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2nd July 2000
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The Vanquisher of 'Tygers'

In this three-part series, Richard Boyle presents various stories and accounts of the world's largest snake, the anaconda including the earliest which is not only seen just outside Colombo, but happens to be the first reference in English to this Sinhala name

Continuing R. Edwin's account, "Description of the Anaconda" (1768), in which he tells the editor of the Scots magazine about a monstrous snake he and others observed during the course of several days on the outskirts of Colombo. "The Ceylonese seemed to know the creature well," Edwin remarks, "they call it Anaconda" . . . 

"The next morning, Sir, we assembled to a number of more than a hundred at the old thicket, where we had the pleasure, if I dare call it so, to find our enemy still at his old post. He seemed very fierce and very hungry this morning, and we soon saw the amazing effects of it. There are great plenty of tygers, you must know, Sir, in this country: one of these, of a monstrous size, not lower than a common heifer, as he went along, came at length under our serpent's tree. In a moment we heard a dreadful rustling in the tree, and, swift as thought, the serpent dropt upon him, seizing him across the back, a little below the shoulders, with his horrible mouth, and taking in a piece of the back bigger than a man's head. 

The creature roared with agony, and, to our unspeakable terror, was running with his enemy towards us. His course, however, was soon stopped; for the nimble adversary winding his body three or four times round the body of his prey, girt him so violently, that he fell down in agony. 

The moment the serpent had fixed his folds, he let go the back of the creature, and raising and twining round his head, opened his horrid mouth to its full extent, and seized the whole face of the tyger in it, biting and grinding him in a most horrid manner, and at once choking him and tearing him to pieces. 

The tyger reared up again on this, and words are too poor to paint his seeming agony: he writhed and tossed about, but all in vain; the enemy, where-ever he went, was with him; and his hollow roaring from within the destroyer's mouth was dreadful beyond expression. I was for firing upon the creature in this state, but they all declared against it; they told me, they knew his customs so well, that they were now very sure of him without any trouble or hazard, if they let him alone; but that if they disturbed him in this condition, he would be so outrageous, that several of our lives would assuredly pay the forfeit. They seemed to know so well what they were about, that I readily acquiesced. Several of us spent the whole day, Sir, in observing this strange fight; and surely the agonies of the tyger were beyond all that can be conceived, and his death more horrid than a thousand other deaths, with all their tortures put together. The tyger was a very strong and fierce creature, and tho' unable to hurt or get rid of its cruel enemy, yet gave him a world of trouble: a hundred times would he rear up, and run a little way, but soon fell down again, partly oppressed by the weight, and partly by the folds and wreathed twists of the serpent round his body: but tho' he fell, he was far from being conquered, or at all manageable. 

After some hours, he seemed much spent, and lay as if dead; and the serpent, who had many times violently girted himself round him, attempting to break his bones, but in vain, now let go his hold; twisting his tail only round the tyger's neck, who was now in no condition either to resist or escape, he made towards the tree, dragging, with some pains, the victim after him. 

Now appeared the double use of the tree to the creature: Nature, it seems, informs this animal, that though it can conquer such large creatures as these, it can by no means devour them as they are, since their bodies are too thick for his swallow, and he must therefore break their bones, and reduce them to a soft mass, before he can manage them. 

This he usually does, as we saw him attempt it on the tyger, by girting his body very firmly and hard round them, by this means crushing them to pieces; but when this method will not take place, he has recourse to the tree, as we now had opportunity to observe, he dragged the tyger, Sir, by degrees after him to the tree; and the creature being now almost dead, and unable to stand, he seized him lightly a second time by the back, and set him on his legs against the trunk of the tree; then immediately winding his body round both the tyger and the tree several times, he girted both with all his violence, till the ribs and other bones began to give way; and, by repeated attempts of this kind, he broke all the ribs almost one by one, this creature's bones being prodigiously tough, and each giving a loud crack when it burst. When he had managed all the ribs thus, he next attempted the legs, and broke them severally in the same manner, and each in four or five different places. 

This took up many hours, and the poor creature all this while was living, and, at every loud crack of the bones, gave a houl, tho' not loud, yet piteous enough to pierce the cruelest heart, and make even man forget his natural hatred to its species, and pity its misery. After the legs, the snake attacked the scull in the same manner; but this proved so difficult a task, that the monster, tired with his fatigue, and seeing his prey in no condition of escaping, left him for the night at the foot of the tree, and retired into it himself to rest.

