and rat snakes
commemorate 55 years of independence, The Sunday Times publishes
an exclusive series from British subjects now back home, relating
their life and times on this island. Here Michael Speer writes of
The Grand Oriental
Hotel - what a wonderful sounding name for a place! It brings back
an era which has gone for ever which I was privileged to share.
The old GOH - as it was known - isn't there any more, and I don't
even remember the name of the main street it was on (York Street,
possibly, just on the corner opposite the Colombo Harbour main entrance).
But in 1946
- the year in which my memories of Ceylon (apologies, but Ceylon
was where I was born, not Sri Lanka) really begin - it was a magical
great white building on the corner, with ceiling fans on long poles,
cane furniture, black and white tile floors with rugs you could
slide on, white-clad servants with tortoiseshell combs in their
hair, and the great dining room with its resident string orchestra
and fans on even longer poles. My father once boasted that he had
swung on one of these poles in his wilder days many years ago as
a young creeper.
My father left
England to make his fortune in Ceylon in 1923, and he became a creeper
soon after his arrival: in other words he started to learn to be
a rubber planter. Why he chose rubber instead of tea I shall never
know: tea was always seen to be the "upper class" of planting
society. Basically, in old Ceylon colonial society there were three
classes: up-country tea planters, low-country rubber planters and
Colombo people. Anyway, he chose rubber or rubber chose him, and
he had a number of years as a creeper or SD (sinadurai or "little
master") in, I think, the Ratnapura area, before becoming a
PD (periadurai or "big master") and managing his own estate.
Life as a creeper
was tough. He told wonderful tales of riding back on his motorcycle
from Colombo after a fan-swinging contest at the GOH, for two hours
in monsoon rain, and then lighting his way home through the jungle
to his bungalow with a candle in a half coconut shell as his only
defence against darkness and the beasts of the jungle. I am not
convinced that these stories were true, but they were always colourful!
After a shipboard
romance with a lady who was to become my mother, he came back from
home leave in 1936 to his first estate as a PD, and married my mother
in Ratnapura. I was born at the Joseph Fraser Nursing Home in Colombo
in 1938. I don't remember much of this, but my mother reminded me
in later years that she had quite a tough time with me at around
9lbs at birth, and nearly went crackers listening to the brain-fever
birds (can't remember their proper name) making their eerie calls
outside her window.
I will gloss
over the war years, as they are not really relevant to this story.
Suffice it to say that, following the Japanese air raids on Colombo,
our family left Ceylon in 1942 in different directions as my father
went with the CPRC (Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps) to India and ended
up with the Madras Engineers before becoming an invalid with amoebic
dysentery, and my mother and I went to South Africa (Durban), where
we spent about three years. After celebrating the end of the war
in Durban, we all went back to the UK before returning to my father's
new posting in 1946: Glencorse Estate, Avissawella. It is still
there, as we visited it in 1984, and this is where my own personal
paraffin lamps (electricity didn't arrive until 1950), monsoon rain
at night on the corrugated iron roof of the bungalow, jackals howling,
a magnificent view of Adam's Peak from the garden, Mr. Kanagasape
the estate conductor with his black umbrella, elephants pushing
over the old rubber trees (under supervision!) and visiting the
Talduwa club in the Kelani Valley and my boyhood friends at the
neighbouring Penrith Estate. All these things would take a lot of
time to cover, which I don't have, but just thinking about the evenings
in a monsoon storm conjures up quite a picture. If you are familiar
with paraffin lamps, they hiss and give out a very bright, concentrated
and a rather cosy light. As the wind rises outside in the pitch
black of a tropical night, the tats on the verandah begin to thrash
about. My mother puts on an old 78rpm record of Eileen Joyce playing
the Tchaikovsky B flat major Piano Concerto at full volume - nobody
minds as the nearest human beings are in the estate workers' lines
about half a mile away. I often wonder what they would have thought
of this if they had actually heard it! The rain pounds like thunder
on the tagrum roof, and puts me instantly to sleep.
morning is bright and steaming hot, as my father leaves around 7
a.m. for his office in the rubber factory just up the road. I get
up a bit later and, while sitting on the "thunderbox"
(no water sanitation then either, just sand buckets!), I glance
into the laundry basket beside the loo and there at the bottom lies
a small snake (I think it was called a carawala) enjoying the warmth.
