In Ceylon’s Sunny Isle

IT was one o’clock in the afternoon when the green shores of Ceylon first came into view from the forcastle head, and a little later we picked up the pilot who was to steer the transport into the harbor. As we advanced within the great breakwater which forms the harbor of Colombo, every person on deck was searching the shore with his eyes, anxious to have first glimpse of some of the sights of the city. Timmie and I occupied our usual position on the fo’c'stle head, and I repeated the well-known lines which we used to sing so often at missionary meetings of the Junior Christian Endeavor Society:

What though the spicy breezes, Blow soft o’er Ceylon’s Isle: Though every prospect pleases, And only man is vile. In vain, with lavish kindness, The gifts of God are strewn, The heathen, in his blindness, Bows down to wood and stone.

“I don’t smell any spicy breezes,” said Timmie, as he sniffed the air. ” Well,” I replied, ” I don’t smell them either, but no doubt Bishop Heber did, or he would never have written those lines. I’m willing to agree with the third verse, if what we can see from here is a sample of the whole island. Every prospect is certainly pleasing to the eye.” “And the vile men will appear later in bum-boats,” said Timmie, laughing, “for they say Colombo harbor is filled with pedlers of every description.”

” The Cross-Roads of the Nations ”

Passing within the breakwater, we had some evidence why Colombo is called “the cross-roads of the nations.” There were ships at anchor flying the flags of all the mercantile nations, and bound for nearly all the great ports of Europe and the East. The ship which interested us most was a great German trooper, which was lying next to us. She was homeward bound, with soldiers from China, and as we entered the anchorage her men gave us a warm reception. ” Get out the band,” ordered Captain Logan, and in two or three minutes the air was resounding to the strains of ” Das Wacht am Rhein.” The Ger-mans waited until the air was finished, and then they gave three cheers, the like of which none of us had ever heard before. ” They’re enough to wake the Buried Cities,” said Howard Eddy, who had been reading up on the history of Ceylon and wanted to display his knowledge. The German band returned our compliment with an excellent rendering of ” The Star-Spangled Banner,” and then, when our men had finished cheering, the pleasant incident was closed.

That same afternoon, however, a French transport entered the harbor, homeward bound with troops from China, and the German and American bands played ” La Marseillaise ” amid the Frenchmen’s cheers. – Then the new band played the American and German national airs in turn, while everybody cheered. “The Singalese on shore must think bedlam has broken loose in the harbor,” said Mr. Casey. ” They have certainly never heard so many cheers before. It’s strange three transports should anchor here on the same day.”

When the soldiers from the three ships went ashore at the same time there were predictions that trouble would surely result. The officers on the McClellan said that the French and Germans would certainly come to blows if they happened to meet in a barroom, and that the American recruits would probably split and help both sides. But there were no unpleasant incidents at all. The German trooper left that same evening after she had filled her bunkers with coal, and it was an inspiring sight to watch her steam out of the harbor. Every inch of her deck-space and even her spars were crowded with the soldiers in khaki, who cheered us as long as we were within earshot. Our band played their national air again, and of course they thought of the dear fatherland for which they were bound. Some of our recruits were wishing that they, too, were homeward bound, instead of going out to the Philippines for three years’ service.

We were anchored comparatively near the wharf, but the entire shore-line was so thickly planted with palm-trees that all we could discern of the city was the church-steeple and the signal-staff on top of the government building. The rich, green foliage along the water gave us an idea of what we might expect to find when we penetrated to the interior of this island, which has the reputation of being one of the most fertile and beautiful in the world. One of the Congressmen owned a book about Ceylon which he loaned me to read, and occasion-ally while we were in the Indian Ocean I read extracts aloud to Timmie and Mr. Casey and Jack, and others of the deck crowd. So we already knew that this was perhaps the most interesting place we would visit on the way to Manila, and that Ceylon is said to be the most successful and prosperous colony in the British crown. We were all of us anxious to go ashore at the earliest possible moment, since there was so much of interest to see, but the order came from Captain Linder that the masters-at-arms would have to remain aboard and do police duty. I was disappointed for the moment, but later on, when I found what fascinating things there were to observe in Colombo harbor, I didn’t object to staying on watch.

The Pedlers and Their Wares

The bum-boat men swarmed about the transport as they had done in no other port. They were so numerous that Mr. Casey and Timmie and I hardly dared go below deck, for fear they would climb over the side. They had all sorts of things to sell, but what interested us most was the fresh tropical fruit they offered. We didn’t know the names of some of the varieties, and we had no idea whether they would be very good to eat, but we were willing to devour anything fresh after such a prolonged diet of canned goods. The pineapples were especially welcome, and for an English penny we could get the largest and juiciest ones to be had. Although the pedlers were not permitted to come on board, we had no difficulty in trading. They had baskets which were attached to long poles, and when we expressed a desire to purchase something, the basket was hoisted to the railing. They always insisted that we deposit the money before they sent up the goods. No doubt they had learned from sad experience that sailors develop a thieving tendency in foreign ports, and are not scrupulous about paying, once they have the goods in their possession. In the same way it was often necessary to pay .the boatmen the fare before they would bring us out to the transport from the landing. Very often the sailors would reach the gangway, say ” Ta-ta ” to the native oarsmen and let them go without payment. Of course the poor natives couldn’t board the ship, and unless there was an officer handy to listen to their complaint, they would never get their money.

