“The most impressive thing about them was their unhuman apathy and utter lack of interest, a peculiarity of the lowest types of man” – Hiller & Furness, Notes of a Trip to the Veddahs of Ceylon (1902). Between the early research on the Veddahs by the Swiss naturalists Fritz Sarasin and his second cousin Paul [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Visiting the Veddahs, 1899


Rock Veddah youths

“The most impressive thing about them was their unhuman apathy and utter lack of interest, a peculiarity of the lowest types of man” – Hiller & Furness, Notes of a Trip to the Veddahs of Ceylon (1902).

Between the early research on the Veddahs by the Swiss naturalists Fritz Sarasin and his second cousin Paul Sarasin from 1883 to 1907, and the more scholarly achievements of the British husband and wife team, Charles and Brenda Seligmann, evident in The Veddas (1911), there was a visit to the tribe by another, but this time unrelated, pair – the Americans H. M. Hiller and W. H. Furness.

Their account was published as Notes of a Trip to the Veddahs of Ceylon (1902). Hardly a substantial piece, as indicated by the title, it nevertheless contains some informative descriptive passages that provide an interesting sketch of life of the Veddahs (colloquially the Wanniyala-Aetto or “forest people”) at a time when many of the tribe had never met a white man.

The lead author, Dr Hiram Milliken Hiller Jr. (1867-1921), an American physician, medical missionary, explorer and ethnographer, travelled widely in Asia and Oceania collecting cultural, zoological and botanical samples for museums; and for his lectures and publications.

But it was Hiller’s friend, fellow physician and co-author, Dr William Henry Furness III (1868-1920), a member of a socially prominent Philadelphia family, who inspired the four expeditions on which they jointly embarked. They were sometimes accompanied by another mutual friend, photographer Alfred Craven Harrison Jr. (1869–1925), who provided some valuable shots of the Veddahs for Notes of a Trip.

In 1893 Furness accompanied a patient to Japan and returned tattooed to the waist with nineteen large cases of “curios” and the desire for future travel to the East. So he proposed an expedition to collect artifacts, whose ultimate destination was Borneo to search for Dayak headhunters.

So in October 1895, Furness and Hiller left America, sailed to Japan, then on to Borneo. They explained to a newspaper reporter en route that their expedition was a private one, financed by Furness’s father, and their aim was to collect specimens for the University of Pennsylvania. It was reported that they wished “to secure the most perfect collection possible”.

“They intend making a journey across Borneo and as much of the country that has not been visited by a white man. The trip is fraught with considerable danger,” the reporter advised his readers.

After spending four months in Borneo, during which they visited the Dayaks despite the perils posed, they travelled to Singapore, Saigon and China before returning to their homeland in December 1896 via Japan and Hawaii.

In May 1897 they travelled to Borneo once more to study the Dayaks employing another complex itinerary (Kalimantan, Sarawak, Malaya), before their return in September 1898. Their research on the tribe was published as The Home-Life of Borneo Head-Hunters: its festivals and folklore (1902), authored by Furness.

Their third expedition was on an eastwards rather than westwards track. They set off from America for England in June 1899, travelled from London to Marseilles, before boarding a ship bound for Asia. The voyage took them through the Suez Canal and on to Colombo.

They had learnt that the Veddahs “are classed in three groups, according somewhat to the localities in which they live. Those living near the coast are by far the most civilized; they associate freely with their Singhalese neighbors, devote themselves to fishing, and, in appearance only, differ from the primitive Singhalese living in the same region. These are known as the Coast Veddahs.

“Next in point of development are the Village Veddahs, living in the Bintenne, whose distinguishing feature is that they make an attempt at building huts, and collect together in family groups: they are nomadic, and live in one place only as long as the natural products of the surrounding jungle are sufficiently plentiful to support their lazy existence.

“In the third group are the Rock Veddahs, on account of their inability, or disinclination, to build houses and hence their mode of life in caves. They are the most exclusive of the groups, and almost never come into contact with the Singhalese, and do not associate with each other in tribal life but band together only in small family groups.”

