Open main menu


By Sir Henry A. Blake, G.C.M.G.

Ceylon, which contains the largest population of any single Government in our Colonial Empire, is an island in the Indian Ocean, lying south-east of the Madras Presidency, its northern extremity, which overlaps Cape Comorin by about two degrees, forming the Gulf of Manaar, at the northern point of which the island of Ceylon is separated from India by the Paumban Channel, the island of Ramasweram, and a series of sand-banks, intersected by shallow and shifting channels, which are named Adam's Bridge, as they practically bridge the twenty miles or so that separate the southeastern point of Ramasweram from Manaar Point. The extreme length of Ceylon is 266 miles; its greatest width 140½ miles; its area is 25,331⅝ square miles, or 16,212,480 acres. This area is about equal to that of Holland and Belgium. Although so close to the continent of Asia, it is asserted that the island has never been joined to India, as is shown by certain differences in the fauna and flora. The tiger is not known, but among the animals that roam through the great forests are found the elephant, cheetah, black bear, buffalo, boar, elk, and small deer. From time to time elephants are captured by means of elephant kraals, a system that involves the expenditure of considerable time and money in the preparation. A strong enclosure having been constructed, many hundreds of men are employed for some weeks in forming a cordon round the portion of the forest where herds of elephants are known to be. The men are supplied with torches, and work inwards, making noise by day and lighting their torches by night. The cordon gradually contracts, until the elephants are at length driven into the kraal, the entrance to which is securely fastened. The beaters stand round outside the enclosure, ready to turn back the rushes of the herd upon the barrier by thrusting flaming torches in their faces. After a time tame elephants are introduced into the enclosure, ridden by their mahouts, who, strange to say, are hardly ever, if ever, attacked by the wild and frightened members of the herd. Of these one is singled out, and two tame elephants range themselves on either side, while an agile native close behind watches an opportunity to lasso the leg of the wild one, upon which the strong rope is made fast to a tree. The same process is repeated until all are secured. The captured elephants are then left until starvation reduces them to docility, when they are conducted by trained elephants to their future 'stables,' where they are similarly fastened to trees, and carefully fed until they resign themselves to the position, and are trained by their keeper and attendant, who is a member of a special class. In the capture of the elephants there is a great deal of unavoidable cruelty, as a proportion of those fastened to trees kill themselves in their efforts to burst their bonds; but once tamed the elephant is at once the most docile and intelligent of all animals whose services man has appropriated. The tame elephants take a keen and sporting interest in the captures, and assist by cajolery and force in the operations.

The population was in 1901 over 8,500,000, which is divided as follows:

Europeans 6,300
Burghers and Eurasians 23,482
Sinhalese 2,330,807
Tamils 951,740
Moormen (Mohammedans) 228,034
Malays 14,902
Veddahs 3,071
Others (including some 70 nationalities)  9,718

The population is now probably over 8,600,000. About one-fifth of the land is under cultivation, of which rice and other grains account for 780,000 acres; coco-nuts, areca-nuts, etc., 800,000; tea, 880,000; cacao, 88,000; tobacco, 25,000; sugar-cane, 11,000; coffee, 4,000; while rubber-trees and other new products are estimated at 45,000.[1] The probable eventual extension of the various cultivations is given as an additional 1,260,000 acres, but this I consider underestimated, as there are immense acres in the low country of the North Central, Northern and other provinces that with irrigation may offer inducements to capitalists to grow cotton, rubber, or coco-nuts, while apparently arid districts in the coral formation may be suitable for the growth of Sisal hemp or other fibre plants.

The history of the island shows that the aboriginal Veddahs, who were probably always nomad forest-dwellers, were conquered by the Sinhalese in the sixth century B.C., who were in their turn invaded and conquered by the Tamils 800 years later. The annals of the various dynasties, as given in the 'Mahawausa,' show that the Kings, both Sinhalese and Tamil, held their thrones on a tenure as precarious as their ancient Irish brothers, a large proportion dying by violence. To the terrors of the parricide Kasyapa, who, with the aid of the Premier, beheaded his father A.D. 478, we owe the most striking and interesting ancient ruin in Ceylon; for, fearful of the revenge of his brother Moggallana, who had collected an army in India to punish him, he fortified the rock of Sigiriya, which rises with perpendicular sides from the plain to a height of 600 feet, and maintained himself on this impregnable rock fortress for seventeen years. The extraordinary and daring ingenuity with which walls were built and passages constructed in positions that apparently would scarcely afford foothold for a cat compels admiration for the builders; and the extensive excavations undertaken by the archæological department show that the five acres on the summit, which can now only be reached by ladders, were covered with well-constructed and ornamented buildings, while ample attention had been paid to the questions of water and sanitation. The frescoes then painted in a gallery that is now reached by a perpendicular wire-rope ladder, which hangs 8 feet from the overhanging side of the rock, are perfectly fresh, and after an exposure of 1,500 years show clearly the dresses and jewelled ornaments of the royal ladies there depicted with their attendants. In 1898 the Emperor of China sent an expedition to Ceylon, which captured and carried away to China all the members of the reigning family, who were kept in confinement for a number of years, until at length the Emperor chose a King from among them, and sent him back to resume the kingdom.

