Days 81 to 83: Ceylon (14 to 16 October 1914
Day No. 81: Wednesday 14 October 1914
I was an early bird this morning as soon after 6 o’clock the Captain sent for me to come to the Bridge as we were nearing Colombo. We were too far off just then to see it in detail though the conglomeration of buildings behind tops of masts & funnels made an enticing view.
We had sent up the Flag for the Pilot & hoisted the Ship’s signals & shortly after Flags were flown by the Shore Signal Station but they were not quite distinguishable just then in the slight lazy morning light. One of our Blue Funnel friends, the Ping Suey this time (conjuring up memories of a pleasant Saturday’s sail out to sea I once had in her) was standing by signalling. Evidently she was waiting only for orders for after a while she slew round & was off on her voyage to China. Slowly ahead we went & soon the Pilot tender was seen steaming out of the Harbour & it was not long before he was aboard.
It was bright daylight by this time and Colombo looked most picturesque. The Harbour – a semi-circular bay enclosed by a breakwater – was full of shipping; and beyond by the landing place, were many very fine lofty modern buildings; to the right the Lighthouse with a Clock Tower – a very prominent mark which later on I found stood in the centre of the main street – and still more to the right the Fort & Signal Station. Round a mile or so to the left was the Town proper &, at the back of all, stood forests of the richest green and hills extending into the heart of the Island to the mountains where, surmounting the lot, stood Adam’s Peak, to see which, really, was why the Captain sent for me. It was not too clear, still it was visible.
Slowly we entered the Harbour & made our way through two lines of moored steamers, lots of small craft, tugs, lighters, catamarans both sailing & rowing (those weird native craft – narrow as you please & as fleety as the wind) and electric launches – truly a busy place. Passed alongside the P&O Medina. We saw her running up the Red Sea homeward on Sunday, August 9th, & here she is again outward bound and is leaving tonight with the Mail for Australia. She is a noble ship; amongst other steamers in the lines were several of the captured Germans with the flag of their Country flying astern, which was surmounted by the English White Ensign thus denoting a Prize. One would not be a Britisher if one did not feel elated at seeing this – proved therefore, I’m a Britisher. On we carefully went, right up the line to the last mooring – a good position for the Landing place – Ship nicely manoeuvred, the bow was brought around , down went the anchor & in addition we were made fast to moorings both fore & aft. We had arrived at Colombo (named after Columbus by the Portuguese) the Capital of Ceylon. Various officials boarded the ship, the Port Doctor inspected every individual – the Passengers he took for granted, merely nodding good morning to us, suppose we looked a passable respectable lot! Passes were arranged for the shore; the Police boarded us & took charge of the gangway, none going ashore without permission. (I was going to say it was impossible to go without permission, but by some wonderful means 3 of the crew managed it – deserted!! More trouble! But fortunately 3 substitutes were scraped up from somewhere ere we sailed).
Delivery of our letters was the next excitement – how one hungers for home news in a strange & foreign land.
At 10/30 a little electric launch spluttered alongside & the Captain, Doctor & self went ashore. The Doctor wanted to buy Drugs to bring the Medicine Chest up to his requirements so he toddled off on his owney own to make his purchases.
We met the Captain of the Anchoria (a Brocklebanker) who just got the Ship out of Fiume by the skin of his teeth as War was declared on Austria. After we had arranged to meet later for tiffin at the G.O.H. – with its world-wide reputation amongst travellers – the two Captains went to attend to their ships’ respective business & I commenced my perambulations.
To go on shore at any time is a pleasure but I found it more so here, for the first impressions of Colombo were truly delightful. I thought it charming right away, fine modern streets at and about the Landing Stage, everything bright & clean, vivid colourings, new types of people & different styles of dress (what little there is of it in some cases) and all so strange. I walked slowly along to the Post Office first, taking stock of the life in the Streets, the men of different nationalities & also the natives wearing distinctive dress according to their caste, varying from the coolies with merely a cloth round their waist; others – a long scarf wound round them; others wearing a skirt, their bodies otherwise bare; &so on up to the better class who wear a coat & skirt-like costume sometimes all white but mainly with the “skirts” of such colours that could rightly be termed “violent” shades. These men, & they predominated, had their long hair brushed back & bunched up, either on top or at the back, in a little bun; wearing on the crown of their heads in place of a hat presumably, a semi-circular tortoiseshell comb. – It was hard to say sometimes which was man & which was woman – these combs I was informed later, can only be worn by a certain caste & are handed down in families & much prized.
