A Visit to Ceylon

by Ernst Haeckel, 1883

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Chapter 9



Galle, the most famous and important town of Ceylon from a very remote antiquity, is proudly situated on a rocky promontory, lying to the west of a bay which opens to the south. The Cinghalese name Galla, means rocks, and has no connection with the Latin word Gallus, as the Portuguese, the first masters of the island, assumed; a memorial of this false etymology still exists on the old walls in the form of a moss-grown image of a cock, dated 1640.

We infer from the concurrent evidence of many writers of classic times, that Galle was an important trading port more than two thousand years ago, and probably through a long period was the largest and richest place in the whole island. Here the Eastern and Western worlds met half way; the Arabian merchantmen, sailing eastwards from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, here held commerce with the Malays of the Sunda Archipelago, and the still more remote Chinese. The Tarshish of the ancient Phoenicians and Hebrews can only have been Galle; the apes and peacocks, ivory and gold, which those navigators brought from the legendary Tarshish, were actually known to the old Hebrew writers by the same names as they now bear among the Tamils of Ceylon, and all the descriptions we derive from them of the much-frequented port of Tarshish apply to none of the seaports of the island, but the Rock point  Punto Galla.

The natural advantages of the geographical situation of Galle, close to the southern end of Ceylon, in latitude 6o N., of its climate and topographical position, and especially of its fine harbour, open only to the south, are so great and self-evident, that they would seem to give this beautiful town the pre-eminence above all the other seaports in the island. But the unflagging efforts of the English Government to maintain the supremacy of Colombo at any cost, particularly by more efficient communication with the interior, have of late years seriously damaged the prosperity of Galle, not to speak of its greater nearness to the central coffee-districts. I have before observed that the greater part of the export traffic has been transferred to Colombo, and the noble harbour of Galle is no longer what it used to be. However, Galle cannot fail to keep its place as only second in importance to Colombo, and particularly as the natural depot for the export of the rich products of the southern districts. Of these products the principal are the various materials derived from the Cocoa-palm; cocoa-nut oil, which is very valuable; Coir, the tough fibrous husk of the nut, which is used in a variety of ways, as for mats and ropes; palm sugar, from which arrak, a fermented liquor, is distilled, etc. Formerly the traffic in gems was also very considerable, and more recently the export of graphite or plumbago. When the bill shall at last be passed for extending the railway from Caltura to Galle, and when some of the rocks and coral-reefs which render parts of the harbour unsafe shall have been blown away by dynamite, the vanished glories of Galle may be restored and even enhanced.

The situation of Point de Galle is truly delightful, and as a matter of course this spot has been highly lauded in almost all former accounts of travels in Ceylon, being the place where Europeans used first to land. The whole of the point which juts out towards the south is occupied by the European town, or "Fort," consisting of store-houses one story high, surrounded by pillared verandahs, and shaded by projecting tiled roofs. Pretty gardens lie between them, and serve no less to decorate the town than the wide avenues of shady Suriya trees (Thespesia populnea) and Hibiscus (H. rosa sinensis). These here take the place of roses; they are densely covered with bright green leaves and magnificent red blossoms, but the tree is known among the English by the prosaic name of the Shoe-flower, because its fruits, boiled down, are used for blacking.

Among other public buildings we remark the Protestant church, a pretty Gothic structure, on one of the highest points of the Fort-hill. Its thick stone walls keep the interior, which is lofty, delightfully cool, and it is surrounded by fine trees, so that it was deliciously refreshing when, one burning Sunday morning, tired with a long walk, I could take refuge from the scorching sunbeams in this shady retreat.