In 1505 Western civilization first made a permanent settlement by means of the Portuguese, who landed by arrangement with the King of Cotla, and thirteen years later built a fort at Colombo. In 1658 Manaar was taken by the Dutch, who ultimately ousted the Portuguese, and continued in possession of the maritime provinces until 1796, when Colombo surrendered to the British.

In 1808 hostilities began against the independent kingdom of Kandy, and in 1815 the Kandyan kingdom was acquired rather by invitation of the inhabitants, who revolted from the atrocious cruelties of the King, Raja Singa, than by conquest. And fix)m that date begins the history of the island as an important portion of the glorious Empire, of which the island forms one of the most prosperous and exquisitely beautiful units.

Ceylon lies between 5° 55' and 9° 51' N. latitude. The island north of 7° 30' is quite flat, with an average rainfall of about 89 inches, of which nearly four-fifths falls between October and January, and a mean annual temperature of 81° This average temperature is almost identical all round the littoral, and the south-east of the island has even a smaller rainfall than the Northern Province. The flat lands of the maritime provinces are the home of the coco-nut and other palms; and here is to be found the mass of the Sinhalese population. The mountain districts are situated east of Colombo, and, roughly, cover an area represented by a circle, with Nuwara Eliya as a centre and a radius of forty miles. The rainfall of this mountain district ranges team 70 inches to 281 inches, with a mean annual temperature from 58° to 75° Within this area is situated the tea, coffee, cacao, and cardamom cultivation, and here the British planter has given evidence of the indomitable energy that has enabled him to recover from the disastrous failure of coffee after 1875, and to produce tea, cacao, cardamoms, rubber, and cinchona, to the value, in 1904, of Rs. 60,428,850.

Nor have the native inhabitants shown any lack of energy, for the exports in 1904 from native industry reached the sum of Rs. 45,000,000; and we must not forget that, while almost every pound of tea was exported, a large portion of the native crops was consumed at home.

Previous to 1875 British capital was almost exclusively devoted to coffee, a crop which required the greatest care and supervision at certain periods, but with considerable intervals, during which the coffee-planter had a free time. But the tea cultivation calls for incessant supervision, as the entire plantation must be picked over at regular intervals of seven to ten days, according to situation, temperature, and moisture, the finest flavour being obtained in the dry season, when retarded growth gives time for the formation of the essential oil to which tea owes its 'bouquet.' The tea-planter, besides having a knowledge of agriculture, must also know the scientific reasons which govern the processes of withering, drying, and rolling that go to produce the fragrant cup that sets so many millions of tongues a-wagging—and the exigencies of the cultivation and manufacture leave him but little time for that recreation without which the British Jack is certain in time to become a dull boy.

While the foreground in every part of Ceylon is beautiful from wealth of tropical growth, it is impossible to exaggerate the magnificence of the mountain scenery through which the railway passes from Rambukkana in the west, by Kandy, to Banderawella in the east, and amid which the lot of the up-country tea and cacao planter is cast.

It may be stated in general terms that the hill districts are healthy and suitable for the residence of Europeans, and that the low country is malarious, especially where forest or jungle has been recently cleared.

Within the past year or two the planting of rubber has received a great impetus from the increase of demand over supply, and probably an equivalent of 40,000 acres has been planted. In this, as in other matters affecting the agricultural interests of the island, the Government affords every possible assistance. At the Peredeniya Botanic Gardens, besides the Director, there is a staff consisting of a mycologist and an entomologist, who are ready to visit any property and advise as to fungoid or insect pests that may make their appearance. There is also an experimental station attached to the gardens, the Superintendent of which makes practical experiments in the growing of various crops in various ways; in the effects of treatment of cacao canker by spraying and other means; in the results of different manures; and in the growing and tapping of rubber-trees. A number of planters have permitted experiments'm manuring to be made on their properties, and in this way a mass of information as to results at different elevations and under differing conditions is collated and presented to a committee of planters and officials, who meet at Peredeniya at stated intervals.

