A Visit to Ceylon

by Ernst Haeckel, 1883

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Chapter 16



I Had made up my mind to devote the last month of my stay in Ceylon to a visit to the hill country, where the flora and fauna, as well as the climate and general character of the country, are so different from those of the coast that they might be several degrees of latitude apart. When, in a single day, we go up the six thousand feet from the palm gardens of the lowlands to the primaeval forest of the hills, the difference in climate and scenery is fully as great as between the wooded wilderness of Brazil and the high plateau of Peru, or between the date groves of Egypt and the flowery meadows of the Alps.

The hill country of Ceylon occupies about one-fourth of the whole extent of the island, and lies at an average height of from four thousand to six thousand feet above the sea; only the loftiest mountains rise to seven thousand or eight thousand feet. The northern half of the island is quite flat; in the southern half the highlands rise somewhat abruptly, a steep and unbroken line of ramparts, the eastern and southern declivities being much more precipitous than the western and northern. The level tract of plain which surrounds the hill country and parts it from the sea is twice as broad on the east as it is on the west. A subsidence of a few hundred feet would suffice to submerge three quarters of the island, and leave the hill country rising abruptly from the surface of the ocean. This vast rocky mass is almost exclusively of crystalline formation, consisting principally of gneiss with intruded veins of granite, trachyte aad basalt.

Even so late as at the beginning of this century, the hill country of Ceylon was in parts quite unknown, and on a map published in 1813 by Schneider, the government engineer, not less than two-thirds of the whole kingdom of Kandy is indicated by a blank space. When, in 1817, Dr. Davy - the brother of the famous Sir Humphry - undertook the first expedition through the island, he met with infinite difficulties. The greater part of the mountainous centre was impassable, covered with an unbroken and impenetrable forest, untrodden by any European. Herds of elephants, bears, tigers, boars, and elks were the lords of this wilderness; the only trace of human life were the wild hordes of Veddahs, now fast disappearing. No road of any description intersected the forest, no bridges spanned the headlong brooks and streams which fell in cataracts down the inaccessible gorges.

In a comparatively short time, however - in less than fifty years - the character of the country had completely altered. In 1825, that enterprising governor, Sir Edward Barnes, formed the first coffee plantation in the hill country, in the neighbourhood of Peradenia, and proved that the soil and climate there were especially favourable to the cultivation of the berry. Encouraged by his example, and spurred to energy, partly by the hope of large profits and partly by the romantic and adventurous life in the wilderness, a perfect army of coffee-planters invaded the hill forests of Ceylon, and in less than twenty years had, by axe and fire, transformed the larger part of it into profitable plantations. Whole forests were annihilated on the steep slopes by the plan of cutting down the upper ranks of the gigantic trees, and so felling them on to those below, which had been half cut through on the upper side. The enormous weight of these dense masses of vegetation, bound and tied together with creepers, uprooted the trees below, and the whole wood crashed and slipped like an avalanche down into the valley. The mass was then set on fire, and this burnt soil was found excellent for the coffee shrub. The produce was so abundant and the whole conditions of coffee growing were rendered so exceptionally favourable by a concurrence of political events and commercial treaties, that only twenty years after it was first started in Ceylon, speculation in coffee had reached an amazing height.

The reaction which inevitably follows excessive speculation was, of course, soon felt. As in the case of the Californian and Australian gold mines, or the diamond diggings of South Africa, the brilliant success of a few fortunate individuals tempted a number of imitators, who had neither capital, prudence, or knowledge. Between 1845 and 1850 more than five millions sterling of private property was lost through ill-luck or mismanagement in coffee planting. Then, as always must happen, sooner or later in the cultivation of any produce, ere long numbers of dangerous natural foes made their appearance, inflicting great injuries on the plantations - some animal.,some vegetable; for instance, the greedy Golunda rat (Golunda elliotti), and the mischievous coffee-bug (Lecanium coffeae), besides a variety of vegetable parasites. Within the last ten years the plantations have been almost devastated by the worst foe of all - a microscopic fungus (Hemileja vastatrix). The disease in the leaves occasioned by this fungus has spread so widely and rapidly, and has proved so incurable, that on many estates coffee growing has been given up. Tea and quinine (Cinchona bark) have taken its place, and with great success.

Whether in the future tea. coffee. or Cinchona trees are destined to be the staple of cultivation in the coffee districts, as they are still called, there can be no doubt that the climate and soil of the uplands of Ceylon are extraordinarily favourable for the growth of these, and probably of many other valuable vegetable products. Before many more years have passed, the whole of the hill country, with the exception of a very few spots, will be productive land of the very first class. Every year sees the spread of the network of coffee district towards the remoter parts of the mountains. I had to go some considerable distance before I could see any extent of country still lying in its virgin state and even there, in the immediate neighbourhood and on every side of the untouched forest, I found fresh clearings which were being brought into tilth by axe and fire.

