“Preserving the spirit of a forgotten world”
- anecdotal glimpses of the New Oriental Hotel, Galle Fort, by Joe Simpson. firstname.lastname@example.org
Not long ago while reading a Canadian newspaper article about the restoration of Penang’s Eastern & Oriental Hotel, founded in 1885 by the Sarkie brothers, the same Armenian-born Malay Peninsula hoteliers who built Singapore’s legendary Raffles Hotel, I felt stirred to begin delving into the history of an even more venerable South Asian hostelry of my past acquaintance – Sri Lanka’s New Oriental Hotel.
Overlooking Galle’s inner harbour from high atop the eastern ramparts of the ancient Dutch Fort, for many casual visitors the “NOH” (as the island’s oldest surviving hotel is universally known) is a satisfyingly exotic neo-colonial traveller’s haven that positively exudes the sense of a romantic past, standing (like Hemingway’s Kilimanjaro) “great, high and unbelievably white in the sun”. But for those with a more finely-tuned sense of history and place, and who care to enquire beyond outward appearances, the NOH possesses a more mysterious inner character, facing the world with an enigmatic Mona Lisa-like smile befitting its other role, that of the inscrutable and silently-watchful sentinel warily guarding the secrets of the past. In this article I will present some of the NOH’s “outer” history, in the form of scattered anecdotes left by various writers, and perhaps in the process readers will sense a little of the “inner” history as well. This is not an easy task as the NOH still lacks a chronicler such as Maureen Seneviratne, historian of the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Rather, throughout its history the NOH seems to flit in and out of the peripheral vision like that “ghost ship of my ancestors” evoked so hauntingly by the Dutch Burgher-descended Sri Lankan poet, Jean Arasanayagam.
In Galle: As Quiet As Asleep, long-time Galle resident Norah Roberts informs us that the future NOH began life in the later part of the 17th Century as two adjacent Dutch houses, incorporating the Dutch East India Company (VOC) officers’ living quarters. Apparently, in 1981 there was discovered in the hotel vault a large stone plaque displaying a skull and bones and a faded inscription; Norah does not tell us what the inscription said. An Internet website travelogue states that it was originally built in 1684 for Dutch governors; more likely it housed both the garrison officers and the VOC Commandeur, as by this date the Dutch seat of government had shifted from Galle to Colombo, finally captured from the Portuguese in 1656. In 1684, the Commandeur of Galle was one Nicolaas van der Meulen. The lower billiard room of the hotel (now sadly damp and crumbling) bears the date 1686. Galle was always a major Dutch military base: in 1695 Christopher Langhan stated that “generally a garrison of 200 men is stationed here”. By as early as 1667, as a transhipment port Galle had become second only to Batavia in Java (modern Indonesia) as the VOC’s main commercial centre in its Asian dominions. Directly adjoining the NOH to the north on its Church Street side is the single-storied former Dutch Commissariat store, a relatively modest structure built circa 1656 and since 1986 the home of the Dutch Museum. Like the multi-cultural Dutch colonial society that created them, the NOH and other surviving VOC-era buildings in Galle Fort are not really typical of Holland, but rather combine a mix of European and Asiatic influences. A classic example of this architectural ambivalence is the Groete Kerk, the Dutch Reformed Church, standing just south of the NOH on the other side of Middle Street, which was completed in 1754.
Let us now move ahead on “fast forward” to the very early 1860s: the Dutch Colony of Ceylon is no more, having surrendered to the British in 1796 and been declared a Crown Colony of His Britannic Majesty on January 1st, 1802. Nonetheless a sizeable community of Europeanized Burghers, multi-ethnic descendants of the Dutch and other mixed-European settlers from the old VOC days, continued to inhabit Galle and particularly its still-intact Dutch Fort. Many prospered under the British, becoming lawyers, businessmen, police officers, middle-grade government servants and the like. Since the 1840s Galle had been at the southern end of a busy commercial nexus running from Kandy through Colombo, bearing rice and coffee for export in a seemingly endless series of bullock-carts. Old photographs of the time show numerous sailing vessels and steamships at anchor in the inner harbour and waiting their turn outside on the “roads”. A charming 1864 Charles O’Brien lithograph of Galle harbour looking across from Closenberg Island towards the Dutch Fort, is accompanied by a commentary by the artist referring to the P. & O. and other steamers from both east and west converging on Galle, “which together with numerous ships laden with coal for their use, give the harbour a lively appearance”. Colombo was yet to become the island’s main shipping port, the coffee plantation-driven economy was booming, and knowledgeable observers like Emerson Tennent could still refer to Galle as a “venerable emporium of foreign trade”. The (nowadays often empty) harbour was then frequently bustling with marine activity, and the (now rather sleepy) narrow streets of the Fort then teemed with “Europeans in white morning dress, chetties with prodigious earrings…Mudaliyars, Muhandirams…with jewelled buttons and rich embroidered belts with swords…women in comboy cloths displaying their necklaces, bangles, rings…”.
