Taylers Tea Garden – By Ajit MutuCumsrawamy – Chapter 3 – The journey to the hills began……

Taylors Tea Garden – by Ajit MuttuCumaraswamy


The journey to the hills began the next day. James was feeling happy to be in Ceylon. It was a green and peaceful place. Not at all like London. In some ways it was as peaceful as his home town Auchenblae.  He wished his mother was there. Ever since she passed away, he felt a sense of great loss. It was as if he had lost a part of himself. He missed her warmth and a feeling of being with some one who truly loved him. His father was alright. But he was more a helpful person, a person who had James’s  best interests at heart. But there was something very special that was missing. A sense of warmth. I was as if the world was a secure and happy place when his mother was there. When he was with her, he felt secure and he felt he could be happy. When she passed away he could not believe it at first. He kept dreaming that she woke up. Surely she did not leave him for good? Why did she leave him? She never told him that she will leave him for good. Ever since she left him, he felt he was alone. He had his father and his sisters and brothers. But they were only compensation for his the loss of his mother. Now he did not have that person with whom he could be at peace with the world. The separation was unbearable. Yet he had survived. He had lived to become a young man. Ready to live a life of his own.

              The journey by coach began along the Kandy Road. This road was used to transport coffee and some spices grown in the hill country down to the harbour for export. Some of the goods were transported by bullock cart. Some bullock carts  had two bulls tethered to the cart. The bulls had long horns and looked quite sturdy. The cart drivers were wearing the sarong and were bare bodied. They sat at the front with their legs dangling, ready to use their feet to prod the animal to move faster. 

“ Why don’ t people here use horses, like we do Uncle” asked James.

“ The horses  are used by some rich families. They need to pay more for horses. I suppose because horses run faster, the price of a horse is much more. The cattle here are quite sturdy. The people in Ceylon have always used cattle and even the poor farmers would have a pair of bullocks for transporting their produce and for travelling to other villages.”

“ The trees are really green. I like these red flowers.” said James.

“ That is the flamboyant tree. It is really useful .It spreads in all directions and provides a nice shade for people.” 

“ How long will the journey last” asked James.

“ It will take much of the day James”

“ I guess these people don’t wear many cloths because the Sun is very hot.”

“ Yes. The sarong they wear is very comfortable. We will get you a sarong. There might be one in the house for you. It’s very comfortable and ideal for the warm weather.”

“ Some of the ladies seem to be dressed differently”

“ Its called a saree. It’s only worn when they are going to some important place like visiting some official or attending a wedding. The people here dress a bit different to the women in the hill country. You will see it for yourself.”

“ It’s a nice way of dressing I think.”

“ Ah James. i can see you have an eye for the ladies.”

“ No. I’m just looking at the women.”

“ It starts like that James. Just Looking. Next thing you want to take a closer look.”

“ No. No. I’m only interested in the dresses”

“ No need to feel shy lad. The woman here like white men. I can assure you that.”

“ Really. Maybe we look different and they like it.”

“ More than that. We are white people. We are the bosses here. When we say dance, they dance.”

“ That’s not fair, I think. “

“ Its not about fairness James. Its about ruling the country. If we get too friendly with the natives, we won’t be able to get anything done. Like we need to export coffee and spices and sell our British goods here. If we are very friendly we won’t be able to order them around.”

“ I see what you mean. I guess we need to keep our distance.”

“ Exactly. If we get married to them, heaven forbid, we will be just another group of Ceylonese living and working here. Not the bosses who get the work done and export the coffee.”

“ Agree Uncle Henry. The work has got be done.”

“ Exactly James. Why are we coming here? We are coming to work and get the workers to dig the land and plant the coffee trees. And then get them to harvest it. And of course, packing and exporting.”

“ I can see what needs to be done”

“ Some of our white people have got married to local people. Some Portugese, Dutch and even British are settled here. They are not going back ever.” said Henry.

“When did the Portugese and the Dutch come over ?” asked James.

“ The Portugese arrived in Ceylon about three hundred years ago, around 1505. They were in India and in East Indies, Java and Sumatra and all those islands. They stopped the Indians from trading with Java and Sumatra and in command of West coast of India until the Dutch came.” said Henry.

“ When did the Dutch come Uncle?” asked James.