Cries of distress bring Arumugam, our second servant, who duly pounds
the poor creature to pulp with a mammoty. Another day of tropical
surprises has begun.
of the planter's social life was - and maybe still is - the district
club. The first club I can recall was the Talduwa club down in the
valley of the Kelani ganga. It got flooded up to about six feet
in depth at least once every year, but was always the focal point
for social activity: rugby, tennis, snooker, bridge and of course,
a lot of drinking. I wonder if anyone remembers Rocklands gin: of
course, as a child I did not yet know the joys and sorrows of this,
but many did and paid a high price for it. Life for the planters
and particularly their wives was quite tough, despite the perception
that tropical weather and a house full of servants was full-time
paradise, and alcohol was a popular source of consolation. 1946
was also my first year at school. Boarding school at seven years
old is now regarded by many as close to barbaric, but it never did
us any harm and was the norm for the colonial families.
The Hill School
in Nuwara Eliya was one of only two or three schools for these families,
and came as quite a shock to me as Nuwara Eliya is at around 6,000
feet and quite cold and wintry at times for the low-country people.
We used to have to run around the lake as a sporting activity, and
getting back inside was quite a relief to me. I remember that they
used to have log fires in their houses up there. The Hill School
- which is now an army camp - had previously been called Haddon
Hill, and had a long tradition of preparatory schooling for the
planting fraternity. In 1984 my wife and I spent two nights at the
Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya and tried to visit the school, and were
confronted by an armed guard who appeared to be convinced that we
were spying for Rajiv Gandhi, although finally the camp commandant
allowed us in to have a look around. Last year I went to a Hill
School reunion in London and met former pupils whom I hadn't seen
for over 50 years!
1950 saw a
move for us to the Kalutara district: Glendon Group, Neboda. This
was a beautifully sited place with a big bungalow with a tiled roof
(!) and a wonderful view of the valley below. Here we had electricity
inside the bungalow - what a revolution! - and fantastic electric
storms outside. One night I was blasted awake by a tremendous crash
outside: lightning had struck a mango tree right outside my room.
In the morning we inspected the wreck of the tree, but it has to
be said that the remains of the tree produced the most luscious
mangoes we have ever eaten!
We also kept
poultry: hens, Muscovy ducks, guinea fowl, and their eggs used to
attract the cobras. I remember many calls of "Pambu, pambu"
as the garden boys discovered one in the hen house, and my father
would rush over with his 12 bore and shoot it to ribbons. I think
the boys took it off and curried it, but I will never be sure! In
fact, those who have never experienced this strange and wonderful
kind of life often assume that the place was crawling with snakes,
spiders, scorpions and the like. Well, it was, but we hardly ever
saw them. The huge spiders which spun their webs between the rubber
trees were an amazing sight in the early morning with dew on them,
but you never saw them in the bungalow. What we did get were rat
snakes: six-footers which lived in the roof cavities and acted as
unpaid rat catchers: we used to hear regular slithering noises and
squeals as they went about their business, but this was all part
of the rich tapestry of life in the tropics.
For both Glendon
and my father's next posting in Matugama (Yatadola Group), our local
club was at Tebuwana which, like the Talduwa Club, also flooded
regularly every year. But Tebuwana had a nine hole golf course,
and this is where I first learned to play this most frustrating
of all games. My wife and I also visited Tebuwana Club in 1984,
and talked with an old club retainer who obviously missed the old
life of the planters, and even remembered my father. Up until a
few years ago he always sent us a Christmas card every year addressed
to "Lady and Master". He obviously had high hopes of our
marriage, as one year the card mentioned "Lady, Master and
A word about
visits to Colombo is also necessary. These took place approximately
once a fortnight, usually for the important purposes of picking
up cash to pay the estate workers and visiting Elephant House to
fill the "beef box". It was also a much needed break for
the family from the lonely estate routine. In the fifties, when
estate workers' union militancy was at its highest, the drive to
Colombo was often made in convoy with other planters, as there had
been a number of cases of armed robbery of payroll cash. Fortunately,
nothing particularly bad ever happened to us, and our visits to
Colombo were spent pleasantly at the GOH, Mount Lavinia or at the
Colombo Swimming Club, with of course, shopping trips to Millers,
Cargills, the Apothecaries, Lalchands and a number of other household
names familiar to the visiting planters of those days. Infrequent
visits were also made to the Bolgoda Yacht Club, where I learned
the rudiments of sailing in 1957.
