A Visit to Ceylon

by Ernst Haeckel, 1883

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Chapter 20



The delightful excursion in the hill country, ending in the voyage down the Black River, had closed the programme of all I had most wished to do in this Isle of Marvels, and now I had to prepare for my return journey. I should, it is true, have liked to see Trincomalie, which, besides its great interest, is so rich in the eyes of the naturalist; and to visit the famous ruined cities in the north of the island, Anarajapoora and Pollanarua. But my six months, leave was drawing to an end; the last Lloyd's steamer that could transport me back to Europe in due time would sail from Colombo on the 11th of March, and I cannot deny that, in spite of all the wonders and beauties I had seen, home sickness made itself increasingly felt, and a happy return to my beloved German home seemed, more and more, the most desirable thing on earth.

So as soon as I reached Colombo I set to work to pack all my latest additions to my collection and make my preparations for starting. I made one more delightful excursion with Dr. Trimen, to Henerakgodde, an offshoot of the garden at Peradenia, in the very hottest part of the damp low country, and intended for the cultivation of such plants as require the highest tropical temperature. There I saw gigantic specimens of the finest trees, palms, creepers, ferns and orchids, which, even after all I had seen already, utterly astounded me. I spent a few very pleasant days with Mr. Staniforth Green and his nephew at "Templetree Bungalow", and remember with peculiar pleasure a delightful evening spent in a canoe with the latter, on the mirror-like lake by the Cinnamon Gardens. I devoted a few most interesting days to a study of the museum, and Dr. Haly, the director, having then returned, displayed and explained its contents in the kindest and most instructive manner. I paid farewell calls to the many English residents who had aided me in various ways during my stay in the island. On the very last day, Mr. William Fergusson enriched my collection by the addition of a fine and exceptionally large tiger-frog (Ralla tigrina), and other amphibia; and my friend Both crowned his zoological favours with a full-grown "Negumbo devil" - a large scale-covered quadruped, held in superstitious dread by the Cinghalese, and the sole representative of the Edentata found in the island (Manis brathyura). It was not an easy task to kill this creature, which proved highly tenacious of life. A large dose of prussic acid finaIly put an end to him.

Every moment I could spare from the great business of packing I devoted to the garden of "Whist Bungalow", and I took several photographs of the most beautiful points. It was a real grief to take leave of this delightful paradise, and of my worthy fellow-countrymen whose hospitality I had enjoyed; I felt acutely the overwhelming sense of quitting for ever a spot of earth that had grown dear to me. Of course this feeling was greatly counteracted by the prospect of finding myself homeward-bound, for in the tropics Home has to every European quite a different sound to what it ever can have in Europe itself. The feeling of returning to the home we love after a successful journey in the tropics can only be compared with that of the soldier returning after a victorious campaign. I, indeed, had enjoyed special good fortune, for during a stay of five months in the tropics, in spite of toil and fatigue, I had not had a single day's illness, and had happily escaped every form of danger.

However, this good fortune and immunity had their limits, and I had an instinctive sense of having nearly reached them. All the wonderful and magnificent impressions and experience I had gone through during the last four months had been almost too much for me, and I longed unspeakably for respite and repose. During the last week in Colombo, especially when the oppressive effects of the change of monsoon were very sensible. I felt more exhausted and over-wrought than I ever had before. I positively craved at last for the quiet time before me on board the steam vessel, and for some leisure which should allow of my mastering and classifying the mass of pictures and ideas that filled my brain.

This longed-for respite and Sunday mood I found on board the fine vessel in which I returned from Colombo. I have never had a better voyage than in the good ship Aglaia, belonging to the Austrian Lloyd's Company, which transported me in eight days from Ceylon to Egypt. She had started from Calcutta so heavily freighted as to draw her utmost allowance of water, and my cases, for want of room, were stowed in the smoking-room. Even in a storm she could hardly have tolled much, and under the calm and cloudless sky which favoured us throughout the voyage the ship's motion was hardly perceptible; the north-east monsoon was behind us, and the passage across the Indian Ocean from Colombo to Aden was like a holiday trip across some calm and land-locked lake.