It was my most eager wish to see one of the wildest parts of the primaeval forest in the hill country, and I owe its fulfilment chiefly to the kind offices of Dr. Trimen, the Director of the Gardens at Peradenia. During my visit to him we had agreed to go together, in the middle of February, to Newera Ellia, the famous hill sanatarium, and to make an excursion from thence to Horton's Plain. This is the south-eastern portion of the central plateau, a wild and rarely visited spot, where it ends in the precipices known as the World's End, with a fall of nearly five thousand feet. From thence we proposed to go up to the hill country of Billahooloya, then westwards to Ratnapoora, the city of gems, and finally down the Kalu Ganga, or Black River, in a boat to Caltura, at the mouth, on the south-west coast. My friend, Dr. Trimen, most kindly undertook to make all the necessary arrangements and preparations; and as we were to camp out for a week in an absolute desert, and in the highest and coldest part of the mountains, we were obliged to organize a transport train of at least twenty coolies, to carry our food, wraps, beds, tent, etc.

I meanwhile took advantage of the first days of February to visit the western hills, and particularly the famous mountain known as Adam's Peak. As soon as I returned to "Whist Bungalow ," Colombo, at the end of January, I began my preparations to start on this excursion. At the same time I spent nearly the whole of the first week in February in seeing the most extraordinary and interesting spectacle which is ever to be seen, not merely in Ceylon - and there but rarely - but perhaps in the whole world - an elephant hunt. By an elephant hunt in Ceylon is understood the capture and taming of a whole herd of wild elephants, which are decoyed and entrapped by tame ones. Formerly, when the herds of wild elephant in Ceylon were still very numerous and mischievous, and when tame elephants were largely used in road making and other works, such hunts were more frequent. At the present time they are less often undertaken and not on so grand a scale; and as an elephant hunt of this kind is both expensive and difficult, it is usually reserved for some great festival. The occasion of the hunt I was so fortunate as to see, was the visit of the two sons of the Prince of Wales, who spent a few weeks in Ceylon on their way home from a voyage round the world. No less than three thousand beaters had been employed for three months in driving the wild elephants together, from the forelts towards the Corral of Lambugana, at which place a temporary village or wooden houses, a Corral-town, was erected to accommodate the numerous spectators of this interesting scene. The capture and imprisonment of the wild elephants was accomplished during the first three days of February, but I must postpone any description of the spectacle, as it would lead me too far from my immediate subject.

For the same reason I must omit any detailed account of the first part of my expedition to the hills, from Peradenia to Gampola and Deck Oya, as well as the ascent of Adam's Peak. It was on the 11th of February, in the loveliest weather, that I ascended this famous mountain, one of the most remarkable peaks in the world, and I hope on a future occasion to give a full and connected account of this delightful excursion. The point whence we started, and to which we returned, was Saint Andrews, the highest coffee plantation in the south-west angle of the hill country, immediately at the foot of Adam's Peak. The owner, Mr. Christie, who entertained me there most kindIy for a few days, himself guided me to the summit of the sacred mountain.

From thence I went in a north-easterly direction towards the centre of the hill country, to spend a few days at Newera Ellia, the favourite resort of the English. The distance from Saint Andrews to Newera Ellia is from forty-five to fifty miles. Only a few years ago the path lay for the most part through thick forest, but now it passes by coffee and Cinchona plantations for almost all the way. It took me two days of steady walking to accomplish this journey, though the weather was lovely and not too hot; and I only took two Tamil coolies with me to carry my baggage.

On the first day. February 24th, I walked twenty-four miles between six in the morning and eight in the evening, and twenty the next day. As it was the coolest season of the year in this part of the island, and the temperature in the shade at noon was not above thirty to thirty-two degrees centigrade, I could walk on, even at midday, with no more than an hour's rest. I again had recourse to a wet handkerchief as a protection against the sun, placing it over my head and neck under my sola hat; I could cool it afresh every quarter of an hour in the brooks which trickled on both sides of the road.

As extensive plantations, consisting of long stretches of land planted with only one kind of product, are no less monotonous in the tropic, than among our cornfields and vineyards. I had rather dreaded this two days' walk among the coffee estates; but it proved far more interesting than I had ventured to hope. The hill slopes are intersected in many places by deep ravines, down which fall foaming streams, often breaking into beautiful cataracts and embowered in lovely ferneries and jungle growths. Several of them are spanned by handsome bridges, but in some places the only means of crossing them is by a tree-trunk laid across from one side to the other, and sometimes the rope-like stem of a creeper has been carried across, serving as a balustrade to hold on to. Sometimes, however, there is no choice but to walk across, balancing yourself as best you may on the swaying trunk; and it is only to be hoped that you have a steady brain and will not be made giddy by the rush and roar of the wild mountain torrent that dashes over the broken boulders below. My old gymnastic practice, long since forgotten, came to my aid at this juncture and stood me in good stead.

