I am often asked what are the best books on Sri Lanka from the past. It’s not a difficult task as literati as diverse as Sir Samuel Baker, Anton Chekhov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, D.H. Lawrence, Pablo Neruda, Sir James Emerson Tennent, Arnold Toynbee, Anthony Trollope, and Mark Twain are just some of the cosmopolitan [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Fascinating travel accounts of the island from the past


I am often asked what are the best books on Sri Lanka from the past. It’s not a difficult task as literati as diverse as Sir Samuel Baker, Anton Chekhov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, D.H. Lawrence, Pablo Neruda, Sir James Emerson Tennent, Arnold Toynbee, Anthony Trollope, and Mark Twain are just some of the cosmopolitan authors who provide fascinating travel accounts of the island, gathered below in a select bibliography.

Sir Samuel Baker, big game hunter and future explorer who helped locate the source of the Nile, arrived in Ceylon in 1846 and set up a farming community at Nuwara Eliya. He brought emigrants from England, together with choice breeds of cattle, and soon his settlement became a success. His stay until 1855 produced two books of interest on matters of the environment – although hunting scenes may disturb some readers: Eight Years’ Wanderings in Ceylon (1855); new edition as Eight Years in Ceylon (1874 & 1993); and The Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon (1854 & 1999).

A View in the Royal Botanic Garden, Peradeniya, Ceylon: One of Marianne North’s paintings

Canadian photographer Roloff Beny, wonderfully aided by the writer John Lindsay Opie, were responsible for producing possibly the finest literate coffee table book on Sri Lanka, though a score have appeared in the intervening period. Highly recommended, but out-of-print and copies hard to find: Island Ceylon, designed and photographed by Roloff Beny, text by John Lindsay Opie, including an edited anthology of the writings on the island and its history (1971).

Anton Chekhov briefly visited Ceylon in 1890 and left after an unidentified train journey with three mongooses (which were later inspected by Tchaikovsky in Russia) and vivid memories conveyed in Letters of Anton Chekhov, translated by Michael Henry Heim, with Simon Karlinsky, edited by Simon Karlinsky (1973).

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger, was a totally committed Spiritualist who arrived in Ceylon with a small party of fellow-believers in 1920. In the The Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921) he takes an interest in “native conjurors” and claimed celebrated British illusionists could be out-matched by a street counterpart in Ceylon.

Major Jonathan Forbes wasn’t a well-known writer, just one of several military personnel stationed in the island who put pen to paper to describe their remarkable surroundings. But his work is one of the best of its type, and includes the first account in English of an ascent of Sigiriya: Eleven Years in Ceylon: Comprising Sketches of the Field Sports and Natural History of that Colony, and an Account of its History and Antiquities, 2 vols. (1840 & 1994).

Sri Lanka has produced one of the world’s finest librarians and bibliographers, H. A. I. (Ian) Goonetileke, who was worthy to have walked the aisles of the mythical universal library, supposed to contain all existing information. In addition to his scholarly labours, Goonetileke compiled anthologies of writings on Sri Lanka: Images of Sri Lanka through American Eyes: Travellers in Ceylon in the 19th and 20th Centuries: A Select Anthology (1976 & 2nd ed. 1998); and wrote Lanka, their Lanka: Cameos of Ceylon through other Eyes (1984).

In 1881-1882, Ceylon was visited by the famous zoologist Ernst Haeckel, who was later proved to have fabricated scientific evidence.Nevertheless, he was a gifted descriptive writer and sumptuous painter of tropical verdure. His visit included a lengthy stay in Weligama, which is detailed in A Visit to Ceylon, translated by Clara Bell (1883 & 1995). Unfortunately, the book contains no illustrations. To view Haeckel’s Ceylon paintings: http://caliban.mpizkoeln.mpg.de/haeckel/wanderbilder/

The most important account of the island is by Robert Knox, an English captain’s son kept in open detention near Kandy for 19 years before escaping to England in 1680, where he published the first richly detailed account of Ceylon, particularly the Kingdom of Kandy, in the English language: An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon (1681 & 1993).