“About two hundred years ago. They had naval wars with the Portugese and took command of Ceylon and most of the islands like Java and Sumatra until we British got interested and came over to Ceylon and took over from the Dutch. They had their headquarters in the North in Jaffna and called the North the Holland of the East.”

“ Did the Dutch leave peacefully?” asked James.

“ They left Ceylon after an Indian King attacked their ships and destroyed their ships near the Southern tip of India. But they did continue their trade with Java and Sumatra. We the British have been ruling in Ceylon and India since I would say beginning of the eighteenth century.”

                             The coach stopped in Kadawatta. The horses were changed . A new team of horses took over. The next stop was in Nittambuwa. The hill country was taking shape. There were low lying hills around the area. There were paddy fields covering the low lying land. 

“ The plantations will start after we pass these low lying areas” said Henry.

“ Any coffee in the low country ?” asked James

“ Yes. Some coffee is being grown called low country Robusta coffee. This is growing in the South of the country in the Kelani Valley, Rakwana . These are all in the South of the country”

“ I guess the better quality coffee is grown up in the hill country”

“ Yes. The prices are much better for the hill country coffee.”

“ The country side has a different smell” said James.

“ Yes. The fresh air is different here. It must be the hills making an impact here. The type of trees growing and the type of crops”

“ I see that the dogs around here are mostly brown. They look very skinny too.”

“ The breeds are different. The native dogs are sturdy and suited to the climate. Our Scotch Terriers will find it very hot.” said Henry.

              After a few hours, the coach stopped at  the town was called Kegalle. The packed sandwiches came out and they had lunch while seated in the coach. 

“ The bread tastes different. “ said James.

“ Yes James. The bread made here is more like the Portugese style bread. The continental style bread is drier. The yeast has a different taste.”

“ I like it. It has a different flavour” said James. 

They got out of the coach and walked a little. 

“ This town is about half way to Kandy.”

“ I can see some tall hills from here” 

“ Yes. From now on we will be starting to climb steadily.” said Henry

“ Yes. There is freshness to the air as well.”

“ We will be climbing at a steady pace until we get to Kadugannawa. That’s when we’ ll see the strongest climb.”

              A new team of horses took over. The horses  worked hard to move the laden carriage. Their heads moved up and down as they pulled the coach up the  road.

              Occasionally, they passed a small family groups walking. James’ s eyes alighted on the young girls each time. They seemed to be very attractive. Brown but with a golden hue. Some were very fair with attractive features. They smiled in a charming way, with shyness but the smile was radiant. The women were very slim and shapely. They seemed to enjoy the sight of white people. Some little kids waved their hands. Henry and James waved back. 

              They started seeing paddy fields with water buffaloes working with half their feet  inside the mud and water. Often, they could see a pair of buffaloes or cattle pulling ploughs along. Sometimes only one animal pulled the plough. The farmer had his sarong tied up tight around his buttocks and waist so that it did not get wet in the paddy field. He held the leash with one hand and a cane with a string in the other hand , ready to slash it down to move the animals when they slowed down. 

              Smoke rose from  some roof tops. James noticed that the houses did not have chimneys.  The houses did not need any heating. Smoke rose from gaps in the roofing.          Small openings in the roofing could be seen for smoke to escape from the kitchens . These openings had a raised roof to allow the kitchen smoke to escape while the raised roof over the kitchen kept the rain out.

                 The coach stopped again after about an hour. There were road side markets. The horses got fed. The coachman bought himself some vegetables. He offered to get some coconuts for Henry and James and the other passengers. Everyone got down and drank the coconut water out of the coconut. 

“It tastes delicious” said James.

“ Agreed. it’s great refreshment James.  This is one of the great delights of being in a tropical country. Drinking coconut juice from a coconut. The soft flesh inside can be eaten. When you have had your drink,  give coconut back. They will use cut it in two halves and  you will be able eat the soft pulpy fruit inside with a spoon made from a piece of the coconut.”

              They drank from the coconut and ate the soft jelly like fruit inside with a spoon made from the husk of the coconut. Soon they set off again. The horses were tiring as the gradient was very steep in some places. A new team of horses took over. The coachman made frequent stops. The road made a very steep curve at Kadugannawa. The road was tunnelled  through a rock. Henry, James and some of the passengers got out of the coach and walked to make it easier for the horses. 

“ The engineers have been commended for their good engineering and honoured in the Queens awards” said Henry.

