainty. So I tried
another track. "Are you a Christian, Sheitan?"
I inquired. " Yes, sahib," he said. " That's
right. Then of course you know where you
will go when you die ? " I inquired. He looked
at me for a moment with his big gloomy eyes,
and then, all solemn and motionless, said, " To
hell, sahib." I thought, after this, I would not
make any more inquiries as to his education,
but bidding him pile up the fire and call me
at daybreak, dismissed him for the night.

But at best it was not possible to spend a
very cheerful evening. The rain beat down
incessantly, and the wind sobbed amongst the
tree-tops and rattled the long pendant creepers
together in mournful tunes. Every now and
then one of the stoppings of the holes in the
sides of the hut, through which the stove-pipe
had formerly passed, would be blown in, fol-
lowed by a gust of wind and a torrent of rain,
and the gap had to be hastily plugged up again
with anything that came first to hand. Once
or twice I heard big branches snap off from the
trees in the jungle and fall crashing to earth,


and any moment one might come through the
roof of my hut. Then the prospect of the next
day was not agreeable. A thousand odd acres
of land on my hands, and a couple of hundred
coolies to look after and control hefore I had
been a week up here or knew a word of the
language, and, last hut not least, the mosquitoes
which drove me half wild, and the small beetles
that would crawl down my back or up my
sleeves just when I was comfortably smoking.
As for fleas, they abound wherever coolies are,
and I grew quite indifferent to them and their
bites perhaps would even feel lonely without
them. But there is a larger creature of the
grasshopper tribe, which makes day and night
hideous with its noise, and for this insect I enter-
tained the most cordial hatred. The sound it
makes is quite indescribable, but seems most like
a couple of metal saws going through a plate of
sheet iron. If I had any other feelings but wrath
while this evil being is performing, they would
be wonderment and admiration for the powers
of so small a musician. Fancy a creature two
inches long, who .can cause himself to be heard
half a mile away ! What a blessing it is such


powers are not given to human beings ! An
Irish member of Parliament with any such gift
would upset our Constitution ; but the thought
is. horrible. These terrible nuisances the jungle
crickets are supposed to make their fearful
sounds by rubbing their legs over their wing-
cases, and though their legs are certainly
armed with a formidable row of sharp spines,
they must work very hard to obtain such
results. One of them came into my room on
the evening of my return from Palghaut, just as
I had put out the light and was falling asleep,
and, settling on the rim of our washing-basin,
deliberately tuned up and launched into a wild
chorus of screeches. I listened for a moment,
and then one of my boots flew in the direction
of the sound, and knocked the basin to the
ground. For a while the enemy was silenced,
but just as I was falling asleep again he started
afresh on the rafters overhead. Another boot
dislodged him ; but as fast as he was driven
from one spot he tuned up in another, and so,
finding him irrepressible, I struck a light and,
after a prolonged chase into every corner of the
hut, succeeded in securing him, and magnani-



mously let him go through one of the holes in
the sides of the bungalow. The last thing I
heard before going to sleep was his detestable
song from the roof-ridge of my bedroom, in
return for this Buddhistic clemency.



NATURALLY enough, the work that fell upon me

after R 's compulsory absence in hospital at

Palghaut was very hard. At five o'clock each
morning it was necessary to he up and have
the great bell rung, and then came the muster-
ing of the coolies, and the setting them their
various tasks. This would have been nearly an
impossibility for me without any knowledge of
Tamil and Canarese, but for the assistance of the
half-caste, who interpreted my orders. Then,
from 6 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. I was continually
on the move, hurrying hither and thither,
scrambling about the clearings, pushing through
the jungles, and making myself as " numerous "
as possible. For this sort of work it is, of
course, hopeless to use a horse, as the ground
is much too rough and obstructed, and riding


in the jungle is out of the question, except just
in the beaten track, on account of the creepers
and bamboos.

