Dr.Tony Donaldson reflects on
the Prince of Wales’ visit to Ceylon in 1875
7 days in Ceylon
The British colonial presence in Ceylon in the nineteenth century
has left a wealth of textual and visual sources. The existence of
writings, paintings, sketches and book illustrations of Ceylon show
the way the island was perceived and imagined by British artists,
writers, administrators, and travellers.
source is the writings and sketches made of the Prince of Wales'
tour to India and Ceylon in the mid 1870s. The tour was reported
widely in England. Both the Illustrated London News and The Graphic
arranged for their own reporters to accompany the Prince on his
trip. However, what is not generally well known is that the then
private secretary to the Prince of Wales, William Howard Russell
(1820-1907), penned his own account of the Prince's tour, which
was published in 1877 under the title The Prince of Wales' Tour:
A Diary in India with some account of the visits of his royal highness
to the courts of Greece, Egypt, Spain, and Portugal.
a celebrated war correspondent with The London Times, had made a
name for himself writing on the Indian mutiny and the Crimea war.
Here Dr.Tony Donaldson explores colonial representations of Ceylon
based on the seven-day visit of the Prince of Wales in 1875 through
the writings of William Russell and sketches of Sydney Hall.
Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, departed England for India onboard
the naval vessel the Serapis on October 11, 1875. The journey to
Bombay took 27 days. After visiting Pune, Goa and Beypore, the Prince
then boarded the Serapis and set sail for Colombo travelling along
the Malabar coast.
a cloudy December 1, the Prince of Wales, then aged 34, disembarked
from the Serapis which was anchored in rough seas just off Colombo.
Dressed in the uniform of a field marshal wearing white trousers
and a plumed helmet, the Prince boarded a launch that took him towards
he approached the landing stage he paused to admire the 'native
boats draped with bright-coloured streamers and banners, garlanded
with flowers and wreaths of coconut-leaves, and crowded with spectators
and bands of native musicians'.
was late in the afternoon as he stepped ashore to be welcomed by
a guard of honour of the 57th Regiment, and the large crowd of officials
and spectators that had swarmed into the streets. Over the next
seven days the Prince spent two days in Kandy where he witnessed
a Perahera, attended a private exhibition of the Tooth Relic, and
visited the botanical gardens in Peradeniya. He travelled to Ruwanwella
and spent a further two days in the jungle nearby hunting elephants.
In Colombo he attended a horticultural exhibition and observed Tamil
In the heyday of the Raj, India was viewed as the most precious
jewel in the British Crown. India was a tremendous source of wealth
for the British, and in recognition of the importance that the British
attached to India, the title 'Empress of India' was bestowed on
Queen Victoria in 1876.
royal advisors to the Prince, however, did not consider Ceylon to
be of sufficient interest to justify his visit. Indeed, when the
Prince first expressed his desire to spend time in Ceylon, his advisors
were so alarmed that several attempts were made to divert him from
visiting the island. Russell writes that on one occasion a map was
produced for the Prince in which Ceylon did not appear to which
the Prince responded by demanding 'Where is Ceylon!' Russell says
that the visit to Ceylon only took place due to Prince Edward's
own persistence to visit the island, and his desire to outwit those
who objected to his wishes.
Edward was not a man of great intellect. He disliked reading, preferring
instead to discuss matters of the day with those around him. Even
so, it is reported that he spoke French, German, Spanish and Italian.
His passions were for hunting and travelling.
skin and African teeth
William Russell was a colonialist writer. This is clearly visible
in his descriptions of local dances, festivals and of the Sinhalese
whom he describes as 'not strikingly handsome', whose 'skin colour
is less pleasing than the native of Upper India', and whose teeth
'rival those of the African'. Russell describes the traditional
dress of the Kandyan chiefs as 'unmasculine, uncomely, and unbecoming',
and he compares a Buddhist monk chanting pirith in the Temple of
the Tooth with Russian singing. Russell found it difficult to describe
in English the Sinhala world he encountered. But he is aware of
his limitations. In writing about a performance of a Perahera in
Kandy he readily admits that 'it would tax the best pen and pencil
to give an adequate idea of such combinations of forms, sounds,
The royal artist Sydney Hall accompanied the Prince on his tour
and Russell includes sketches made by Hall in his book, which represent
images of colonial Ceylon through British eyes. Little is known
of Hall, however he was a skilful artist with an eye for detail.
December 2, the Prince arrived in Kandy in the late afternoon and
made his way from the railway station to the Pavilion, which was
the residence of Governor William Gregory.
