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Dr.Tony Donaldson reflects on the Prince of Wales’ visit to Ceylon in 1875 - Sunday Times Sep 3 2004


7 days in Ceylon

The British colonial presence in Ceylon in the nineteenth century has left a wealth of textual and visual sources. The existence of writings, paintings, sketches and book illustrations of Ceylon show the way the island was perceived and imagined by British artists, writers, administrators, and travellers.

One source is the writings and sketches made of the Prince of Wales' tour to India and Ceylon in the mid 1870s. The tour was reported widely in England. Both the Illustrated London News and The Graphic arranged for their own reporters to accompany the Prince on his trip. However, what is not generally well known is that the then private secretary to the Prince of Wales, William Howard Russell (1820-1907), penned his own account of the Prince's tour, which was published in 1877 under the title The Prince of Wales' Tour: A Diary in India with some account of the visits of his royal highness to the courts of Greece, Egypt, Spain, and Portugal.

Russell, a celebrated war correspondent with The London Times, had made a name for himself writing on the Indian mutiny and the Crimea war. Here Dr.Tony Donaldson explores colonial representations of Ceylon based on the seven-day visit of the Prince of Wales in 1875 through the writings of William Russell and sketches of Sydney Hall.

The Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, departed England for India onboard the naval vessel the Serapis on October 11, 1875. The journey to Bombay took 27 days. After visiting Pune, Goa and Beypore, the Prince then boarded the Serapis and set sail for Colombo travelling along the Malabar coast.

On a cloudy December 1, the Prince of Wales, then aged 34, disembarked from the Serapis which was anchored in rough seas just off Colombo. Dressed in the uniform of a field marshal wearing white trousers and a plumed helmet, the Prince boarded a launch that took him towards Colombo.

As he approached the landing stage he paused to admire the 'native boats draped with bright-coloured streamers and banners, garlanded with flowers and wreaths of coconut-leaves, and crowded with spectators and bands of native musicians'.

It was late in the afternoon as he stepped ashore to be welcomed by a guard of honour of the 57th Regiment, and the large crowd of officials and spectators that had swarmed into the streets. Over the next seven days the Prince spent two days in Kandy where he witnessed a Perahera, attended a private exhibition of the Tooth Relic, and visited the botanical gardens in Peradeniya. He travelled to Ruwanwella and spent a further two days in the jungle nearby hunting elephants. In Colombo he attended a horticultural exhibition and observed Tamil coffee pickers.

Where's Ceylon ?
In the heyday of the Raj, India was viewed as the most precious jewel in the British Crown. India was a tremendous source of wealth for the British, and in recognition of the importance that the British attached to India, the title 'Empress of India' was bestowed on Queen Victoria in 1876.

The royal advisors to the Prince, however, did not consider Ceylon to be of sufficient interest to justify his visit. Indeed, when the Prince first expressed his desire to spend time in Ceylon, his advisors were so alarmed that several attempts were made to divert him from visiting the island. Russell writes that on one occasion a map was produced for the Prince in which Ceylon did not appear to which the Prince responded by demanding 'Where is Ceylon!' Russell says that the visit to Ceylon only took place due to Prince Edward's own persistence to visit the island, and his desire to outwit those who objected to his wishes.

Prince Edward was not a man of great intellect. He disliked reading, preferring instead to discuss matters of the day with those around him. Even so, it is reported that he spoke French, German, Spanish and Italian. His passions were for hunting and travelling.

Brown skin and African teeth
William Russell was a colonialist writer. This is clearly visible in his descriptions of local dances, festivals and of the Sinhalese whom he describes as 'not strikingly handsome', whose 'skin colour is less pleasing than the native of Upper India', and whose teeth 'rival those of the African'. Russell describes the traditional dress of the Kandyan chiefs as 'unmasculine, uncomely, and unbecoming', and he compares a Buddhist monk chanting pirith in the Temple of the Tooth with Russian singing. Russell found it difficult to describe in English the Sinhala world he encountered. But he is aware of his limitations. In writing about a performance of a Perahera in Kandy he readily admits that 'it would tax the best pen and pencil to give an adequate idea of such combinations of forms, sounds, and figures'.

Right royal banquet
The royal artist Sydney Hall accompanied the Prince on his tour and Russell includes sketches made by Hall in his book, which represent images of colonial Ceylon through British eyes. Little is known of Hall, however he was a skilful artist with an eye for detail.

On December 2, the Prince arrived in Kandy in the late afternoon and made his way from the railway station to the Pavilion, which was the residence of Governor William Gregory.
In the evening Gregory entertained the Prince and elites of Ceylon at a state banquet. Russell writes that 'lamps and lanterns were waving and swinging in the perfumed breezes', while sounds of music, drums, horns and gongs, reverberated throughout the Pavilion.

