Crocodile tales from the 19th century

By Richard Boyle

A few months ago I received from an American dealer in “Indian Ocean books, maps and prints” an engraved illustration I had ordered that originated in The Graphic weekly newspaper of February 5, 1881, titled “Ceylon – Hunting Alligators in the Pool near Kalmunai”. (The British sometimes described crocodiles as ‘alligators’ during the 19th century.) Thanks to RK (Rajpal) de Silva, many engravings depicting Ceylon in The Graphic and the Illustrated London News (the world’s first and most successful illustrated newspaper, selling 300,000 copies a week in 1863, thus providing a wider knowledge of the colony) have been reproduced in 19th Century Newspaper Engravings of Ceylon - Sri Lanka (1998). But this engraving I had never seen before. Perhaps other collectors have.

The illustration titled “Ceylon – Hunting Alligators in the Pool near Kalmunai”

Of the newspaper engravings on Ceylon I have seen, this is one of the most engaging. There’s so much action, so much expression. It appears the crocodile has risen from beneath the water, with a disdainful–looking face, and in doing so upsets the outrigger, with one of its three occupants thrown backwards, his legs in the air. The helmsman, his mouth open, seems amused or startled. How they are hunting the crocodile is not clear: there are no weapons or nets aboard.

Although difficult to adequately perceive without magnification, the artist, (there appear to be stylized initials, possibly JCD) has filled the road on the distant bund and bridge with much fascinating detail. On the left is a covered cart pulled by a pair of oxen, with one tethered at the rear. The carter can just be seen, brandishing a stick. In the middle is a vendor with a pingo slung across his shoulders. And on the right is a small perahera, with a person playing a wind instrument leading the way, followed by six individuals. Most seem to be dancers, but one appears more formerly attired with something long under his arm.

Over the last few months the significance of this engraving has became increasingly evident with the intensification of crocodile-human conflict in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, even the location of the engraving, Kalmunai, has relevance, for this newspaper’s edition of April 29 included a news report, “Now, crocodile fear hits the east”, regarding a 15-foot crocodile captured after falling into a well in Pandiruppi, Kalmunai. A picture showed the creature placed upside down in the back of a lorry, severely trussed, with a cloth tied around its head, ready to be transported elsewhere. The trauma it must have experienced cannot be imagined.

The problem is that the text surrounding the engraving, presumably pertinent to it, had been detached (this is a negative archival aspect) and as yet I haven’t managed to establish the subject. Without supporting text, my mind was drawn to the 19th century British writers who painstakingly described the exotic nature of the new colony to readers back home. Memory suggested that John Davy’s An Account of the Interior of Ceylon (1822), Major Forbes’ Eleven Years in Ceylon (1840), Samuel Baker’s The Rifle and the Hound (1854), James Emerson Tennent’s Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon (1861), and Horatio Suckling’s Ceylon (1876), should be investigated. And there was the man who preceded them all, Robert Knox, whose An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681), definitely had a description, as I had quoted it before.

I found these books did, to a greater or lesser degree, contain information and anecdotes regarding crocodiles, especially Tennent’s. Most surprisingly, there was conformity among the British writers that crocodiles were “cowardly slothful reptiles”, “neither active nor courageous”, “their action timid, and their whole demeanour devoid of the sagacity and courage which characterise other animals of prey”.
In his introduction to the subject of crocodiles Tennent mixes up names, so in order not to confuse readers I shall disregard this paragraph. Of the 23 extant crocodile species in the world, two, the mugger or marsh crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) - Sinhala ala-kimbula; Tamil kulathi-muthele – and the saltwater (‘saltie’) or estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porossus) – Sinhala pita-gettaya; Tamil semmukhan-muthele – inhabit Sri Lanka. The former, which is found in coastal lagoons and swamps, grows to about 4 metres, while the latter, found in the estuaries of the larger rivers, attains 5.5 metres.
In the 19th century it was British and European ‘sportsmen’ who most often encountered crocodiles, causing them to complain, as Tennent notes, “that their dogs are constantly seized by both species; and water-fowl, when shot frequently disappear before they can be secured by the fowler”. Forbes concurs: “In hunting or coursing it is necessary to ride well up to your dogs and advisable to fire a pistol on approaching water”. Indeed canine consumption “so frequently happens as greatly to diminish the pleasure of hunting, and the difficulty of preserving good dogs”.

Suckling states that crocodiles “afford little amusement to a sportsman, and the places they infest are full of malaria”. Guns of the early 19th century did not have enough penetrative power, so spears were often used to dispatch the unfortunate animals. But when the ultimate sportsman, Samuel Baker, arrived in Ceylon, he brought more effective rifles and remarked “[crocodile] skins are not so impervious to a ball as is supposed, and a shot between the eyes will finish them”.

It was the Ceylonese who mainly hunted crocodiles for a number of reasons, one, according to Tennent, being that “their teeth are so large the natives mount them with silver lids and use them for boxes to carry powdered chunam, which they chew with the betel leaf”. Hunting crocodiles in small outriggers, as depicted in the engraving, is not mentioned by any of the writers, but other means are, most remarkably those employing ‘crocodile-charmers’. Comparable to the ‘shark-charmers’ who ‘protected’ the divers at the Pearl Fishery, they appear to have existed throughout South- and Southeast Asia: in “Crocodiles and Humans in Southeast Asia: Four Centuries of Co-existence and Confrontation” (2007), Peter Boomgard discusses the crocodile-charmers of the Philippines in detail.

