Edwin Lester Linden Arnold.

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

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purpose I used to start out each morning at
daybreak, with perhaps two hundred men follow-
ing in Indian file at my heels, and proceed
to the jungles, which had been already pegged
and marked out. Each coolie brought with
him a mammoty, an axe for cutting roots, and
a long iron bar pointed at one end and flattened
out into a spud at the other, which is chiefly
used for removing heavy stones and loosening
the soil. We then went to work in a long
straight line if possible, but to get the hands
into any sort of order in heavy jungle is much
more easy to talk of than to effect, as it is not
possible to see more than ten men at a time,
and each man wants to work where the ground
is softest and there are fewest roots. The daily
task of each is supposed to be twenty-five pits
of regulation size, and the superintendent has
to see this properly done. Perhaps he places
a mark where each man begins, at the last
pit of yesterday's work, and then goes to the
other end of the line, half a mile away. When
he returns, he is surprised and pleased to find
the first men have already finished half their
tasks, but on investigating he sees the " mild
Hindoos " have moved his pegs back so as to in-


elude ten or twelve of yesterday's pits, and then
he grows wrathful, and perhaps, if his temper
he hasty, "pitches into" the worst offenders.
At another place a poor famine-stricken wretch,
who has hardly strength to lift his mammoty,
has scraped a few wretched holes scarcely big
enough to plant a seed in, and much too small
for a coffee hush, and the exertion having
proved too great, he is lying shivering on the
ground in the cold stage of fever. What is
the Englishman to do ? If he maintains strict
discipline and insists on the full task, the
coolie cannot do it ; or attempts it and dies, and
is buried in a hole in the jungle. I am sure
most planters would follow the more humane
course, and deal gently with the sick and feeble,
if they were working on their own land ; but
it is difficult to know what is best to do when
working with the money . of much-respected
" shareholders," and with a vigilant agent on
the look out to see where every anna goes, and
obliged by his official position to put humanity
on one side and look at everything from a
business point of view. Besides the coolies
who scamp their allotted tasks from sickness,
there are many others who give a vast amount


of trouble by their stupidity in making pits
out of the straight line, or just too small to
pass muster the regulation size being two-
feet deep by eighteen inches square, measured
across from the level of the surface of the
ground. The holes should have right-angled
corners, as experienced planters believe that if"
a tree be set in a circular hole, the roots follow
the limits of the soil which has been disturbed,
and become as much "pot-bound" as though
they grew in stone jars ; but when the pit is
square the roots grow into the angles, and,
finding themselves faced by walls of earth, are
obliged to penetrate them and spread into the
surrounding soil.

This sort of work took up my whole atten-
tion during the week before Christmas, and it
was impossible to call it enjoyable ; in fact, it
was dreadfully monotonous. By the time the
pits began to be numbered by thousands, the
gound also presented a curious aspect some-
thing as if the jungle had been overrun by
monstrous land-crabs, which had dug out their
underground houses in every direction ; but the
walking was better than usual, owing to the pits
being in straight lines and the timber still


standing, instead of cumbering the ground, as
it did in the planted clearings. I also found these
holes were very productive traps for all sorts of
strange creatures beetles and lizards especially
though once or twice I have seen small
snakes imprisoned in them. Early in the morn-
ing nearly every excavation is tenanted, often
by insects and animals having natural antipa-
thies to each other, and the results are fierce
battles, in which all the combatants fight
bravely, as they seem to know there is no
escape for the vanquished. The lizards espe-
cially, whose wandering propensities often lead
them down the crumbling sides of these pit-
falls, contend like bull-dogs, and I have watched
several well-sustained combats, in which the
pugnacious creatures bit and kicked and shook
each other with the greatest fury ; but when
either of the combatants was getting much
the worst of it, I generally exercised my
authority by suddenly seizing him by the
tail and drawing him out of his arena, putting
him, to cool down and recover his senses, on
the neighbouring moss.

