In these modern times, after a tiring, stressful day at work, most people look forward to returning home; hopefully it is their haven or sanctuary; a place of comfort to relax and retreat from the busyness of the world.
So, after a long day of unrelenting toil in hot quarries, to what place did the long suffering coolie return? Where did he rest his tired aching body after a day of dangerous, back breaking work. Sadly, his abode wasn’t a “home” in the true sense of the word; as you read further on you will see it described as a “shed”. The coolie house was a shelter just for resting and sleeping; principally to protect him from the elements; its design to provide a constant fresh air flow to keep the air sweet and thereby hopefully prevent sickness.
Where were the coolie abodes, described as lines, located? They were originally built in Flying Fish Cove. A mention of these is made in Lewis Clayton’s 1901 Colonial report.
… Walking for about one hundred yards parallel to the shore one arrives at the old coolie lines. The narrow strip of land between limestone cliff has been turned by the Chinese into a vegetable garden.
Immediately beyond the old coolie lines the ground rises abruptly some 30 feet and on a small plateau is the coffee plantation … I inspected the old coolie lines on several occasions, both during the day and after the coolies had gone to bed. They consist of seven or eight plank building with attap roofs, accommodating from 15 to 50 coolies each. They are all raised about 1½ feet from the ground, and the air can pass freely underneath.
Except in one or two cases the beds are not raised from the floor. Hardly any of the coolies use mosquito curtains, and I was told that they were unnecessary. The available space is portioned off by upright planks about 4 inches high and as a rule 2 coolies sleep in each division. I think that the space allotted to each coolie is slightly less than is usual, but the ventilation is extremely good. I saw only one shed that seemed to be overcrowded at all, and that was owing, I was informed, to several men having moved in for one night only. The absence of mosquito curtains undoubtedly helps to keep the air fresh. On the whole, I consider that the sleeping accommodation at the old coolie lines is satisfactory, and I heard no complaints from the coolies themselves on the subject.
Instructions have been received by the Manager to burn down all the old coolie lines as soon as the men can be housed in the new lines. As beriberi has broken out, this will no doubt be advisable, but I do not think that any blame attaches to the Company in respect of these quarters.
The kitchens are close to the lines and are under cover. They seemed adequate and satisfactory, but the supply of rice bowls, &c., was insufficient.
There are no latrines. The coolies make use of a portion of the sea-beach for this purpose.
Clayton then went on to talk about the “new” Settlement coolie lines.
The new coolie lines consist of a number of plank and attap sheds. They are well built and raised on piles quite five feet clear of the ground. Three of these sheds are complete, with beds raised from the floor about two feet. They are extremely comfortable in them. Five more sheds are complete except for the raised beds, and are now occupied by coolies sleeping on the floor. One shed is half finished and unoccupied, and two more have just been begun. It is proposed to build a double line of these sheds. There is plenty of room for as many as may be found necessary. At present the coolies living in the new lines obtain their food from the old kitchens.
Here, again, there are no latrines, the coolies making use of the jungle between the sheds and the edge of the cliff. The manager proposes to erect wooden latrines projecting over the face of the cliff. I think this plan should answer very well. The cliff is about 30 feet high, and there are 3 fathoms of water at the foot.
Eight years later a very full description of these “new” Settlement coolie lines is given by Dr William McDougall. (Dr MacDougall resided on the island between 1904-1908. His wife Dr. Sarah Maude Robertson is buried in the old European cemetery on the Island.)
The coolie houses at the Settlement of Flying Fish Cove, consist of thirty nine houses arranged in a street. Each house is separate from the other by a distance of twenty five feet. The site is airy, dry and near the sea – about 50 yards from the shore cliff edge. The ground consists of fissured coral limestone rock incompletely covered by soil and natural drainage is good. There is no standing water even after the heaviest of rains. There is a cement base to each house which is raised on wooden piles, so that the floors of the houses are off the ground by a distance which varies from about 4 feet on the upper slopes to about 8 feet on the lower slope – that next to the sea.
The floor area is 36 feet x 16 feet and height to middle of roof 15 feet. The walls are of wood and the roof of double attap.
The outside walls are tarred once every 12 months, the insides are whitewashed every 6 months and I have recommended that they be whitewashed more frequently.
Along the fronts or backs of the houses (depending on the side of the street) runs a well built cement drain.
At the front elevation of the house (and also at the back) and for a short space at the end the walls do not reach the roof. The bottom of each wall does not quite reach the floor – there being an air space of from 6 to 9 inches and each board of the flooring is separated from the other by a perceptible interval.
These spaces together with the very considerable space between the floor and the cement base keep the air in constant circulation and naturally fresh and sweet.
Each house was built to accommodate 21 men, but so far as I could I never allowed more than 17 men to sleep in a house.
The houses are only used for sleeping or resting in. No food is taken there – there being specially provided eating sheds and kitchens.
There are coolie quarters of similar character on Phosphate Hill – about 900 feet above sea level for the accommodation of 250 men.
Latrines – Three large latrines are provided for the “Settlement” coolie lines and two for the “Hill” lines. These are flushed out and disinfected with Jeyes’ fluid daily and each pan is emptied into the deep water at the cliff edge and the pans then flushed and disinfected. On the hill the pans are emptied into the incinerator, where all solid refuse is reduced to ashes. At the Settlement all solid refuse matter is emptied into the sea which is, at the cliffs, about 10 fathoms deep, and less than a quarter of a mile out, is over 100 fathoms.
So that in the drains there is found little else than flush or waster water. These are flushed out freely every morning and disinfected with a strong solution of Jeyes’ Fluid.
Each coolie house is swept out daily and four coolie houses are washed and disinfected with Jeyes’ daily.
The Malay quarters, situated at the other end of the Bay are similarly treated.
I wish to emphasise the excellence of the sanitation on the Island in view of the fact that beriberi has been ascribed to emanations from specifically infected surroundings or to “dirt” of one kind or another.
The various District Officers of Christmas Island have informed me that the arrangement for coolies, as to houses, sanitation, food etc are the best they have ever seen and as these gentlemen have had larger experience of coolie lines in the Federated Malay States amongst the tin mines and in sugar and rubber plantations, their words are of considerable value.
I myself have experience of coolie lines in the Singapore area and in Johore and certainly these cannot compare for general cleanliness with the Christmas Island Lines. The present coolie Lines have been in existence for nearly eight years now. They were built at the time of the very severe outbreak of beriberi in 1901.
Several years later there was yet another “new improved” model of housing for the coolies as can be seen below. Dr James Cyril Dalmahoy Allan who first arrived on the Island in 1908 provides a description:
Built on concrete, sloped so as to drain readily into a gutter in front of the building and so into the sea. Raised well above the ground and so easily kept clean. Thoroughly ventilated having 8 windows, and an air space of 2 feet at the bottom all round and 3 feet at the top so that with all the windows closed there was still an abundance of pure air in circulation.
Covered with corrugated iron, which proved much more efficient in stormy weather than the original “attap” roofing and extended so as to keep the verandah dry as well. The extra heat from this form of roofing is immaterial as houses not occupied during the day, but could be easily met with by covering, the surface with a layer of attap or a composition of tar, sand and white-wash.