Now and then the path, which ran sometimes up and sometimes downhill, cut across a wide deep valley, where some remains of the original forest was left standing on the steeper and more inaccessible slopes. The enormous trees, looking like massive columns, and their spreading crowns, from which the creepers hang in heavy festoons and curtains, give us still some notion of the extraordinary wealth and splendour of the vegetation which must here have fallen a sacrifice to the irresistible advance of civilization. For a short distance we had to hew our way laboriously with the axe through the thicket itself, and could inspect more closely the varieties of the trees and plants which composed it: principally species of laurels and myrtles, with Rubiaceae, etc. The leaves of these mountain forest-trees are for the most part of a very dark brownish or even blackish green, and dry and leathery in texture. Lovely garlands of hanging plants stretched from tree to tree, and the trunks themselves were gorgeous with the curious flowers of orchids and Bromelia. Among the climbers a conspicuous species was Freycinetia, a plant closdy allied to Pandanus; the flame-coloured spathes of the flowers seemed to glow among the spiral tufts of leaves. The beautiful palms of the lowland have disappeared; their place is supplied by the wonderful tree-ferns, which are among the most graceful and charming growths of the tropics. At the bottom of the shady gorges the shining black trunks of Alsophila, one of the finest of these treeferns, grow to a height of twenty or thirty feet, and their spreading crown of plumes is composed of deeply cut fronds, from eight to twelve feet in length. An immense variety of smaller ferns, and their delicate allies the Selaginellae, cover the rocks on every side.

While our devious path through the hill coffee districts was thus diversified by these beautiful wooded ravines, their luxuriant vegetation forming a delightful foreground to the picture, the vista of distant landscape between the blue hills was often quite enchanting; the slender cone of Adam's Peak standing up high above its neighbours. In the hilly landscape of Maskilia especially - a gorge full of beautiful waterfalls - the peak towers up grandly in the background.

The aspect of the plantations themselves, too, is very pretty. The coffee trees in the low country, as cultivated by the Cinghalese near their huts, grow with tall stems from twenty to thirty feet high; but in these hill-plantations they are generally kept cut low to increase their productiveness, and are spreading shrubs not more than three or four feet above the soil. The handsome, dark green, shining leaves form a close surface, with the bunches of fragrant white blossoms or dark red berries, something like cherries, rising conspicuously above them. In many districts we now see the sweet-scented tea shrub and slim Cinchona tree, alternating with the coffee plants, the original occupants of the soil. The Cinchona has a pretty white flower, and the young leaves are of a splendid red colour. The straight slender trunk is of a particularly hard and close grain, and a small Cinthona stem, which I pulled up myself at Adam's Peak, served me as an "alpenstock" through all my mountain walks.

An interesting and amusing feature in the foreground of the landscape were the swarthy labourers, the Tamil coolies. These are of pure Dravidian race, a branch of the human family which was formerly included with the Indo-Aryan, but of late years has very properly been regarded as distinct. They are quite unlike the pure Cinghalese, and keep themselves entirely separate. Their language, Tamil, has nothing in common with the Pali, and recent linguists can detect no relationship between them. Most anthropologists regard the Tamils or Malabars as a remnant of the original natives of Hindostan, who were gradually driven southwards by the Aryan races advancing from the north; but in Ceylon they assumed the part of conquerors, gradually exterminating the Aryan-Cinghalese, who had previously taken possession of the island. At the present day not merely is the Tamil population the most numerous throughout the northern half of the island and a considerable part of the eastern side, but in the hill country they have also spread and multiplied at the cost of the indolent and languid Cinghalese, thanks to their greater energy and powers of endurance. A very large number of Tamils or Malabars, as they are called - 5O,OOO about thirty years since, and more than 20O,OO0 now - cross over annually in the winter season from the mainland of Coromandel, by Adam's Bridge to the island, and remain six or eight months to work in the plantations; they then return with their earnings and spend the rest of the year at home.

