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13th September 1998

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A right royal tour

Ceylon prepares

In the first of a three part series Richard Boyle provides a rare insight into a Prince's visit during colonial times

The Alfred HouseIt is possible that the contentious nature of Prince Charles' visit to Sri Lanka earlier this year, together with future events connected to the reform of the monarchy in Britain, may conspire to make the February British royal visit the last to the island.

Some commentators lamented the fact that Prince Charles, a representative of imperialism, had been invited as chief guest to Sri Lanka's 50th independence anniversary celebrations, and rued the way Sri Lankans are still attracted to dynasty, hierarchy and the charisma of monarchy. Yet even if Prince Charles was fawned upon, this relatively low-key affair cannot compare with the excesses and extravaganza of the very first British royal visit.

That was back in 1870, at the zenith of Empire, when Queen Victoria was revered without justification by many subjugated peoples all over the world, including the Ceylonese. It was a time when loyalty to the throne and subservience to British rule was considered acceptable and advantageous - most notably by the servile bourgeoisie who had benefited economically and socially from imperialism. So when it was announced that Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, was to pay a ceremonial visit to Ceylon, the general mood was one of glorious expectation.

One of the most important aspects of royal visits during that period was the official record, which was used to communicate to the population in Britain the loyal sentiments of the far-flung peoples of the colonies. In an age before electronic media, and when photography was still in its infancy, reliance was placed on written accounts, supported by sketches and paintings, which were reproduced in the newspapers and periodicals of the day.

For the visit of Prince Alfred, it was decided to commission an illustrated book to document in detail the Prince's five-week stay. The person chosen to write this account was an Englishman resident in Ceylon, John Capper, who had all the right credentials.

Capper was not only the respected editor of the Times of Ceylon but also a fine descriptive writer and published author. (See Box)

D.M Forest states in One Hundred Years of Ceylon Tea (l967) that "Capper had a sharp eye, though his observations too often reach us through a misty Dickensian filter". Although his writings were largely concerned with recreating a romantic past, they nevertheless give the modern-day reader an excellent historical insight. Take, for instance, his nostalgic evocation of the Fort during the time it was a residential zone for Europeans:

"Now," Capper wrote, "the merchants need every foot of room that is available within the Fort. Officers have been driven to their military quarters; civilians have taken flight in all directions; and now, without the walls, rice is doing in the Pettah what coffee has accomplished within. The Burgher element has receded before the absorbing Chetties and Moormen, and one may stroll along Main Street or Keyzer Street on any fine moonlight night, and hear no sound of music, or soft voices within the walls, meet no graceful forms, and see no dark bright eye, or well-turned ancle (sic) in wide, illuminated verandahs".

Then there is his indignant portrayal of the poor accommodation provided to planters: "This miserable little cabin could not have been more than 12 feet long by about 6 feet wide, and as high at the walls. This small space was lessened by heaps of tools, coils of string, sundry boxes and baskets, an old rickety table, and one chair. At the farther end, if anything could be far in that hole was a jungle bedstead formed by driving green stakes in the floor and walls, and stretching rope across them. I could not help expressing astonishment at the miserable quarters provided for one who had so important a charge, and such costly outlay to make."

In a lighter vein there is Capper's description of a planter superintending operations in full jungle kit: "A sort of wicker helmet was on his head, covered with a long padded white cloth which hung far down his back, like a baby's quilt. A shooting jacket and trousers of checked country cloth; immense leech gaiters fitting close inside the canvas boots; and a Chinese paper umbrella made up his singular attire".

John Capper's The Duke of Edinburgh in Ceylon - A Book of Elephant and Elk Sport was published in London by Provost and Co. in 1871and a large paper edition appeared later the same year. The book contains 153 pages, divided into 39 brief chapters, and 8 lithographic illustrations. During the 1980s I rescued a copy of this rare book from oblivion when the personal library of a recently deceased acquaintance, painstakingly built-up over a lifetime, was being disposed of by relatives in a most ignorant manner.

Capper begins his book by describing the enthusiastic reaction to the news of the impending visit of the Duke of Edinburgh, and the way in which the Ceylonese, as well as the British, were prepared to do their bit to ensure the royal visitor had agreeable recreation in the form of elephant kraaling, elk-hunting and elephant shooting, "amidst scenery perhaps unrivalled in the East".

"That the children of the soil, the half-clad cultivators, the small traders, the untutored villagers, should have formed a willing army of workers was indeed something of which none had dreamed", Capper comments in the patronising tones of the time. Labour was needed to construct the massive kraals, to fell large tracts of jungle, to build roads, and to erect a complete town for the Prince, his entourage, and other visitors. Capper reports that it had taken tens of thousands of workers nearly three months to complete these tasks.

During the last few days of March 1870, im mediately preceding the Prince's arrival, there was a general migration towards Colombo - "the provinces may be said to have come to town," as Capper describes the phenomenon. In places such as Galle, Ratnapura and Negombo, "trade must have come to a dead-lock: gossip was nowhere, and for a time, the blind, the halt and the lame, must have had undisputed possession of the field".

According to Capper, toll keepers were not prepared for such an influx of village headmen travelling in pony-carriages and hackeries. "There is a limit to what Oriental human nature can endure," Capper asserts in a way which would rightly be considered offensive and racist today. "Some toll-keepers' assistants on the Moratuwa road were carried home on shutters, long before sundown; whilst one principal toll-renter was removed from the scene of his trials wrapped in a double cumbli."