The Americans took the train to Kandy, marvelling at the way the railway line “winds in and out and through and over the hill-tops, where at times one seems verily to overhang precipices or to glide bird-like over the sunny valleys”.

After several days in the Hill Capital they left “in a sort of wagonette drawn by two Australian horses. Our first stage was the rest-house in the village of Teldenia over a hard, well-built road running through a fairly populous country, cultivated with groves of cocoanut, cacao, and coffee. At the Mahaweli River we were ferried across on two dug-outs, fastened together with a bridge of planks.”

From Teldeniya they travelled to ‘Madagoda’ (?), the end of the cart track, where they acquired porters and set out next morning on foot to a village “with the large name of Waragantotta”(?). The head-man, who had interacted with Westerners before, “came to greet us with such exuberant welcome that he did not take time to adjust under his Singhalese skirt the shirt he had donned in our honour. While we were talking, however, he was correcting this trifling detail, and a coat, a deer-stalker cap, and a large pair of blue goggles [blue-tinted spectacles/goggles were popular in the 19th century], were hastily brought from his house, to complete his toilette.”

A Singhalese ferry boat. Pix courtesy catalog.hathitrust

They crossed the Mahaweli, once again on a pontoon ferry, and reached ‘Alutnuwera’ (Mahiyangana). “Here is the remnant of a large city, and the huge brick dagoba [of the Raja Maha Vihara, the oldest in Sri Lanka, which marks the Buddha’s visit], now standing in ruins [reconstruction only began in 1953] at one side of the village street. Its crumbling brick and stone bear evidence of its great age.”

The custodian of the local resthouse informed them of a settlement of Village Veddahs near what the authors refer to as the “Horra-Bora tank”, more properly the Sorabora Wewa, a masterpiece of ancient Sri Lankan irrigation technology with a unique rock-cut sorowwa, or sluice-gate. But the Rock Veddahs lived much
farther away, an impossible venture with the limited time available. So the pragmatic team decided to visit the Village Veddahs and send local Sinhalese to fetch some Rock Veddahs.

The authors observed that on the surface of the Sorabora “ducks and divers in large flocks disport themselves, crocodiles bask lazily in the sun on inviting rocky isles, and lotus and other aquatic plants grow in profusion. We followed the jungle path along the eastern shore, sometimes over outcrops of granite, or down by the waterside, close to the big pads and blooms of the yellow lotus.

“After following our guide through thick undergrowth, suddenly we came into a cleared space where there was the merest excuse for a hut, and beside it a man and a woman squatting and cooking something in an earthenware pot, which rested on a fire of twigs and branches; a little beyond them were more huts and more women and children – lo! the Village Veddahs.

“The elderly man and woman had between them scarcely a yard of coarse cloth as clothing, their hair hung loose in disheveled twists and strings about their faces, and they both squatted so low that their knees stood up above their shoulders. But the most impressive thing about them was their unhuman apathy and utter lack of interest, a peculiarity of the lowest types of man.”

Inevitably, writing on the Veddahs during this period was subjective, comparative, and much else besides. John Capper, the respected editor of the Times of Ceylon, reveals typical prejudice in The Duke of Edinburgh in Ceylon – A Book of Elephant and Elk Sport (1871). The Veddahs were “unwashed, uncombed, and all but unclad, carrying primitive bows and arrows. There they stand, in a close compact group, with matted hair and haggard features, resting on their bows.”

Hiller and Furness continue: “Although we came upon them unexpectedly, and although, as they told us later, they had never before seen white people, nevertheless, neither of them showed the slightest astonishment or interest in our appearance; both glanced up for a second, and then cast down their eyes, and continued silently shelling the seeds out of the lotus pods besides them.