The Tamils are as unlike the Cinghalese in stature, build, colour, and character, as they are in speech, religion, manners, and habits. The Cinghalese are mostly Buddhists, the Tamils worship Siva. The Tamils are always much darker skinned, coffee-brown verging on black; the Cinghalese vary between cinnamon-brown and a sort of golden-tan colour. Both have long, smooth, black hair, sometimes with a slight wave or curl, but never woolly. The beard is more abundant in the Tamil than in the Cinghalese, whose features, too, differ less from the Mediterranean type than those of the Tamils. In the Tamil the brow is lower, the nostrils are broader, the lips thicker and more projecting, and the chin heavier; the expression is grave and gloomy. I rarely saw a Tamil laugh, and never so gaily as is quite common with the Cinghalese. The structure of the skeleton is taller and more powerful in the Tamil, and his muscular system better developed, so that he displays ease and endurance in toil for which the Cinghalese is useless. The singularly slender and feminine character of the limbs which is so conspicuous in the Cinghalese men is never seen in the Tamils; even the women are stronger and more sinewy. Still, the Tamil is far from being particularly bony or robust, he is, on the contrary, tall and graceful; the general proportions of his frame correspond so nearly with the artistic standard of beauty that the Dravida cannot be included among the inferior races of humanity - on the contrary, many specimens come remarkably near to the Greek ideal. As their clothing, while labouring in the plantations, is restricted by the men to a small turban and a strip of loin-cloth, and by the women to a short petticoat and a loose handkerchief tied across the body, or a short white jacket - and this is not unfrequently dispensed with when at work - a walk through the plantations affords ample opportunities for admiring the beauty of their forms. Their movements, too, are characterized by a certain native grace which is fully brought into play in their different attitudes and occupations, for the labour in the plantations is varied and severe. How much better might a sculptor here study the true beauty and proportion of the human form among these naturally developed models, than in the life-schools of European academies, where some model, found with difficulty among the degenerate sons of civilization and forced into some unwonted attitude, is but a poor substitute for the genuine child of nature!

I accepted a kind invitation from one of the chief planters in the hill district, Mr. Talbot, and spent the night of February I3th at his house, Wallaha. As there are neither hotels nor rest-houses in the hill country, excepting at one or two important stations, the traveller is almost entirely dependent on the hospitality of the English planters; and this is displayed everywhere and on every occasion with unlimited liberality, as though it were quite a matter of course. It is true that many of the houses on the plantations stand so isolated in the midst of a lonely wilderness, that any visitor is welcome; and a total stranger just arrived from Europe, with a fresh stock of news from dear home, is hailed as a delightful surprise. The hospitable and friendly reception I everywhere met with I treasure among my most pleasing memories. Nothing is more soothing to the wanderer than the incomparable comfort of a British home: a cool bath, an excellent dinner, an amusing chat over a glass of good wine, and at last a soft mattress after ten or twelve hours' walking up hill and down dale, along the stony shadeless paths through the plantations - six of these hours under a degree of heat to which our worst dog-days are a trifle.

Sometimes, however, this enjoyment is somewhat qualified by the strict rules of English etiquette, in which even a solitary planter dwelling in the wilds of the tropics would think it derogatory and ill-bred to fail. I remember with dismay a certain evening, when I arrived, after sundown, and quite tired out, at a very remote plantation, and the hospitable master gave me distinctly to understand that he expected to see me at dinner, which was just ready, in a black tail-coat and white tie. My sincere regrets and explanation that my light tourist's kit for this excursion in the mountain wilds could not possibly include black evening dress, did not prevent my host from donning it in my honour, nor his wife, the only other person at table, from appearing in full dinner toilet.

Excepting only this and some other trifling formality which seemed strange to an unceremonious German like myself, I have nothing but delightful recollections of my visits to the English planters of the Ceylon hills. Their lonely lives are unvaried but by hard work, and they have much to sacrifice. It is a great mistake to suppose that their position is at all analogous to that of the great slave-owners of tropical America, or that they idly reap a splendid fortune by the labours of hundreds of black coolies. On the contrary, work, is the watchword here - work, think, and superintend from dawn till night. I always found my hosts at work by daybreak; a large portion of the day is spent in visiting the remoter portions of the vast estates, in giving instructions to servants and overseers, in accounts and correspondence. Much of the planter's success depends solely on careful calculations, though the relations of the weather to the situation, soil, etc., plays large part in the matter. The residences being as a rule very far apart, neighbourly intercourse is extremely limited, and the ladies, particularly, lead very lonely lives. Many of them find small compensation for this privation in the perfect freedom it affords them within the limits of their extensive estates, or in the constant presence of the beauties of nature, which for an appreciative soul must here be an unfailing source of enjoyment.

The planter's bungalow is usually a one-storied house, built of stone, with a wide, projecting roof and verandah, surrounded by a lovely garden, and fitted with every English comfort adapted to the circumstances. Close to the house, there is generally a clump of Eucalyptus globulus, and the same tree is planted here and there, allover the estates. This Australian shrub is considered a valuable neighbour, as it is said to dry the soil and render the air wholesome.

The huts of the Tamils are often grouped into a small village, generally at some distance from the house, and near the coffee-stores. Of late years much has been done in planning and making good roads, and as the plantations extend and multiply, the greater part of the hill districts will, in time, be traversed and accessible by carriage roads.

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