Against this background, a consortium of British businessmen in 1863 acquired the imposing three-storied former Dutch – and latterly British – garrison building standing at the junction of Church and Middle Streets with a commanding view of the harbour, and set up a European-style hostelry that, with a shrewd commercial eye to the taste of Western travellers for the romantically exotic, they christened The Oriental Hotel. Thomas Munson (Tom) Barker, ably assisted by his wife, became The Oriental Hotel’s first live-in manager. Competition was tough – at this time a dozen or more first-class hotels in Galle Fort and nearby catered to weekly passenger ships and other trade. Clientele could be tough, too – very early in the new hotel’s history, a mob of English seamen from H.M.S. Bernice started a full-scale riot in the bar. The Galle native police were unable to cope, and called for a force of 20 European constables to be sent from Colombo as reinforcements; the Governor of the day declined, on the ground that it would take not 20 but 200 men to cope with the crew from one British man-of-war! Apparently in those days it was almost impossible to recruit suitable Europeans for the Galle police force, since the only candidates turned out to be drunken old soldiers and castaway sailors. Since European constables were considered essential to deal with drunken British sailors, hoteliers in 1860s Galle must sometimes have needed strong nerves! Indeed, Prof. E.F.C. (“Lyn”) Ludowyk’s childhood memoirs of growing up in early 20th century Galle Fort, mention Old Galle long before its 1880s eclipse by Colombo as being a “wild and riotous” town, and tales from the older folk of gangs prowling the streets and heavy drinking - “coopers’ nights” as they called them - especially when ships were in the harbour and the hotels brimful of foreigners. The local “Galle boys” or “chandiyas” (hoodlums) paraded their bravado against strangers after dark through the town.
At this time, hard though it is to imagine today, upwards of 700 passengers at a time from distant places like Australia, Europe, British India, the Far East and the Cape of Good Hope were disgorged from visiting ships and thronged the narrow streets of Galle Fort. Contemporary eyewitness accounts tell of heaps of sovereigns pouring into hotel and shop coffers, and passengers sometimes overflowing from the hotels into private homes for a substantial return in gold. Silversmiths, “Galle lace” vendors and Moslem gem dealers did a roaring trade at such times. 1860s Galle was a port of call for mail boats as well as men-of-war, and was a principal military station for such regiments as the 50th (Queen’s Own), the Ceylon Rifles and the Royal Engineers. Large crowds of appreciative Galleans would gather on the Fort ramparts to listen to the music of grand bands from visiting warships. A striking old Bourne and Shepherd photograph titled “View in Galle Harbour During the Monsoon, circa 1872” depicts numerous jetties and at least fifteen full-masted vessels at anchor inside the harbour.
Occasionally in the midst of all this commercial hugger-mugger an “international incident” would occur. One such exciting and amusing incident took place in the early 1860s, around the time that the Oriental Hotel opened its doors. As vividly told in some oral reminiscences later published in the July 1952 issue of the Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union (JDBU), the story goes that the Galle Fiscal’s Office sent an official and some peons aboard a French man-of-war to serve a Court arrest warrant on the Commander. Undaunted by the perplexed Commander’s angry insistence that the warrant lacked legality on a French warship (being French sovereign territory), the diligent official sought to arrest his man. The irate Commander with fine Gallic hauteur then threatened to blow up the Fort, and to emphasize his point ordered the ship’s guns to be trained on the ramparts. Simultaneously, the drums of the ship’s band “pealed forth a loud and harrowing rattle, as a precursor of what was to follow”. Taken aback and thoroughly alarmed by this unexpected effect of his bureaucratic diligence, the chastened official sensibly chose discretion over valour and followed by the peons, beat a hurried retreat down the ship’s ladder, meantime yelling in Sinhala to the boatman to carry them to a part of the harbour furthest away from the Fort! A similar though less highly-dramatized incident took place some two decades later, when the Deputy Fiscal of the time tried to arrest a passenger aboard a French mail steamer against whom a civil warrant had been issued by the Court. The ship’s captain refused to comply, the official withdrew ashore, and in due course an Ordinance was passed by the Legislature giving all Messageries Maritime steamers calling at Ceylon ports the status of French territory.
Some years later, in the 1890s, another incident involving an English sailor occurred in the Oriental Hotel’s bar. Danny or “Dandy” Perera, the son of the prosperous Simon Perera who in 1889 had bought and renamed as “Closenberg” the ex - P. & O. sea captain’s mansion that still overlooks Galle harbour, had gone to the hotel’s bar with a group of friends for a quiet drink. Dandy was well nicknamed, as he had a taste for fine clothes and fast horses, drove a smart dogcart and had a small light bulb attached to his horse’s head that blinked as he flashed by. At any rate, an English sailor drew a knife in the bar after objecting to the presence of Dandy and his friends. Undaunted, Dandy caught the obnoxious tar by the collar and threw him headlong down the hotel steps into the street below. The delighted barkeeper promptly annexed the knife and for many years afterwards it was displayed prominently above the bar. Dandy of course became a local hero!