Anything which breaks the current of such
monotonous work as " pitting " is welcome, so


it may be guessed with what satisfaction I re-
ceived a pleasant note from Mrs. F , to say

that a picnic had been organized for Christinas
Day at a waterfall close to S -'s bungalow,
and everybody was wanted who could possibly
come. There was some difficulty as to who
should stay in charge of the estate, and take
evening roll-call on the 25th, but my associate
magnanimously offered to sacrifice himself, pro-
vided I would do duty on New Year's Day.
This I thought very generous, and agreed to ;
but subsequently I found out D - had scent
of another picnic, which was to come off at
Palghaut on January 1, and which was to be
graced, so rumour said, by the presence of two
young ladies newly from England a fact
which he kept to himself, and doubtless it
-consoled him for a lonely Christmas. The
" stoker," as my companion was commonly called
in the district, from his once having been a
nautical engineer, was a hard-working and well-
meaning Cornishman, but he kept a remark-
ably sharp look-out for the interests of what is
vul^arlv called " number one," and considered

<-} /

every one else Egyptians whom it was quite
lawful to despoil.


Christmas Eve was celebrated by us four

" associated hermits," L , " Charlie," " the

stoker," and myself, as well as our circum-
stances would permit. We illuminated our
hut with candles stuck in beer-bottles round
the walls ; we got a big leafy shrub and tied
it up by the roots to the lamp overhead, so
that it hung down and looked just a little
like holly; and then we spread a clean sheet
on the table, and mustered all our available
crockery. Everybody had been busy cooking,
and, having just received a box of stores
from Madras, the courses were so numerous
that it was hardly possible to partake of them
all. Everybody praised the particular dish he
had concocted, and each was allowed by mutual
consent to eat his own productions, the only
thing obtaining public favour being a big jam
tart of my own manufacture, which speedily
vanished before our united attack. Then we
took to brewing punch in a washing-basin, and
drinking the health of all "at home," and
every other toast we could think of, until the
" stoker," carried away in the enthusiasm of
the moment, proposed we should go out and
have some snow-balling. But, alas ! there was


no snow outside only a hot, still night, with
the frogs croaking down in the jungle, and the
samhour deer barking across the valley, and
the fireflies floating heavily about ; so we sang
one song more, and drained the last of the
punch to " our noble selves," and turned in to
dream of other Christmases.

The following morning, having started the
coolies to work, I put on my full " war-paint,"
i.e. new white clothes, top-boots, and a sun
helmet ; and, mounting the estate pony, set off
forW 's.

By the time I got there, there were several
ponies in the courtyard, being led about by
their syces ; and giving mine to the ghora-
wallah, who had been running behind me with
my rifle, I joined the party in the verandah,
which consisted of all the English settlers of

the district (with the exception of D ),

some eight gentlemen and one lady, and we
soon made a move forward; the provisions,
borne in baskets on the heads of coolies, leading
the way, and we following more leisurely. Mrs.

F was carried in a chair lashed to two

strong bamboos and supported by four picked
coolies, who seemed very proud of their duty ;


indeed, their headman, an old Canarese maistry
with clean shaven head and snowy waistcloth,
nearly went frantic in his endeavours to make
himself useful to the " mem sahib." He carried
a small axe in his hand and ran on ahead, and
whenever he saw a creeper or rattan cane likely
to get in the way, hurled himself upon it and
cut it into small pieces, and then salaamed and
scudded on again. In this way we proceeded
towards Nillacothy Rock, following the wind-
ing path down W 's " trace," which, by the

way, he had had cleared of leaves and sticks for
the first time in five years, in order to make
the journey smoother for the English lady.
We crossed the Manalora by a fallen fig tree
an undertaking which Mrs. F - faced with
great courage, though she could scarcely have
felt comfortable in her swinging-chair so high
above the water and then, passing through the
Nillacothy estate, took our way to a beautiful
spot, where a mountain torrent came foaming
down from the hills, and, after forming a deep
still basin, went on down a shady avenue of
forest trees, towards the valley. Here we
found the cloth already spread, and several
scarlet-turbaned servants busy boiling water in


a kettle and making the food ready. It is
curious how picnickers invariably seek the
neighbourhood of water for the al-fresco meal.
Of course, the demands of the kettle are all-
important ; but that cannot be the whole reason,
as they are just as pleased to sit by the side of
the sea and fetch drinkable water from a dis-
tance. More probably it is because the neigh-
bourhood of water is generally picturesque and
pleasing to the eye, especially in hot weather.