"This gave us occasion of going home: and I must assure you, I could not sleep for the poor tyger, who was naturally so strong and vigorous, that we left him still alive, tho' broken and mangled in this miserable manner.

"In the morning I returned with several others to the thicket: but as we rode up we saw a strange change in the face of things; the body of the tyger, which was no longer to be known as such, but looked like a red lump of shapeless matter, was dragged to some distance from the tree, and shone all over as if covered with glue or jelly. When we arrived, we saw very plainly the meaning of all this, for the snake was not yet busied about it. He had laid its legs one by one close to the body, and was now placing the head strait before, and licking the body, (which now had no remaining shape of one, its bones being all broken), and covering it with its slaver, which was what gave it that shining look, coating it over like a jelly, and rendering it fit for swallowing. A great deal of time was employed in this, but at length the serpent, having prepared it to his mind, drew himself up before it, and seized the head, just as the rattle-snake by some accounts do a rat, and began to suck that, and afterwards the body, down into his throat. This was the work of so much time, that I left him struggling at the shoulders when I went home to dinner, and by the accounts of those who staid to watch him, it was night before he got the whole in.

"The morning following we all assembled for the last time, and the very women and children followed, and assured us, that, as the prey was gorged, there was then no danger. 

I could by no means conceive the meaning of this till I came to the place; but then I found it very true: the serpent had so loaded his belly, that he could neither fight nor run away. He attempted, on our approach, to climb the tree; but in vain; and was soon knocked on the head with clubs. We measured him, and his length was thirty-three feet four inches. He was soon cut up; and I assure you, Sir, afforded a flesh whiter than veal, and as they said that ate of it, finer tasted than any flesh whatever. 

"I hope the curious nature of this account will plead pardon for its length, and am, worthy Sir, your very humble servant,
R. Edwin"

Apart from demonstrating a tiresome obsequiousness towards his editor, 'R. Edwin' reveals that he had read most if not all of the tall stories concerning constrictor snakes that had been in circulation during the 18th century and earlier. In fact, his account is an amalgam of the misconceptions regarding the python and its transcontinental cousin, the anaconda. There is, for instance, the supposed ability to hang from high branches by the tail, a misconception first disseminated by Pliny many centuries before when talking of African Pythons. Edwin takes this once step further by describing how his 'anaconda' performed incredible arboreal acrobatics.

Then there is the anchorage of the tail to the trunk of a tree during constriction and eating, as described in the fox episode. Such behaviour rarely takes place, even though it was believed to be mandatory for prey consumption in the 18th century, as the accompanying illustration demonstrates. 

However, Edwin's best effort is his description of how the snake drags the tiger to a tree and then proceeds to wind itself round both its victim and the tree in order to crush the victim's bones. 

The loud cracking of the victim's bones during constriction related by Edwin is another common misconception, along with the slavering and the vacuuming mentioned by him. 

Just as there were universal misconceptions regarding constrictors, so were there ones particular to the island. For instance, Tennent (1859) tells of a Sinhalese belief that "when it has swallowed a deer, or any animal of similar inconvenient bulk, the python draws itself through the narrow aperture between two trees, in order to crush the bones and assist in the process of digestion." 

John C. Murphy, herpetologist and co-author of Tales of Giant Snakes: A Historical Natural History of Anacondas and Pythons (Florida, 1997), informs me that Edwin's description of the colouration and markings appears to be a composite of several species of constrictor snakes. 

On the one hand he reports yellow streaks and an olive colour, which is somewhat like the Common Anaconda (Eunectes murinus) of South America and not the Indian Python (Python molurus) of Sri Lanka. 

On the other hand, he goes on to describe a chain of black with great round and long blood-red blotches, which describes a combined pattern of the Indian Python and the Blood Python, (Python curtus). This points to Edwin's liberal usage of earlier constrictor stories.

In dismissing Edwin's account, the respected researcher Henry Yule states, among other things: "there are no tigers in Ceylon." Nevertheless, this zoological fact should not necessarily have lead him to conclude that the tale was a concoction, for two authors, who unlike Edwin, were definitely Ceylon old-hands, also speak of the tiger in connection with the island's python without correcting this mistake. 

