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Today is World Postal Day :  Daily News Wednesday Oct 9 2002

The first mail coach in Asia started from Kandy 169 years ago

by M. B. Dassanayake

On 15th February, 1833 (169 years ago) the first mail coach in Asia started from Kandy. One can picture the excitement en route and the interest created in the villages through which it passed, and it is gratifying to note that the venture was so successful that government started another coach service between Galle and Colombo in 1838.

In 1848 the Road Ordinance was passed requiring every able-body between eighteen and sixty years of age to give six days of labour every year or pay a few shilling as commutation for the maintenance of the roads.

In the course of time coaches became the popular method of travelling throughout the island, until the railroad followed and carried the mail.

The mails were carried by the tappal-runner, as he was known, with his bell attached to a spear, carrying heavy bags of mail at a trot to the nearest station. He was a hero, for on his solitary runs through jungles, he often lost his life to enemies, to elephants and to other wild animals or floods.

The two light four-wheeled carriages ran daily between Kandy and Colombo to carry mail, passengers and parcels but no luggage was permitted. One coach left Colombo at 4 o'clock in the morning and the other left Kandy at the same time, but "as an undertaking of so extensive a nature will require some time for complete arrangements, it was contemplated that a nine-horse carriage should be established as soon as possible for the accommodation of the public."

The capital required was calculated at Sterling Pounds 2,000 and it was proposed that the amount should be raised by shares of Sterling Pounds 50 each, and the undertaking only to start when the sum had been fully subscribed.

The "estimated cost of the first year" was expected to be about Sterling Pounds 1,065 and the outfit about Sterling Pounds 570, and these "with the sums of Sterling Pounds 365 for wear and tear" would amount to the sum total of Sterling Pounds 2,000.

Government would guarantee about Sterling Pounds 1,835 for carrying the mail, and leave a surplus of about Sterling Pounds 405 to be divided amongst shareholders, while a committee of five persons, viz, three at Colombo, one at Kandy, and one at an intermediate station on the road would arrange the concern.

There would be an annul statement of accounts laid before the shareholders and a majority could demand a statement of accounts at the end of every quarter.

"Tickets for seats and the necessary horses were to be procured and parcels" were to be received and booked through the post offices at Colombo and Kandy."

Government "will guarantee the shareholders the conveyance of the mail for five years, provided that the letters during the period be carried at the rate now fixed, and, in lieu of tolls, Government would receive Sterling Pounds 30 per annum, unless the average profits of the preceding year should exceed seven per cent when an equal sum would be paid to the Government until profits fell again."

The Governor Sir R. W. Horton headed the list of shareholders with six shares, Sir Davidson, Sir J. Wilson, R. Boyd and Layard held two each. Tufnel had four and the balance was made up in 1 Sterling Pound shares.Thus the island became revolutionised. Hitherto the traveller had feign be content with sitting in the hackery or bullock-cart, and took days of weariness and toil to reach his destination, unless he happily owned a horse or preferred to be carried by short cuts in a palanquin.

A traveller in Ceylon in 1825-1830 writes that - "there were no horses nor conveyances of any kind beyond his palanquin" in which he made his tour of inspection to military posts situated at the lakes for the protection of salt, collected annually by government or kept in sugar leaf piles until it was shipped away.

Rest houses were totally unfurnished and the 'Aratchie' or headman of the village was bound to supply provisions on payment, as well as the required coolies for transport of palanquins or baggage.

It needs no stretch of the imagination to visualise those days with the hardworking bullocks toiling through muddy roads and hot and weary coolies stumbling under the weight of palanquins through evergreen pathways in the jungle.

And yet we read of the early British period when soldiers adapted themselves splendidly to the condition, hampered as they were at that time with unsuitable uniforms and heavy guns with equally heavy ammunition.

We read of their toiling over the sea-shore dragging heavy cannon with comrades felling trees and branches to throw under the wheels to prevent their sinking too deeply into the soft sand.

We read of palanquins of the Governor and his suite carried by slaves at a trot on the seashore with a change of bearers running beside to relieve the weight at intervals of a quarter of a mile, and we read of a wearying time in the Uva jungles when soldiers were obliged to carry their food as well as ammunition and guns in a will-o'-the wisp chase after rebels whose knowledge of the jungle allowed them to fly from province to province and back again, elusive and tiresome but with a method in their madness for they intended to weary their pursuers though in the end they were unsuccessful and became the wearied ones instead.