Articles taken from the “ Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon“ printed by Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Company Limited in 1907
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY IMPRESSIONS OF CEYLON – 1907
It is, perhaps, not surprising that new products should not greatly attract the native cultivator so long as he can plant coconuts. Tea and rubber, ground nuts and cotton, he looks on in the light of speculative investments, but planting coconuts in this province is to him what buying Consoles is to the English investor”. This wrote the Hon. H.L.Crawford in his Administration Report for the Western Province for 195. The remarks are profoundly true if we substitute “was” for “is” in the last sentence, for the faith of the Sinhalese in coconuts is much deeper than is the confidence of the Home investor in Consols in these days of depressed markets. Certainly there is nothing which figures so largely in the native imagination when he is sketching his ideals of material happiness s a coconut plantation.And from his point of view he is right. Most products of the soil are affected by vicissitudes of season and by caprice of taste of fashion. But the coconut knows little or nothing of these. Year in, year out, it produces its fruit in regular quantity to satisfy an apparently inexhaustible demand. The trees take something like ten years to come into bearing after planting, but to compensate for this they live long and give little or no trouble during their existence. But their greatest virtue is their extraordinary range of utility. Practically no part of the tree or its products is unmarketable. Before the tree comes into bearing its leaves are plaited and used as partitions or roofs of houses, and the thin central stalk is used in the construction of serviceable household brooms. When the plant reaches the flowering stage it can be tapped for toddy, and toddy in its turn can be made yield jaggery (a coarse sugar) or arrack (a potent spirit). Later on the fruit comes into consideration. When quite young the nut is full of delicious, watery juice which is most refreshing in the torrid heat of a tropical day. When the beverage is associated a soft, purely lining which may be scooped out with a spoon and eaten with relish by the fruit-lower. In about twelve months the nut reaches maturity, and then the most important commercial stage is reached. The fresh nuts are vended in every village and in every street of the towns of the island. They constitute an important element in the local cuisine. The grated nut is indispensable in curries, and the milk is a favourite flavouring essence. On a larger commercial stage the nut figure is not less important roles. The dried kernel, known in the produce markets as copra, is pressed and yields an abundance of oil, and the residuals, called poonac, constitute an excellent fattening material for animals. Large quantities of the nut are exported for use in the manufacture of soap, the vegetable fats it contains marking an admirable emollient material. Latterly considerable consignments of the coconut products have gone to the margarine manufacture of Belgium and Holland, who like the soap-factors, have been glad to find a substitute for the increasingly costly animal fats upon which they once relied. The hard shell of the nut has little commercial value outside the island; but locally I is useful as fuel and for manufacture into spoons and other kitchen implements. The fibrous outer husk supplies the coir of commerce. Mats, brushes, and rope are made from it. Indeed, there are few material which have a wider range of usefulness or are more extensively distributed throughout the countries of the world.
Finally, there is the trunk of the tree is too valuable as fruit producer to be grown for timber; but it produces a wood with a beautiful grain which works up well in commercial furniture. Consequently, when a tree is blown down or has to be cut down for many purpose, the wood has a good marketable value in most districts. In any event it can be turned to good use for posts, the jambs of doors, and other kindred purpose on an estate. In all these various ways the coconut-tree justifies its reputation as the most reliable wealth-producer the tropical agricultural world knows.
Although the coconut grows in such lavish profusion if Ceylon and bulks so largely in her commercial outlook, the coconut-palm is not an indigenous growth of the island. The tree is traditionally supposed to have been introduced from the Eastern Archipelago; when and how it was brought to Ceylon can only be conjectured, but the history of the palm in Ceylon goes back to very ancient times. The Mahavansa, the great Sinhalese record, alludes to the establishment by a king who reigned in the sixth century of coconut plantations 36 miles in extent in the south of the island. There are also other references which point to the fact that in succeeding centuries the tree assumed an important place in the life of Ceylon.
No doubt the salubrity of the climate and the suitability and the suitability of the soil greatly aided its diffusion. The tree grows readily on a wide belt of country fringing the cost, and once established, it needs little attention, though experiments made in recent years have shown that careful and systematic manuring is essential if the best results are to be obtained. Low-lying land, where he tree derives benefit from seepage, is best adapted to its growth but it is thought that it might be introduced successfully in favoured positions on high ground if the proper degree of care were taken in the cultivation. Quite recently a plot of elevated land near Talawa, in the North Central Province, was opened up s the nucleus, if successful, of a large coconut estate which would depend of rainfall and not irrigation. The experiment, however, had to be abandoned owing to labour difficulties. Meanwhile, the area under the coconut-palm in districts known to be favourable to its cultivation is receiving wide extension. Both European and native planters are finding that the coconut, though slow , is sure, and with the prospect of increasing demands from Europe for the products of the tree, they are putting more and more of their capital into this branch of agricultural enterprise. The industry, however, is already one of very large proportions. It is estimated that not less than 700,000acres are at the present time planted with the coconut-palm.
The produce of this area must be immense. Some conception of it may be formed from a calculation which is made by Mr. Edward F.Hopkins, Government Agent, Eastern Province, in his report on the administration of the district for 1905. He says : “ The exports by sea during 1905 amounted to 131,251 nuts and 36,022 cwt. Of copra. Taking 200 nuts to 1 cwt. of copra the nuts exported by sea amounted, in round numbers, to 7,300,000.Yet this number is but an insignificant portion of the annual crop. If we take 80 trees to the acre, and 20 nuts t the tree, the produce of the 31,308 acres planted with coconut amounts to the prodigious number of 50,092,800 nuts. Assuming 50 nuts a year per head of population are consumed as food, the number for 153,552 people is 7,676,100. Thus something more than 15 million nuts are accounted, for, leaving a balance of 35 million nuts to be exported by land, converted into coconut oil, and otherwise consumed. I am quite unable to account for this large balance”. If we accept Mr. Hopkin’s calculation of the number of nuts produced in the Eastern Province, we have a record of considerably over a thousand million nuts as the annual produce of the coconut trees of the entire island. Passing from the region of speculation to actual fact, we have in the official returns of exports interesting figures showing the enormous magnitude of the coconut industry and the important place it occupies in the world’s market. Taking the various products as they are classified in the Government Blue Book, we have the following statistics :-
It is not worthy that during 1905 the United Kingdom only imported 1 cwt. of poonac the value of which is given as Rs. 15.
In this list no account is taken of arrack, a considerable quantity of which is manufactured from toddy drawn from the coconut-trees, and the export of which in 1905 amounted in value to Rs. 115,829. Taking the figures s they stand in the list, we have the striking fact that the coconut exports very nearly Reach one and a half million pounds annually. It is proverbially unsafe to prophesy, and the risk is especially great in the domain of tropical agriculture. Nevertheless, it may be confidently said that the returns will be still larger in the coming years. The virtues of the coconut are daily being more widely recognised. The soap, candle, and margarine manufacturers, and also the confectionery and biscuit –makers of Europe, the United States, and our colonies are making ever-growing demands upon the industry for a share of its products; and meanwhile, the indispensable coir is finding extended fields for its utilization. In this way a justification is being given to the shrewd business instinct of the natives of Ceylon, who cling tenaciously to their coconut plantations, and are seeking to extend here boundaries.