Most of my
observations so far have been about places and dates. Life for me
as a growing boy was also about people: our planting friends, the
estate workers, the bungalow staff, and my school friends and our
teachers. I never really learned to speak either Sinhalese or Tamil,
although my father's Tamil was quite good, and in general the planting
families were relatively isolated socially and also very inter-dependent.
Few had Sinhalese or Tamil friends - except some Colombo people
- and therefore lives were lived more in parallel than together.
Colonial culture never really mixed with local culture, which left
us ultimately the poorer, and the departing colonials had little
to take back "home" but memories.
Through a boy's
eyes - and I believe also in reality - relationships with the estate
workers (mainly Tamils) and our bungalow were very good. Inevitably
at some stages there were tensions and tempers, but this is true
of any society. It is difficult to explain to those who never experienced
this kind of life that the "master/servant" relationship
- which is what this was - was very civilised with mutual respect
and understanding of the status quo. Of course there were cases
of extremely bad treatment of estate workers and servants by planters,
but this was certainly not the norm. My father was a good and considerate
manager of people, and we could see this by the way he was respected
and liked by his estate staff. When the family finally left the
island in 1959, our bungalow staff were clearly devastated. I think
this was probably due in equal proportions to what they believed
might happen to them under new employers, and also to their sadness
at seeing us go. Perhaps they saw as we did that this was the end
of an era that no-one would see again.
Ceylon - or
Sri Lanka - is a beautiful place and will remain so in the memories
of people like me. We cannot hope that it will be as it was in our
days there, but we can hope that the peace which the huge majority
of people want will give the island back some of the magic that
concise guide to the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon by Richard Boyle -
Many a colourful picking from our gardens
Flora is the largest category in the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon
recorded in the second editions of the Oxford English Dictionary
(OED2) and Hobson-Jobson (H-J2). It is so large it must be split
between plants and their products, and trees and their products.
The plant category
encompasses seaweeds, shrubs, a swimming herb, a rose, a root, a
grass, a poisonous berry, a climbing plant, a creeper, and a cereal.
It features familiar Sinhala words such as illuk, kurakkan, nelumbo,
and taccada, as well as the alien cocculus indicus, hemidesmus,
and ipecacuanha. Date of first use is provided in brackets.
According to the OED2 it is: "Malay. Any of certain East Indian
seaweeds, especially the Ceylon moss, Gracilaria lichenioides, from
which a gelatinous substance is extracted and used in China for
soups and the manufacture of transparent silk and paper, and in
bacteriology as a solidifying agent in culture medium."
Ceylon moss (1866) is included in the OED2 but the definition provides
a more modern scientific name: "The common name for Plocaria
candida, which is imported from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) with some other
(1913). "A large pumpkin found originally in Ceylon."
reference in the OED2 reads: "Ceylon pumpkin, a large, oval-shaped
pumpkin with orange-coloured flesh."
(1842). "The common oleander or rose bay, Nerium Oleander."
reference in the OED2 reads: "Lemon trees, interspersed with
the acacia and Ceylon rose." Another reference dated 1868 reads:
"I find that the Ceylon rose is the other poison with which
the Damaras tip their arrows in war."
(1598). "The root of the Indian plant Oldenlandia umbellata
(N.O. Cinconaceae), used to give a deep red dye to Indian cottons."
by James Emerson Tennent from Ceylon (1859:II.55) is included:
"Choya-roots, a substitute for Madder."
is an earlier reference from English literature pertaining to Sri
Lanka by Anthony Bertolacci from A View of the Agricultural, Commercial
and Financial Interests of Ceylon (1817:161): "The choy-root,
or madder, is an article of considerable export from Ceylon: it
is employed in dyeing, and gives a fine red colour to cotton cloth;
but it is difficult to fix it... This root grows wild; and it is
allowed only to a particular cast of people, called choy-root diggers,
to collect it."
(1591). "The commercial name for the dried berries of Anamirta
(formerly Menispermium) Cocculus, a climbing plant found in Malabar
and Ceylon; the berry is a violent poison, and has been used to
stupefy fish, and in England to increase the intoxicating power
of beer and porter."