At half-past twelve there was a brief interval
of rest for breakfast, during which our tapal r
or running postman, from the plains arrived,
and some of the time had to be devoted to
reading and answering letters, private and on
business ; and then, all writing finished, and the
necessary orders for food and the wants of the
estate having been sent to the native agents in
Palghaut and Wallenghay, the postman put his
little wicker-basket on his head, and set out
again for the lowlands.

The endurance of these men is something
wonderful. We had four of them in our
service, and every day one of them came
up with our letters, etc. They arranged that
one man should start from Palghaut imme-
diately on the arrival of the early morning
mail, with letters, papers, butter, eggs, and
occasionally clean clothes or something of the
kind, all packed into a small basket, weighing
perhaps five or six pounds, and carried on his
head. He ran the whole eleven miles to Wal-
lenghay by every short cut he knew of, and

" UNDER THE SUN." . 69

as fast as he could go. At Wallenghay he found
another tapal waiting, and transferred the basket ;
whereupon the second man " made tracks "'
for the jungle, and his was the hardest stage, for
he had to face the ghaut road, with its tiger-
haunted glens and unholy places. Only stopping
perhaps to drink and pray for a minute or two
by some brook-side, he gained the mountain tops,
and arrived at my bungalow about one o'clock.
Then, as previously mentioned, while he sat on
his heels in the verandah and chewed a little
betel-nut, I was writing the answers to the
correspondence he had brought up, and when
they were finished the basket was refilled with
anything that had to be returned to the plains,
and the tapal salaamed and started away again
for the ghaut road. He generally managed to
reach Walleughay the same evening, whence my
correspondence was taken to Palghaut in time for
the early post to Madras and the rest of India
the next morning. Thus the man who had the
Wallenghay to Pardagherry stage (and each of
our four men took it regularly in turn) had to
do sixteen miles uphill with a heavy weight on
his head, and then sixteen miles downhill again,
between ten in the morning and sunset. As


might be expected, they were models of good
training, without an ounce of superfluous fat
anywhere about them ; and, as their clothing-
consisted of a long strip of white cloth wound
round and round the waist and hanging down
to the knees, it was possible to study the muscles
of the human body, as shown forth under their
smooth copper-coloured skin, to great advan-

After the arrival and departure of the tapal
the event of the day in these lonely wilds-
there was always another long spell of work
to be done during the afternoon, and this was
the hottest and most fatiguing part of the toil,
made especially trying as the coolies were by
this time very nearly spent, and the greatest
exertions were necessary, in our wilderness-like
clearing, to get any work out of them after
three o'clock. So by the hour the sun was
sinking amongst the tree-tops in the west, and
the great bell was tolling to recall every one, I
was generally very glad to hear it. On getting-
back to the settleinent, roll-call had to be gone
through, the sick attended, the horse watched
while he fed, in order that the ghora-wallah
might not steal the grain, and the tools issued


in the morning received back and counted, all of
which made rest, and then dinner, vtery welcome.

But the evenings were oppressively solitary.
Xo Englishman within five or six miles, and
then only one, and he very taciturn. Riding
to any of the estates was not to be thought of
after a day's severe work in the sun, without
taking into account the dark jungle paths reek-
ing with fever-mist at night, tangled with roots,
and the off chance of meeting an elephant or
bison. So there was nothing to do but smoke
in silence, and turn in as early as might be.

I had a considerable amount of trouble with
the boy " Sheitan." He would persist in washing
himself and his clothes in my only saucepan,
and kept my rice in an old stocking, while his
kitchen, which abutted on the bungalow, was
like nothing so much as a coal-hole, and had a
great heap of refuse in one corner. Occasionally
I looked into this place to keep the sanitary
arrangements in some sort of control, and nearly
always found my " boy " had company of some
sort ; in fact, I rather think there was a small
relief camp on my premises, under the cook's
management, for my rice went wonderfully fast,
as did my other provisions. Once or twice I