This pleasant state of things was enhanced by the agreeable society of my fellow-travellers. There were but three first-class passengers besides myself, all three Germans returning home from Calcutta, whom I found excellent company. The captain, Herr N., was the most amiable ship's captain I ever met with; a sage and humorist to boot, combining the philosophy of Socrates and the Aretshi. The fair sex were altogether absent, which added in no small degree to the pleasures of the voyage. Pardon, fair reader, so shocking a declaration. We four passengers and the friendly ship's officers, with whom we took our meals, enjoyed to the utmost the various privileges which the absence of ladies secured to us, and, for one thing, never appeared throughout the passage in any costume but the most comfortable Indian neglige. Neither handkerchief nor collar encumbered our throats, easy yellow Indian slippers took the place of shining black boots, and the rest of our attire consisted of that particularly light and airy white flannel garment known throughout India as a pajama suit.

The nights during this voyage were wonderfully beautiful. We often slept on the deck, fanned by a soft tropical sea breeze, under the dark blue roof of sky, where the stars shone with intense brightness. I often lay awake for hours inhaling the fresh salt air with delight, and enjoying the heavenly peace which for eighteen days still to come would be disturbed by neither letters nor proof-sheets, by neither students nor college-beadle. I nightly admired the "mild splendour of the southern cross," as in duty bound, and often gazed into the sparkling wake that spread like a long fiery tail at the stern of the ship, flashing with myriads of luminous Medusae, Crustaceae, Salpae, and other phosphorescent creatures.

I spent the days chiefly in arranging and completing my notes and sketches, and when I was tired of writing, drawing, or reading, I wandered into the second-class quarters, where a menagerie of monkeys, parrots, wood pigeons and other birds were a never-ending entertainment. In my own little menagerie the most interesting creature was the lemur from Belligam (Stenops gracilis), a most amusing little fellow, whose wonderful gymnastics delighted us every evening.

The details of the voyage afforded little worthy of record. I quitted my friends at "Whist Bungalow" at two o'clock on the 10th of March, after a regretful leave-taking. On the 12th we passed the Maldives, steering pretty close to the cocoa-nut groves of Minikoi, a coral island. On the morning of the 18th we were near the picturesque coast of Socotra, where the ravines are marked by immense fields of snow-white sand,looking like glaciers sloping to the sea. We reached Aden on the evening of the 20th, but as we were refused pratique in consequence of the quarantine against cholera, we steamed out again at nine o'clock and up the Red Sea. On the 21st we passed Bab-el-Mandeb, and on the 22nd the Guano rock of Geb-el-Tebir; immense flocks of dusky cormorants here flew round the ship. On the morning of the 25th we crossed the tropic of Cancer, just opposite Cape Berenice; coasted the Sinaitic Peninsula on the 27th; and anchored before sunrise on the 28th by the quay at Suez.

As I still had a few weeks of liberty at my disposal, and as many vessels sail weekly from Alexandria for various ports in Europe, I determined to spend a fortnight in Egypt, chiefly in order to avoid the sudden change of climate, which at this season of the year would be very severe, in going at once from the heat of Ceylon to the cold of Northern Europe. I was also greatly influenced by a wish to compare the vegetation of Lower Egypt, which had impressed me greatly nine years previously, with my Indian experiences. The comparison proved, in fact, extremely interesting; there can hardly be a greater contrast in every respect between two countries, both in the torrid zone, than between Ceylon and Egypt.