We had a really beautiful spot for this wild
banquet of ours a little tinkling waterfall
above us, the still deep pool at our side, and
overhead tall, graceful, green tree-ferns, shading
us from the sun and completely roofing in our
dining room. Lower down its quiet vista, the
stream flowed amongst rocks and little sandy
beaches, where a couple of grey- and- white
stints were busy searching for insects among-
the stones, and paid no more attention to us
than if we had been a company of the elephants
on whose haunts we were trespassing. But
besides the little harmless birds and elephants,
this was a noted spot for tigers ; and as the
sudden appearance of one of those striped
brutes, as an unbidden guest, would have been


worse than the proverbial wasp which puts in
an unwelcome visit at English picnics, Mrs.

F begged me to fire my rifle to frighten

anything that might be in the neighbourhood >
and the woods and rocks accordingly rang at
the report with a hundred echoes. Then we
sat down to a pleasant meal, booted and spurred
as we were, and the stores of good things
which inhedged our amiable hostess crumbled
down and disappeared before our attacks ; the
last of all to vanish being a mountainous
sponge-cake, with sugar ramparts and turrets,
the work of that lady's own kind hands, which
we ate like schoolboys. But the happiest hour
must come to an end, and when the gentlemen
had smoked their cheroots and finished their
last story, a move homeward was proposed just
as it was growing dusk, and we walked slowly
down the narrow path, followed by the ser-
vants, who had industriously finished off every-
thing eatable and drinkable while we chatted,
and so brought back with them nothing but
china and empty bottles.

Darkness descended before we reached

W- 's, and poor Mrs. F had a rough

walk through the jungle and over the fallen



trees, as her chair was useless, since the bearers
could no longer keep together. Of course, we
did what we could, but I fear we rather em-
barrassed her by the persistency with which
we each tried to be useful. One helping hand
is all very well in scrambling over a log, but
seven or eight are too many.

Tne festivities, however, were not yet over,

for W had prepared a big dinner for us,

with a real turkey and a veritable tinned plum-
pudding, of which we partook, and then sat
up till late, drinking punch and champagne-
cup in the verandah ; so late, in fact, that it
was " to-morrow " before we could think of
separating. And then those amongst us who
were furthest from their own places accepted
W- 's and his assistant C. H a hos-
pitality, and shook themselves down as best
they might in hammocks and on sofas.

( 179 )



FOR the next few days I was entirely alone on
the clearing, D - being away picnicking at

Palghaut, and 'L and " Charlie " visiting

on other estates. It happened that at this time
our pay-sheet contained the names of more men
than had probably ever* before been id. these
jungles since they first sprouted up, and cer-
tainly of the largest number under one leader.
My own personal coolies, living in the huts
round me and within fifty yards, numbered a
little over three hundred men, women, ^nd
children, and besides these there were two
hundred " contract coolies " encamped in the
middle of No. 1 clearing, making in all over
five hundred natives under my orders. Such
a condition of things is not usual on an estate
of the size of ours, but we had been very de-


sirous to force things on at a rapid pace, in
order to get a large acreage planted during the
season to please the shareholders at home, and
this accounts for the small army mentioned.

The " contract coolies " were not so much
trouble to me as the others. They came up
from Madura under their own maistries, and
had been lodged in two parallel rows of huts
among the coffee in the north-west clearing.
Their chief headman was named Yaneta, a
venerable, grey-bearded old patriarch, and
every morning he stalked out with his flowing-
white garments and a long staff in his hand,
to lead his men to the work, which he had
contracted to finish by a certain date. The
only concern which I had with this division was
to visit them two or three times a day, and see
that the operations chiefly " pitting " were
conducted well and up to regulation standard.
They also visited me in considerable numbers
to be doctored every evening, and seemed to
have considerable faith in my prescriptions,
though I must confess these were more dis-
tinguished for simplicity than depth of know-