Opposite to the church are the public offices of Galle, in what is known as the Queen's House, which formerly was the residence of the Dutch, and subsequently of the English, governor. Travellers of rank, or if provided with particular recommendations, were here hospitably entertained by the governor. For this reason, the government buildings of Galle and their immediate neighbourhood were usually the first spot in Ceylon to be described and admired in old books of travels. Among German travellers, Hoffmann and Ransonnet both have been at home there. Within the last few years, however, the Queen's House has become private property, and is now the head-quarters of the chief merchant-house in Galle - Clark, Spence, & Co. I had been warmly recommended to Mr. A. B. Scott, the present head of the house, by my friend Stipperger, and was received by him with the most liberal hospitality. He placed two of the best of the fine spacious rooms of the Queen's House at my disposal, with a delightful, airy verandah, and did everything in his power to render my visit to Galle as agreeable and as profitable as possible. Not only did I soon feel myself at home in Mr. Scott's amiable family circle, but in him I made acquaintance with an English merchant whose many and various accomplishments are worthy of his prominent social standing. He is now consul for several Powers, and it is only to be lamented that he should not also represent the interests of Germany. Mr. Scott lived in Germany for many years, for a long time at the commercial school of Bremen, and highly appreciates German literature and German science. So, as I was so fortunate as to be regarded by him, for the time being, as the representative in person of German science, I enjoyed the benefit of his favour and help to the utmost. This led me once more to doubt whether I should not do well to avail myself of his kind offer, and to set up my zoological studio for several weeks in Queen's House, instead of moving to Belligam. Here, at any rate, I should live surrounded by every European comfort and pleasant and family society, and be far better off than in the rest-house of Belligam, in the midst of natives; I should also carry out many of my scientific schemes with greater ease and convenience. However, I steadfastly resisted the alluring temptation, and was amply rewarded for my firmness by becoming far more intimately acquainted with the primitive life of Ceylon and of its natives in Belligam, than I could have been in the civilized atmosphere of Galle.

The few days I now spent at Galle, and two or three more which I spent in Mr. Scott's house on my return from Belligam, were, by his indefatigable help, turned to such good account that, in spite of the shortness of the time, I gained some knowledge of the beauties of the neighbourhood, and of the riches of its magnificent coral-reefs. One of Mr. Scott's two carriages was constantly at my disposal for expeditions by land, and his capital boat pulled by three Malabars for excursions by sea. Mr. Scott also made me acquainted with several English families of position, who could be helpful to me in my scientific aims; and to Captain Bayley and Captain Blyth I remain greatly indebted.

The first and shortest expedition that can be made by a stranger in Ga1Ie, is a walk round the walls of the Fort. These walls, very substantially built of brick by the Dutch, have on all sides a perpendicular fall into the sea, and on the eastern side the view from thence is beautiful  over the harbour and the wooded hills which enclose it, and the blue hill-country beyond. On the south and west the marvellous coral-reefs lie at the very foot of the walls, girdling round the promontory on which the Fort is built; and at low tide the beautifully coloured creatures show plainly through the shallow water like beds of submarine flowers. These coral gardens are particularly lovely near the lighthouse, at the southwestern angle of the Fort.

Two gloomy old gates, whose stone pillars, like the chief part of the walls themselves, are overgrown with ferns and mosses, lead from the interior to the open country. The eastern gate leads out at once on to the quay of the harbour and the mole which juts out to the east. The northern gate opens on to the green Esplanade, a broad tract of grassy level, used for recreation and exercise. It divides the Fort from the native town, which consists principally of native huts and bazaars; part of it extends eastward, along the quay of the harbour, and another part follows the strand on the Colombo Road. On both sides it is presently lost, without any distinct limit line, in little groups of houses or isolated huts scattered about among the cocoa-nut groves, and here and there climbing the sylvan garden which clothes the hill-sides. In a most beautiful situation at the top of one of the nearest hills, opposite the Fort, stands the Roman Catholic church; in connection with this are a catholic school and mission. Padre Palla, the director of this establishment - whose highly respected predecessor I knew by name from the accounts of former travellers - I found to be a native of Trieste, a most agreeable and highly cultivated man. and a remarkable musician. It was a great pleasure to him to find that I could speak to him in his own language, and was familiar with Trieste and Dalmatia. The well-kept garden of this mission, like all the gardens in the Eden-like neighbourhood of Galle, is full of the loveliest products of the tropics; a botanist  a lover of flowers even - loses his heart at every turn.

