Rubber, rain and rat snakes
To 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 his memories

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 records begin.

Memories of 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.

The following 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.

The centre 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 Baby"!

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 we knew.

The concise guide to the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon by Richard Boyle - Part XXIII
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.

agar-agar (1813). 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."

The aforementioned 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 species."

Ceylon pumpkin (1913). "A large pumpkin found originally in Ceylon."

The earliest reference in the OED2 reads: "Ceylon pumpkin, a large, oval-shaped pumpkin with orange-coloured flesh."

Ceylon rose (1842). "The common oleander or rose bay, Nerium Oleander."

The earliest 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."

chay, choy (1598). "The root of the Indian plant Oldenlandia umbellata (N.O. Cinconaceae), used to give a deep red dye to Indian cottons."

A reference by James Emerson Tennent from Ceylon (1859[1860]:II.55) is included: "Choya-roots, a substitute for Madder."

However, there 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[1983]: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."

cocculus indicus (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 and fishes."

cow plant (1830). Sinhala kiri-anguna. "A climbing plant of Ceylon, Gymnema lactiferum, N.O. Asclepiadaceae, yielding a milky juice used for food."

The earliest 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."

It appears the editors of the OED, when compiling the entry c. 1893, were misled by Lindley and other botanical authorities,

for Emerson Tennent (1859[1977]: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."

hemidesmus (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 stigma."

illuk (1864). "(Sinhala) The name used in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) for a course grass, Imperata cylindrica."

The earliest 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."

However, there is an earlier reference or antedating, for Robert Knox writes in his 'interleaved copy' of An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1713[1989]:I.10): "The hils generally are stony barren land baring onely Illucke or such flage grass."

R. L. Spittel, writing in Wild Ceylon (1924[1951]: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 ( 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 an illuk-blade."

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[1981]:70), postdates this: "Small flocks of Munias love the pestiferous Illuk grass."

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