“The name of this village is Mukulugulla [?], which means ‘plenty of bugs’ [?]. No doubt it justifies its name. The government demands a name for each village for the purposes of record, and this name was the head-man’s own selection. To be considered civilized, and receive redress for wrongs, adult male Village Veddahs must pay a tax of one rupee per annum. They invariably borrow the money from the Singhalese, and then worked off the debt as porters or cultivating maize.”

The authors state that the village consisted of about twenty-five Veddahs, of which seven were taxpayers. Of relative interest: The Department of Census and Statistics reveals that the Veddah population in 1891 was a mere 1,200, but by 1901, two years after the visit of the Americans, the population had swelled to 4,000.

“The chief’s house was made of four upright posts and a flat thatched roof of palm leaves, but without walls or flooring. Two huts were shaped like A tents, one thatched with coarse grass, the other covered with the large circular leaves of the lotus. The remaining two huts were shaped like wall tents, the roofs of grass and walls of bark.

“The cooking was all done out of doors, at a fireplace of three stones; and the cook was honored by having a seat, either a block of wood or the dried skin of the Axis deer [Sri Lankan axis deer] or Muntjac [barking deer]. We expected to find the village reeking with refuse and decaying game, but the place was free from smells and really clean.

“The men wear a very simple garment; about three yards of calico being sufficient to form a loincloth. They use that part of the cloth that encircles the waist as a pocket to carry betel-nut, food, etc., twisted into its folds. This also acts as a belt, through which they thrust the handles of their short axes when travelling in the forest.”

Hiller and Furness found the women’s garment was less scanty but usually topless: “a piece of calico fastened around the waist like a Malay sarong and hanging to about the ankles. To this at times is added another strip, covering the breasts.”

When I met the late Veddah chief Tissahamy at Dambana in 1986, during the production of the documentary Old Trails, New Paths for the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, he wore a sarong, but younger members of the community (including his son, Uruwarige Wannila, the present chief) used span-cloths. The women had adopted the redda-hatte (“cloth and jacket”).

Returning to 1899, Hiller and Furness observed: “None of them is tattooed, and they wear very few ornaments. Both sexes, however, perforate the lobe of the ear, and through the opening pass a wire, strung with beads or seeds. The women sometimes enlarge this perforation and wear in it a plug, made by rolling a palm strip into a cylinder.

The team was not made aware of the Veddahs’ worship of dead ancestors, the nae-yaku or “relative spirit”, but it was made aware of the importance of charms. “They seemed to have little or no idea of religion, but have a firm faith in charms against all dangers. In the chief’s hut we found a book made of palm leaves; it was filled with various charms, written in Singhalese characters.” One “consisted of a sentence naming various parts of [the] Buddha’s garments, [which] should be repeated thrice upon meeting a bear”.

“Another object for the working of charms and for purposes of divination we found in the shape of a stone, tied about with a piece of bark, which is consulted in cases of sickness. When the Veddah offers these prayers, he holds in his hands a stick, from which the divining-stone is suspended; if his prayer is heard the stick swings to and fro like a pendulum; if the evil spirit will not grant his prayer, the stone remains at rest.”

After leaving the so-called “village of bugs” the Americans were visited at the Mahiyangana resthouse by the chief of the Rock Veddah village and four young followers. For some reason many of the photographs taken for the book were of these Rock Veddahs rather than the Village Veddahs, perhaps because they were more “uncivilized”, more proficient at archery, and performed a dance in the style I remember well from Dambana.

“The old chief sang or chanted in a dismal minor key, and the men, keeping step with the dancing, twisted and turned, stamping the earth alternately with the heel and the ball of the foot. Their arms hung loosely from their shoulders, and swung with the motion of their bodies; their eyes were fixed on the ground at their feet, and their hair was shaking forward, half obscuring their faces.”

The Americans departed soon after this ritual. “The chief, followed by each of his men in turn, grasped our hands, wished us good luck or words to that effect, and left us to return again to their rocks, their beds on the ground, and to the ceaseless struggle for existence, with the odds in favor of famine, sickness and wild animals.”

The text of Notes of a Trip to the Veddahs of Ceylon can be viewed at: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001869719

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