The factual books on Ceylon of the British colonial period were mainly written in the first half of the 19th century, but extended to the early 20th century. Many of the authors served in the island as soldiers, administrators, ecclesiastics, or members of the judiciary, and their books mostly aimed to describe the exotic colony to the people back home; to promote it as a place to invest, conduct commerce and emigrate.
Descriptions of Ceylon in English did not begin when the British ousted the Dutch in 1796, but this writer’s concern is primarily with the literary output of the colonial era. The first descriptive book to appear after the inception of British rule was of obvious importance.
Titled An Account of the Island of Ceylon, Containing its History, Geography, Natural History, with the Manners and Customs of its various Inhabitants, it was published in 1803 by Captain Robert Percival of the 19th Foot Regiment. Although it appeared before the last stage in the annexation of the island - the fall of the Kandyan kingdom - it did provide vital information on the coastal areas, including several important maps and charts, and the last chapter described every road in detail.
It was of such interest to the public and government that a second edition appeared two years later. Moreover, it is said that a French translation read by Napoleon made such an impression on the emperor that he toyed with the idea of trying to wrest the island from the British.
|An illustration from the book Journal of a Residence in India (1812)
by Marie Graham.
Percival was generally impressed with the Ceylonese and their customs: “The natives of Ceylon are more continent with respect to women than the other Asiatic nations; and their women are treated with much more attention. A Ceylonese woman almost never experiences the treatment of a slave, but is looked upon by her husband more after the European manner, as a wife and companion.”
However, of the Portuguese descendants he declares: “They are lazy, treacherous, effeminate, and passionate to excess.” Of Malay men: “Brave, ferocious, and desperate to the last degree on any occasion that requires blood to be shed; cruel and revengeful in their wrath beyond what human nature can be thought capable of.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge owned a copy. He was in the habit of inserting lengthy notes in the margins of his books. H.J. Jackson, in her Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (2001), reveals that Coleridge made notes alongside Percival’s description of bhang, a beverage of cannabis leaves and flowers imbibed by Malays. Coleridge’s interest was because he suffered from bipolar disorder, a condition he tried to treat with opium, and Percival incorrectly describes cannabis as “a species of opium”.
“After employing this method of rendering themselves insensible to danger,” Percival writes, “they are prepared for the most sanguinary achievements, and rush headlong into the streets, stabbing everyone that comes in their way; at the same time crying aloud, amok, amok, or kill, kill, from whence this horrible mode of revenge is termed by Europeans running amuck.”
Percival mentions that Europeans were attracted to Malay women but warns: “Their passions are equally violent with those of the men, and they are equally capable of taking the most terrible revenge. If their European paramour offers them the slightest neglect they will not hesitate to revenge themselves either by stabbing him, or the equally fatal method of administering poison.”
The first account of Ceylon in English by a woman was published as early as 1812. Titled Journal of a Residence in India it was written by Maria Graham, who visited the island in 1810. Apart from Graham, during the 19th-century two other notable female authors - Constance Gordon-Cumming and Marianne North - wrote accounts of Ceylon.
These female authors’ works differ from those of their male counterparts. While the mission of the male authors was to describe and promote the colony as a commercial proposition for pioneers and investors, the works of the female authors, generally being of the memoir type, were more personal and impressionistic, their descriptions more observant.
Nevertheless, similarities exist between authors of both sexes, the main being a preoccupation with the “exotic other” as Elizabeth Harris calls it in The Gaze of the Coloniser. Harris defines it as “a fascination with the minutest expression of physical diversity and beauty, from the smallest flower or insect. As the century passes, the Sri Lankan people, with their culture and religion, are swept into this romantic perspective as objects of the Victorian discovery of the exotic. Veneration of the Buddha in the temples, village life, and the beauty of the brown skin, begins to be described in terms of the picturesque and the romantic.”
Graham was certainly picturesque and romantic: “Sometimes the straight tall trunks of the palm-trees whose fan-like heads remained in shadow, seemed to represent a magnificent colonnade;
sometimes, where the creeping plants had entwined around them, they appeared like some enchanted bower, dressed by fairy hands; while the graceful figures of the torch-bearers, scarcely clothed, recalled to our imagination the triumphs of Bacchus.”