On the morning of the 28th of March I quitted the Aglaia, bidding a cordial farewell to my fellow-passengers, and on the following day I made an excursion on a donkey to Moses' Well, as it is called, an interesting little oasis in the desert, a few miles east of the entrance to the Canal. On the 30th, a nine hours' railway journey took me to Cairo, where I took up my abode in the German Hotel du Nil. I spent ten days in Cairo, that embodiment of the Arabian Nights, partly in refreshing my pleasant memories of a former visit and partly in making new excursions. The most interesting of these was a somewhat long ride into the desert, to what is known as "The Great Petrified Forest." Under the guidance of an experienced fellow-countryman, who has long been resident in Cairo as an apothecary - my kind friend Sickenberger - I set out with a numerous party of German travellers at six in the morning of April 5th. We had taken care to provide ourselves with food and with strong asses, as the ride thither and back again takes the whole day. The road lay eastward, first through the wonderful plain of the tombs of the Khalifs, and then up the northern slope of Mokattam. After trotting through the sandy wilderness for four hours we reached our destination. Here, in the midst of an absolutely barren wilderness, petrified among the sandhills, are a considerable number of tree-trunks from seventy to eighty feet long and two or three feet thick. They belong chiefly to an extinct genus of Sterculiae, Nicolia. Most of these trunks are of a shining blackish or reddish brown, and look as if they had been polished; they are broken into fragments from two to six feet in length, and half buried in the sand; some, however, lie quite free from sand and in order, end to end. They are most numerous near the coal shaft.,"Bir-el-Fahme," a boring six hundred feet deep, made in I 84O, by command of Mohammed Ali, who vainly hoped to find coal in the midst of the desert.

Our road back to Cairo led us through Wadi Dugla, a wide and picturesque gorge, through which the caravans of Mecca pilgrims make their way from Cairo to Suez. We rode for several hours downhill through the windings of this ravine, where the bare yellowish cliffs rise almost perpendicularly on either side, before we finally issued on the Nile valley at a spot between Wadi Turra on the north and the heights of Mokattam on the south. It was late in the evening before we reached Cairo.

This desert ride, which affords a very fair idea of the general character of the Arabian deserts, gave me a vivid conception of the extraordinary difference between the whole aspect of nature in Lower Egypt and in Ceylon. This contrast is shown in the first place by the climate and vegetation, and in the second by every detail of animal and human life. While the ancient sea bottom, which now constitutes the yellow sands of Egypt, is rich in fossil remains which betray its relatively recent geological origin, the soil of verdurous Ceylon consists of primitive rock absolutely destitute of fossils. While here the intense drought of the atmosphere scarcely allows a meagre vegetation to exist, there the superabundant moisture results in a wealth and luxuriance of plant life which is unsurpassed in any other part of the globe. Violent rain-falls, which in Egypt scarcely ever occur, are in Ceylon of daily occurrence.

The daily variations of temperature in this drier air are so great as to amount sometimes to 35o; out in the desert, a thin film of ice is frequently formed during the night, while at noon the thermometer stands at 43o to 45o C, in the shade. In the damp, hot-house climate of Ceylon, on the contrary, the variations are so small that they rarely exceed 5o or 6o in twenty-four hours - from 25o to 31 o centigrade.

Nor is the contrast less striking in the population than in the soil, climate, and vegetation. In Egypt, we find the noisy and eager Arab, with his unblushing, pushing, and assertive nature, fanatical Mohammedans of Hamitic race; in Ceylon, the gentle unpresuming Cinghalese, indolent Buddhists of Aryan origin, peaceable, retiring, and timid. While Egypt, from its situation - alone in the centre between the three continents of the old world - has from the earliest ages played an important part in the history of nations, has been the apple of discord to mighty potentates and the object of passionate contention, the Eden-like territory of Ceylon, has, to a great extent, lain outside the limits of civilized progress, and its political history has had no importance beyond its own shores.

As a botanical symbol and expression of this contrast, one single tree may be taken. In Egypt and in Ceylon alike, a palm tree is the most important vegetable product in the general economy of the nation in Egypt, the date palm; in Ceylon, the cocoa-nut palm. Although these two noble gifts of Flora are of almost equal value, and every part of each has its special utility, still they are as dissimilar in detail as the two trees are in appearance, and as the character they impart to the landscape. The date palm is as inseparable from Egyptian or Arabian scenery as the cocoa-nut palm is from the low country of Ceylon.

