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1994

Adventures of a Coffee Planter

 

First published in 1886, these fascinating memoirs give an insightful look into the experiences of a generation of adventurous, young British gardeners who left in their hundreds during the mid-nineteenth century to help work the coffee and tea plantations of Southern India and Ceylon. Written anonymously for the Journal of Horticulture and signed simply, 'A Planter', they tell the story of a youthful nurseryman apprenticed to a firm in Edinburgh who, in 1861, set off for the far outposts of the expanding British empire - more to escape his servile conditions of employment in Scotland than to seek his fortune in the jungles of Mysore. Earning just 18s weekly and forced to live in a hovel 10 feet square containing two beds and four people, it was little wonder that aspiring young nurserymen turned their attention to immigration.
Having replied to an ad in the Scotsman for a young gardener to work as an assistant on an Indian coffee estate, the author readily signed a contract for five years. Four weeks later, he left on his great adventure, proceeding first to Southampton where he boarded a ship bound for a new world.

It was on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the latter end of October, 1861, that I set sail from Southampton in the good ship Mooltan of the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company for Alexandria.
The terrors of the Bay of Biscay past, it was pleasant to land for a few hours at Gibraltar. A few days' sail had brought us from every indication of an approaching dreary English winter into summer again with all its accompanying flowers and fruits that it had been my duty to tend with assiduous care under glass. Then the voyage to Malta and Alexandria was a thing never to be forgotten - the intense blue of the inland sea baffling the pen.

Our good ship was fast approaching Alexandria with its cloud of windmills, its fervid heat, its steamy and squalid bazaars reeking with filth and drowned in swarms of flies. With the advent of the native pilot on board to guide us into the famous bay came the first feeling of oppressive heat, and, if it must be confessed, the incipient regret that I had left dear old England, and the very pronounced resolve to take advantage of the clause in my agreement with reference to the optional break at the end of the third year and return to my native land. The resolve was deepened by a remark of a fellow passenger to the effect that if I felt the heat so much at Alexandria he did not know how I would get on in India.

One night in the ancient city and off next morning by rail to Cairo, where we were compelled to remain four days awaiting the arrival of the mail steamer at Suez, which was to take us to Bombay. On the morning of the fifth day we started for Suez by train, reaching that place some time in the afternoon, after only one brief stoppage on the way. The journey across the desert was a hot one, but not devoid of beauty, although not a vestige of vegetation was to be seen; yet the white and yellow sand hills and undulating ground was very impressive and stretching out on either side as far as the eye could reach.

My journey from Calicut to the foot of the Ghauts was performed overnight in a bullock coach. Arriving at daybreak at the rest house close under the foot of the mountains, I found a pony from the Coffee Estate awaiting my arrival to take me to the top of the pass, a distance of some nine or ten miles, through a magnificent forest the whole way. After leaving the rest house I rode through a belt of gigantic Bamboo clumps interspersed with handsome specimens of the Teak and other hardwooded trees. As I ascended, this vegetation gradually gave place to the primaeval forest of the Western Ghauts, one of the wonders of India, so dense that the leafy tops of the mighty trees completely shut out the midday rays of the tropical sun.

I was alone in this half-darkened pass in the mountains and all was silent in the early morning air save the occasional sound of an invisible mountain stream, as it sprang from rock to rock in the deep, dark ravine below, or now and then the boom, boom of the black monkeys as they sprang from branch to branch far overhead. The scene was weird to the extreme in this grand Cathedral of Nature, but for me it had its charms. I had not unfrequently pictured what a real tropical forest must be like, but the reality far exceeded my expectations.

Scattered at intervals over the whole of the Bamboo jungles of Wynaad were small communities of a certain caste of natives called Jain Coorumbers or Honey Coorumbers - that is, men, part at least of whose occupation was to climb the high trees and rocks and collect the honey-combs.

These communities had no fixed residence but kept moving from place to place in the jungle. After the advent of the speculative English planters in the district this timid race of Coorumbers began gradually to approach the clearings and eventully to do a little work, and as time went on and confidence was established they would come in large gangs and do all the felling, clearing and building work of an estate.

Not far from the top of the Ghaut I rode on to the first Coffee estate I had seen and was most hospitably received by the resident planter. The Coffee plant at that time of year (December) looks its best, picking operations are in full swing, and the estates are generally at that season free from weeds and everything was tidy and in order. I was charmed with my first view of a plantation, for the Coffee is unquestionably a very beautiful shrub, and when in full berry, as it was on this my first acquaintance with it, I thought I had never beheld a more beautiful plant. And a few months later, when I saw it in full flower, I simply put it down as the queen of all evergreen shrubs.

 


 
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