In portraying the port of Galle, Graham displays sensitivity about family separation that often accompanied colonial life: “I walked to the beach this morning, to see the last of the homeward bound ships; two-and-twenty sail got under way at daybreak, and many an anxious wish went with them. Many a mother had trusted her darling child to the waves to the care of strangers, in the conviction that, depriving herself of the delight of watching over it, was to secure its permanent advantage. And many a fond husband, unable to accompany his wife, had sent her to breathe her native air, as the last resource to preserve a life so dear.”
Dr. John Davy, an army surgeon and physician to Governor Sir Robert Brownrigg from 1817 to 1819, who later discovered phosgene, the colourless gas used as a chemical weapon in World War One, wrote An Account of the Interior of Ceylon, and its Inhabitants, with Travels in the Island (1821). Davy’s book provided the first full account of the interior of Ceylon, for Governor Brownrigg was responsible for the conquest of the Kandyan kingdom.
|The first descriptive account on Ceylon by Captain Robert Percival
Davy’s book is important as his interest in science resulted in the earliest comprehensive analysis of rocks, minerals, salts, and climate. He also documents his travels in the previously inaccessible Kandyan kingdom, including an ascent of the sacred mountain, Sri Pada, a visit to Kandy, and the first British encounter with - and description in English of – the future hill station of Nuwara Eliya:
“We proceeded over wooded hills gradually descending till we came to a great extent of open country, the aspect of which was no less agreeable. Our guides called it Nuwara Eliya pattan. In point of elevation and extent, this tract surpasses every other kind in the island; perhaps it is 15 or 20 miles in circumference, and about 5,300 feet above sea level.
It is the dominion entirely of wild animals, and, in an especial manner, of the elephant, of whom we saw innumerable traces; indeed, judging from the quantity of dung scattered over the ground, it must abound here more than in any other part of the island. It appears not a little singular that the most elevated and coldest tract of Ceylon should be the favourite haunt of an animal that is supposed to be particularly fond of warmth. He is probably attracted to the place by the charms of good pasture, and of a quiet peacable life, out of the way of being annoyed by man.”
Narrative of a Journey through the Upper Province of India from Calcutta to Bombay (1824-25) with Notes upon Ceylon, published in 1828, is a slight digression. The Ceylon section is limited, but the author Reginald Heber, Lord Bishop of Calcutta, wrote the words for the missionary hymn, From Greenland’s Icy Mountains, which contains a verse about Ceylon described as “colonial condescension”:
What though the spicy breezes
Blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases,
And only man is vile:
In vain with lavish kindness
The gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness
Bows down to wood and stone.
In 1816, John Whitworth Bennett arrived in Ceylon and joined the Civil Service. But he fell out with Governor Sir Edward Barnes, against whom he brought charges of corruption and misuse of government funds. In 1827, Bennett left the island, taking with him a storehouse of knowledge that he shared with the British public in Ceylon and its Capabilities: An Account of Natural Resources, Indigenous Productions and Commercial Facilities (1843).
It was reviewed by Thomas de Quincey: “Mr. Bennett says three things sufficient to detain a reader’s attention: 1, It is the Taprobane of the Romans; 2, It was thought to be the Paradise of Scripture; 3, It is ‘the most significant of the British insular possessions’. Rich she is by her developments, richer by her endowments. She combines the luxury of the tropics with the sterner gifts of own climate. She is hot; she is cold. She is civilized; she is barbarous. She has the resources of the rich; and she has the energies of the poor.”
Bennett’s book contained travel description and advice, in particular “maxims for the tourist’s observance”. He starts with the primary concern of tourists of all eras - the conveyance best suited for travel. “To be perfectly at one’s ease, to stop when one pleases, to view the country, or to collect specimens in natural history, there is nothing like the old-fashioned way, by palanquin, for any number of bearers may be engaged, and the traveller is always sure of a bed.”
Ceylon attracted some notable emigrants, such as Samuel Baker, who was later conferred with a knighthood for his African explorations. Baker was among the first to popularise the hill station of Nuwara Eliya by establishing a farm there in 1847 complete with English colonists. Baker was also a passionate hunter, owned a pack of hounds, and during his eight-year residence killed hundreds of elephants. He has the dubious distinction of promoting Ceylon as an attractive destination for so-called ‘sportsmen’.
Baker published The Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon in 1854 and Eight Years’ Wanderings in Ceylon a year later. His writing on hunting and its bloody climax are distasteful to read. Luckily, in between, there are descriptions of the British creation of Nuwara Eliya, such as the following from the latter book: “A road encircles the plain, and carts are busy in removing the produce of the land. Here, where wild forest stood, are gardens teeming with English flowers; rosy-faced children and ruddy countrymen are about the cottage doors; and equestrians of both sexes are galloping around the plain. The church bell sounds where the elephant trumpeted of yore. The sunbeam has penetrated where the forest threw its dreary shade, and a ray of light has shone through the moral darkness of the spot.”