A native of the north who, after crossing the Alps, sees the date palm for the first time in Italy, admires it as the representative of a noble tribe, and his admiration increases as he travels farther south to Egypt where he finds it in abundance and far more beautiful in growth. I myself, have worshipped it with true devotion.

How poor by comparison did the date palm now seem when the incomparably finer and more perfect form of the cocoa-nut palm, as I had seen it in Ceylon, was freshly stamped On my mind! The slender, smooth, white trunk of the Cocos is always gracefully bent and is usually twice as tall as the thickset, scaly, dingy brown stem of the date palm. The huge, finely sweeping, yellow-green plumes of the cocoa-nut are twice as large and twice as beautiful as the stiff, straight, dull green leaves of the date palm. Indeed, the picturesque beauty of the Cocos exceeds that of the date palm as greatly as its huge nut exceeds the small and inconspicuous date itself.

During the Easter week, which I spent in Cairo, the great political events in Egypt, which have since revolutionised Egypt, cast their shadows before them. The aversion of the Egyptians for all Europeans, eagerly fomented by the fanatical Mohammedan priesthood, was repeatedly displayed in attacks and outbreaks. I was twice insulted: once by a dervish when visiting the mosque of El Azhar, the university of Cairo; and a second time by a soldier, when I was sitting on the bank of the Nile making a sketch; and it was by a mere accident that on these two occasions I escaped falling into real danger just at the end of my travels. Not long before an English painter, when sketching among the tombs of the Khalifs, had been attacked by a solider and seriously wounded, without any sort of provocation. It was even then reported that Arabi Pasha was systematically prompting these attempts. All the hostility of Islam to the European spirit of progress was incarnate in that ambitious adventurer, and the English government would have saved lives and money if it had acted with decision at an earlier stage of affairs.

Since, at the present day, the successes of the English in Egypt are looked upon with disfavour in many quarters. I cannot here conceal my disagreement with this view. On the contrary, it appears to me that they should be hailed with satisfaction, alike on the grounds of common humanity and on those of rational political action.

The Egyptians are far from being a nation of the modern civilized type, and so long as Islam exercises its baleful and paralysing influence there is no hope for progress. On the other hand, the country lies so centrally on the high road between the west and the east, and especially between England and India, that Britain cannot forego the mastership of the Canal, if she is to retain her hold on her vast empire. This empire is in itself an object worthy of admiration, for the English are undoubtedly gifted beyond any other nation with the genius for founding and governing colonies. The opportunities afforded me during my journey - first in Bombay and afterwards in Ceylon - for observing the English colonial system, raised it infinitely in my estimation. It can only be because England governs her immense Indian possessions with as much tact as judgment, that she is able to keep her hold upon them with a relatively small official staff.

Instead, then, of watching the extension and consolidation of English power with grudging and envious eyes, we should do better to study the political skill which brings progress and benefit to the whole human race. If Germany, following the example of her British cousin, had founded colonies while it was yet time, how far more important might our German culture have proved to the world at large; how much greater might not her position have been!

My return from Ceylon to Egypt was absolutely uneventful. I left Alexandria on the morning of Aptil 12th, in the Austrian Lloyd's

steamer Castor, and arrived at Trieste safe and sound on the 18th of April. Here I was heartily welcomed by kind old friends, and then, hurrying through Vienna, I went straight to Jena.

Here the painful news awaited me of the death of my honoured friend and master, Charles Darwin, to whom I had written a letter of congratulation a few weeks before, from the top of Adam's Peak, for his 73rd birthday.

It was at five in the afternoon of the 21st of April that I reached my home in Jena, and as I had announced myself to arrive only on the following day, I had the pleasure of taking my family by surprise. It was a happy meeting after my six months' absence. Rejoicing in the good fortune which had granted me, though late, one of the most fervent desires of my youth, I settled down at home once more, the richer by a wealth of memories which cannot fail to be a source of enjoyment and gratitude for the rest of my life.


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