Travelogue: Ceylon Or Sri Lanka

The land finally came in sight, it was greeted with unusual pleasure, for in these days of rapid transit, it is not very usual, even on long voyages, to be out of sight of terra firma for ten days. The first land we saw was the south end of the island of Ceylon. The sun having been invisible for some days, the officers were unable to get satisfactory reckonings. The captain claimed that we had been under the influence of a strong current that had diverted the ship slightly, and so, instead of making the southwest corner of the island, we were nearer the southeastern extremity, consequently, for the most of the day we sailed along the coast toward the harbor of Colombo. It proved to be a pleasant opportunity, for with the aid of glasses we watched the changing landscape of that land where, according to the old hymn, “every prospect pleases.” Luxuriant groves of cocoa palms grew to the waters edge, native villages and tea plantations were here and there, while frequently the white towers of a Buddhist shrine, the high dome of a temple, or the minarets of a Mohammedan mosque gave us our first glimpses of tangible heathenism. Just at nightfall we rounded the light-house which stands at the outer extremity of the extensive breakwater that forms the harbor of Colombo, one of the most important ports of the equatorial world. Slowly our massive ship made its way into the haven among the other shipping, and when we had nearly lost our motion, the order to ” let go the starboard anchor,” and then to ” let go the port anchor,” caused a clanking of chains, a rush of capstans, two distinct plunges in the water, and our vessel was at rest. Here we are in a panopticon and pandemonium of new and strange sights and sounds, and what shall we look at or listen to first? Well, the first thing to be done is to find out if the steamer from London for Calcutta has arrived, or has passed, as she generally does just before the arrival of the Australian boat. To our pleasant surprise, it is ascertained that neither has happened, for after starting from London, the boat had a collision in the Channel, and was obliged to put back. Consequently she is two days late, and we shall have the most of that time in Colombo. It is too late to think of going ashore to-night, and the steamer will not begin coaling before morning, so we are pleased with the prospect of a quiet night in the still water of the harbor.

But what are those dark-skinned, nearly naked bipeds that come scrambling up the ship’s side like monkeys, and swarm the deck with loud vociferations ? They are real, genuine, live heathen! Thus at least we are apt to conclude, but, after all, we have as yet no very good ground for so deciding, except it be the scarcity of their wardrobe. It is true they have not more than a yard of cloth upon them, and some of them but a fraction of that amount. But it serves the purpose, and supplies the demands of modesty so far as their tastes require, and, strange to relate, within a few minutes we find that our revulsion has fled, and we have accepted the situation, so that henceforth there is no squeamishness upon our part toward them on that score. As regards their actions, they are really no worse than those of a crowd of bus and hack drivers are in our Christianized (?) country. They are simply trying to induce the passengers who are going ashore to patronize their boats, that they may earn a few cents (yes, cents in Ceylon) with which to buy food for their families. It is true they nag and quarrel and pull and coax till your patience is exhausted, even after you have signified that you are not going ashore, and would not be taken there for anything. The sailors soon weary of their outcry, and seek to drive them off with kicks and cuffs, but it is slow work, though an occasional splash in the water proves that a few, more demonstrative than discreet, have been put overboard head foremost in a shorter time than it took them to scramble up. Fruit and trinkets are also rushed aboard for the purpose of traffic, and sales are urged with a persistency that is surprising as well as disagreeable.

After this short introduction, we seek rest in the quiet state-room, where none molest, to plan and dream for the norrow. The morning comes full soon enough, and in these tropical regions that is the most favorable part of the day. Whatever failings may be truthfully attributed to the people of these countries, they should never be accused of wasting their time in bed in the morning. We were on deck betimes, but the natives were there before us, and the time till breakfast was spent in making their acquaintance, and taking in the surroundings.

The harbor naturally deserves our first attention. This is of comparatively recent establishment, though the city itself is ancient. Up to about 1880, Point de Galle, situated on the coast about fifty miles south of Colombo, was the principal port, but it stands deserted now. Its harbor was incommodious, besides being quite dangerous of entrance. In 1875 the government undertook the construction of the most extensive breakwater in the world. There is no natural harbor at Colombo, though an indenture of the coast furnishes a partial protection from the north, but by far the most violent winds in these regions are the southwest monsoons, which. blow with regularity and sometimes with great force through several months of the summer. It was necessary to give the shipping a protection from the tremendous breakers which these winds roll up in their course across the Indian Ocean. To do this a stone wall was built out into the sea for a distance of one mile, at a cost of $3,500,000. It is composed of massive blocks of concrete, so firmly laid that they resist unshaken the mighty attacks of wind and waves. So that now, except in the case of west or northwest winds, the harbor is safe.