“ This looks like very difficult work. The boulders are really huge and the cliffs are steep. It must be very hard work.” replied James.

              The views from  Kadugannawa were magnificent. It was as if one could see all the way to the coast. 

“ Queen Victoria has a special interest in Ceylon. She has praised Ceylon’s coffee.” said Henry.

“ We are working here to make sure that that the much commended coffee is grown and sent to England I guess” said James.

“ You and I will not be coming to live and work here if not for coffee. Mind you there are other products that can be sold in London” said Henry.

“ You mean spices?” asked James.

“ Spices and other things like gems. You see there are gem pits not very far from this place. It’s not very far but the roads have not been built yet. The place with a lot gems and gem mining pits is called Ratnapura “ said Henry.

“ That must be a place worth visiting.” said James.

“ Yes. There are local Muslim merchants who do come to Colombo with these wonderful gems. They trek through the hill country to reach Ratnapura and Kandy which is at the centre of the island. The road has been built and a railway is about to be built. Red rubies from Ratnapura are some of the best in the world. The sapphires are very attractive and the gem polishing here is excellent. The workers sit down on the floor and use their tools to great advantage. The London merchants buy them at any price. The ladies in the Royal Palace are very keen to wear Ceylon gems.”

“ It’s for the rich folk I guess. But ordinary people would be able to buy spices. Spices are not so difficult to find I suppose.” said James.

“ Yes. Spices are to be found closer to Colombo. Cinnamon and pepper grow well in the South.” 

“ Do we send any coconuts to England? Will they last the journey ?”

“ Alas no James. The coconut does not survive the journey very well. But the flesh inside the coconut is  dried in the Sun and this is called copra. They make desiccated coconut from copra. The copra is shredded and made into desiccated coconut. It’s used to make tasty biscuits called nice and other biscuits. Very much used in cakes too. This is a rare commodity in Europe.”

“ I’ve heard my mother mention desiccated coconut.” said James.

“ Ah! Yes. Desiccated coconut is much sought after. It can be transported by sea once the drying and desiccation is completed. Dried coconut  is called copra. Copra can be turned into coconut powder for baking and cake making.” said Henry. He seemed to relish the thought of eating cake for he smiled as he spoke.

              The vegetation was very different here. There was a lushness that seemed  to have a special green hue all it’s own. The freshness of the air was invigorating. Here the air was impregnated with coolness that made James feel long for home. He thought of his family. He felt sad that his mother could not be come with him. She would have been delighted to look at these hills and the greenery and feel the freshness of the cool air. He even missed his sisters and brothers. If Uncle Henry was not there, he would have been ready to take the next boat home.

              They passed a temple. The building was like a dome with a pinnacle at the top of the dome. Drummers were beating the drums and walking towards the temple. A small group of people walked in a procession , behind the drummers.  They were carrying pots on their heads. The procession was headed towards the temple. 

“ That’s the Buddhist temple James. These people are headed for the temple with some offerings of food.” said Henry.

              They could hear birds chirping as the coach passed a tall tree. There was a breeze but they felt hot. The breeze had been heated by the Sun in the plains. The smell of the paddy fields was comforting. It reminded him of home, the smell of the fields after harvest. He felt as if the farmers here were people he already knew. He felt it in his bones. Thoughts of home and his father and family rose in him and fell away as the carriage moved along.

              James was taken with the  unusual trees and plants.  The tropical orchids interested him enormously. He noticed them growing on trees. One tree looked like a palm tree but it was taller and had a heavy bunch of what seemed like flowers hanging down from the tree. There was a tall tree with what seemed like huge thorny fruit hanging from its trunk. Each fruit could have been two feet long and  more than a foot wide. He pointed out the tree to Henry.  

“What is that tree with those enormous fruit. Are they really fruit ? They are so large but somehow  cling to the tree trunk” he asked.

“ That’s the jack fruit tree James. I saw it in the market in Colombo. It’s a famous fruit in most tropics. Jack fruit is delicious. We will find the fruit being sold in some shops and vegetable markets. You must try it. Very sweet and has a very distinctive taste. It’s full of nectar. You will enjoy it.” said Henry.

              When the coach stopped, he could hear many birds singing. He was reminded of his mother. She always pointed out the birds to him asking him to listen to the bird songs. 