In early November 1889 the Oriental Hotel dining room was the scene of a less violent but no less heated form of resistance, when concerned citizens of Galle gathered at the hotel for a widely-reported protest meeting against a Government proposal to do what the French warship commander had failed to accomplish a quarter century before – demolish the ramparts of the 17th century Dutch Fort in the same way that Colombo’s old fortifications had been dismantled in 1869-71. Such a proposal seems incredible today, when the Galle Fort has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Preservation Site! The distinguished scion of Galle Burgherdom, Dr. Peter Daniel Anthonisz, C.M.G., the Colonial Surgeon, led the charge that day. Dr. Anthonisz, a man already beloved by Galleans for his sterling work in the town to combat recurrent plague outbreaks, gave an impassioned but closely-reasoned speech in which he pointed out that (unlike its Colombo equivalent) Galle’s Fort was designed not only for military defence, but also to provide shelter against the elements both for occupants’ homes against monsoon tidal floods and for ships at anchor in her exposed inner harbour. Empowered by his inspirational rhetoric, those present unanimously resolved “that the meeting having learned that the military authorities propose to remove the fortifications of Galle, desire[s] to express its conviction that such a measure is calculated to cause great disadvantage and loss to the people”. A typically multi-ethnic committee of 16 was struck, including the Burgher Dr. Anthonisz, leading Muslim O.L.M. Macan Markar, and the Englishman C.P. Hayley, to draw up and present the arguments against demolition. Needless to say, the ramparts (Deo gratia!) were preserved for posterity, and what is more the grateful citizens of Galle later erected the fine clock tower in Dr. Anthonisz’ memory that graces the north end of the Fort to this day.
About twenty-five years before that particular Battle of the Ramparts was waged, another, gentler form of engagement took place at the Oriental Hotel. It so happened that the then-tiny number of lawyers practicing in Galle used to meet regularly for lunch at the hotel. One day, a subscription list made its way around the table, to enable a stranded French Mademoiselle to return home. Proctor A. Bawa, a charismatic Muslim Supreme Court lawyer, wanted more details. Mr. Barker, the hotel manager, explained to him that the young lady in question had met an English planter on leave from Ceylon while on board ship in the Mediterranean. He had courted her, proposed marriage, and had been accepted. He had suggested to his fiancée that she settle her affairs in France, then sail to Ceylon to join him in her new life as a planter’s wife. This she had promptly done, and after “burning her boats” she had disembarked at Galle and taken a room at the Oriental Hotel, expecting a joyful reunion with her amour…only to discover to her anguish that the cad was already married! Now penniless, she wanted only to return home. Proctor Bawa, touched and no doubt intrigued by this saga, met with the lady, found her to be attractive and so presented her with a business proposal: he would arrange for her to stay on at the Oriental for a week as his guest, so that they could become better acquainted, then if she was willing, he would marry her but if not, he would pay for her passage back to France. Charmed beyond words, the young lady accepted the proposal. At the end of the week they were engaged to be married, Proctor A. Bawa generously pensioning off his existing wife in order to clear the way! Thus was created the famous multi-cultural Bawa family starting with their son, Appeal Court Proctor Benjamin William (“Benny”) Bawa K.C. (1865 – 1923), a man with Clark Gable-like looks who has been described as “one of the all-time giants of the bar”, and who was briefly acting Solicitor-General for Ceylon before becoming Private Secretary to the Governor. One of B.W. Bawa’s sons in turn was Bevis Bawa, the 7’ tall Ceylon Light Infantry officer who introduced his fellow artist, the Australian Donald Friend, to Sri Lanka in the 1950s. Another – who became more famous than all of the family put together – is Geoffrey Bawa, the former lawyer who ultimately became the internationally celebrated architect and designer of numerous prize-winning projects throughout South Asia, among which in Sri Lanka are the Ruhuna University Agricultural Faculty and the new Parliamentary complex at Kotte. Oddly enough, the one and only time that I ever met Geoffrey Bawa was in 1974 at the NOH, probably only a few steps away from the spot where his grandfather first met his grandmother. I remember him as a large, pink-faced, burly individual. From what I can gather at the time of writing (late 2001), Geoffrey Bawa nowadays is wheelchair-bound after suffering a severe stroke, but still retains his zest for life nonetheless.
(I cannot resist including here another colourful anecdote about Proctor A. Bawa, Geoffrey Bawa’s grandfather. Once fairly early on in Bawa’s legal career the Kandy Police Magistrate, (later Sir) Alexander Ashmore had ordered him physically carried out of court for not obeying a ruling. Proctor Bawa charged Ashmore before the Bench of Magistrates, which fined Ashmore, who in turn had the conviction set aside on appeal. Ashmore then renamed one of his dogs “Bow Wow”, and made a practice of loudly calling out the animal’s name every time he walked past Bawa’s home, making it sound just like “Bawa”! Not to be outdone, Proctor Bawa retaliated by having some posters printed and pasted all over town, which read: “Lost, stolen or strayed, a puppy called Ashmore”. Sir Alexander Ashmore eventually became Ceylon’s Colonial Secretary and gained some notoriety for declaring at a Trinity College, Kandy prize-giving that “natives” could not aspire to key posts as “locals” lacked the high sense of duty and honour that the British Government expected)!