But the coolies living around me, who belonged


to the estate, were a lot of trouble. First of all,
they lived fearfully crowded some three hun-
dred human beings squeezed into five " lines "
of low huts all close together, and only a few
yards above the stream from which we got our
drinking water. Inside, I am bound to say,
the natives keep their huts very clean, and the
constant pattering about of bare feet smooths
and hardens the mud floors until they shine
like marble ; but, unfortunately, their tidiness
ceases at their doorsteps, and beyond this their
habits are horrible and their knowledge of the
rudiments of sanitation very slight. In fact,
the " settlement " was in the most atrocious
state of neglect. There had been no attempt
at drainage or any necessary arrangements,
and, having been inhabited by large numbers
of the lowest orders of India for two years, its
condition may be better imagined than de-
scribed. I several times proposed to turn our
attention for a time to building better " lines "
in a more elevated and healthy spot, but the
reply was always to hurry forward the planting
operations, and when those were completed to
look after the coolies, undoubtedly the right
plan to follow when the first object is to get


a dividend as big and as soon as possible. Bo-
there we were still, and as the weather grew
hotter, the danger of an epidemic became
greater. Already there were five or six deaths
every week, and the jungle round about was
becoming thickly marked with the little hillocks
which denoted the last resting-place of some
poor wretch.

The coolies seemed to be very callous to
suffering, and even to the death of their nearest
relations. It may not be so in reality, but
their conduct seemed such to an outsider like
myself. For instance, one very hot day I
appointed myself sanitary inspector, and went
through the " lines " to see if anything might be
done to render them more healthy. The coolies
were at work, but from one hut rose a thin
wisp of light blue smoke, not from a chimney,
needless to say, but percolating through the
thatch. Approaching to see who was inside,
supposing it might be some sick person too
ill to work, I went up to the low door, and r
stooping down, looked in. There was a fearful
odour about the place, and, accustomed as I had
grown to strong smells, it was as much as I could
do to keep my place. In the centre of the floor


was a low stone fireplace, and a woman sat
boiling rice in an earthen chatty over the
embers. In the far corner lay something
wrapped up in a coarse cumbley or shawl, and
pushed as much out of the way as possible.
Guessing this was the cause of the fearful
odour, I asked, " What on earth have you got
there ? " " Oh," said the woman, as she
squatted on her heels and leisurely stirred and
tasted the conjee she was boiling, " that's my
husband ; he died five days ago." When I
asked why she had not had him buried, instead
of keeping him in such a shocking condition,
she merely said she had been waiting for me to
send men to do it. Half an hour afterwards,
two men with mammoties were scraping a
shallow hole in the jungle, under a sacred fig
tree, and having made it about three feet deep,
they rested from their work, when, after ad-
miring the grave for a little time and rolling
themselves a chew of betel-nut, they fetched
the dead man and laid him in it. The earth
was replaced and trodden down, and there was
an end of him ; and when I read over his
name at roll-call that evening and he did not
answer, my pencil was drawn through it. So he


had disappeared entirely hopes, feelings, and
ambitions (if he ever had any) ; Heaven only
knows where all went to ! Not even to his
consort does his memory seem to have remained
long green, for the same evening one of the
men who had buried him seems to have hinted
to her that there was room in his hut still
vacant, and she moved across the next morning
to his dwelling with all her worldly belongings
a palm-leaf mat to sleep upon, two clay chatties,
some oil for her hair in an empty soda-water
bottle, and two handsful of rice in an old piece
of sackcloth. May her second matrimonial
venture be more fortunate than her first !