In addition to this machinery that has been at work for several years, there was formed last year an Agricultural Society, with a view to interesting the entire community in agricultural improvement. Of this society the Governor is President, the Board meeting monthly. Both European and native cultivators have taken up the work of the society with vigour, and the scientific staff of the Botanic Department are important and active working members. The membership of the principal society now numbers over 750, each of whom pays a subscription of Rs. 5 annually. Each member receives a copy of all the publications of the society. There are, besides, a considerable number of local branches, the members of which pay a small subscription, and each branch is affiliated to the parent society by a payment of Rs. 5. All papers of interest to small cultivators are translated into Sinhalese and Tamil, and the leaflets are distributed by the local societies to their members. A number of native gentlemen have thrown themselves heartily into the work, and undertaken various experiments under the advice of the Botanic Department There is thus equally from the planters of the hill districts and the planters of the plains a large number of stations devoted to experiments on present crops and new products that without expense to the public must produce results of great value in the near future.

The Legislature of Ceylon consists of a Legislative Council of seventeen members, the unofficial members being a Tamil member, a Kandyan, a Mohammedan, a low-country Sinhalese, a Burgher, a general European member, a planting member, and a representative ox the Chamber of Commerce.

Space will not admit of more than a mere mention of the rapid expansion of means of communication by railways. In 1867 the seventy-four miles of railway to Kandy was opened. There are now 562 miles of railway completed, the total cost of which up to December 31, 1904, was Rs. 74,782,727, the railway debt at that date being Rs. 40,894,489. The railway system, besides paying the interest and sinking fund on its debt, now contributes a considerable amount to the annual revenue of the Colony. At present a further extension is projected from Colombo to Negombo, from Avisawella to Ratnapura, and possibly from Banderawella to Fassara. The returns for 1904 show that the total trade of the Colony amounted to 2,064¼ lacs of rupees. Taking the two periods 1895 and 1904, the figures are as follows:

1895. 1904.
Imports from  Lacs.   Lacs. 
United Kingdom  200¼  260½
British Colonies  519¼  665¾
Foreign Countries   45¾  127
Exports to
United Kingdom  574¼  511¾
British Colonies  115  183
Foreign Countries   85¼  316¼

These figures show how rapidly the trade with foreign countries is increasing. Ceylon possesses two splendid harbours, Trincomalie and Colombo, and a fine harbour at Galle, the great port of exchange between the ancient East and West, which might by a comparatively small expenditure become once more a great port to satisfy the exigencies of the expanding trade with the Far East. Colombo is an artificial harbour enclosing over 600 acres. Trincomalie is one of the best natural harbours in the world. It is now abandoned as a naval station, but one day the Indian Government may see the utility of securing the advantage of the only harbour on the western shores of the Bay of Bengal south of Calcutta by constructing a railway over Adam's Bridge to connect with a Ceylon line from Manaar to Trincomalie, in which event the latter would become the principal port for Eastern trade with Southern India.

To those who contemplate the investment of capital in Ceylon, as to those who are already engaged in cultivation, the Labour Question is important. In 1904, 76,968 coolies came from Southern India, and 56,246 returned. All coolies on arrival are sent to Ragama Camp, eight miles from Colombo, whence, after a detention of twenty-four hours, they are despatched to their destination. The coolies are contented and peaceable. Medical aid is provided in every district. There are sixty-six hospitals and 871 outdoor dispensaries in the island. As a contribution to medical expenses, an export duty is collected of 10 cents per hundredweight on coffee, tea, and cacao, and 5 cents per hundredweight on cinchona. Drugs are supplied at cost price to superintendents of estates. The rates paid for medicines at public dispensaries would hardly satisfy a private chemist, 5 cents an ounce being the authorized charge for an ordinary mixture, 2 cents for a lotion, and 2 cents per square inch for a blister!

A Commission has just reported on the subject of education, on which legislation will be proposed during the coming session. In the meantime it is known that 21 per cent. of the population are able to read and write in some language.

It would require more space than can here be given to do justice to the various questions affecting this fascinating island, but enough has been said to show that its prosperity is apparently stable, and that it presents possibilities of profit and pleasure to intending investors or seekers after archaeological interest or perfection of natural beauties.

  1. I quote these figures from Ferguson's admirable 'Ceylon Handbook and Directory.