Still, to my thinking, the most enchanting spot in the neighbourhood of Galle is Villa Marina, belonging to Captain Bayley. This enterprising and many-sided man was at one time a ship's captain, and is now the agent in Galle for the P. and 0. company. His fine natural taste led him to choose for his house a site of almost unequalled beauty. About half-way along the north shore of the wide curve which encloses the noble bay of Galle, a few tall rocks of gneiss run far out to sea, and a group of rocky islets, thickly clothed with pandanus, lie just beyond them. Captain Bayley purchased the most easterly of these islets, and there built himself a little residence, laying out the ground with much taste and judgment in availing himself of the accidents of the situation  a perfect little "Miramar." From the west windows of the bungalow and from the terrace below there is a view of the town opposite and of the harbour in front, which is unsurpassed by any other scene in the neighbourhood. The lighthouse on the point, and the Protestant church in the middle of the Fort, stand out with great effect, particularly in the golden light of the morning sun. A picturesque middle distance is supplied by the black islets of rock, fantastically overgrown with clumps of luxuriant screw-pine, and their shores covered with Cinghalese fishinghuts. In the foreground, the riven black rocks of the island, on which the villa stands, lie piled in towering and grotesque masses; or, if we turn to seek some less wild accessories, we have part of the beautiful garden with its tropical forms.

Among the many ornaments of this garden I was particularly

interested to find several fine specimens of the Doom palm (Hyphaene thebaica). The stalwart stem of this species does not, as in most palms, form a tall column, but forks like the stem of the Dracaena, and each branch has a crown of fan-shaped leaves. This palm grows principally in Upper Egypt, but I had already seen it at the Arab town of Tur, at the foot of Mount Sinai, and it is represented in my work on the Red Sea corals (plate iv, p. 28). How surprised I was, then, to find it here under all aspect so altered that I could scarcely recognize it. Adaptation to perfectly different conditions of existence have made the Doom palm of Egypt quite another tree in Ceylon. The trunk is developed to at least double the thickness, much larger than in its native land; the forked branches are more numerous but shorter and more closely grown; the enormous fan leaves are much larger, more abundant and more solid; and even the flowers and fruit, so far as my memory served me, seemed to be finer and more abundant. At any rate, the whole habit of the tree had so greatly changed in the hothouse climate of Ceylon that the inherited physiognomy of the tree had lost many of its most characteristic features. And all this was the result of a change of external condition and consequent adaptation, more particularly of the greater supply of moisture which had been brought to bear, from its earliest youth, on a plant accustomed to the dry desert-climate of North Africa. These splendid trees had been raised from Egyptian seed, and in twenty yean had grown to a height of thirty feet.

A large portion of the ground was occupied by a magnificent fern garden. Ferns, above everything, thrive in the hot damp air of Ceylon; and Captain Bayley had collected not merely the finest indigenous varieties, but a great number of interesting foreign tropical species. Here, at a glance, could be seen the whole wealth of various and elegant forms, developed by the feathery fronds of these lovely Cryptogams, with tree-ferns, Sellaginallae and Lycopodia. Not less charming were the luxuriant creepers, hanging in festoons from handsome baskets fastened to the top of the verandah: orchids, Begonia, Bromelia, etc.

But for zoologists, as well as for botanists, this Miramar of Galle is a captivating spot. A small menagerie attached to the house contains a number of rare mammalia and birds; among others, a New Holland ostrich (Emu), several kinds of owls and parrots, and an indigenous anteater (Manis). This, as well as several rare fishes, Captain Bayley most kindly presented to me, and subsequently sent me a pair of loris (Stenops), as a Christmas gift, to Belligam, which proved very interesting. But

more attractive to me than even these rare creatures, were the magnificent corals, which grew in extraordinary abundance on the surrounding rocks; even the little inlet used by Captain Bayley as a dock for his boat, and the stone mole where we disembarked, were closely gemmed with them, and in a few hours I had added considerably to my collection of corals. A very large proportion of the multifarious forms of animal life, which are distributed over the coral-reef near Galle, were to be seen crowded together in this narrow space - huge black sea urchins and red starfish, numbers of crustaceans and fishes, brightly coloured mollusca, strange worms of various classes, and all the rest of the gaudy population that swarms on coral reefs and lurks between the branches. For this reason, Captain Bayley's bungalow - which he now is anxious to sell, as he has moved to Colombo - is particularly well-fitted to be a zoological station, and is only half an hour's distance from the conveniences of the town.