In 1876, one of the many European travellers to arrive in Galle and put up at the Oriental Hotel was a single lady of independent means in her mid-forties, by the name of Marianne North. She was no humdrum tourist, being a friend of the great Charles Darwin and a gifted artist who would later design and fund a gallery in her own name at Kew Gardens, to display over 800 of her botanical paintings from all over the world. She was also the grandniece of Sir Frederick North, an early British Governor of Ceylon until 1805. A series of rather stiff studio photographs of Miss North were taken later on in her stay by another friend, the reputed lady photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who was by then living in Ceylon; these show a handsome, strong-featured woman wearing a conventional Victorian-style ankle-length dress. Her journal tells of her arriving in Galle aboard the French passenger ship Amazon, and being assisted ashore by a “wild Irishman”! (According to the first Census of Ceylon, taken on March 26th, 1871, out of nearly 5,000 Europeans resident on the Island, around 50% described themselves as Irish, thus outnumbering the English and the Scots combined). Marianne North, evidently an indefatigable early example of what would nowadays be called an eco-tourist, spent 8 days in Galle, and from her base at the Oriental Hotel energetically explored the immediate locality, enthusiastically inspecting the exotic flora and fauna, and painting both scenery and plant life. In “Recollections of a Happy Life” she recounts: “The Oriental Hotel in Galle is famous all over the world. Mrs. Barker the Landlady made me most comfortable, sending all my meals into my room, and I fixed on a ‘garry’ driver I liked and had him every morning to drive me out.” At the end of her Galle stay, she took an open carriage to Colombo, and finally left Ceylon (and a series of no-doubt-exhausted hosts!) in January 1877.
Other vignettes from the daily life of the Oriental Hotel during the later 19th Century pop up from the pages here and there. For instance, in 1888 the hotel was the venue for a great hit of a concert co-sponsored by the French shipping agency M. & M. Shipping and Captain Bayley of the P. & O. Line. The wife of the Governor-General of New Caledonia graced the occasion, and Cyril Ephraums - of the Galle Dutch Burgher family that was soon to play a pivotal role in the history of the hotel - was one of the performers. Prof. Ernst Haeckel in his “Visit to Ceylon” (1883) praised Father Palla’s band that played at the hotel that evening. Haeckel describes the end of his Royal Mail coach journey from Colombo to Galle: “However, when I thought of the exquisite enjoyment of nature I had derived from my five-hours' ride, I thought the fare well laid out, and in spite of the heat and fatigue I was sorry when, at about four in the afternoon, the light-house of Galle came in sight. Soon after the "mail coach" rattled over the drawbridge of the old moat, and then through a long dark barbican, pulling up finally in front of the elegant "Oriental Hotel" of Punto Galla.” By then, Ceylon had superseded Egypt as the resort of choice for more affluent Europeans escaping winter, British India civil servants on holiday, and the like. John Ferguson’s “Ceylon in 1883” devoted a whole chapter to “Travellers and Visitors”, shrewdly addressed to “civil and military officers, merchants and others now beginning to look on Ceylon as more desirable than Indian hill stations during the hot season”. Not only was the cost of living relatively cheap on the island, but also for so-called “sportsmen” there was the added attraction of shooting elephants and other wildlife in the jungles.
By the later 1890s however, despite its “worldwide reputation”, the Oriental Hotel had fallen on hard times financially. For whatever reason, the British owners could not make it profitable. Even in Galle’s heyday, many ocean passengers preferred to make the half-day trip by fast mail coach to Colombo, where there was more choice of accommodation. By the early 1880s, Galle’s boom days were over, thanks largely to the new breakwater and harbour in Colombo, far better suited to take large ships than the former’s exposed and hazardous inner harbour. The collapse of the coffee plantation industry in the mid-1880s through blight, coming at the same time as the shift to Colombo, also hit Galle hard. The arrival of the railway in Galle in 1894 failed to halt the decline of the town as an entrepot. Many Burgher families migrated to the capital. In the late 1890s Bishop van Rhee of the Roman Catholic Church almost bought the Oriental Hotel for a new school to replace the St. Aloysius site in town, but his absence abroad at the crucial moment lost him the chance. Instead, the sale went in 1899 (registered as an agreement of sale in 1900) for a mere Rs. 40,000 to an extremely capable and shrewd local Burgher businessman named Albert Richard Ephraums (1846-1904). Thus began the remarkable connection between the soon-to-be-renamed New Oriental Hotel (NOH) and the Ephraums family of Galle, which would last unbroken for almost exactly a century.
As I intend to write a separate article devoted to the Ephraums family, I will not go into overly much detail about them here. For the purposes of this account, it is enough to mention that Albert Ephraums, the new owner of what from here on in I will refer to simply as the NOH, was the great-grandson of a typically enterprising product of Amsterdam by the name of Coenraad Christiaan Ephraums who came out to Ceylon to make his fortune in1784, married into the Galle Sinhalese community, produced the obligatory largish family (Albert’s grandfather was born in 1785) and breathed his last in Galle in 1813. Albert is listed at page 753 in Ferguson’s Ceylon Directory for 1893, as the Proprietor of the Ephraums Hotel (formerly Loret’s Hotel) on Middle Street, a few minutes walk away from his future NOH flagship. The Ephraums family later acquired prestigious hotels in various parts of the island, but none of these stayed in the family nearly as long as the NOH. What the 19th Century Sarkie brothers were to the Malayan Peninsula, the Ephraumses at one time were to Ceylon: hoteliers supreme. Well has it been written by Norah Roberts that “the story of Ephraums is the story of the fall and rise of Galle like the phoenix from the ashes of the decline of the port”. In short, Albert Richard Ephraums was what would nowadays be called a “turnaround expert”, in that he took failing companies and turned them into viable enterprises. By the end of his life the lad who began as a mere shipping clerk had excelled as a banker, hotelier, general retailer and printing press owner. The NOH however was to be his most lasting memorial.