In the evening Gregory entertained the Prince and elites of Ceylon
at a state banquet. Russell writes that 'lamps and lanterns were
waving and swinging in the perfumed breezes', while sounds of music,
drums, horns and gongs, reverberated throughout the Pavilion.
dinner, the Prince and the royal party made their way outside the
Pavilion to attend a private Perahera. By all accounts it was a
small procession, and as the Perahera made its way from the Dalada
Maligawa to the Governor's residence, Russell observed:
was only a procession of elephants, dancers, and priests belonging
to the temples; but it was exceedingly grotesque, novel, and interesting...
The ‘devil dancers,’ in masks and painted faces, were
sufficiently hideous. Their contortions, performed to the tune of
clanging brass, cymbals, loud horns...
description of the dancers and Hall's sketch seem to show dancers
wearing the ves costume from the kohomba kankariya, which was formerly
performed in a ritual context to invoke blessings for the deity
Kohomba. But as this sketch shows, by 1875 at least, the ves dance
had been adapted into the Perahera and was then being performed
to entertain foreigners.
days later, the Prince left Kandy for Nawalapitiya by train, where
Governor Gregory had arranged horses and vehicles to carry him on
to Ruwanwella. Over the next two days Prince Edward engaged in his
great love of hunting. On this occasion he had expressed a desire
to hunt elephants.
hunting exhibitions organised for the Prince were mounted at great
expense. Some 1200 to 1500 men were brought in two weeks earlier
to build a special kraal, and to keep watch on the elephants. A
stockade was built from tree-trunks around which spears and sticks
big day came on December 6 when the Prince joined over one hundred
men in the specially built stockade. Nearby, a herd of elephants
had gathered. Other hunters were ordered to force the elephants
towards the stockade.
their attempts failed. By 2 p.m. the Prince had waited for five
hours without firing a shot. Then a most cruel decision was taken
to pile dried timber up near to the elephants which was then set
alight. Permission was also given for some of the hunters to shoot
into the rear of the elephants. The idea was to force the elephants
to rush towards the stockade and to a certain death.
of the elephants seemed to be alert to the danger and ran off or
drove the hunters up the trees for shelter, but in the chaos that
followed two elephants were wounded. Sydney Hall stopped to make
a sketch of one elephant that lay dead. But soon after, the elephant
gradually stood up. Armed only with a led pencil, Hall instinctively
knew he was outmatched and he fled from the scene.
tragedy, however, is that the two elephants were later observed
heading into the mountains, where they most certainly lived out
their remaining days in agony.
the most disturbing sketch made by Sydney Hall of Prince Edward's
visit is titled 'The Dead Elephant', and it reveals the quintessential
British colonial mind in its brutality. Having wounded one elephant,
the Prince finally secured his moment of glory by killing another
elephant, as Russell describes next:
Prince took deliberate aim and fired. The great beast toppled, and
fell over on its side in the stream, where it dammed up the waters!
There ensued a scene of great excitement. The Prince descended the
bank, but they called him to take care. They approached and watched
for a moment. The creature did not move; it was "dead, sure
the Prince, assisted by the hunters, got into the water and climbed
upon the inert mountain of flesh. Down came the natives from tree,
stockade, and hillside. Europeans and Cingalese dashed into the
stream, and cheered again and again...as the Prince was seen standing
on the prostrate body...The Prince, according to custom, cut off
the tail. As soon as his back was turned, the Cingalese took pieces
from the ears as trophies of the day.
were seen as 'beasts' but they were also admired for their strength
and intelligence. Writing about the old tusker of this herd, Russell
says that he 'proved to be a leader whose courage and coolness were
only equalled by his sagacity and strategical skill'. Russell's
account gives a sense of the thrill of the chase and the satisfaction
of the kill.
sketch shows the Prince standing on the dead elephant in sober-hued
jacket and knickerbockers, his rifle slung over his shoulder, surrounded
by a crowd cheering him on. It must have been a very satisfying
moment. But the image remains gory and brutal.
Hall's sketches somehow transcend the written word, but
still capture the way the British imagined Ceylon. The British saw
Ceylon in terms of its wealth, but it was also for them an exotic
world of beautiful scenery and splendid animals. In Ceylon, the
British could find ancient rituals, eastern religions, strange customs
and festivals. It was home to the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha, but
Russell could not understand why Buddhists held the Tooth Relic
in such high veneration.
returning to Colombo the Prince spent his remaining time attending
a ball and observing Tamil girls picking coffee. He embarked on
the Serapis on December 8 and set sail for Madras, eventually returning
to England in May 1876.
years later, following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, he ascended
the British throne to become King Edward VII. But his reign only
lasted ten years as he died in 1911.
British Empire in India and Ceylon was about to begin a process
that would ultimately lead to independence for both nations in less
than 40 years.