After dinner, the Prince and the royal party made their way outside the Pavilion to attend a private Perahera. By all accounts it was a small procession, and as the Perahera made its way from the Dalada Maligawa to the Governor's residence, Russell observed:

There was only a procession of elephants, dancers, and priests belonging to the temples; but it was exceedingly grotesque, novel, and interesting... The ‘devil dancers,’ in masks and painted faces, were sufficiently hideous. Their contortions, performed to the tune of clanging brass, cymbals, loud horns...

Russell's description of the dancers and Hall's sketch seem to show dancers wearing the ves costume from the kohomba kankariya, which was formerly performed in a ritual context to invoke blessings for the deity Kohomba. But as this sketch shows, by 1875 at least, the ves dance had been adapted into the Perahera and was then being performed to entertain foreigners.

Two days later, the Prince left Kandy for Nawalapitiya by train, where Governor Gregory had arranged horses and vehicles to carry him on to Ruwanwella. Over the next two days Prince Edward engaged in his great love of hunting. On this occasion he had expressed a desire to hunt elephants.

The hunting exhibitions organised for the Prince were mounted at great expense. Some 1200 to 1500 men were brought in two weeks earlier to build a special kraal, and to keep watch on the elephants. A stockade was built from tree-trunks around which spears and sticks were placed.

The big day came on December 6 when the Prince joined over one hundred men in the specially built stockade. Nearby, a herd of elephants had gathered. Other hunters were ordered to force the elephants towards the stockade.

But their attempts failed. By 2 p.m. the Prince had waited for five hours without firing a shot. Then a most cruel decision was taken to pile dried timber up near to the elephants which was then set alight. Permission was also given for some of the hunters to shoot into the rear of the elephants. The idea was to force the elephants to rush towards the stockade and to a certain death.

Some of the elephants seemed to be alert to the danger and ran off or drove the hunters up the trees for shelter, but in the chaos that followed two elephants were wounded. Sydney Hall stopped to make a sketch of one elephant that lay dead. But soon after, the elephant gradually stood up. Armed only with a led pencil, Hall instinctively knew he was outmatched and he fled from the scene.

The tragedy, however, is that the two elephants were later observed heading into the mountains, where they most certainly lived out their remaining days in agony.

Perhaps the most disturbing sketch made by Sydney Hall of Prince Edward's visit is titled 'The Dead Elephant', and it reveals the quintessential British colonial mind in its brutality. Having wounded one elephant, the Prince finally secured his moment of glory by killing another elephant, as Russell describes next:

The Prince took deliberate aim and fired. The great beast toppled, and fell over on its side in the stream, where it dammed up the waters! There ensued a scene of great excitement. The Prince descended the bank, but they called him to take care. They approached and watched for a moment. The creature did not move; it was "dead, sure enough!"

Then the Prince, assisted by the hunters, got into the water and climbed upon the inert mountain of flesh. Down came the natives from tree, stockade, and hillside. Europeans and Cingalese dashed into the stream, and cheered again and again...as the Prince was seen standing on the prostrate body...The Prince, according to custom, cut off the tail. As soon as his back was turned, the Cingalese took pieces from the ears as trophies of the day.

Elephants were seen as 'beasts' but they were also admired for their strength and intelligence. Writing about the old tusker of this herd, Russell says that he 'proved to be a leader whose courage and coolness were only equalled by his sagacity and strategical skill'. Russell's account gives a sense of the thrill of the chase and the satisfaction of the kill.

The sketch shows the Prince standing on the dead elephant in sober-hued jacket and knickerbockers, his rifle slung over his shoulder, surrounded by a crowd cheering him on. It must have been a very satisfying moment. But the image remains gory and brutal.

Mystic beauty
Hall's sketches somehow transcend the written word, but still capture the way the British imagined Ceylon. The British saw Ceylon in terms of its wealth, but it was also for them an exotic world of beautiful scenery and splendid animals. In Ceylon, the British could find ancient rituals, eastern religions, strange customs and festivals. It was home to the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha, but Russell could not understand why Buddhists held the Tooth Relic in such high veneration.

On returning to Colombo the Prince spent his remaining time attending a ball and observing Tamil girls picking coffee. He embarked on the Serapis on December 8 and set sail for Madras, eventually returning to England in May 1876.

Twenty-five years later, following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, he ascended the British throne to become King Edward VII. But his reign only lasted ten years as he died in 1911.

The British Empire in India and Ceylon was about to begin a process that would ultimately lead to independence for both nations in less than 40 years.