Visitors from the provinces arriving in Colombo were greeted by magnificent ornamentation, such as a large pandal at Bagatalle and long rows of bamboo pillars throughout the length of Colpetty. There was a greater attraction, however. "From whatever quarters they came," Capper writes, "Mudliyars, Mohandirams, and Aratchies, all bent their steps towards one central point - the esplanade within the Fort," where, "an outburst of Singhalese genuis was discernible. A maze of foliage, an ocean of coconuts, a wilderness of pineapples - there seemed no end of fruits and flowers".

The Prince's vessel, the Galatea, arrived in the Colombo Roads shortly before noon on 30 March. It was Capper relates, " a royally brilliant day. Never was Orient sky more cloudless; never did the long fringe of palms that sweep the ocean with their feathery leaves add more beauty to the scene; the Peak of Adam clear in the distance, and all between a long bright vista of verdant hill and dale."

Thousands of people flocked to the beach, climbed the ramparts and congregated in every building with a view of the roadstead. "Every nook where by any possible contingency a sight of the passing Prince could be had, was seized upon, and made a resting place for eager Moors, or curious Tamils, or sight-seeing Eurasians, or dispassionate Singhalese, for once roused into loyal curiosity."

The Galatea gave an eleven-gun salute. "Just at this juncture," Capper explains, "a fleet of fishing-canoes, 300 in number, headed by the Mudliyars of the Fishery, scudded up to the approaching vessel. They knew no other way of testifying their attachment to the throne, their fidelity to the Sovereign, than by this simple act; a striking picture to him in whose honour they had hoisted their fresh white sails, glistening in the sun like a flight of nautiluses."

At four O'clock the Royal Standard was hoisted by the Galatea, as sign of im- pending royal activity. "A fleet of boats of every description put out from shore, and stationed themselves along the waterway between the Galatea and the landing-place. Every craft that was capable of floating - every mass of timber held loosely together by coir-shreds, and thought capable of not immediately foundering with the first ripple from seaward - was heavily freighted with human beings, resolved on risking their lives for one glance of the Royal sailor."

"Rarely has any shipwrecked crew in the Indian Ocean, crowded more desperately in any boat than did the hundreds upon hundreds in holiday attire who flung themselves upon these frail floating things", Capper continues. "And the flags too, as primitive as the barques, were of varied shape and size and colour. Children gave up their richest waist-cloths; and one young, dark-eyed, comely child of Eve, threw off her rich red robe, and bared her bosom to the winds."

The Prince was rowed across to the jetty where the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, and a host of other dignitaries, waited. The distant report of small-arms and the lusty cheers of many British sailors announced the Prince's approach. "A graceful circling in the harbour, a few more strokes, and there stood the Prince upon our soil, warmly and gracefully greeted by the sovereign's representative."

-Continued next week

Who is this John Capper?

He was something of an establishment fig ure as well for, at one time, he had been an unofficial member of Ceylon's Legislative Council. However, on November 15,1864, six unofficial members - three Englishmen and three Ceylonese - resigned in protest at the "parsimonious policy of the Government" over the disbursement of revenues. They were George Wall, C.A Lorenz, W. Thompson, John Capper, James D'Alwis and John Eaton.

"The events of 1864 seem in retrospect to have an air of melodrama about them," Silva states in The History of Ceylon - Vol.3 1973). "Indeed the attention they have attracted stems largely from the fact that these were years devoid of any political incident. But these gestures were calculated to stir public imagination and to embarrass the local government.

"Among other things, the six former members sent a strong protest to the Secretary of State and founded the Ceylon League, which carried on the agitation for popular control of the Budget and other causes.

John Capper was born in England in 1814. He started his journalistic career early in life, helping to edit an English weekly called The Mining and Steam Navigation Gazette before he came out to Ceylon in 1837. He took up a position in the firm of Acland and Boyd, an agency house primarily involved in coffee. After a few years he became manager of the firm's cinnamon properties. Then in 1846 he was promoted as a junior partner in charge of the entire export business. Besides his regular job, Capper had edited the Ceylon Magazine, a periodical for Orientalists and antiquarians, between 1840 and 1842. Though short-lived, it demonstrated the need for such a forum - a need that was to be satisfied in 1845 when Capper and 33 others formed the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. Capper was appointed as Treasurer and Librarian. One of the three vice-patrons was Sir James Emerson Tennant, who was to write the book Ceylon (1859) and the Secretary was William Knighton, who was to write the novel, Forest-Life in Ceylon (1854 ) .

The coffee crash of 1847 resulted in Acland and Boyd suspending business, and a year later Capper returned to England and contributed articles on Ceylon life to Charles Dickens' popular periodical, Household Words. In 1854 Capper's first book, Pictures from the East, was published in London. During this period in England Capper also sub-edited the Globe magazine.

Ten years after he left Ceylon, he returned to become the manager and editor of the Times of Ceylon, and also edited the short-lived Muniandi (The Ceylon Punch), which offered a more acute analysis of the weaknesses of colonial society than the Ceylon Magazine, which he had edited earlier. Muniandi was illustrated by J.L.K. Van Dort, who was probably the best-known painter and illustrator working in Ceylon at that time. "From 1850 up to his death in 1896," art historian Ismeth Raheem declares, "he recorded almost every event of importance with his deft, quick sketches." Van Dort was to make an important contribution to Capper's book on the royal visit.

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