Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Galle Road

Musings on the 100 year-old Galle Road

At the tail end of the 19th century foreigners entering Ceylon entered the country not from Colombo but from what was known as Point de Galle. The Colombo port then was not too safe a place to anchor a ship. Until the breakwaters that came up at the end of that century to make the Colombo port a safe haven for ships, it was Point de Galle or Galle, as we know it today, that was the point of entry. But why was it called Point de Galle?

An American traveller, Henry Heusken, who was on his way to assume office as the first secretary to the pioneer US legation in Japan, gives an answer. He says that when the audacious Vasco de Gama ‘went ashore with a handful of men he saw the smooth beach of the Spice Island. Setting foot aground he heard the familiar crowing of a great many roosters and for that reason he called it Punto di Galle, Roosters’ Point.’So the Roosters’ Point was then as attractive a place as the city of Colombo. It has a ‘lovely little bay surrounded by coconut groves and in the distance high mountains appear with the famous Adam’s Peak from which according to tradition, that venerable father - others say it was the God Buddha - betook himself in one single stride into the kingdom of Siam. The inhabitants will still show you his footprint, five times longer than that of an ordinary foot.’Since Galle was an arrival and departure centre, travelling to and from it on land was quite adventurous.

It so happened that one of the pioneer Protestant missionaries working in Jaffna had to visit Galle to meet two other missionaries who were arriving by ship to Galle. It took him two weeks on foot to do the near 300 mile journey from Jaffna to Galle. But as ill luck would have it they did not turn up. It was a costly misadventure. As the readily available transport system in the early 19th century was the palanquin, Samuel Newell, the missionary, employed fourteen men for the journey from Jaffna. Disappointed but not defeated he dismissed his palanquin team retaining four men to carry the palanquin and rode in it to Colombo which took him three days. There were rest houses those days, but they were more like ambalamas. You could rest in those places but you had to prepare your own food. Newell does not record what he saw on this journey nor could he, preoccupied as he may have been with his problem, have had time to appreciate the beauties of nature as other travellers who described the Galle - Colombo run as a near paradisiacal beauty.

Half a century later another visitor to Ceylon who, this time, rode in a stage coach from Galle said, ‘The drive to Colombo is the most delightful it has been my good fortune to take. For seventy two miles the road runs along the sea coast, bounded on either side by the finest coconut trees that form an avenue which partially protects the vehicle from the sun, the whole distance. ‘The roar of the Indian Ocean is heard, as it breaks monstrously on the shore; and occasional glimpses are caught, and vistas of the surrounding country, while towering aloft in the distances stands Adam’s Peak - a mountain that has for ages been the object of veneration to thousands of pilgrims from every part of India and Ceylon...On every side Nature seemed teeming with life and motion.’ But the coach itself, he said, which was clumsy and heavy and rather harsh on the horses would not past muster in America.More ecstatic praise of the road to Colombo from Galle comes in 1879 from a round the world traveller from America. “Future travellers will soon miss one of the rarest treats in Ceylon. The railway will soon be completed from Colombo to Galle, and the days of coaching will cease forever. We congratulate ourselves our visit was before this passed away, as we know of no drive equal to that we have now enjoyed twice, and the last time even more than the first...There is no prettier sea shore in the world, nor a more beautiful surf.’ This is Andrew Carnegie, the multi millionaire who laid the foundations for the industrial might of America. All that I knew about Ceylon, he says, is a line from that hymn written by Bishop Heber about the spicy breezes blowing soft over Ceylon’s isle. Now that is not really true. For a foreigner, and an American at that, what he knew about Ceylon before he came here is truly amazing. I do not think that even the most erudite Ceylonese of that time knew as much about Ceylon’s social, economic, religious background as much as he did.

Incidentally, most Christians in the English-speaking world had heard about Ceylon for the first time when they sang Bishop Heber’s hymn in church. The hymn is not at all complimentary to us and I would like to reproduce the two verses though it may offend most Sri Lankans:What though the spicy breezesBlow soft over Ceylon’s isleThough every prospect pleasesAnd 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 stoneCarnegie recited these verses to the Ceylonese guide who accompanied him and asked him what he thought of them. The guide promptly replied that the man who wrote it was a damn fool. He also asked Carnegie if any one in his country really believed that the ‘heathens’ bow down to stone and wood when there was a supra being above. Carnegie said that he himself believed as many others did and ‘little girls and boys collected pennies to give the missionaries to go and tell the heathens how wrong and foolish it was to bow down to wood and stone and how angry God is to have anything worshipped but himself.’To soothe the injured feelings of his guide Carnegie explained that Bishop Heber was only using poetic licence to express himself, but the guide insisted that ‘Bishop Heber had wronged his beloved Ceylon and did not know what he was writing about.’It is said about Carnegie that he was a self-educated man. In the process of educating himself he seems to have read very, very widely. He understood quite well that there was no difference between an idol and a cross because both of them, he said, were only symbols of an invisible power.

Being a well-read man he also knew quite a lot about Buddhism, not only about its philosophy but also its importance socially to the Buddhists of Ceylon. He knew that, “One condition of the cession of the sovereignty to Great Britain was that this religion should be held inviolable with its rights and privileges, its monasteries and temples and all pertaining thereto. In the language of the greatest European authority, although government support is no longer given to it, its pure and simple doctrines live in the hearts of its people.”He was also very knowledgeable and knew that European rule had wiped out the estimable local government system that prevailed in this country. The British restored it in 1871 “ and the people are not yet done rejoicing at the restoration of their village institutions.”

And here follows some valid advice for our modern politicians - “It will not do to conclude, as many do, that India and Ceylon and others of the eastern lands, are left almost bare of just laws and fair administration, for nothing could be further than the truth. The village elders chosen by the people of Ceylon, for instance, administer laws, which are the growth of centuries, and as such are far better adapted to the real conditions which exist than any other system of laws, no matter how perfect.”

Directing his attention to the geological features of this country, Andrew Carnegie has something very revealing to say. Here is the man, described by the Americans as their king of steel and a captain of industry, expressing his views on a little known subject relating to our natural resources. “Iron ore exists in Ceylon in vast deposits and is remarkably pure, rivalling the best Swedish grade. It has been worked from remote times, and native articles of iron are preferred even today to any that can be is not beyond the range of possibility that some day Britain may import some of this unrivalled stone for special uses. There are also quicksilver mines and lead, tin and manganese are found to some extent.” These items were, of course, known to the Sinhala engineers in the days of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.When John Davy travelled round our country in the early 19th century he witnessed the processing of iron ore by our blacksmiths.

He also noticed that they knew how to make steel but did not reveal to him the know-how and the names of the ‘vegetable’ ingredients used in the process. That they had mastered the subject of metallurgy is shown by the skill they displayed in making firearms. The Portuguese did not teach them that, but the fact that the arms they produced and the gun powder they made were far superior has been admitted by Portuguese historians.

Written By: S. Pathiravitana
Weekend Standard Newspaper - Mar 11 2006

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