FOR many years following the occupation of Ceylon by the British, virgin forest and jungle covered the hills of the interior. Valleys and hills, which now are busy scenes of a prosperous tea industry, with planters' bungalows charmingly situated amid lawns and flower-gardens, were then a dense and trackless forest, the home of elephant, leopard, and bear.
Coffee planting was first commenced in the Kandyan country in the year 1820, and the first regular plantation was opened in 1827. It was, however, not until the eventful year, 1837, that the planting enterprise may be said to have been begun. Thousands of acres of forest land were sold annually by the Government of Ceylon to intending planters, suitable for the cultivation of coffee. With the ancient capital of the Kandyan race as a centre, the hardy pioneers of the planting industry proceeded to carve out of the primeval jungle clearings for the cultivation of the new product. In all directions there were to be seen blackened clearings where the stately forest trees had been felled and then burnt. In these clearings, amidst the charred trunks of prostrate forest giants, partially burnt, the young coffee shrubs were planted, and, in the course of a few years, the stately but gloomy beauty of the original forest was replaced by the shimmering white of the coffee blossom in its setting of dark green foliage.
The higher uplands were for many years untouched. In 1840, Major Skinner, from the top of Adam's Peak, looked down on a dense, pathless forest, and foretold that this region was destined to become the garden of Ceylon.
The want of roads as a means of communication and transport was a great difficulty. Major Skinner, Ceylon's great Roadmaker, gives us a glimpse of the situation. "With all these purchases," he wrote in 1840, "the demand for land appears to be just as insatiable as ever, while the general cry is, 'Where shall we look for land?' In vain I proclaim that there is a choice of between 200,000 and 300,000 acres of the finest forest land within the Wilderness of the Peak, possessing, in the most eminent degree, every requisite of soil and climate far above anything to be found on these outskirts of it. 'How are we to get at it?' is the not unnatural sequence, for although I have spent many dreary months in it, and there is not a valley I have not traversed, nor a feature, from the highest point of which, and from the top of the highest tree to be found on it, I have not attempted to sketch in my reconnaisance, I know that many a man might dive into the depth of 500 square miles of unbroken, pathless forest, who would never find his way out of it again."
By 1860 much of the Kandyan country had been opened in coffee, and, leaving the dense forests of Dickoya and Dimbula, the adventurous British planter had penetrated to the more open highlands of the Uva Province. The problem of transport was here still more acute. A road had been opened as far as Pelmadulla, but, as Skinner describes it, "there still remained at least thirty-eight miles of the most execrable native mountain path ever traversed, and intercepted by rapid torrents, only fordable in dry weather. Over this path the planters sent down their maiden crops, which were always small and light, on men's shoulders."
Such were the country and the conditions in which William Rowlands was now to commence those indefatigable travels among planters and coolies with which his name is ever inseparably connected. The area, opened in coffee estates in 1862, bore no comparison with the extensive area of the present day. While the Kandyan country was fully opened, together with Pussellawa, Gampola, Dolosbage, Kotmale, and Ambegamuwa, which included Lower Dickoya, the forests of Maskeliya and Bogowantalawa were untouched. Dimbula was represented by six estates in Upper, and about the same number in Lower, Dimbula, just below the Queensbury Gap.
For labour in connection with the great planting venture, the planter was at first dependent on the people of the country. Mr. C. R. Rigg, in an article in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, writes at the time, "When planting first came into vogue the Kandyans flocked in hundreds to the great distribution of rupees, but this source of labour was soon found to be insufficient and of too precarious a nature to be relied on. The Kandyan has such a reverence for his patrimonial lands that were his gain to be quadrupled he would not abandon their culture. It was only during a portion of the year that he could be induced, even by the new stimulus--money--to exert himself. Next came the Sinhalese from the maritime provinces, who have a stronger love of gain. In 1841-43, thousands of these people were employed on estates; they generally left their homes for six months at a time, and then returned with their earnings.
The sudden access of wealth among them soon engendered as much independence as was to be found in the Kandyans. This source of labour became "dried up. . . . Southern India stepped forward to fill up the vacancy occasioned by the cessation from labour of the sons of the soil."
