10th August 1997


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Raft on Kalu Ganga: Haeckl's


Nehru's southern holiday


"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny and now the time has come when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will wake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity."

These were the words spoken by Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister when on August 14, 1947, 182 years of the British Raj came to an end and India emerged as a free and independent nation. Nehru was a friend of Sri Lanka and as India celebrates 50 years of independence this week, this extract from his autobiography reveals a glimpse of Nehru's thoughts on India's tiny neighbour recorded after a holiday here in 1931. We reproduce too a letter from Nehru to Mr E.W Kannangara, then Clerk to the State Council, written after another visit in 1939.

My doctors urged me to take some rest and go for a change, and I decided to spend a month in Ceylon. India, huge as the country is, did not offer a real prospect of change or mental rest, for wherever I might go, I would probably come across political associates and the same problems would pursue me. Ceylon was the nearest place within reach of India, and so to Ceylon we went - Kamala, Indira and I. That was the first holiday I had since our return from Europe in 1927, the first time since then that my wife and daughter and I holidayed together peacefully with little to distract our attention. There has been no repetition of that experience, and sometimes I wonder if there will be any.

And yet we did not really have much rest in Ceylon, except for two weeks at Nuwara Eliya. We were fairly overwhelmed by the hospitality and friendliness of all classes of people there. It was very pleasant to find all this goodwill, but it was often embarrassing also. At Nuwara Eliya groups of labourers, tea-garden workers and others would come daily, walking many miles, bringing gracious gifts with them - wild flowers, vegetables, home-made butter. We could not, as a rule, even converse together; we merely looked at each other and smiled. Our little house was full of these precious gifts of theirs, which they had given out of their poverty, and we passed them on to the local hospital and orphanages.

We visited many of the famous sights and historical ruins of the island, and Buddhist monasteries, and the rich tropical forests. At Anuradhapura, I liked greatly an old seated statue of the Buddha. A year later, when I was in Dehra Dun Gaol, a friend in Ceylon sent me a picture of this statue, and I kept it on my little table in my cell. It became a precious companion for me, and the strong, calm features of Buddha's statue soothed me and gave me strength and helped me to overcome many a period of depression.

Buddha has always had a great appeal for me. It is difficult for me to analyse this appeal, but it is not a religious appeal, and I am not interested in the dogmas that has grown up round Buddhism. It is the personality that has drawn me. So also the personality of Christ has attracted me greatly.

I saw many Buddhist bhikkus (monks) in their monasteries and on the highways, meeting with respect wherever they went. The dominant expression of almost all of them was one of peace and calm, a strange detachment from the cares of the world. They did not have intellectual faces, as a rule, and there was no trace of the fierce conflicts of the mind on their countenances. Life seemed to be for them a smooth-flowing river moving slowly to the great ocean. I looked at them with some envy, with just a faint yearning for a haven, but I knew well enough that my lot was a different one, cast in storms and tempests. There was to be no haven for me, for the tempests within me were as stormy as those outside. And if perchance I found myself in a safe harbour, protected from the fury of the winds, would I be contented or happy there?

For a little while the harbour was pleasant, and one could lie down and dream and allow the soothing and enervating charm of the tropics to steal over one. Ceylon fitted in with my mood then, and the beauty of the island filled me with delight. Our month of holiday was soon over, and it was with real regret that we bade good-bye. So many memories come back to me of the land and her people; they have been pleasant companions during the long, empty days in prison. One little incident lingers in my memory; it was near Jaffna, I think. The teachers and boys of a school stopped our car and said a few words of greeting. The ardent, eager faces of the boys stood out, and then one of their number came to me, shook hands with me, and without question or argument, said: "I will not falter." That bright young face with shining eyes, full of determination, is imprinted in my mind. I do not know who he was; I have lost trace of him. But somehow I have the conviction that he will remain true to his word and will not falter when he has to face life's difficult problems.

A record, painstakingly assembled


In this two-part article, Richard Boyle documents the significant visit made to the island in the late l9th century by the famous German zoologist and botanist, Ernst Haeckel.

The recent exhibition in Colombo of reproductions of paintings of Ceylon executed by Ernst Haeckel in 1881-82 provided a rare opportunity for the uninitiated to view these superb impressions of the island. Inspired mainly by the flora and extravagance of nature, and painted by the hand of the father of ecology, they depict an earlier age before environmental degradation, when vegetation was allowed to reach full maturity and development was yet to scar the landscape.