Tennent describes the apparently amazing feats of these individuals in the following anecdote: “A native gentleman who resided for a long time at Caltura [Kalutara], tells me that in the rivers which flow into the sea, both there and at Bentotte [Bentota], crocodiles are frequently caught in corrals, formed of stakes driven into the ground of shallow water, and so constructed that when the reptile enters to seize the bait placed within, the aperture closes behind, and secures him. A professional crocodile-charmer then enters, muttering a spell, and with one end of a stick pats the creature gently on the head for a time. The operator then boldly mounts astride its shoulders, and continues to soothe it with one hand, whilst with the other he contrives to pass a rope under its body, by which it is at last dragged on shore.”

Crocodile-charmers also ‘protected’ travellers, using a water-disturbance technique that Forbes explains thus: “When a party has to pass through deep water, crocodile-charmers are always successful in bringing their employers along without accidents. Such conjurors as I have seen took care that the whole party had assembled on the bank, while the incantations, accompanied by splashing of water, were in process; then, when the crocodiles were effectively muzzled, all rushed in together, thus creating sufficient disturbance to frighten the cowardly slothful reptiles, and to show that there may be safety as well as confidence from the manoeuvres of a crocodile-charmer.”

A common method of capture utilised nets. “That crocodiles are neither active nor courageous, may be inferred from the manner in which the natives of Putlam [Puttalam] and other places venture into water where they abound, and drag them to the bank by means of a strong net,” Forbes writes. “This is a curious and interesting sight; but it was not without considerable anxiety that I witnessed it. We had noticed the heads and backs of several crocodiles, and immediately after the net being arranged, we perceived the crocodile hunters, seven or eight unarmed Moormen, wade up to their necks in the water, and form a semi-circular line around the spot where the animals had been last observed; for, on seeing the preparation for their capture, they had lowered their heads beneath the surface. The people dragging the net moved their legs rapidly, and others kept striking the surface of the water with poles; they proceeded in this way, gradually contracting the space within the net, until they brought three crocodiles to the shore.”

However, as Tennent reports, this method sometimes failed, such as at the 1833 Pearl Fishery, when Governor Sir Robert Wilmot Horton employed men to drag for crocodiles in a pond near Arippu. “A net, weighted so as to sink its lower edge to the bottom, was then stretched from bank to bank and swept to the further end of the pond, followed by men with poles to drive the crocodiles forward: no individual could have evaded the net, yet, to the astonishment of the Governor’s party, not one was to be found when it was drawn ashore, and no means of escape was apparent except by their descending into the mud at the bottom of the pond.”

The use of mud extends beyond evasion, for towards the end of the monsoon when the haunts of crocodiles who frequent the tanks and marshes dry up, some bury themselves in the mud for survival until the rains arrive. Others may wander about the jungles looking for a river. Knox writes: “In these Ponds are Aligators [sic], which when the Water is dried up depart into the Woods, and down to the Rivers; and in the time of Rains come up again into the Ponds. They are but small [Knox probably hadn’t seem many, or any], nor are used to catch People, nevertheless they stand in some fear of them.”
Crocodiles may approach human habitation in search of water:

“During a severe drought in 1844,” Tennent remarks, “they deserted a tank near Kornegalle [Kurunegala] and traversed the town during the night on their way to another reservoir in the suburb; two or three fell into the wells; others, in their trepidation, laid eggs in the street, and some were found entangled in garden-fences and killed.”

With regard to their eggs, Davy relates how he came across some crocodiles on a sandy shore during a walk and fired his rifle, at which they plunged into the water, “a circumstance that may convince even the timid that on land they are not dangerous”. While walking over the sand, “we heard distinctly feeble cries from beneath; some egg-shells lying on the shore immediately suggested the cause, and, on digging in the sand, two or three young alligators made their appearance. It was curious to observe the propensity of these animals to use the weapons which nature had furnished them; they all bit at the stick with which I touched them.”

According to Tennent, there was a popular belief that the crocodile was sensitive to tickling: “It will relax its hold of a man, if he can only contrive to reach and rub with his hand the softer parts of its underside.” The Ceylonese were correct, for researchers have found that crocodiles are ticklish behind the front legs. If you are attacked, and not frozen with fear or otherwise incapacitated, “press firmly on this region while simultaneously making a high-pitched crying sound, which will induce an instinctual state of calm not unlike that experienced during the reptile’s infancy”.

Fortunately, Tennent had an opportunity of witnessing the ticklish nature of crocodiles. “One morning, when riding across the sandy plain near the old fort of Moeletivoe [Mullaitivu], we came upon a crocodile asleep under some bushes, several hundred yards from the water.

“The terror of the poor wretch was extreme, when it awoke and found itself completely surrounded. It was a hideous creature, upwards of ten feet long, and evidently of prodigious strength, had it been in a condition to exert it, but consternation completely paralysed it. It started to its feet and turned round in a circle hissing and clanking its bony jaws, with its ugly green eye fixed intently on us. On being struck with a stick, it lay perfectly quiet and apparently dead.

“Presently it looked cunningly round, and made a rush towards the water, but on a second blow it lay again motionless and feigning death. We tried to rouse it, but without effect, pulled its tail, slapped its back, and teased it in every way, but all in vain; nothing would induce it to move till accidently my son, then a boy of 12 years, tickled it gently under the arm, and in an instant it drew the limb close to its side. Again it was touched under the other arm, and the same emotion was exhibited, the great monster twisting about like an infant to avoid being tickled.”

I conclude by quoting Tennent’s final comment on the subject that somewhat reflects the underestimation at that time of the behavioural aspects of this extraordinarily ancient species: “During our journeys we had numerous opportunities of observing the habits of these hideous creatures, and I am far from considering them so formidable as they are usually supposed to be. They are evidently not wantonly destructive; they act only under the influence of hunger, and even their motions on land are awkward and ungainly, their action timid, and their whole demeanour devoid of the sagacity and courage which characterise other animals of prey.”

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