Albert Ephraums appointed his oldest son, Richard Lionel Ephraums (born in 1876) as Manager of the NOH, and on his father’s death in 1904 Richard Lionel inherited the hotel. He was an exacting man, inclined to remind underlings of their failings when they did not meet his expectations; hence his family nickname of Zambuk, after a popular ointment for aches and pains that advertised itself by the catchy slogan, Rub it in! Lyn Ludowyk (born in 1906) remembered the NOH very well from his early childhood in the Fort. He described in loving detail the billiard room “where the balls kept clicking in the afternoons”, the bar, the shops, and the bakery where his beloved spinster Aunt Gertie Andree later spent her final unsung years as a live-in NOH employee making brueder and pastry cakes after the rest of the family had dispersed from Galle between the two World Wars. The octogenarian Ludowyk remembered also the steps leading down to hotel cellars heavy with sawdust that muffled the heaviest footsteps, the crooked corridors, the little rooms that opened up into larger ones, a small inner courtyard and the expanse of the walled back garden with its store-rooms, sheds, clumps of bananas, breadfruit trees, an “inextricable confusion” of boxes, and old furniture glimpsed though open doorways...a veritable boys’ wonderland! But as he sadly reflects, “there was no-one really to possess this kingdom”, as both the eldest son of the family, born in 1907, and his younger brother, born in 1919, were congenitally blind.
Ludowyk however remembered one particularly hilarious incident at the NOH, around the time that the First World War began. As he tells the story, he was staying the night in the hotel’s annex (the two families were good friends) when he was awakened by shouts, gunfire and the excited voice of the owner calling out the servants. Could this be the Imperial German Navy invading Galle Fort, one might have wondered? As it turned out, polecats lodged in a disused shed had just raided a chicken run at the back of the hotel. In the end the wily creatures got away, despite (or more likely because of) much shouting, shooting and swaying hurricane lanterns, punctuated by the insistent tones of Richard Lionel Ephraums, true to his family nickname, berating an unfortunate servant lad who had failed to take up the position assigned to him and thus allowed the four-legged marauders to make good their escape!
Other NOH vignettes from the early decades of the 20th century surface here and there in various histories, memoirs and traveller’s accounts. It makes for an eclectic collection. The famous, Portuguese-style “Galle lace” was available within the hotel for interested buyers – even in the 1970s I recall an elderly, very dark and plump Sinhalese lady who frequently came to sit on the front verandah to work on her intricate lace patterns, which she would sell at reasonable prices to tourists. On the Middle Street side of the NOH, opposite the present NOB bakery, was the law office of Titus Abeysundera, who set up in business there immediately after being enrolled in 1928. The Galle Masonic Grand Lodge held its meetings at the NOH. The Muslim gem merchant S. Mohamed Naina Marikar established a jewellery store on the hotel front verandah in the 1920s, which remained there for half a century. Norah Roberts recalls the owner, who was also a trustee of the Galle Fort Mosque for about 50 years, passing the Church Street Library where she worked, every day on his way to work at the NOH; as she fondly recalled, he wore a tall hat, coat and sarong, and was “slim, fair and gentle”. Norah also remembered NOH resident and employee Gertie Andree, already mentioned in this article as Lyn Ludowyk’s maiden aunt who lived with the family and baked wondrous confections; as Norah tells us, poor Gertie moved to the NOH to work after her sister’s family died off or joined the Burgher diaspora, and – gentle, unassuming creature that she was - eventually died “quietly and unsung”. Ludowyk’s memoirs, written just before his death a decade before Norah Roberts published her book, add an even more poignant footnote to Gertie’s forgotten life. It seems that Gertie was every small (and not-so-small!) boy’s idea of a perfect Auntie in that she was “remarkably good at pastries and sweets”. Lyn remembered his aunts’ voluminous striped bathing dresses floating on the water when the family went swimming by the Fort ramparts, causing them to resemble mattresses to anyone looking down from above. He also remembered a “high-coloured, moustachioed gentleman at the Post Office” who allegedly was in love with Aunt Gertie, “but nothing came of it”. Later another young man had “solicited her hand” from her brother, Uncle Dick, but had been turned down without consulting the lady concerned. Poor Gertie was red-eyed that night, and studiously refrained from going out for the next few days. After two romantic disappointments, she transferred her interests permanently into a passionate devotion for both cooking and High Church Anglicanism. Let this be her epitaph.
During the dreadful Martial Law aftermath of the 1915 Riots in Ceylon, when a panicked colonial administration - imagining all sorts of German-backed conspiracies - executed and imprisoned numerous alleged Ceylonese “subversives”, the Buddhist revivalist, wealthy supporter of Mahinda College and prominent Galle businessman Henry Amarasinghe, was placed under house arrest at the NOH. His crime: possessing an ornamental sword. Frank Woodward, the English Theosophist-Buddhist who was Principal of Mahinda at the time, at some risk to himself wrote to the Governor to protest about the unwarranted arrest of his close Sinhalese friend. Amarasinghe was released soon afterwards, but died prematurely the following year from complications of diabetes. In 1928, over a hundred Old Boys of Mahinda dined at the NOH, when the main topic of discussion was the increased use of the vernacular as the medium of instruction.