In fact during the 19th century, a number of artists of diverse origin strove to capture on canvas the essence of the tropical island of Ceylon. A few of these artists were academy trained professionals, but most were competent or even gifted amateurs. Some were travellers - among them members of the European aristocracy - while others were stationed in Ceylon as military personnel or as government officials.

Samuel Daniell, John Deschamps, Prince Alexei Soltykoff, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Waldemar, Count Emanuel Andrasy, Eugene de Ransonnet, Charles O'Brien - to name some of these artists - all published folio-sized travelogues containing reproductions of their pictures executed in Ceylon. These views of alien landscapes, specimens of exotic fauna and flora, as well as customs of a widely-different culture, were subject matter in which the Occident, in an era of expanding horizons, exhibited a great interest.

Today the aesthetic appeal of these plates and prints, many of which are excellent examples of the art of lithography in its heyday, ensure their continuing popularity with collectors. Moreover, they have provided recent generations with an invaluable visual record of the island at the time - a record which has been painstakingly assembled by R.K de Silva in his book 'Early Prints of Ceylon (1985).

However, it is with Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel that we are concerned. The son of a lawyer, he was born on 16 February 1834 in Potsdam, near Berlin, and studied medicine at the universities of Berlin, Wurzburg and Vienna. Having obtained a Readership at the University of Jena in 1861, he was appointed Professor of Comparative Anatomy the following year, and in 1865 a special Chair of Zoology was created for him there. He was to hold this position for the next 44 years, despite many offers made by other universities.

When Charles Darwin's Theory of the origin of species by means of natural selection was published in 1859, Haeckel greeted it with considerable enthusiasm. From that time he became one of Darwin's most ardent supporters, and included the theory in his university syllabus from as early as 1862. But Haeckel was to go one step further than Darwin. Whereas Darwin believed the origin of proto-organisms was a divine act of creation, Haeckel explained it in terms of materialism. Together with the respected English zoologist Anthony Huxley he advanced the theory of the phylogenesis of man from the animal kingdom, and indefatigably collected material to support it.

In 1866 Haeckel had proposed that there was a connecting or "missing link" between ape and man, and predicted the appearance and anatomical peculiarities of this creature, which he termed Pithecanthropus alalus (Speechless ape - man). The Dutch anthropologist Eugene Dubois came to the conclusion from a perusal of Haeckel's writings that its remains would more likely be discovered in Asia than anywhere else. When in 1891 Dubois came across some remains in Java of what we know today as homo erectus, he called it Pithecanthropus erectus. It was a remarkable discovery which substantiated Haeckel's theory.

Professor Osman Hill, a comparative zoologist from Edinburgh University, visited Ceylon in 1945 to endeavour to unravel the mystery of the Nittaewo, a supposedly sub-human pygmy race who some believe inhabited the island in the not-so-dim past until they were overwhelmed by the Veddahs. He came to the conclusion that Dubois' Pithecanthropus erectus of Java, an artist's impression of which was drawn by Max Gabriel for Haeckel's 60th birthday, accorded best with the tradition of the Nittaewo. Furthermore, Hill speculated that Pithecanthropus might also be responsible for the stories of the Orang-pendek, the Nittaewo's similar-sounding counterpart from Sumatra.

In essence Haeckel was a typical example of the school of extreme evolutionist thought and his many publications were widely read at the time. Among his best known books are History of Creation (1867), Natural Genesis (1868), Anthropogeny (1874), and The Riddle of the Universe (1899) - the last mentioned being a flawed attempt to apply the principles of evolutionary theory to philosophy and religion. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica states: 'Haeckel occupies no position in the history of philosophy, and it can be held that in the formulation of his ideas he was somewhat unscrupulous in his use of scientific facts.'

Haeckel nonetheless exercised an influence on his contemporaries at the turn of the century greater than that wielded by any scientist since. He was one of the few scientists of his time to realise the connection between all things. Haeckel therefore propagated monism, the view that reality is one unitary organic whole governed by an all-encompassing supreme being who created everything and keeps it in motion. Monism was intended to bridge the gap between spirit and matter.

I was not exaggerating when I asserted earlier that Haeckel was the father of "ecology". It was in 1866 that he coined the word oekologie to describe the relationship that living things have with both their organic and inorganic environment. This word was derived from the Greek oikos, meaning house or place to live. Haeckel would no doubt have been impressed by the way the word ecology has entered common parlance today, but saddened by its increased usage in the context of environmental destruction rather than natural harmony.