              The horses were changed. A new team of horses took over.  They got out of the coach to stretch their legs. The air was cool, extra fresh.

“ There was another strange looking tree. It seemed to have flowers stretching down from the top near the palm fronds to about half way down the tree, thick bushes surrounding the trunk.” said James.

“ You are describing the kitul tree I think. This tree is really a palm tree. I was reading about it” said Henry.

“ Yes. It was a palm tree. It looked like a thin coconut tree but there were no fruit at the top So I knew it was not a coconut tree. There were bushes dropping down all around the tree.”

“ That is the kitul tree. It is a type of palm tree. The fruit are used for making treacle. They cut the trunk of the fruit at the top and hang a bucket under it. The treacle pours out into the bucket. It’s quite delicious” said Henry.

              Some green coloured birds flew overhead in formation. They made loud screeching sounds as they flew.

“ Parrots are very pretty here.” said Henry.

“ They are quite pretty with their yellow beaks and green festhers. The sound they make is very nice too. It’s not a chirp or a whistle but more a cry  ” said James. 

“ Yes. They are pretty creatures. The woods in the hills can support a large population of birds.” 

“ If I’m in a suitable place, I would like to have some birds around the place.”

“ Your place could be quite good for birds. It’s a new plantation that needs to be cleared and planted.” said Henry.

“ I might end up chasing the birds away. Looks like I have to roll up my sleeves and get to work immediately. I don’t mind it. I like this place. It’s warm and sunny and why would i want to be indoors?”

“ Good attitude James. That’s the spirit. They would start you in a place where you can learn some things about how  plantations are developed. And then you will be sent to work. You will learn by doing.”

“ I’m happy with that Uncle Henry. I like the smell of the earth. The  smells of the soil. I  enjoyed digging the soil In Scotland. But I spent most of my time cleaning the barns.”

said James.

              The coach was approaching a large boulder.  It was dominating the road and the surrounding areas, threatening to bulldoze everything around the area. 

“ I don’t like to think how this massive rock came to be in this place. It’s so large that it can crush everything in it’s way all the way to Colombo harbour.” said Henry.

“ Our Scottish highlands are so different. They are amazing in their own way, craggy and huge. I like both type of highlands. I think i will never leave this place unless I have to go because the company wants to send me away.” said James.

“ James you must be level headed. I agree the country is very beautiful and a great place to work. But you must also think of your life when you are an older man. You will want a family. You will want to send them to schools back home. Your wife will want to be with her parents and brothers and sisters.” said Henry.

“ I’m only wishing I can stay and work forever. It may not happen.” said James.

“ You are a young lad, just starting out in life. Everything is possible. You are master of your destiny.”

“ In that case I will stay on as long as i can.” said James.

“ That’s a reasonable way to plan your career. The planters life does not suit everyone. It’s not so much the work as the society we will live in. The local people have their own lifestyle, their own religions and styles of cooking.  Most are Hindus or Buddhists. Only a handful are Christians.” 

“ Yes. I understand. I was only wishing. I know things could turn out to be different.”

              The road was rough and the horses had to pull hard to move along it. There was a curve and the road seemed to flatten out.

“ We are now on a fairly flat road. It’s really a plateau. Our next stop will be Peradeniya. The Peradeniya Gardens is rather important to us planters. The coffee trees and tea bushes are brought to Peradeniya Gardens for trials. The scientists and botanists develop nurseries and observe how they grow. There is also the Haggala Gardens which also important for trials when the plants are brought from overseas.”

“ Are we stopping over at Peradeniya?” asked James.

“ No. The gardens are very large, spreads out a lot. We could get carried away and not get to the place where we are supposed to go to while the light is still good.”

              A dog came out of a small house and started barking at the coach and the horses.

“ I feel very home sick  hearing this dog” said James, whistling at the dog.

“ Don’t worry. There will a dog at your place. Lots of dogs around. “

“ Thanks for that. it does feel nice to be able to have birds and dogs around. Makes me feel very cheerful.”

“ The people are nice too.  You must be careful about the girls though. They are attractive and you could find yourself in a situation where you could get tied down. You are only sixteen years old.”

“ Thanks for that Uncle Henry. I will be  careful about this. Back home, I was told that Janet Ross was a good match for me. But I was only fourteen then. I  wanted to run away and join the Navy or Army. I  don’t want to get involved in a family situation. Children are the last thing in my mind. I don’t think I’m inclined to be a family man anyway.” 