Another prominent resident guest at the NOH in the early years of the Century in question was A. St. V. Jayawardene K.C. and Justice of the Supreme Court, uncle of the legendary late President of Sri Lanka, Junius R. Jayawardene. During his stay at the hotel, Mr. Justice Jayawardene completed the manuscript of his famous treatise on the Law of Partition in Ceylon. His brother, the distinguished lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice E. W. Jayawardene (father of the future President) had a somewhat more mixed association with Galle: during World War One he was posted to Fort to take command of the Ceylon Light Infantry (C.L.I.) sentries guarding the ramparts against possible German attack (these were the early days of the war when the battle cruiser Emden was creating mayhem among Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean). A convivial type, “E.W.” threw a party one night for his men. Unfortunately the troops’ commander from Colombo chose to inspect the sentries in Galle that night, and on arrival unannounced was dismayed to find the ramparts deserted and the men having a high old time in E.W.’s quarters. Next morning “E.W.” was posted back to Colombo (*). All of which leads me on to my own recollection of meeting J. R. Jayawardene at the NOH in 1974, when he was still leader of the Opposition UNP. I was having a cup of tea on the verandah with Nesta Brohier, then the owner/manager of the hotel and 69-year-old daughter of Richard Lionel (“Zambuk”) Ephraums, when suddenly a tall, solemn-featured, imposing Sinhalese man in his sixties and wearing the politician’s white national dress, strode up the front steps. He was accompanied by a shorter, more outgoing aide who (I believe) was the future Prime Minister, Premadasa. Knowing Nesta of old, “J.R.” and his companion joined us for tea. Jayawardene said relatively little during the half-hour or so that we all sat together, leaving most of the talking to Premadasa, but I was left with a profound impression of watchful sagacity. Little did any of us on the NOH verandah on that bright and sunny afternoon, when there was not even a cloud the size of a man’s hand on the horizon, even begin to imagine the series of terrible tragedies of civil war and insurrection that would engulf Sri Lanka during the more than 20 years after “J.R.” became Prime Minister (later President) in 1977, including the eventual assassination of his colleague Premadasa at the hand of a suicide bomber and over 64,000 war-related fatalities island-wide to date.
I have already mentioned Nesta Brohier, born Anestasia Emmeline Ephraums on May 7th, 1905, the second eldest child of NOH owner Richard Lionel Ephraums and his wife, Beata (neé Daniel). I will be writing more about Nesta in my separate article on the Ephraums family, but in the context of the NOH it is important to let the reader know that she took over both the ownership and management of the NOH in 1960, after her older sister Verena (“Ina”, born in 1904) had emigrated to Australia with her husband, Dr. Herbert Arndt, and their family. Ina had run the NOH for many years, living as she did locally in Galle where her husband was the Municipal Medical Officer, while Nesta and her husband Hal Brohier planted tea in the hill country. Lyn Ludowyk, who was of a similar age, in his memoirs mentions both the Ephraums sisters as lively young girls before the First War. A recent correspondent of mine in the USA, an expert on North India and Nepal wildlife, tells me that he remembers visits to the NOH at the end of World War Two, when he was stationed for a time at the RAF floatplane base at nearby Koggala. He recalls nostalgically meeting the two young girls of the family, tall, lovely and lissom with long, flowing dark hair. Much later in the 1980s he met Nesta during a return visit to the NOH, and learned that both her nieces had moved to England many years before. This was all part of the second, much greater Burgher diaspora from Galle in the post-1956 period, one that eventually left Nesta and a very few other elderly Burghers alone, as Norah Roberts would say, holding the Dutch Fort of their ancestors.
In 1961, Norah tells us, the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, visited Galle where he addressed a large crowd outside the Municipal Hall before visiting the NOH and being driven down Church Street past the Fort Library where he waved to the (possibly somewhat bemused) locals who politely waved back! It presents a curious picture. Interestingly, when Gagarin was asked immediately after returning from orbit what Earth looked like from Space, he remarked that it very much resembled the paintings of the Russian-born Theosophist, Nicholas Roerich. Now Roerich had been a devotee of Madame Blavatsky, who along with Col. Henry Olcott was the founder of the Theosophist Movement, and who had accompanied Olcott on his momentous first visit to Galle in 1880 when they had kicked off their pro-Buddhist, anti-Christian missionary campaign with a speech given by Olcott in Galle Fort. Olcott was also a major stimulus for the foundation of Mahinda College and the whole Buddhist Revival of the later 1800s in which Galle played such a significant role. Such are life’s unexpected interconnections, like this one between a 1960s Soviet cosmonaut and turn-of-the-century American Buddhist revivalist!