D. H. Lawrence, accompanied by wife Frieda, visited Ceylon in 1922, staying with friends at Kandy. Lawrence mostly disliked his time there. Everything from chattering birds to brightly-robed Buddhist monks annoyed him as he complains to friends in The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence, edited with an introduction by Harry T. Moore, 2 Vols. (1962).

Frederick Lewis was born in Kandy in 1858 and worked entirely in Ceylon, first as a coffee estate superintendent and then as a forest officer. In his autobiography Sixty-Four Years in Ceylon: Reminiscences of Life and Adventure (1926) he describes the destruction of the coffee crops by leaf disease and explains the intriguing facets of village life.

Pablo Neruda was made the Chilean ambassador to Ceylon in 1929. His autobiography Memoirs, translated by Hardie St. Martin (1977), documents his stay in some detail, including the seduction of his toilet cleaner. He mistakenly states that Leonard Woolf (see below) was dismissed from his post in the Ceylon Civil Service:

Marianne North, magnificent botanical artist and more than acceptable writer, visited Ceylon in 1876. She was an exceptional woman of the Victorian era as the travels she made to execute her work were pioneering. The Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens, London, features many of her Ceylon paintings and also timber samples. See Recollections of a Happy Life: Being the Autobiography of Marianne North, edited by her sister, Mrs John Addington Symonds, 2 Vols. (1892), and A Vision of Eden: The Life and Work of Marianne North (1980). The latter is an abridged autobiography that features a selection of the Ceylon paintings at Kew. To view North’s paintings of Ceylon:http://www.kew.org/mng/gallery/india-sri-lanka.html

There was once “an officer late of the Ceylon Rifles” who wrote one of the best accounts of Ceylon, yet who wished to remain anonymous. Horatio John Suckling was his name (perhaps he was a relative of Catherine Suckling, Nelson’s wife): Ceylon: A General Description of the Island, Historical, Physical, Statistical, by an officer, late of the Ceylon Rifles, 2 Vols. (1876).

Thomas Skinner, a British colonial, was responsible for the development of the road network on the island in the mid-19th century, and for surveying the hill country and preparing the first accurate map of the interior, as described in Fifty Years in Ceylon: An Autobiography by the Late Major Thomas Skinner, Commissioner of Public Works, Ceylon, edited by his daughter Annie Skinner, With a preface by Sir Monier Monier-Williams (1891 & 1995).

Sir James Emerson Tennent was Ceylon’s colonial secretary at the middle of the 19th century. More importantly for posterity, he wrote one of the standard reference works on the island, perhaps second only to Robert Knox’s: Ceylon: An Account of the Island, Physical, Historical and Topographical, 2 Vols. (1859 & 1977).

British historian Arnold J. Toynbee spent only six days in Ceylon. In East to West: A Journey round the World (1958), he was especially fascinated by the island’s hydraulic prowess, which had “conquered the vast plains of Ceylon for agriculture.”

Sir Frederick Treves was a prominent surgeon during the late 19th and early 20th centuries but was as well a gifted writer. The Other Side of the Lantern: An Account of a Commonplace Tour around the World (1905) includes a chapter, “Cingalese and their Dealings with Devils”, on the value of devil dancing in treating disease that reveals he was liberal minded: “The theory is old and worthy of respect.”

Besides being a highly successful novelist, Anthony Trollope was an inveterate traveller. He visited Ceylon and Australia in 1875 and published his travel memoirs in the form of letters to a newspaper that were later published as The Tireless Traveller: Twenty Letters to the Liverpool Mercury, 1875, edited with an introduction by Bradford Allen Booth (1941).

Mark Twain visited Ceylon in 1896 while on a round the world tour. He is responsible for the compliment regarding the island, “Dear me, it is beautiful! And most sumptuously tropical”. See Following the Equator: A Journey around the World (1897, and 2 Vols. 1899).

Finally there is Leonard Woolf, often merely referred to as the husband of Virginia Woolf, who was employed in the Ceylon Civil Service, and stationed in Jaffna, Kandy and Hambantota. While Woolf’s novel The Village in the Jungle (1913) does not fit into this bibliography, he did write plenty of autobiographical material about his time in Ceylon such Diaries of Ceylon 1908-11 (1962) and Growing: An Autobiography of the Years 1904 to 1911 (1967).

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