An abundant source of labour was found in South India, and from 1841 thousands of those whom Skinner calls "the panting, half-famished creatures from the burning sandy plains of Southern India" were yearly coming over, trudging their weary way down the North Road. These South Indian Tamils were the people to work among whom Rowlands was allotted in October 1862.
The existence of the Tamil Coolie Mission, with which Rowlands was now temporarily connected, in consequence of the breakdown of the Rev. S. Hobbs, the head of the Mission, is very closely connected with the fame which Ceylon acquired as a coffee-producing country. There is romance in the beginning of this interesting little Mission, which began with an attempt, not so much to reach the non-Christian as to shepherd Christians. Mr. John Murdoch, at that time head of the Government Seminary in Kandy for training schoolmasters, was accustomed to ride out from Kandy on a Saturday for the purpose of visiting and holding services for the isolated planters in the district around. In this work he was encouraged by one of the leaders of the planting enterprise, Mr. George Wall, who was very much concerned for the spiritual condition of these men. As Murdoch rode about among the estates, he discovered little groups of Christian coolies from Tinnevelly.
An English planter, not long out from a Christian home in his native land, was astonished one Sunday morning to hear hymn-singing in the coffee-store, not far from the bungalow. Going down to ascertain from whom it proceeded, he found a hundred of his coolies gathered together, under the leadership of one of themselves, for a service. Such gatherings were found on more than one estate where Christian coolies were engaged in holding services regularly without minister or sacrament.
There happened to be visiting Ceylon about this time one of the secretaries of the C.M.S., the Rev. W. Knight, who had come out to Ceylon for the purpose of inspecting the whole Mission. Murdoch got at once into touch with Knight, and the idea at once occurred to them that Tamil catechists might be brought over from Tinnevelly to minister to the scattered bands of Tamil Christians, and, at the same time, to evangelise their heathen fellow-countrymen. Murdoch and Knight were invited by the proprietors of some estates hi the neighbourhood of Matale to visit their estates and see what could be done. Knight proposed to the planters that they should subscribe to bring over from Tinnevelly, and support in Ceylon, trained catechists, and that the Church Missionary Society should supply a missionary to superintend this new and interesting work.
Knight's proposal met with the hearty approbation of the planter friends referred to, and they at once promised their cordial support in any measures that might be taken for carrying out the scheme.
Murdoch went over to India and saw the Tinnevelly missionaries. At Paneivilei he addressed a missionary meeting, and called for volunteers for the work in Ceylon. Eight responded, of whom six were chosen as pioneers of the new venture. They duly arrived in Colombo, and, after having been equipped with their instructions and whatever was necessary, started to walk from Colombo to Kandy. On the arrival of the six in Kandy, in November 1854, they soon after proceeded to the estates, the proprietors of which had agreed to support them.
Meanwhile, such of the planters as cared at all for the spiritual welfare of their coolies formed themselves into an Association, undertaking to support the catechists, and provide small chapels and schools for worship and instruction. Many of them were Scotch Presbyterians, but they were quite willing that an Evangelical clergyman should come to superintend the work, and that it shouLd be carried on upon Church of England lines. Accordingly, after about a year, during which the new Mission was under the superintendence of the Rev. E. T. Higgens, who was, at the same time, in charge of work among Sinhalese in and around Kandy, the CM.S. Committee appointed one of the Tinnevelly missionaries, the Rev. Septimus Hobbs, who arrived in November 1855. Hobbs, having spent thirteen years in Tinnevelly, was well acquainted with Tamil, and the work soon began, under his guidance, to go forward. Hobbs describes his methods of work in his first report written in May 1857: "The greater part of the catechists' time is spent in visiting the different estates and preaching to the coolies. After being thus engaged for about ten days, they return to Kandy to rest for a day or two, and receive further instructions from the Superintendent of the Mission. Each of them then receives a list of the estates he is to visit on his next journey, and sets out on another tour. Each catechist keeps a journal in which he records the principal occurrences of every day, and these journals are read to the Superintendent when the catechists come to Kandy. They have not yet visited the very distant districts of Badulla and Saffragam, but they have been repeatedly to the coffee estates in almost all other directions."
Hobbs, as already indicated, broke down in health, and left for England at the close of 1862, and, on his departure, Rowlands now undertook the charge of the Mission until some permanent appointment could be made by the Committee in England.