Besides my humble self, the 1970s saw at least two rather curious visitors to the NOH. One was the well-known American travel writer, Paul Theroux. In his book, The Great Railway Bazaar, the somewhat choleric Theroux describes his experiences as principal lecturer at a three-day seminar on American literature held at what he slightly inaccurately calls the “New Orient Hotel”. The reader comes away with an image of bloated delegates dozing fitfully in the heat through lecture after lecture in an upstairs room at the NOH, after a “mammoth four-course breakfast” and before a “spectacular” lunch, followed in due course by a “leisurely, good-humoured dinner” at the end of the day. Theroux rather hilariously describes the “eructating” seminarians as being literally “stupefied with food” and falling into “prolonged slumber interrupted by attacks of furious belching” during his lectures. Galle itself he found beautiful, “garlanded with red hibiscus and smelling of the palm-scented ocean, possessing cool Dutch interiors and ringed by forests of bamboo. The sunset’s luminous curtains patterned the sky in rufous gold for an hour and a half every evening, and all night long the waves crashed against the ramparts of the Fort”. Marianne North, the nature-loving guest at the same hotel almost exactly one hundred years before, would surely have delighted in such prose!
The other curious visitor to the NOH in the 1970s or early 1980s period came to mind when I discovered an old, long-forgotten and yellowing press clipping in my Sri Lanka travel journals. It concerned the wedding plans of Anthony Blond, a flamboyant 52-year-old English publisher who was about to marry a much-younger socialite, the “elfin” Laura Hesketh. The nuptials were planned to take place at the Closenberg Hotel across the harbour (one-time home of Dandy Perera’s father) and the reception would be held for a thousand guests at – the New Oriental Hotel in Galle Fort! Whether this grandiose event ever took place I do not know, but what struck me especially was the part about the groom specially ordering an elephant to attend the reception as the honeymoon vehicle, the beast having already started off on its 250-mile journey to Galle. The item in the paper was (groan) entitled: Packing Their Trunks (*).
A final vignette: on May 7th, 1995 the New Oriental Hotel, Galle Fort provided the venue for the 90th birthday party thrown by Aman Resorts, leaser of the hotel for the next quarter century, for Nesta Brohier, holder of the Dutch Order of the Orange Nassau and a lady of whom it has been written that for half a lifetime as the “grand old lady of Galle Fort” she watched over “the flotsam that ceaselessly flowed into the hotel and out”, and that as “a woman of great physical attraction, she exuded charm”. Nesta had been born in the NOH, in Room 25, which was then part of the owner’s suite. The Colombo newspaper report that an old friend sent me tells of the huge, high-ceilinged dining room decorated with thousands of deep purple lotus blooms. The previous day, a sudden squall had swept away the marquee erected on the ramparts across from the hotel, and the rain poured down outside as staff ironed starched white table cloths into place and polished silverware with the NOH crest carefully laid out. Then, the downpour stopped just in time for the party. Guests came from Colombo by Viceroy Special steam train, to be met at the Galle station by relays of beflagged three-wheelers that conveyed them to the hotel. A pianist played as Nesta greeted each new arrival on the front steps, and a champagne toast followed lunch, after which Nesta gave a short speech. A few months later, Nesta passed away peacefully, both adult children and her husband having predeceased her. The NOH remains in the family, having been bequeathed to some of her grandchildren, but none of them lives in Sri Lanka. What the future holds for the hotel she left behind remains to be seen.
At the beginning of this article I wrote of the NOH as having both an outer and an inner life. Much of what I have been describing has related to its outer life, what one might call its gregarious side. I will now end up by confiding something of the other life. When I knew Nesta back in 1973-4, she told me of two strange incidents that happened to her in the old hotel. On one occasion, she was lying awake in bed one night when plain as day she saw the ghost of her grandfather, Albert Richard Ephraums, walk across the room and vanish through a part of the wall where an almirah stood. In her childhood, there had been a doorway at that spot, later blocked off. On another occasion, staff called for her to come to Room 25, where she was born, for strange noises were coming from the empty room. She went right away, and watched as one of the servants vainly tried to turn the handle of the unlocked door. Inside could be heard the sound of someone pacing to and fro across the floorboards in an agitated fashion. Under the door it could be seen that the light was on. This scenario lasted for some time, before the pacing stopped and the staff were able to open the door. Of course, the room was empty. Years later, a recent correspondent of mine, a lady living in Sri Lanka, told me that during the early 1990s she and her adult brother had spent a sleepless night in Room 25, convinced that there was a presence of some sort in the room, an impression not dissipated by the almirah door that kept falling open. The next morning, when they reported their experiences to Nesta, she laughingly told them that Room 25 was said to be haunted. When the lady in Colombo told me this story, I wrote back to her letting her know what I remembered Nesta telling me in 1974.
Whatever may be the secrets of the “inner life” of the NOH, there can be little disagreement with these words of Deloraine Brohier, the daughter of Nesta’s husband Hal’s famous cousin R.L. Brohier, written in a 1995 newspaper article about the hotel a few months after Nesta’s passing:
“For a very long time to come, in its corridors and rooms and in the quiet well-laid garden, that presence of a gracious lady, Nesta Ephraums Brohier, will linger.”