found a native woman nominally assisting at
the cooking, and "Sheitan" always answered my
inquiries by saying, " This my mother, sahib,
just come from Wallenghay " apparently care-
less of the fact that he had said the same of quite
another woman, and that it was not probable he
had two or three mothers. Then, again, there
was some difficulty in clothing him. When
he first put in an appearance, he was in bathing
costume, and, thinking such an important facto-
tum should be respectably clad, I exercised my
mind to find him some garments, but without
success, until at last, calling him into the
bungalow, I explained my views, and bade
him look round and see if there was anything
which might do ; so in his solemn way he
marched round and inspected all my belong-
ings. He was dissatisfied with a shirt, and it
must be confessed, when he was inside it, with
the sleeves flapping helplessly over his hands
and his head only just coming above the collar,
he did not look very dignified or fit to wait at
table. So he proceeded with his search, and,
after a minute or two of hesitation over a
pillow-case, finally chose a soiled linen-bag
which was hanging on a peg, and expressed his


opinion that, if he might have it, it would make
a splendid pair of pyjamas. On receiving per-
mission, he walked off with the hag, which was
white, with large purple spots. I thought he
intended to cut it up and make a jacket out of
it, but in less than half an hour an animated
bolster entered the hut, with a pair of brown
legs below, and a head and arms on top.
After having boasted of his tailoring skill, he
had contented himself with laying the linen-bag
on the floor, and, slicing off the two bottom
corners with a knife, had roughly hemmed
the edges, and then, getting into it, had put his
feet through the holes and drawn the tapes at
the mouth tight round his chest. He was per-
fectly serious, and afterwards continued to wear
this ridiculous garment in all weathers, asleep
and awake, for kitchen work and for waiting,
during the next three weeks ; and, as may be
supposed, by that time it wanted washing.

On the estate, the work that had to be done
was not very varied, but consisted in preparing
the guinea-grass clearing, road-making, and
utilizing the end of the monsoon for planting-
out a few thousand more coffee trees into one
of the clearings, and filling up " failures " in


others. The first work is simple enough, and
when the grass is established, it needs no-
more attention, but in a good situation affords
a continual cut of hay for cattle, without any
trouble expended in return. In forming a field,
the only thing necessary is to secure a wet
week or ten days for the operation, which is
briefly as follows. The roots of the grass,
having been brought into the clearing, which
has been previously freed from weeds, stones,
and branches so far as may be, are torn in
parts, each of which should have about twelve
stems. Coolies, armed with inamoties, then
dig or scrape little holes in the ground, as
much as possible in lines, and about eighteen
inches apart. In these the second line of
coolies, usually women or boys, place the roots,
but instead of planting them upright, divide
each bunch, and, when inserting them in the
holes, bend half the stems one way and half the
other an arrangement which is supposed to
make the plant spread more and cover the
ground. In this way, when the field is com-
pletely planted, all care is over, for if the rain
continues for a few days after the planting the
roots will strike, and the young shoots, coming


up with all the luxuriance of tropical vegetation,,
will soon hide rocks, fallen trees, and stones in
a waving- sea of green.

The road-making was harder work, and con-
sisted in opening a passage along the steep
hillside in No. 4 clearing. This occupied a
great number of our coolies, under the super-
vision of many of the inaistries, and cost a
very considerable amount above the usual al-
lowance. Owing to the very heavy nature of
the timber, and to the ground being on a steep
hillside, all the trees in falling had gone one
way, and had to be cut through ; whereas on
the level the trees take no particular direction,
and frequently leave clear spaces of considerable
magnitude. In the present case, however, we
had not that advantage, and the three or four

miles of road which R had requested me

to open before his return constituted a formid-
able enterprise. Every morning I marched
out at the head of the attacking forces, consist-
ing often of a hundred men armed with mamo-
ties, crowbars, and axes, and every evening, as
we wound our way homewards, the road had
been a few yards further advanced. But we
met obstacles which gave us a vast amount of