“ Good. Think carefully. Be aware of the pitfalls. Plan your moves.” said Henry and continued.

“ There it is,  the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. It’s on the left. We will turn right here and head up the road towards Hewaheta.”

              The coachman slowed down as the turn right approached. The gate to the botanical gardens was on the left and open. The coachman tugged at the reins  and the horses turned right, slowing down to a gentle walk as they entered the Hewahata Road.

“ Now we are heading for the Narangghena Estate. It’s been growing sugar but they want to change to coffee. George Pride owns it . He owns a lot of coffee estates in Ceylon, maybe about a thousand acres. He also owns about another thousand acres of land which he wants to develop into plantations.”

“ That’s a lot of land to develop. There is a lot of work involved I can see.” said James.

“ Coffee was introduced by the Arabs and the Persians. Sinhalese cultivated it for both the leaves and the seeds.”

“ I didn’t know coffee was already growing in Ceylon.” said James.

“ Yes. It was but not in plantations. People grew the tree in their gardens along with fruit trees and vegetables. Coffee plantations were started by us British planters. Mind you we are facing problems with coffee blight. But we are fighting it off. ”

“ That would be a disaster if the trees died.” said James.

“ We should be thinking about tea . It’s all up in the air a bit. Tea was tried out maybe about ten years ago, around 1840 by two Germans, Gabriel and Maurice Worms. They imported tea to plant at Rothschild’s estate in Pussellawa and at Condegalla Estate in Ramboda. Objections were made about importing Chinese labour. It was a failure.”

“ Looks like tea is a big challenge. I hope they ask me to try growing tea.  It’s something I would like to take on.” said James.

“ That will be a big journey James. Chances of succeeding are not very good.  Lots of clever planters have tried growing tea. It’s not so much growing tea but rather making a profit from it. The tea rollin process is very time consuming and labour intensive.”  

“ Time will tell I guess.” said James.

                                           *                *                 *

              The carriage continued towards Hewahata.

              The trees on either side of the road were in bloom. There were flowers of every colour.  Purple, white, pink, red and blue. It was as if the trees were planted by a gardener. 

“ The road is lined with beautiful trees. It’s amazing.” said James.

“ Maybe it was  a sort of park where the rulers came to spend their leisure time. Peradeniya is very close to Kandy. Kandy is where the royal palace was.”

“ Sounds very interesting. Don’t the royalty rule any more?” asked James

“ Of course not. We British had to wait a long time to get a foothold in this part of the country. The hills were steep and terrain  so bad that the Army could never carry out a proper attack. The Kandyan King’s army was able to simply throw stones and roll boulders at the the British Army.”

“ And how did we finally manage to get into this part of the country?”

“ That’s  a long story. What happened was that the King’s Chief Minister was upset about not being made the King or something like that. He was overlooked and the Council of Chiefs brought a prince from South India. In addition, I think one of the Chief Minister’s  relatives was sentenced to death for plotting against the King. The outcome was that the Chief Minister sneaked away and met with the British commander in Colombo. He showed the way up into the hill country by taking a route which avoided any clashes with the Kandyan Kings Army. So we had no difficulty capturing the King.”

“ That is an interesting story. And what happened to the King?”

“ The King of the Kandyan Kingdom was taken away to India and dumped back in his old place some where in South India.”

“ I guess we had no problem in doing this as India is also under our rule.”

“ Exactly. Even during Dutch rule in Ceylon, we had some English people living in Kandy. There was a young man called Robert Knox who lived in Kandy during Dutch rule about a hundred years ago. He wrote a book about hid nineteen years spent in Kandy. The book created a lot of interest in Kandy. The British wanted to capture Kandy and they did.”

              The coach waded through a small brook and entered a slight climb and the horses slowed down. The birds chirped and the Sun was golden as it was now low over the horizon.

“ That brook should be sorted out. The carriages can’t wade through it loaded with coffee or tea. The carriage will get stuck in the mud.” said Henry.

“ Yes. We should have a pipe under the road for the water to run through. The coaches can can have a smooth journey.” said James.

“ Maybe something for you to arrange now that you are a planter using this road.” 

“ Agree. I might have to do something about this brook. It’s a problem for the transportation ”replied James

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