And yet these coolies were undoubtedly
honest, and very courteous and reverential
towards their superiors. . When I spoke to
a maistry, very likely a venerable old grey-
beard three times as old as I was, he listened
in silence, and when I had done salaamed pro-
foundly by placing both hands over his face and
bowing down almost to the ground. At first
this was rather overwhelming, but one soon
gets accustomed to it, and it is undoubtedly
agreeable to be bowed to. As Sancho Panza
says, "It is good to know one's self master


even though of a flock of sheep." Then as to
their honesty : my hut was always open in fact,
there was no fastening to the door at all, but a
" bobbin ; " and as my things must have seemed
an immense wealth to so poor a people, they
showed great forbearance in leaving them
alone. Several times I returned from work
and found my breakfast spread on the table,
and three or four hungry and thin coolies
crouched in my verandah messengers from
the other estates, or maistries eyeing my pro-
vender and discussing the absent sahib's house-
hold arrangements, though no one ventured
across the threshold. Perhaps my servant pur-
loined a little that did not belong to him, but
doubtless he looked upon all that as perquisites,
and this habit is not entirely unknown in

As to heavier crimes and any violence to-
wards myself or each other, it never seemed
to enter the native head, as far as my limited
experience went. Alone in the jungles, and
surrounded by all these men, with a great
number of rupees in the iron safe at my elbow,
the keys of which hung at my belt, the wide
woods around where any number of fugitives


from justice might find safe and certain refuge,
yet I slept every night as calmly and undis-
turbed as I might have done in the best
guarded English town. Policemen or laws
were practically unknown. Of course they
existed, and I was still under the broad shield
of English protection, but nothing was seen
or heard of Government authority. Never
since my arrival had I viewed an official of
any kind, or paid " tribute " to any sircar.

It is undoubtedly pleasant to be " monarch
of all you survey " for a time, but the novelty
wears off by degrees, and then there comes
a longing to speak one's own language and see
white faces again, and one's thoughts wander
away to the old home country, while the gor-
geousness of the tropics grows dull and tedious,
till one becomes regularly homesick a state
of mind which is bad enough at the time, but
in turn passes off slowly.

On New Year's Eve, 1877, I was, I believe,
the only Englishman in the district, every one
else being away in the lowlands. Some day,
when the Annamullies are a thriving corner of
the Madras Presidency, with numerous English
stations, good roads, and maybe a railway, it


will hardly be believed that on the eve of
that year of grace the sole representative of
the dominant race was one " griffin," alone by
himself in a " tooth-pick and brown paper " hut ;
and yet so it happened.

My attempts to commemorate the advent of
the New Year were confined to making myself
an extra good dinner the usual way in which
an Anglo-Saxon celebrates an anniversary of
any sort. He does not discriminate, but ban-
quets equally at the death of the old year or
to hail the new one. In the evening he drinks
to the departed, and in the morning the same
bowl is full again to hail the new-comer. In
Italy they would wave flags, or masquerade
and. march up and down the streets in gay
throngs ; the Frenchman would put on his
best plumage and patronize the boulevards,,
supremely happy in staring and being stared
at, and the American goes in for torchlight
processions and visiting, but the Briton cannot
get beyond dining. The red-letter days in his
calendar ought to be marked with a saucepan
and gridiron, saltire-wisQ.

As may be supposed, I was scarcely sorry
when my reign of undivided power came to-


an end on the return of the revellers from the
lowlands. For to look after five hundred men
and women in thick forest ; to muster them,
doctor them, and superintend everything ; to
be engineer, carpenter, cook, surveyor, horti-
culturist, doctor, accountant, and chief inspector
of drainage in turn every twenty-four hours,
takes up most of one's time.

Besides, we had at last finished "pitting"
one clearing, and I was beginning to wonder
what operations would come next, when D
arrived, and, taking advantage of his superior
experience, I consulted him. He at once said,
that the next thing to be done, after having
carefully dug these twenty-two thousand pits,
was to fill them up again ! At first, I naturally
thought he must be joking, but the truth is the
forest under which we had been so industriously
scratching these holes for the last three weeks
had now to be felled and burnt, and the sufii-
cient reason for refilling the pits was that the
valuable top soil, which contains the best
nourishment, might be saved from the flames,
which would bake it to a sort of brick a result
which should be avoided, if possible, yet which
would assuredly happen if the " pitting " were


delayed until after burning. So we set to work
again, and with the same industry which we
displayed before, filled up the holes far and
wide, my chief care being to see that the top
soil really went to the bottom of the pit, as the

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Online LibraryEdwin Lester Linden ArnoldOn the Indian hills : or, Coffee-planting in southern India (Volume 2) → online text (page 9 of 20)