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The concise guide to the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon by Richard Boyle - Part 13

Sunday Times Sep 1 2002


Hooked on leeches
Sri Lanka's voracious and plentiful land-leeches have been the subject of much fascination and repugnance for English writers since Robert Knox first wrote about them, so the term land-leech, which is peculiar to the island, is rightfully included in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED2). A related but more unexpected inclusion from the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon is leech-gaiter, the name of the accessory worn by British planters and sportsmen to counter such pests. Date of first use is provided in brackets.

Land-leech (1713). Sinhala kudella. According to the OED2 it is: "A leech of the genus Haemodipsa, abounding in Ceylon."

The sole reference given in the dictionary is by James Emerson Tennent from Ceylon (1859:I.302): "Of all the plagues that beset the traveller in the rising grounds of Ceylon, the most detested are land-leeches.

However, an earlier reference or antedating exists, for in Robert Knox's 'interleaved copy' of An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1713[1989]:I.7) there is the following: "Here are aboundance of pun-dels in thire Language or small Land Leeches, which when they travill doe Continually sucke blood out of thir feet and leggs, they being very numerous and apt to stick to the skin; these I conceive do prevent the sicknesses and diseases of thire neighbouring Countys from seasing one them."

The first of a number of references after Knox from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka is by Major Forbes from Eleven Years in Ceylon (1840:I.120): "The Ceylon land-leech is incredibly numerous in the hills, and such parts of the interior as are exempt from a long continuance of dry weather: they are of a brown colour; their usual size is about three-fourths of an inch in length, and one-tenth of an inch in diameter; they can, however, stretch themselves to two inches in length, and then are sufficiently small to be able to pass through the stitches of a stocking. They move quickly, are difficult to kill, and it is impossible to divert them from their bloody purpose; for, in pulling them from your legs, they stick to your hands, and fix immediately on touching the skin, as they are free from the scruples and caprice which is sometimes so annoying in their medicinal brethren. They draw a great deal of blood; and this, with considerable itching, and sometimes slight inflammation, is the extent of annoyance which their bites give to a man in good health; but animals suffer more severely from their attacks, and sheep will not thrive in pastures where there are leeches... Lime-juice, vinegar, most acids, or stimulants, soon cause the itching of leech-bites to abate, and prevent their ulceration; the best way to frustrate the attacks of these insects on the nether man, is to case one's-self in nankeen pantaloons with feet attached: this dress should be made with well-joined seams, and to tie round the waist."

Werner Hoffmeister comments in Travels in Ceylon and Continental India (trans.1848:172): "At one of these openings, which we reached after a toilsome march through half-submerged fields of rice, - all swarming with land-leeches, - lies the gem-fishery."

William Dalton provides a reference from fiction in Lost in Ceylon (1861:89): "How charming, how delightful, to spend one's life in such a place, says the reader. True, it would, if only there were no pestilential fevers; no land leeches, which, despite all effort, cling to your legs, and bleed you nigh to the weakness of death."

Ernst Haeckel writes of a visit to the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens in A Visit to Ceylon (1883:138): "While I was wandering enchanted through the tall grass by the river under the tall crown of an oil-palm, and carefully tracing the convolutions of a climbing rattan, I suddenly felt a sharp nip in my leg, and on baring it discovered a few small leeches which had attached themselves firmly to the calf, and saw at the same time half a dozen more of the nimble little wretches mounting my boot with surprising rapidity, like so many caterpillars. This was my first experience with the much-to-be-execrated land-leeches of Ceylon, one of the intolerable curses of this beautiful island, of all its plagues the worst, as I was afterwards to learn by much suffering. This species of leech (Hirudo Ceylanica) is one of the smallest of its family, but at the same time the most unpleasant. Excepting near the sea and in the highest mountains, they swarm in myriads in every wood and bush; and in some of the forests, particularly near the river banks, and in the marshy jungle of the highlands and the lower hills, it is impossible to take a single step without being attacked by them... Often the bite is felt at the time, but as often it is not. Once at an evening party I first became aware of a leech by seeing a red streak of blood running down my white trousers.