If we walk along the shore still farther to the east, round the bay of Galle, and then mount a little way, we reach a higher point, whence another splendid view is to be had over the town and harbour, and which is justly named "Buona Vista." Here a Protestant minister, the Rev. Philip Marks, has built a pretty villa and established a mission. The lofty wall of hills which runs from this point southwards, forming the eastern rampart of the harbour, is thickly wooded, and tenninatel in a steep cliff-like promontory. It is said, that some years since it was proposed to fortify this point, which is just opposite the lighthouse. The project, however, was abandoned, though a few iron cannon still peep out among the rank garlands of creepers. A riotous troop of monkeys were at play there, when I scrambled up one Sunday afternoon. A narrow path, which I followed yet further, led me southwards along the steep rock-bound shore and through a thick wood, full of magnificent pandanus and creepers. It was divided in one place by a deep ravine, at the bottom of which a dancing brook leapt down to the sea. Just above its mouth the stream falls into a natural basin of rock - a favourite bathing place with the natives. As I came out suddenly from the wood I surprised a party of Cinghalese of both sexes, who were splashing merrily in this basin.

A similar natural tank - much larger in the first instance, and artificially enlarged - is to be found at the bottom of the rocky promontory before mentioned, nearly opposite the lighthouse. This is known as the "Watering-place," because its abundant supply of fresh water provides most of the ships with drinking water. The steep cliffs which surround this basin are overgrown with thorny wild date-palms (Phoenix sylvestrix), with white-flowered Asclepias, and dull green Euphorbia Trees. This Euphorbia (antiquorum) resembles a gigantic cactus, and produces its stiff branches in regular whirls; this and the pandanus on stilts are among the strangest growths of these woods.

Very different in character from these wild rocky hills to the southeast of Galle are the undulating hill and dale which extend to the northof the town. Here, again, we meet with the idyllic characteristics of the south-west coast. The favourite excursion in this direction is to the Hill of Wackwelle, the top of which is reached by a beautiful high road, through cocoa-nut groves. It is constantly visited by picnic-parties from the town, and latterly an ingenious speculator has set up a restaurant, and charges each visitor sixpence, even if he eats nothing, for enjoying the view. The landscape principally consists of the broad wooded valley of the Gindura, which falls into the sea at about half an hour's ride to the north of the city. The river winds like a silver riband through the bright green rice fields - paddy-fields as they call them  which cover the bottom of the wide valley; the slopes on all sides are covered with magnificent trees, the home of swarms of monkeys and parrots. In the distance the blue peaks of the central hills are visible. The most conspicuous of these from Galle is a fine peak called, from its singular form, "the Haycock;" it certainly resembles a somewhat bell-shaped stack, and it is visible at a great distance, serving as a landmark for approaching ships.

Still, what far more interested me than the terrestrial gardens in the neighbourhood of Galle, were the submarine coral-gardens which surround the Fort; I can only deeply lament that I was unable to devote several weeks to their study instead of a few short days. Ransonnet, the Viennese painter, was, in this respect, more fortunate than I; he was able thoroughly to investigate the coral banks of Galle during several weeks, aided, too, by many efficient accessories, particularly by having a good diving-bell at his disposal. In his work on Ceylon*13 he has written a good description of what he saw, and has given a most picturesque and vivid idea of that mysterious world of sea creatures in four coloured plates, for which he made the sketches under water in a diving-bell.