trouble. Now and again it was the stump of
a forest giant, that had been cut off five feet
above the ground, which we had to draw, like
a mighty tooth. One or two of these stumps
took us four or five days' toil. The first day's
would go in scratching away the soil and
undermining the roots, and when those were
laid bare we had the task of cutting through
them, many being underground branches as
thick as the stem of a small tree. When at
last they were severed, all available hands
were mustered, and, with crowbars and long-
levers, the stump was slowly hoisted out
amongst the frantic cries of the maistries and
shouts of the perspiring coolies, to be rolled
down the hillside, where it is to stay for twenty
or thirty years, until sun and rain have re-
solved it into dust. The greater proportion of
the trees were cut through in two places, and
the intermediate portion was rolled away easily
enough ; but sometimes, in spite of my utmost,
engineering skill, the upper portion of the
trunk would come rolling down the hill-slope,
sending every one flying for his life, and block-
ing up the track again. A coolie was once
overtaken by one of these, and only saved from


being crushed out of all form by the log-
tilting up and sliding over that under which
he crouched. But the most troublesome features
of the road-making were the logs of ironwood,
of which we had to remove three or four.
Their name perfectly expresses their nature
they are literally vegetable iron ; and I could
tell, so soon as I entered the clearing, whether
the coolies were at work upon one, by the metal-
like ring the wood gave forth when struck by
the axes. Standing close by, at every stroke
that was made I saw the axes bound back as
though struck against a steel block, and a very
minute chip of wood was the only result ; in fact,
the axes often got the worst of the encounter,
and had to be frequently changed. Rolling these
logs was a work of immense labour, on account
of their great density and weight. A few dy-
namite cartridges skilfully placed would have
saved us a lot of trouble, but unfortunately we
had none on the estate; but that is the way
they dispose of tough tree-stumps in Australia,
and it answers excellently. The third of my
chief occupations consisted in taking the young
coffee plants up out of the " nursery," and re-
moving them to the spots where they were


finally to be planted. The " nursery," which
was in the corner of No. 1, and in an angle
formed by the Manalora river arid a small
stream which emptied itself into it, had been
formed eighteen months before; in fact, it is
always the first operation on a new estate after
the planter and his coolies have been roughly

A suitable spot having been selected and
the great essentials are nearness to a stream,
so that the young plants may be watered
during the hot weather and immediately after
they are planted, and that good shade-trees may
overhang the " nursery," a depth of rich earth,
of a deep brown colour, is considered the best,
with accessibility to all parts of the estate and
to the jungle, where the great stores of leaf-
mould are. These things having been secured,
the land is cleared of all weeds and shrubs,
which are grubbed up and removed by hand,
nothing in this case being burnt upon the spot ;
but the stuff removed is often formed into a
hedge round the place to keep off the wild
animals, which do a great deal of damage by
roaming about at night and nibbling the young
shoots of the coffee.


The next operation is to divide the ground
with a broad path down the centre, and nume-
rous parallel beds on either side, eighteen feet
long by two broad. They should not be of
any greater breadth, or it will be impossible to
attend to the young plants, when they appear,
without injuring some. When the beds have
been deeply dug, the coffee seeds in the outer
wrapper or " parchment " are planted in little
holes drawn at right angles across the bed, each
seed about four inches from its neighbours.
Mr. W. Sabonadiere, an old planter, says that
one bushel of seed is calculated to yield about
thirty thousand plants ; and so for an estate
of a hundred acres four or five bushels of seed
would be required, according as the nature of
the soil allowed the plants to be placed far
apart or near together. But it must be re-
membered that a considerable portion of the
seed sown will never come to anything, so it
is as well to leave a margin for losses. A few
weeks of warm, damp weather will bring the
young plants to the surface, and they appeal-
first with two cotyledons or seed-leaves, after
which the stem shoots rapidly up ; and in from
twelve to eighteen months the "nursery " will