Although Haeckel spent much of his long and productive academic career in Jena, he did make regular field trips abroad in order to pursue his scientific investigations. He had travelled to England, the Canary Islands, Italy, Greece, Egypt and Asia Minor, but the farthest and most significant of these trips were to the tropics - to Ceylon in 1881-2, and to Java and Sumatra in 1900-1.

Throughout his career, Haeckel was to put an ability to paint and draw to effective use in his research and documentation. During his visit to Ceylon especially, he was not only extremely active as a scientist but as an artist as well. In addition, as a writer he was busy formulating what was to be for him something of a literary diversion - a travel book, albeit written from a naturalist's perspective.

The account of Haeckel's four-month stay in the country appeared in Germany shortly after his return to Europe. Remarkably, two different English translations of this work were published a year later in 1883 on opposite sides of the Atlantic. One version, undertaken by a Mrs. S.E. Boggs and titled India and Ceylon, came out in New York. However, the better-known and more accurately titled version, which came out in London, was A Visit to Ceylon by Clara Bell.

But A Visit to Ceylon contains none of the scores of visual interpretations of the island by Haeckel. They were to appear over 20 years later in 1905-06 in a quarto sized German publication in three series called Wanderbilder. This rare and beautiful collection of travel impressions, with accompanying text, covers both of Haeckel's tropical journeys and includes 67 reproductions of his paintings and lesser-known photographs of Ceylon.

I do not own a copy of this sumptuous book, but I have been fortunate enough to study it on several occasions. This first occasion was in 1985 when I filmed the former German Ambassador Theo Auer's collection of books, which included a copy of Wanderbilder, at the time it was gifted to the Colombo Public Library. The second occasion was in 1992 when, in the company of my bibliographic mentor, Ian Goonetileke, I spent a morning in the Public Library examining this very copy of Wanderbilder in detail in order to carry out some research for an earlier article on Haeckel for Serendib magazine.

Haeckel's oil and watercolour painting from Wanderbilder reproduced here reveals his simple yet engaging style, his bold use of colour and tone, and his inevitable fascination with the verdure of Ceylon.

Being a naturalist, Haeckel's long-cherished ambition was to witness at first-hand the extraordinary diversity of tropical nature, for as he states in A Visit to Ceylon, 'it is only between the tropics that the animal and vegetable life on our globe reach the highest and most marvellous variety of form.' Finally, suffering from the dreary German February of 1881, Haeckel decided 'to spend the next winter in the tropical sunshine of Ceylon, that island of wonders'.

During his first fortnight in Ceylon, Haeckel based himself at one of the grandest residences of the period, the "Whist Bungalow" at Mutwal, which was at that time occupied by a Herr Stipperger, the representative of the Austrian Lloyd Shipping Company in Colombo, and several other Germans. The "Whist Bungalow" had been constructed at the turn of the 19th century by an English officer with a penchant for holding whist parties on Sunday evenings. The next owner, Sir Richard Morgan, Supreme Court Judge, spent a large part of his fortune in extending the bungalow and creating a magnificent garden. It was this garden that gave Haeckel an indication of the delights to come. The neighbouring bungalow - and perhaps the only other residence of prominence in Mutwal at the time - was "Elie House", which had been built by Sir Philip Anstruther, Colonial Secretary, and once occupied by his successor, Sir Emerson Tennent. Curiously, during the early 1880s this bungalow was also occupied by Germans, so Haeckel must have felt quite at home.

From Mutwal, Haeckel made several short excursions. He stayed for several days at the Kollupitiya bungalow of Staniforth Green, "Temple Trees', whose notable garden ran down to the banks of the Beira Lake. One day they were rowed 'across the mirror like pool, covered with magnificent white and red water-lilies,' to the house of William Ferguson, then editor of the Ceylon Observer. Another day they visited the Colombo Museum, an experience which clearly impressed Haeckel.

Haeckel also travelled to Kandy by rail to experience the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, of which he wrote, 'In Europe I had already read and heard much of the marvels of plant life at Peradeniya. Nor were my anticipations disappointed. If Ceylon is a paradise for every botanist and lover of flowers, then Peradeniya deserves to be called the very heart of Paradise'. Haeckel was entertained by the accomplished Director, Dr. Henry Trimen, who had taken up his appointment the year before and who was to write the important Handbook to the Flora of Ceylon, which was published in 1893.

(Continued next week)

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