Nine years since, in 1873, when I made an excursion among the coral reefs of the Sinai coast, and for the first time had a glimpse of the wonderful forms of life in their submarine gardens of marvels, they had excited my utmost interest; and in a popular series of lectures on Arabian corals (published with five coloured plates), I had endeavoured to sketch these wonderful creatures and their communities, with various other animals. The corals of Ceylon, which I first became acquainted with here at Galle, and subsequently studied more closely at Belligam,reminded me vividly of that delightful experience, and at the same time afforded me a multitude of new ones. For though the marine fauna of the Indian seas is, on the whole, nearly allied to the Arabian fauna of the Red Sea - many genera and species being common to both - yet the number and variety of forms of life is considerably greater in the vast basin of the Indian ocean with its diversified coast, than in the pent-up waters of the Arabian Gulf, with its uniform conditions of existence. Thus I found the general physiognomy of the coral reefs in the two situations different, in spite of many features in common. While the reefs at Tur are, for the most part, conspicuous for warm colouring - yellow, orange, red, and brown - in the coral gardens of Ceylon, green predominates in a great variety of shades and tones: yellow-green Alcyonia, growing with seagreen Heteropora, and a malachite-like Anthophylla side by side with olive-green Millepora; Madrepora, and Aseraea of emerald hue with browngreen Montipora and Maeandrina.

Ransonnet had already pointed out (op. cit., p. 134) how singularly and universally green prevails in the colouring of Ceylon. Not only is the greater portion of this evergreen isle clothed with an unfading tapestry of rich verdure, but the animals of the most widely dissimilar classes, which live in its woods, are conspicuous for their green colouring. This is seen in all the commonest birds and lizards, butterflies and beetles, which are of every shade of brilliant green. In the same way the innumerable inhabitants of the sea, of all classes, are coloured green such as many fishes and crustacea, worms (Amphinome), and sea anemones (Actinia); indeed, creatures which elsewhere seldom or never appear in green livery wear it here; for instance, several starfish (Ophiura), seaurchins, sea-cucumbers; also some enormous bivalves (Tridacna), and Brachiopoda (Lingula), and others. An explanation of this phenomenon is to be found in Darwin's principles, particularly in the law of adaptation by selection of similar colouring or sympathetic affinity of colour, as I have elucidated it in my "History of Creation," vol. i. p. 264.*14 The less the predominant colouring of any creature varies from that of its surroundings, the less will it be seen by its foes, the more easily can it steal upon its prey, and the more it is protected and fitted for the struggle for existence. Natural selection will, at the same time, constantly confirm the similarity between the prevailing colour of the animal and of its suroundings, because it is beneficial to the animal. The green coral banks of Ceylon, with their preponderance of green inhabitants, are as instructive as bearing on this theory as the green land animals are which people the evergreen forests and thickets of the island; but in purity and splendour of colouring, the sea creatures are even more remarkable than the fauna of the forests.

It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that this prevailing green hue produces a monotonous uniformity of colouring. On the contrary, it is impossible to weary of admiring it, for, on the one hand, the most wonderful gradations and modifications may be traced through it and, on the other, numbers of vividly and gaudily coloured forms are scattered among them. And just as the gorgeous red, yellow, violet, or blue colours of many birds and insects look doubly splendid in the dark green forest of Ceylon, so do the no less brilliant hues of some marine creatures on the coral banks. Many small fishes and crustaceans are particularly distinguished by such gaudy colouring, with very elegant and extremely singular markings, as they seek their food among the ramifications of the coral trees. Some few large corals are also conspicuously and strikingly coloured; thus, for instance, many Pocilloporae are rose-coloured, many of the Astraeidae are red and yellow, and many of the Heteroporae and Madreporae are violet and brown, etc. But, unfortunately, these gorgeous colours are, for the most part, very evanescent, and disappear as soon as the coral is taken out of the water, often at a mere touch. The sensitive creatures which have displayed their open cups of tentacles in the greatest beauty, then suddenly close and become inconspicuous, dull, and colourless.

But if the eye is enchanted merely by the lovely hues of the coral reef and its crowded population, it is still more delighted by the beauty and variety of form displayed by these creatures. Just as the radiated structure of one individual coral polyp resembles a true flower, so the whole structure of the branched coral stock resembles the growth of plants, trees, and shrubs. It was for this reason that corals were universally supposed to be really plants, and it was long before their true nature as animals was generally believed in.