be in a flourishing condition, and the beds filled
with luxuriant young plants with glossy dark
green leaves about sixteen inches in height.
At this stage of growth they require a little
attention in the way of watering when the
weather is exceptionally hot, and many planters
collect dry leaves from the adjacent jungle, and
spread them thickly between the rows in order
to retain the moisture in the ground. We
adopted this plan at the request of the com-
pany at home, and though the leaves were a
decided advantage to the plants, they harboured
an astonishing number of snakes, of which the
coolies were very much frightened without
much cause, however, as the most numerous
variety was a little grey-and-white reptile,
about a foot long and quite harmless ; though
once or twice a very deadly snake, the tic-
polonga, was seen making for the jungle, and
was permitted to escape unmolested, every man
taking to his heels in the opposite direction.

At last comes the important operation of
" planting out," of which there are several
modes. One is to scoop the young plant up
by a complicated sort of trowel, which removes
the seedling and the earth round its roots, and


then to convey it to the clearing, bedding the
plant out and filling up the hole with soil. But
our way, which seems the most certain, though
slightly more expensive, is to have great
quantities of light wicker baskets manufactured
at Palghaut and Wallenghay, of the size and
shape of a flower-pot. These are made of split
rattan cane, and, though they should be tough
and elastic, it is essential that they should not
be so closely woven as to prevent the roots of
the plant piercing them and penetrating the
surrounding soil. It is better to have them too
loose than too well made. Into these a couple
of handfuls of the best jungle leaf-mould is
placed, and then the young coffee plants are
carefully taken up with a short trowel, a small
piece is cut off the tap-root to prevent it being
bent, and they are placed one in each basket,
where they may be safely left until it is con-
venient to move them into the clearings. It
is curious that the centre root should be so
sensitive, but if it gets at all bent it seems to
impair the vitality of the top of the plant.
Consequently, this part of the operation has to
be very carefully watched, and only the mais-
ftries are intrusted with the pruning-knives.

VOT,. II. <}


They go from coolie to coolie, and take off a
few inches of each tap-root. One advantage
of basket planting is that the plants can be left
about for some time without danger. Thus,
I had five thousand plants brought from the
" nursery " into No. 3 clearing, and placed along
the side of the road, where they awaited plant-
ing until more pressing work was over; and
the rest of the time all the women and boys
were filling up " failures," i.e. putting new
plants in places where those formerly planted
had died out from various causes, principally
from having been placed in holes that have
hard rock below, into which the roots cannot

With such hard work as this, there was
hardly time to feel lonely, as all my days
were spent in continual activity, and the neces-
sity of retiring early to rest, in order to be up
the next morning at daybreak, cut the evening
very short. Still for two weeks I had not seen
a single white face or spoken my own language,
except in the form of a few brief orders to the
headmen and half-caste " writer," and at times
it certainly was monotonous ; and under such
circumstances one's mind gets choked up with


thoughts and ideas for which there is no outlet,
unless one takes to talking to one's self or to
inanimate objects, a habit which is common
amongst people who have lived much alone.
My sole connection with civilization was the
daily tapal, who brought me occasional and
very welcome letters from " home," a chance
paper from Madras, and advice from the hos-
pital-bound superintendent at Palghaut. On
Saturday mornings the same tapal brought up
a couple of hundred rupees, more or less, in
small coinage of copper and silver, for paying
the coolies, and this had to be accurately
counted before he left the plantation again.
But the days were very much alike nearly all
being characterized by pouring rain and cold
mists in the early morning, and a continual
state of soppiness as to all my possessions ; in
fact, I never longed so eagerly for fine weather
in an English February as I did while alone
on the estate. Of course there are occasional
breaks in the monsoon, when the sun is very
powerful, and everything steams like a vapour-
bath ; but the usual state of affairs at the in-
termediate season is moist and cheerless.

I had a slight attack of dysentery at one


time, brought on probably by being so often
wet through, and by the rapid changes of tem-

1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryEdwin Lester Linden ArnoldOn the Indian hills : or, Coffee-planting in southern India (Volume 2) → online text (page 4 of 20)