Many of the bum-boat men in Colombo harbor had jewelry to sell, and at the request of the Congressmen a few of them were allowed on board to show their goods. The passengers had read in a guide-book that there is no place in the world where precious stones may be purchased as cheaply as in Ceylon, and they were anxious to learn if this were true. The native jewelers displayed their collections of unset stones, and also their rings and brooches, and there was a dazzling array of sapphires, diamonds and turquoises. When the passengers asked the price of any stones they expected to be able to purchase them eventually at about half what the jeweler asked, for it is notorious that in the East there is no such thing as one price for all. The Singalese merchant gets what he can for his goods, and the customer knows that he is sure to be cheated if he accepts the first valuation.

Jewels of Asia

It was finally developed that the prices of sapphires and other stones were wonderfully cheap, compared to what we would have to pay in New York, and nearly all the passengers bought rings, and bracelets, and unset stones. Of course when the jewelers left the transport there was no way to find them again, since they were apparently homeless and nameless, and when it was discovered that the jewels were mostly glass and cheap imitations, there was great tribulation among those who had bought them so eagerly. Most of the rings lost their lustre after two or three days, and the gold on the bracelets was all rubbed off within twenty-four hours. It was evident that all the purchasers had been grossly deceived, and, as they had paid good prices in some cases, they thought it no joke. Even the ship’s officers had been caught by the wily natives. The fourth officer paid $35 for a supposed diamond and sapphire ring, and threw it overboard the next day. Nearly everyone threw their “jewels ” away as soon as they began to fade, and the Singalese jewelers were a sore subject with them for many a day. Some of the fellows up forward made purchases, too, and we had great fun over it in the mess-room. When it was seen that the sapphires and rubies were only glass, we set to work to discover what kind of glass they were. ” Mine is a piece of Apollinaris bottle,” said Jack, the boatswain, and Jim Syphers said his ring was set with a piece of a beer bottle. Manuel Silva said his had once been next to good champagne, and that he would therefore keep it. ” This is as near as I’ll ever get to the real thing,” he said, ” and I want to wear the ring anyhow just to remind me occasionally what a fool I am.”

“There are the original brownies!” exclaimed Howard Eddy, as he stood looking over the rail. We boys followed the direction of his eyes and saw eight naked boys a-straddle of a log, and paddling toward the transport. They were as brown as could be and had shiny black hair, which was only wavy, not curled. They made the log fly through the water and in a few minutes they were along-side. Then they stood up and began to cry out, ” Di-di-di-dive, di-di-di-dive,” at the top of their voices, making wild gestures at the same time. ” Do you suppose they’re crazy? ” asked Kenneth. It certainly looked as if the boys were temporarily insane, for apparently there was no meaning to the noise they made. The passengers crowded the rail and watched them with great interest, but no one grasped their meaning until Mr. Casey came up to explain. ” Why,” he said, ” they want us to throw money in the water for them to dive after. I’ve seen ‘em do it many a time, and I guess what they miss gettin’ wouldn’t pay many carfares.”

Diving for Coins

The passengers immediately started in to throw coins, and it was wonderful how those brown urchins dived into the water after them. Sometimes they would be out of sight for one or two minutes, but they always came up eventually, with the coin in their mouths or mayhap between their toes. They didn’t miss a single one while I watched them, and they seemed never to tire of the swimming. ” Why,” said Mr. Casey, when Timmie remarked that they must be nearly exhausted, ” them fellers live in the water. They’re regular fish, and just as much at home there as on dry land. This is how they make their livin’, by divin’ fer money ’round the ships in this harbor, and it’s a good livin’, too, considerin’ that they don’t buy no clothes, and can live on almost nothin’ but fish and rice.”

When the passengers tired of watching them dive, the boys stood on their log and delivered a Singalese version of ” Ta-ra-ra-ra-boom-de-aye,” which was certainly the funniest song I ever heard. I couldn’t understand a word they said, and couldn’t imagine what it was about, but the expressions of their faces and their gestures convulsed me and everyone else who was watching them. They got a lot of money for this performance, and Howard Eddy and I said we could make our fortunes by exhibiting them in America. Certainly, they would be different from any show which was ever seen in New York.

With so much to interest, the first afternoon which we spent in Colombo harbor passed quickly by. All the surroundings were new to us, and we saw boats which were like none we had ever seen before. Mr. Casey called them catamarans, and they looked so narrow, that Timmie said they would never in the world stay afloat in rough water. Then our chief called our attention to the outrigger, which extended from one side. ” When it’s rough,” he explained, ” the natives sit on the outrigger, and in that way balance the boat. It is a crazy arrangement, though,” he said, “because it requires three times as much effort to force that boat through the water as it does to propel an ordinary canoe. I reckon these people has used ‘em until they wouldn’t think of usin’ any other kind, and that’s the reason they’re so far behind the times ; they hain’t sense enough to pick up ideas from the foreigners.” When I went ashore the next morning, I decided Mr. Casey was prejudiced against the Singalese, for they seemed to be more enterprising than any Orientals we had so far seen on our trip.