These coral gardens display, indeed, a lovely and truly fairy-like scene as we row over them in a boat at low tide and on a calm sea. Close under the Fort of Galle the sea is so shallow that the keel of the boat grates on the points of the stony structure; and from the wall of the Fort above, the separate coral growths can be distinguished through the crystal water. A great variety of most beautiful and singular species here grow close together on so narrow a space that in a very few days I had made a splendid collection.

Mr. Scott's garden, in which my kind host allowed me to place them to dry, looked strange indeed during these days. The splendid tropical plants seemed to view with the strange marine creatures who had intruded on their domain for the prize for beauty and splendour, and the enchanted naturalist, whose gladdened eye wandered from one to the other, could not decide whether the fauna or the flora best deserved to take it. The coral animals imitated the forms of the loveliest flowers in astonishing variety, and the orchids, on the other hand, mimicked the forms of insects. The two great kingdoms of the organized world seemed here to have exchanged aspects.

I procured most of the corals, which I collected in Galle and Belligam, by the help of divers. These I found here to be quite as clever and capable of endurance as the Arabs of Tur nine years before. Armed with a strong crowbar, they uprooted the limestone structure of even very large coral stocks from their attachment to the rocky base, and railed them most skilfully up to the boat. These masses often weighed from fifty to eighty pounds, and it cost no small toil and care to lift them uninjured into the boat. Some kinds of coral are so fragile that, in taking them out of the water, they break by their own weight, and so, unfortunately, it is impossible to convey many of the most delicate kinds uninjured to land. This is the case, for instance, with certain frail Turbinariae, whose foliaceous stock grows in the shape of an inverted spiral cone; and of the many-branched Heteropora, which resembles an enormous stag's antler, with hundreds of twigs.

It is not from above, however, that a coral reef displays its full beauty, even when we row close over it, and when the ebb-tide has left the water so shallow that its projections grind against the boat. On the contrary, it is essential to take a plunge into the sea. In the absence of a diving-bell I tried to dive to the bottom, and keep my eyes open under water, and after a little practice I found this easy. Nothing could be more wonderful than the mysterious green sheen which pervades this submarine world. The enchanted eye is startled by the wonderful effects of light, which are so different from those of the upper world, with its warm and rosy colouring; and they lend a double interest and strangeness to the forms and movements of the myriads of creatures that swarm among the corals. The diver is in all reality in a new world. There is, in fact, a whole multitude of singular fishes. crustacea, mollusca, radiata, worms, etc., whose food consists solely of the coral-polyps, among which they live; and these coral-eaters - which may be regarded as parasites in the true sense of the word - have acquired, by adaptation to their peculiar mode of life, the most extraordinary forms, more especially are they provided with weapons of offence and defence of the most remarkable character.

But, just as it is well known that "no man may walk unpunished under the palms," so the naturalist cannot swim with impunity among the coral banks. The Oceanides, under whose protection these coral fairy bowers of the sea flourish, threaten the intruding mortal with a thousand perils. The Millepora, as well as the Medusae which float among them, burn him wherever they touch, like the most venomous nettles; the sting of the fish known as Synanceia is as painful and dangerous as that of the scorpion; numbers of crabs nip his tender flesh with their powerful claws; black sea-urchins (Diadema) thrust their foot-long spines, covered with fine prickles set the wrong way, into the sole of his foot, where they break off and remain, causing very serious wounds. But worst of all is the injury to the skin in trying to secure the coral itself. The numberless points and angles with which their limestone skeleton is armed, inflict a thousand little wounds at every attempt to detach and remove a portion. Never in my life have I been so gashed and mangled as after a few days of diving and coral-fishing at Gale, and I suffered from the consequences for several weeks after. But what are these transient sufferings to a naturalist when set in the scale against the fairylike scenes of delight, with which a plunge among these marvelloua, coral-groves enriches his memory for life !

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