In 1870, at the zenith of Empire, Queen Victoria was revered by many subjugated peoples, including the Ceylonese. So when it was announced that Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, would pay a ceremonial visit to Ceylon, the general mood was one of glorious expectation.
In The Duke of Edinburgh in Ceylon - A Book of Elephant and Elk Sport (1871) by John Capper, the author describes how the Ceylonese welcomed the Prince in Colombo harbour: “Rarely has any shipwrecked crew in the Indian Ocean, crowded more desperately in any boat than did the hundreds upon hundreds in holiday attire who flung themselves upon these frail floating things. Children gave up their richest waist-cloths; and one young, dark-eyed, comely child of Eve, threw off her rich red robe, and bared her bosom to the winds.”
1892 saw the publication of two books by the previously-mentioned Constance Gordon-Cumming and Marianne North, who visited Ceylon in the 1870s and 1880s. Gordon-Cumming came from an aristocratic Scottish family, was an inveterate traveller, accomplished artist, and prolific author. Marianne North, the daughter of a Tory Member of Parliament, was another inveterate traveller, and a renowned botanical artist. The word happy is featured in the titles of their books; Gordon-Cumming’s being Two Happy Years in Ceylon, and North’s Recollections of a Happy Life.
Gordon-Cumming and North belonged to a small band of Victorian Englishwomen who, when the movement for women’s emancipation was gathering momentum, became known for their journeys around the world. However, this outburst of female energy was not appreciated by the Victorian male as is apparent from an 1893 issue of Punch magazine:
A lady an explorer? A traveller in skirts?
The notion’s just a trifle too seraphic:
Let them stay and mind the babies, or hem our ragged shirts;
But they mustn’t, can’t, and shan’t be geographic . . .
The 20th century started in remarkable literary fashion with extraordinary descriptions of Ceylon by the infamous magician Aleister Crowley who visited the island in 1901 and 1903, But his writings did not collectively appear until 1969 when The Confessions of Aleister Crowley was published.
Crowley conveys an ambivalent attitude towards Ceylon and its inhabitants, vacillating between racist abuse and romantic reverie. Take his description of Colombo: “I love it and loathe it with nicely balanced enthusiasm. Its climate is chronic; its architecture is an unhappy accident; its natives are nasty; its English are exhausted and enervated. The riff raff of rascality endemic in all parts is here exceptionally repulsive. The high water mark of social tone, moral elevation, manners and refinement is attained by the Japanese ladies of pleasure.”
Crowley continues by likening Colombo to the crossroads of the civilized world: “But then, how rich, how soft, how peaceful is Colombo! One feels that one needs never do anything anymore. It invites one to dream deliciously of deciduous joys. The palms, the flowers, the swooning song of the surf, the dim and delicate atmosphere heavy with sensuous scents, the idle irresponsible people, purring with placid pleasure; they seem musicians in an orchestra, playing a nocturne by some oriental Chopin unconscious of disquieting realities.”
The precursor of the pocket guidebook to the island was first published in 1914. How to See Ceylon, written by Bella Woolf, sister of Leonard Woolf. In the Afterword Woolf writes: “Those whose lot it is to dwell in the East, learn in time something of oriental life and nature, but they also realise that much must ever remain a sealed book.” Nevertheless, she goes on to demonstrate a perceptive understanding of the character of the island's inhabitants. “As one passes through the villages, one speculates on the daily joys and sorrow and amusements of the people gossiping in the doorways. Outwardly it is Arcadia, and one is tempted to compare the lot of the Ceylon native – sunshine, rice, ripe fruits, a mat and a chattie or two, make up the sum total of his possessions – with that of the English poor.”
Woolf ends with a passage that evinces her romantic fascination with the strange and the beautiful – Harris’s the ‘exotic other’: “The sense of mystery that pervades all Eastern life only enhances its fascination. It intensifies the longing that comes under the grey skies of the West for the sun-dappled roads beneath the palm trees, the shrill chirping of the crickets, the graceful gaily-clad people passing up and down on brown noiseless feet, the tom-toms beating fitfully, the lonely jungle-roads, the scented moonlight turning the palms to silver, the fragrance, the languor - all the glamour of the land of never-ending summer.”