Samuel White Baker
It was in the year 1845 that the spirit of wandering allured me toward Ceylon: little did I imagine at that time that I should eventually become a settler.
The descriptions of its sports, and the tales of hairbreadth escapes from elephants, which I had read in various publications, were sources of attraction against which I strove in vain; and I at length determined upon the very wild idea of spending twelve months in Ceylon jungles.
It is said that the delights of pleasures in anticipation exceed the pleasures themselves: in this case doubtless some months of great enjoyment passed in making plans of every description, until I at length arrived in Colombo, Ceylon’s seaport capital.
I never experienced greater disappointment in an expectation than on my first view of Colombo. I had spent some time at Mauritius and Bourbon previous to my arrival, and I soon perceived that the far-famed Ceylon was nearly a century behind either of those small islands.
Instead of the bustling activity of the Port Louis harbor in Mauritius, there were a few vessels rolling about in the roadstead, and some forty or fifty fishing canoes hauled up on the sandy beach. There was a peculiar dullness throughout the town—a sort of something which seemed to say, “Coffee does not pay.” There was a want of spirit in everything. The ill-conditioned guns upon the fort looked as though not intended to defend it; the sentinels looked parboiled; the very natives sauntered rather than walked; the very bullocks crawled along in the midday sun, listlessly dragging the native carts. Everything and everybody seemed enervated, except those frightfully active people in all countries and climates, “the custom-house officers:” these necessary plagues to society gave their usual amount of annoyance.
What struck me the most forcibly in Colombo was the want of shops. In Port Louis the wide and well-paved streets were lined with excellent “magasins” of every description; here, on the contrary, it was difficult to find anything in the shape of a shop until I was introduced to a soi-disant store, where everything was to be purchased from a needle to a crowbar, and from satin to sail-cloth; the useful predominating over the ornamental in all cases. It was all on a poor scale and after several inquiries respecting the best hotel, I located myself at that termed the Royal or Seager’s Hotel. This was airy, white and clean throughout; but there was a barn-like appearance, as there is throughout most private dwellings in Colombo, which banished all idea of comfort.
A good tiffin concluded, which produced a happier state of mind, I ordered a carriage for a drive to the Cinnamon Gardens. The general style of Ceylon carriages appeared in the shape of a caricature of a hearse: this goes by the name of a palanquin carriage. Those usually hired are drawn by a single horse, whose natural vicious propensities are restrained by a low system of diet.
In this vehicle, whose gaunt steed was led at a melancholy trot by an equally small-fed horsekeeper, I traversed the environs of Colombo. Through the winding fort gateway, across the flat Galle Face (the race-course), freshened by the sea-breeze as the waves break upon its western side; through the Colpettytopes of cocoanut trees shading the road, and the houses of the better class of European residents to the right and left; then turning to the left—a few minutes of expectation—and behold the Cinnamon Gardens!
What fairy-like pleasure-grounds have we fondly anticipated! what perfumes of spices, and all that our childish imaginations had pictured as the ornamental portions of a cinnamon garden!
A vast area of scrubby, low jungle, composed of cinnamon bushes, is seen to the right and left, before and behind. Above, is a cloudless sky and a broiling sun; below, is snow-white sand of quartz, curious only in the possibility of its supporting vegetation. Such is the soil in which the cinnamon delights; such are the Cinnamon Gardens, in which I delight not. They are an imposition, and they only serve as an addition to the disappointments of a visitor to Colombo. In fact, the whole place is a series of disappointments. You see a native woman clad in snow-white petticoats, a beautiful tortoiseshell comb fastened in her raven hair; you pass her—you look back—wonderful! she has a beard! Deluded stranger, this is only another disappointment; it is a Cingalese Appo—a man—no, not a man—a something male in petticoats; a petty thief, a treacherous, cowardly villain, who would perpetrate the greatest rascality had he only the pluck to dare it. In fact, in this petticoated wretch you see a type of the nation of Cingalese.
On the morning following my arrival in Ceylon, I was delighted to see several persons seated at the “table-d’hôte” when I entered the room, as I was most anxious to gain some positive information respecting the game of the island, the best localities, etc., etc. I was soon engaged in conversation, and one of my first questions naturally turned upon sport.
“Sport!” exclaimed two gentlemen simultaneously—”sport! there is no sport to be had in Ceylon!”—”at least the race-week is the only sport that I know of,” said the taller gentleman.
“No sport!” said I, half energetically and half despairingly. “Absurd! every book on Ceylon mentions the amount of game as immense; and as to elephants—”
Here I was interrupted by the same gentleman. “All gross exaggerations,” said he—”gross exaggerations; in fact, inventions to give interest to a book. I have an estate in the interior, and I have never seen a wild elephant. There may be a few in the jungles of Ceylon, but very few, and you never see them.”
I began to discover the stamp of my companion from his expression, “You never see them.” Of course I concluded that he had never looked for them; and I began to recover front the first shock which his exclamation, “There is no sport in Ceylon!” had given me.
I subsequently discovered that my new and non-sporting acquaintances were coffee-planters of a class then known as the Galle Face planters, who passed their time in cantering about the Colombo race-course and idling in the town, while their estates lay a hundred miles distant, uncared for, and naturally ruining their proprietors.
That same afternoon, to my delight and surprise, I met an old Gloucestershire friend in an officer of the Fifteenth Regiment, then stationed in Ceylon. From him I soon learnt that the character of Ceylon for game had never been exaggerated; and from that moment my preparations for the jungle commenced.
I rented a good airy house in Colombo as headquarters, and the verandas were soon strewed with jungle-baskets, boxes, tent, gun-cases, and all the paraphernalia of a shooting-trip.