There are no
illustrative quotations from literature pertaining to Sri Lanka
given in the OED2. The earliest I have found is by J. W. Bennett
from Ceylon and its Capabilities (1843:180): "The Cocculus
Indicus, mixed with moistened rice, is employed to intoxicate birds
cow plant (1830).
Sinhala kiri-anguna. "A climbing plant of Ceylon, Gymnema lactiferum,
N.O. Asclepiadaceae, yielding a milky juice used for food."
reference given in the OED2 is from Lindley's Natural System of
Botany: "The cow plant of Ceylon yields a milk of which the
Cingalese make use for food."
the editors of the OED, when compiling the entry c. 1893, were misled
by Lindley and other botanical authorities,
Tennent (1859:I.85n) writes:
"Amongst the most remarkable plants of Ceylon, there is one
concerning which a singular error has been perpetuated in botanical
works from the time of Paul Hermann, who first described it in 1687,
to the present. I mean the kiri-anguna (Gymnema lactiferum) to which
has been given the name of the Ceylon cow-tree; and it is asserted
that the natives drink its juice as we do milk. LOUDON (Encyclopaedia
of Plants, p.197) says, 'The milk of the G. lactiferum is used instead
of the vaccine ichor, and the leaves are employed in sauces in the
room of cream.' And LINDLEY, in his Vegetable Kingdom, in speaking
of the Asclepiads, says, 'the cow plant of Ceylon, kiri-anguna,
yields a milk of which the Singhalese make use for food, and its
leaves are also used when boiled.' Even in the English Cyclopaedia
of Charles Knight, published so lately as 1854, this error is repeated.
(See p.178). But this is altogether a mistake; - the Ceylon plant,
like many others, has acquired its epithet of kiri, not from the
juices being susceptible of being used as a substitute for milk,
but simply from its resemblance to it in colour and consistency.
It is a creeper, found on the southern and western coasts, and used
medicinally by the natives, but never as an article of food. The
leaves, when chopped and boiled, are administered to nurses by native
practitioners, and are supposed to increase the secretions of milk.
As to its use, as stated by Loudon, in lieu of the vaccine matter,
it is entirely erroneous. MOON, in his Catalogue of the Plants of
Ceylon, has accidentally mentioned the kiri-anguna twice, being
misled by the Pali synonym 'kirihangula'; they are the same plant,
though he has inserted them as different, p.21."
(1809). "A small swimming herb of the genus so named, belonging
to the family Asclepiadaceae, and native to India and Ceylon; especially
a plant of hemidesmus indicus, the root of which is used as a substitute
for sarsaparilla; also, a syrup prepared therefrom. Hence hemisdesmic."
The most recent
or postdating reference given in the OED2 is by
D. C. Gunawardena from Genera et Species Plantarum Zeylaniae (1968.12):
"Hemidesmus... another connective prolonged, covering over
"(Sinhala) The name used in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) for a course
grass, Imperata cylindrica."
of several references from literature pertaining to Sri Lanka given
in the OED2 is by G. H. K. Thwaites from An Enumeration of Ceylon
Plants. (1864:369): "Common in the hotter parts of the island.
The leaves make an excellent thatch."
is an earlier reference or antedating, for Robert Knox writes in
his 'interleaved copy' of An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1713:I.10):
"The hils generally are stony barren land baring onely Illucke
or such flage grass."
R. L. Spittel,
writing in Wild Ceylon (1924:105), provides an interdating
reference not recorded in the OED2: "The illuk glades, so familiar
to us for so many days, now gave place to jungle, sunless, forsaken,
virginal and silent save for the cry of a cicala or rustle of a
jungle cock or chevrotan." In a further reference Spittel (Ibid.vi.126)
mentions an illuk-blade in relation to the supposed antics of an
evil spirit: "It is said to have a nasty knack of grasping
one's leg in the dark and so making it whither to the thinness of
A later reference
by Spittel from Vanished Trails (1950:152) is recorded in the OED2:
"Illuk glades, those graveyards of once magnificent forests
felled for chenas."
The most recent
reference given in the OED2 is dated 1956 and is not from English
literature pertaining to Sri Lanka. However Roland Raven-Hart, writing
in Ceylon: History in Stone (1964:70), postdates this: "Small
flocks of Munias love the pestiferous Illuk grass."