"To be rid of the leech a drop of lemon-juice suffices, and for this purpose when you walk out in Ceylon, you always put a small lemon in your pocket. I often used instead a drop of the carbolic acid, or spirit I carried about for preserving small animal specimens. The result of the bite is very different with different persons. Those who have a tender skin - and I am unfortunately one of them - feel a painful throbbing in the wound for some days, and a more or less disagreeable inflammation of the surrounding skin. As the leeches always by preference attack these inflamed and irritated spots with these fresh bites, the wound by constant aggravation often becomes so serious as to be even dangerous. When the British seized Kandy in 1815, they had to toil for weeks through the dense jungle of the damp hill country, and they lost a great many men from the incessant attacks of the swarms of leeches. I protected myself in the jungle by painting a ring of carbolic acid round above my high hunting-boots, and this line the leeches never crossed. In some parts of the island, however, the swarms of leeches make any long stay almost impossible."

Constance Gordon Cumming writes in Two Happy Years in Ceylon (1892[1901].iv.83): "The land leeches, which swarm in damp places and luxuriant grass, have no tendency to fly from man. On the contrary, the footfall of man or beast is as a welcome dinner-bell, at sound of which the hungry little creatures hurry from all sides; and as each is furnished with five pairs of eyes, they can keep a sharp look-out for their prey, which they do by resting on the tip of the tail, and raising themselves perpendicularly to look around. Then, arching their body head-foremost, and bringing up the tail, they rapidly make for their victim."

Harry Williams writes in Ceylon Pearl of the East (1950[1963]:238): "The land leech, happily, dislikes the low country plains of the dry zone and is found only in the damp vegetation and on the edges of swamps. It never takes to the water at all, contrary to popular belief. The land leech, the commonest variety, is about an inch in width also. It has no legs but possesses a sucker at one end, on which it can erect the whole length of its body which waves about, the four eyes in the thin end searching for oncoming prey. When the creature wishes to move, which it can do at considerable speed, it progresses in a series of loops, using its nose to balance upon while heaving its bulk forward. Having seen its victim, the advance of a leech is a revolting sight. Their strength is that they are not seen or heard - they advance under cover of vegetation and their progress makes no noise at all - and having fastened themselves to their victim, man woman, child or any kind of beast, they can slip through any protective covering. Their initial bite is not noticed, and indeed they often drink their fill of blood and roll off, distended balls, without being noticed. But if one should see them and strike them off, they leave their teeth behind and the result is certain to be a poisoned bite. A lighted match applied to them causes them to curl up, one hopes in agony, and depart, taking their teeth with them."

Leach-gaiter (1850). "A kind of gaiter worn in Ceylon as a protection against land-leeches."

The sole reference given in the dictionary is by Tennent (1859:I.303): "The coffee planters who live among these pests are obliged... to envelop their legs in leech-gaiters made of closely woven cloth." However, an antedating exists, for Charles Sirr writes in Ceylon and the Cingalese (1850:I.144): "Some sportsmen wear what are called leech-gaiters, others boots, but we never yet knew, or heard of any one, being able to exclude these blood-thirsty creatures."

A second antedating reference, in this instance from fiction, is by William Knighton from Forest Life in Ceylon (1854:I.70): "'As fine a country as there is under heaven, Sir,' was his reply; 'and if people will only wear drawers and leech-gaiters, they need not fear either the musquitoes or leeches much.'" A third antedating reference is by Robert Binning from A Journal of Two Years Travel in Persia, Ceylon, etc. (1857:II.64): "The planters and others frequenting the woods and fields on foot, wear what are termed leech-gaiters, to defend themselves from this insidious foe.

A later reference is by the anonymous officer [Horatio Suckling] who writes in Ceylon, A General Description of the Island, Historical, Physical, Statistical (1876:II.236): "Land leeches to sportsmen and persons who frequent the damp jungles of the interior, are the greatest pests in Ceylon. Leech-gaiters, which keep the others off, are of little avail against them, as they climb up your body and get inside your clothes; besides, they can spring on you from among the leaves."

The postdating reference is by Haeckel (trans.1883:138): "In neighbourhoods which are most infested by them the Europeans wear leech-gaiters, as they are called, as a protection - high overalls of indiarubber, or of some very thick material, which cover the shoes and are secured above the knees."