(*) Naturally, the Who’s Who of Ceylon, 1918-20 lists both Jayawardene brothers. Don Adrian St. Valentine Jayawardene, K.C. was born in 1877 on 14 February (hence his third forename) and belonged to both the Ceylon and English Bars. He was the first Ceylonese advocate to appear before the Privy Council in London. Like most of his peers in the Ceylonese Establishment, he belonged to the local militia – in his case, as Lieut. O.C., Hultsdorf Section of the Colombo Town Guard (Hultsdorf was the area in Colombo where the Law Courts were situated). Interested in “all religious, political and social movements”, his recreations are listed as “tennis and motoring”. Apart from the Law of Partition in Ceylon, he was the author of The Roman-Dutch Law of Ceylon. His convivial older brother, Eugene Wilfred Jayawardene, born in 1874, was no less distinguished. “E.W.” was a Captain in the C.L.I. (Reserve) and was also a member of both the local and English Bars. He sat as acting District Judge or additional District Judge from time to time, was involved in Colombo municipal politics, along with his wife produced six children, and belonged to numerous recreational and social clubs. He took a leading part in the revision of the Ceylon Criminal Procedure Code, and the comparison with the Indian Penal Code. The Great-Grandfather of both men, according to the Who’s Who, “rendered signal service to the English Government during their wars with the Kandyan Kingdom (1800-1815)”. [I am grateful to Windsor Morris for sending me the relevant extracts.]
(*) The report appeared in the London Evening Standard, next to an account of the final rehearsals for a production of Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the National Theatre. The 27-year-old bride, besides being “elfin”, is described as a cousin of Lord Hesketh, a British peer. There is a curious sequel to this tale. Soon after the first draft of my “NOH” article appeared late in 2001, I received a surprising message from a correspondent in Sri Lanka, who had known the Brohier family of the New Oriental Hotel quite well. The message related to a conversation my informant had once had with Gordon Brohier, son of the then-owner of the Hotel, Anestasia (Nesta) Brohier, during an expedition into one of the Sri Lankan wildlife parks. Gordon, some of whose life and tragic accidental death in 1993 I have referred to in my separate article on the Ephraums family history, apparently told a strange tale of a foreign publisher who had once booked the entire NOH for a lavish wedding reception for himself and his bride, a “young Englishwoman from a prominent British family”. The couple, it appears, had called upon Nesta Brohier one day at the NOH to ask if they could make use of the facilities for this purpose. Nesta was glad to acquiesce, for as Gordon laughingly told my informant: “You know Mum. Never could resist a title!” In due course a large and no doubt rather “exotic” entourage including many foreign guests descended upon the Hotel and took it over for several days, turning the sleepy old Fort into something akin to a high-society version of a Club Med resort. The resplendent elephant did indeed make its appearance on cue, with bride and groom aboard. During the course of this protracted bacchanalia, some of the (doubtless worse-for-wear) wedding guests wandered through some makeshift barriers and tumbled lemming-like into the NOH swimming pool, which had just been emptied for cleaning and painting. Several fractures and concussions resulted, but nothing life-threatening. The next day, according to this strictly hearsay account, the publisher bridegroom called on Nesta Brohier, with the intention - or so she believed – of thanking her for her care in arranging the reception. (Apparently, in quixotic fashion Nesta had granted the party the full use of the Hotel totally free of charge for a whole three days)! Instead, he had smilingly put his arm around her, and said: “Good morning, darling…I’m going to sue you!” Since the Hotel lacked insurance for such matters, and she had gone to such lengths to accommodate the whims of her “high-society” non-paying guests, the octogenarian Nesta’s reaction to this distressing news can only be imagined. As my source remarked when passing on this piece of hearsay, the entire episode was a good example of the old adage – put not your trust in Princes! In the event, the matter was settled out of court and the damaged guests received excellent restorative care in Colombo courtesy of the NOH. The name of the alleged chief protagonists in this most peculiar drama were given to me by my source as none other than - Anthony Blond and his bride, Ms. Hesketh. After the wedding the Blonds apparently acquired an old, four-bedroomed house not far from Galle Fort, with a tennis court and – please note! – swimming pool. For a time they entertained guests handsomely at this residence. Indeed, when Blond wrote a rather colourful-sounding book titled A Scandalous History of the Roman Emperors in the early 1990s, the cover “blurb” mentioned that he commuted between Sri Lanka and France. (Oddly enough, my “literary” desk calendar entry for January 23, 2002, is about this book. The day-at-a-time calendar page informs me that: “Anthony Blond relishes every debauched moment as he surveys the lives of the men and women who made a fine art of depravity…Caligula’s pansexual appetites segue to a description of Roman sexual customs that even our jaded age might find odd.”) The President of the day, J. R. Jayawardene, even granted Blond the same distinguished foreigner status as was given to the science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, a gesture that may or may not have been connected with Blond’s prior agreement to publish a biography of “JRJ” by the noted Sri Lankan historian, K.M. de Silva. I gather that the house in Galle has since been sold and that the Blonds no longer reside for part of the year in Sri Lanka. Since Gordon died in 1993 and Nesta passed away in 1995, the tortuous tale of the wedding reception fiasco is purely third-party hearsay, and I know no way of confirming its historical accuracy or otherwise. Nevertheless my informant, a respected professional in his own country, is adamant that he recalls clearly the late Gordon Brohier telling him all of this, long ago in the remote jungles of south-eastern Sri Lanka.