Colombo is noted chiefly for being a port of call and a coaling station. Situated in the very center of the commerce of the Orient, it is a crossing for several important lines of steamships. It is visited by all vessels sailing in those waters.

North of the city is a rocky promontory, which in centuries past served as a landmark to the Dutch and Portuguese voyagers. Facing the water stand some massive buildings, giving the place a fine appearance from the decks. In the dim distance are lofty mountain tops, while on every hand luxuriant verdure abounds.

But we are in haste to get ashore, though our interest in this matter is not half so great as that of the crowd of native boatmen, who from our first appearance on deck have kept up a continuous wrangle as to who should have a chance to do the rowing. Notwithstanding this had been settled more than two hours before, it did not relieve the pressure, for the man to whom the job was promised was in constant anxiety lest some one should underbid him, and carry off the prize. I was not to be corrupted though, and repeatedly assured him that I should stand by my bargain.

Every harbor has a paddle boat or rowing craft peculiar to itself. I do not know what they call those in Colombo, but they seem to be founded on a dug-out log, with sides built up so that when a passenger sits on a seat he has ample room to dangle his feet. But it is so narrow that but one can sit on a seat, and if he were very large, he would hang over the sides. The ends of this craft are sharp, and under the force of two or three paddles it makes rapid time. Such a narrow, topheavy vessel would quickly turn over but for an out-rigger in the form of a small log attached to long arms, which runs through the water alongside. This out-rigger is sufficiently heavy to prevent the boat from capsizing, and is sharpened at either end so that it runs easily. These boats are also used for fishing purposes, and we saw them fifteen miles or more out at sea on billows of considerable magnitude. On the ocean they are driven by a sail. They carry a large sail, and run very close to the wind, and when it is desirable to give them more wind than they could carry without capsizing, men crawl out along the arms and stand upon the out-rigger, while their craft flies before the breeze, and their little support is dashed through the waves, which completely envelop the daring fisherman. The speed these boats make under these circumstances is surprising, while the indifference of the natives to the apparent danger goes to show that they are as much at home in the water as on the land. Indeed, this is the case with all the natives who live on islands in warm climates, water is not to them an unnatural element.

Upon landing, I was met at the customs sheds by a crowd of natives, every one of whom manifested the greatest interest in my welfare. Several, more bold than the rest, greeted me as an old friend, in such language as they could command, stating that they knew me when I was there before, and remembered me well! As I marched up the street, I might have been taken for an individual of no small distinction, so great was the throng that pressed around me. It was amusing at first, but soon became tiresome. The only way to get rid of the parasites was to ignore them entirely, though some of them had to be told to “be off” in a tone that betokened no weakness of purpose if they failed to do so. Occasionally an appeal to a policeman was necessary. The older beggars soon gave it up, and went to look for another arrival, but several naked youngsters ran along before me, rubbing their stomachs and crying, ” Me hungry, me no food, no fadder, no mudder, me hungry.”

The streets in the modern part of the town are broad and shady. Colombo contains one hundred and twenty-five thou sand inhabitants. The island has a population of three million and an area of twenty-five thousand square miles. The southern end of Ceylon is but six degrees north of the equator, so that there is but little variation in the climate, which generally maintains an annual average temperature of eighty degrees, or sometimes a little higher. The rainfall is abundant, especially in the monsoon season when, as we sometimes say, it does not rain, but pours. Vegetation flourishes in great luxuriance. The cocoa palm and other tropical trees grow naturally wherever an opportunity is given.

The Oriental Hotel, on the water-front, is a fine building and a sumptuous hostelry. Besides this one, there are two or three other good hotels built and managed by Europeans for travelers by sea. After a visit to the post-office, attention was attracted to the neat little carriages backed up against the curbstone. They were in the form of light carts with springs, hooded, cushioned, and comfortably inviting. Their motive power was a man, who, placing himself between the shafts and grasping one in each hand, would trot off with the agility of a horse, in fact, with much more celerity than the poor specimens of horse-flesh we saw around us. These were jinrikishas, and though totally opposed to the idea of one man’s riding another, curiosity and the urgent solicitude of the human horses prevailed upon me to have one trip. It was a novel experience, and not unpleasant, except for the sight of the nearly naked fellow who was tugging in the shafts while streams of sweat coursed down his person. But there was no bother with whip or reins, though I (lid long for the latter, since it was impossible to talk with the man, as it would have been with the ordinary horse. So he was allowed to take his course. He chase a very interesting one indeed, so that it was a pleasure to pay him his small fee when the journey ended where it began. The services of a competent guide and a horse were obtained with which to visit more remote parts of the city.