Robert Percival remarks in An Account of the Island of Ceylon (London, 1803): "Before I arrived in the island, I had heard many stories of a monstrous snake, so vast in size as to be able to devour tigers and buffaloes, and so daring as even to attack the elephant. I made every inquiry on the spot concerning this terrible animal, but not one of the natives had ever heard of the monster. (My italics.) Probably these fantastic stories took their rise from an exaggerated account of the rock-snake (python)." In similar vein, James Emerson Tennent relates in Ceylon (London, 1859) that the python was reputed to "swallow tigers." 

It is probable that these authors had read Edwin's account. Certainly, Bennett (1843), Sirr (1850), and Tennent (1859), mention the name anaconda in relation to the python. Take Henry Charles Sir in Ceylon and the Cingalese (London, 1850): "The largest of the serpent tribe in Ceylon is the anaconda (belonging to the genus Python) and is far from being uncommon in the island . . . the Cingalese do not particularly dread this snake because it rarely attacks man." (My italics.)

Although "Description of the Anaconda" appears fanciful at the dawn of the 21st century, two hundred years ago, when scientific knowledge of snakes was limited, such an account would have seemed credible. Its veracity accepted, Edwin's account became popular after its publication in 1768. 

It was even quoted by the 1796 Encyclopaedia Britannica ñ "Anaconda, a name given on the isle of Ceylon to a very large and terrible snake which often devours the unfortunate traveller alive." (Edwin writes that the snake "devoured a traveller alive.") 

The account had a revival in the year 1808, when it was reprinted without crediting Edwin - a case of the plagiarist plagiarized. It was also turned into a short story called "The Anaconda" by 'Monk' Lewis, contained in his Romantic Tales, Vol. 2, (London, 1808). 

Returning to the tiger aspect, elsewhere in his book Percival says of the island's big cats other than the leopard: "The smaller species of tyger also infests the woods, but seldom ventures to attack a man . . . The tyger-cat found here is about the size of a lap-dog." However, J. W. Bennett reports in Ceylon and its Capabilities (London, 1843) that even leopards were called tigers: "The tiger is unknown in Ceylon, although that name is applied to the cheetah or leopard, which is as great an anthropophagist as the former, whenever opportunity admits of it." 

William Knighton, in his Forest Life in Ceylon (London, 1854) writes in a footnote to the word leopard: "Properly cheetahs I have called them leopards throughout, that name being more familiar to English readers. 

They are sometimes called Ceylon tigers." These references confirm that species such as the Indian Fishing Cat (Felix viverrinas) and the Sri Lankan Jungle Cat (Felix chaus kelaarti) were freely described as tigers during this period. It should also be mentioned in support of Edwin that Frank Wall states in The Snakes of Ceylon (Colombo, 1921) that the remains of leopards have been found in the intestines of the Indian Python.

I do not wish in this article to go into great detail regarding the background to Edwin's "Description" or the etymology of the word anaconda, as these findings are to be published in the future. Nevertheless, some explanation is necessary in order to substantiate the claim that 'R. Edwin' never existed and that his tale is nothing but a clever plagiarism. I should also state that discrediting Edwin's tale, does not diminish the theory that anaconda, or rather henakanda, is indeed of Sinhala origin and is an archaic epithet for the pimbura, python.

Glossary compiler Henry Yule, who was the first to investigate the etymology of anaconda in the 1880s, found that Edwin's 1768 reference was the earliest in the English language. However, in 1693, the English naturalist John Ray had used the Latin, Anacondaia Zeylonensibus, id est Bubalorum aliorumque jumentorum membra conterens - "The Anacondaia of the Ceylonese, i.e. he that crushes the limbs of buffaloes and yoke beasts" - in a treatise on snakes, quoting from the label of a specimen (presumably a python) at the Leyden Museum, Holland. 

In passing, Ray refers to an account by a Dutchman called Cleyerus of stag-eating Reticulated Pythons in Java. It is Yule's contention that Edwin took Ray's appellation and Cleyerus' account, added the dramatic tiger ingredient along, presumably, with elements of similar stories - and mixed them together. 

Yule believed that Edwin was a Dutch surgeon serving in the Royal Navy, and that he was also responsible for another such yarn concerning the poisonous Upas tree of Java. 

To be continued next week

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