What unforeseen and apparently trivial incidents may upset all our plans for the future and turn our whole course of life! At the expiration of twelve months my shooting trips and adventures were succeeded by so severe an attack of jungle fever that from a naturally robust frame I dwindled to a mere nothing, and very little of my former self remained. The first symptom of convalescence was accompanied by a peremptory order from my medical attendant to start for the highlands, to the mountainous region of Newera Ellia, the sanitarium of the island.
A poor, miserable wretch I was upon my arrival at this elevated station, suffering not only from the fever itself, but from the feeling of an exquisite debility that creates an utter hopelessness of the renewal of strength.
I was only a fortnight at Newera Ellia. The rest-house or inn was the perfection of everything that was dirty and uncomfortable. The toughest possible specimen of a beef-steak, black bread and potatoes were the choicest and only viands obtainable for an invalid. There was literally nothing else; it was a land of starvation. But the climate! what can I say to describe the wonderful effects of such a pure and unpolluted air? Simply, that at the expiration of a fortnight, in spite of the tough beef, and the black bread and potatoes, I was as well and as strong as I ever bad been; and in proof of this I started instanter for another shooting excursion in the interior.
It was impossible to have visited Newera Ellia, and to have benefited in such a wonderful manner by the climate, without contemplating with astonishment its poverty-stricken and neglected state.
At that time it was the most miserable place conceivable. There was a total absence of all ideas of comfort or arrangement. The houses were for the most part built of such unsubstantial materials as stick and mud plastered over with mortar—pretty enough in exterior, but rotten in ten or twelve years. The only really good residence was a fine stone building erected by Sir Edward Barnes when governor of Ceylon. To him alone indeed are we indebted for the existence of a sanitarium. It was he who opened the road, not only to Newera Ellia, but for thirty-six miles farther on the same line to Badulla. At his own expense he built a substantial mansion at a cost, as it is said, of eight thousand pounds, and with provident care for the health of the European troops, he erected barracks and officers’ quarters for the invalids.
Under his government Newera Ellia was rapidly becoming a place of importance, but unfortunately at the expiration of his term the place became neglected. His successor took no interest in the plans of his predecessor; and from that period, each successive governor being influenced by an increasing spirit of parsimony, Newera Ellia has remained “in statu quo,” not even having been visited by the present governor.
In a small colony like Ceylon it is astonishing how the movements and opinions of the governor influence the public mind. In the present instance, however, the movements of the governor (Sir G. Anderson) cannot carry much weight, as he does not move at all, with the exception of an occasional drive from Colombo to Kandy. His knowledge of the colony and of its wants or resources must therefore, from his personal experience, be limited to the Kandy road. This apathy, when exhibited by her Majesty’s representative, is highly contagious among the public of all classes and colors, and cannot have other than a bad moral tendency.
Upon my first visit to Newera Ellia, in 1847, Lord Torrington was the governor of Ceylon, a man of active mind, with an ardent desire to test its real capabilities and to work great improvements in the colony. Unfortunately, his term as governor was shorter than was expected. The elements of discord were at that time at work among all classes in Ceylon, and Lord Torrington was recalled.
From the causes of neglect described, Newera Ellia was in the deserted and wretched state in which I saw it; but so infatuated was I in the belief that its importance must be appreciated when the knowledge of its climate was more widely extended that I looked forward to its becoming at some future time a rival to the Neilgherries station in India. My ideas were based upon the natural features of the place, combined with its requirements.
It apparently produced nothing except potatoes. The soil was supposed to be as good as it appeared to be. The quality of the water and the supply were unquestionable; the climate could not be surpassed for salubrity. There was a carriage road from Colombo, one hundred and fifteen miles, and from Kandy, forty-seven miles; the last thirteen being the Rambodde Pass, arriving at an elevation of six thousand six hundred feet, from which point a descent of two miles terminated the road to Newera Ellia.
The station then consisted of about twenty private residences, the barracks and officers’ quarters, the resthouse and the bazaar; the latter containing about two hundred native inhabitants.
Bounded upon all sides but the east by high mountains, the plain of Newera Ellia lay like a level valley of about two miles in length by half a mile in width, bordered by undulating grassy knolls at the foot of the mountains. Upon these spots of elevated ground most of the dwellings were situated, commanding a view of the plain, with the river winding through its centre. The mountains were clothed from the base to the summit with dense forests, containing excellent timber for building purposes. Good building-stone was procurable everywhere; limestone at a distance of five miles.
The whole of the adjacent country was a repetition Of the Newera Ellia plain with slight variations, comprising a vast extent of alternate swampy plains and dense forests.
Why should this place lie idle? Why should this great tract of country in such a lovely climate be untenanted and uncultivated? How often I have stood upon the hills and asked myself this question when gazing over the wide extent of undulating forest and plain! How often I have thought of the thousands of starving wretches at home, who here might earn a comfortable livelihood! and I have scanned the vast tract of country, and in my imagination I have cleared the dark forests and substituted waving crops of corn, and peopled a hundred ideal cottages with a thriving peasantry.
Why should not the highlands Of Ceylon, with an Italian climate, be rescued from their state of barrenness? Why should not the plains be drained, the forests felled, and cultivation take the place of the rank pasturage, and supplies be produced to make Ceylon independent of other countries? Why should not schools be established, a comfortable hotel be erected, a church be built? In fact, why should Newera Ellia, with its wonderful climate, so easily attainable, be neglected in a country like Ceylon, proverbial for its unhealthiness?
These were my ideas when I first visited Newera Ellia, before I had much experience in either people or things connected with the island. My twelve months’ tour in Ceylon being completed, I returned to England delighted with what I had seen of Ceylon in general, but, above all, with my short visit to Newera Ellia, malgre its barrenness and want of comfort, caused rather by the neglect of man than by the lack of resources in the locality.