The photos above are interesting in that they show that by 1914 Colombo had an electric tram system, which was installed by the British company Colombo Electric Lighting and Tramways Co Ltd in 1899/1900 and a telegraph system. The country was connected by telegraph to the mainland in 1913 by the cable ship Colonia working for the Eastern Telegraph Company.
Mentioning headgears, the variety of styles in hats worn by the men was amusing, one in particular, a tall chimney pot (or sugar loaf) shape made of several bright coloured straws. I tried to find a native shop selling these but was unsuccessful. Amongst the variety of costumes worn by the women, the majority were clothed in a skirt cloth tucked round their waists – colourings as vivid as ever – and a white low-necked and short-sleeved chemisette, in no case meeting the top of the skirt. This bodice garment was invariably elaborately worked at the edges, the native women evidently being expert at needlework & lace-making for one met them frequently in the streets selling such. A feature of the streets also are the many Burmese Buddhist Priests walking about, all clad in a bright canary yellow robe & round them in the same manner as the Indian woman wears the sari. The shops are excellent & the Traveller or Tourist is catered for splendidly. Colombo being a kind of half-way house to and from the East, nearly all the Liners call there, & their passengers seize the opportunity naturally of going ashore & they find all they want in the Curio line at every turn, far more so than at Calcutta I thought – (in fact Colombo excels Calcutta in its cleanliness & colourings; there is a noticeable absence too of that squalor one met with so often in the latter).
The shopping is done by bargaining mainly – a price is mentioned & it is astonishing what you obtain the article for ultimately, - how poor unsuspecting mortals who pay what they are asked are gulled! The coinage is on the decimal system & I found it a bit confusing after Annas & Rupees in turning it into the English equivalent though, in most places, after you have been told the price, the shop-keeper will mention it again in shillings & pence. All the carts – reverting to the street scenes again – are drawn by bullocks, they are at every turn, & the animals are of a far superior class to those I had seen in Calcutta. Here in Colombo, they show signs of being looked after both in feeding & grooming. Most of the carts are roofed with a nicely plaited palm, the shape reminding one of the old-fashioned English market cart.
But it is time I was going my rounds. Having purchased my stamps, obtained some change (English gold of course is current) I hired a rickshaw & did a tour of the town. It was astonishing how this coolie man ran, & the distance he covered, keeping up a smart trot for so long in the intense heat – for it was an extremely hot day. Of course he was not over-burdened with clothes! Oh! Dear no, for:
“The uniform ‘e wore
Was nothin’ much before, An’ rather less than ‘arf o’ that be’ind For a piece o’ twisty rag
An' a goatskin water-bag
Was all the field-equipment ‘e could find”
My round of course included the native section of the town & this was all very interesting, the wealth of native shops of every description particularly so. When passing the Fruit Market I stopped my human gee-gee & went ambling round the Stalls – a most inviting & luscious collection of fruits were spread out everywhere, many of the varieties, needless to say, I had never seen before. I made a stop too to look at a Hindoo Temple – The stone carvings are very grotesque & a wonderful doorway of wood is finely carved & heavily studded with brass. Gradually working our way back & doing odds & ends of shopping soon brought one o’clock, when I walked into the famous G.O.H. (Grand Oriental Hotel) and right royally was I entertained. A table had been reserved for us and it was an agreeable change after the ship’s food (good though it be) to tiffin ashore in a fine spacious Salon, cream & gold decorations, delightfully cooled by fans and everything very inviting. We were waited on by the “men with the combs”, the meal was all one could wish it and made to the strains of an excellent invisible orchestra. Two hours was nicely passed here; then, aboard once again, getting to shelter just in time to save a drenching – the daily storm was on us.
The lines quoted here are from Rudyard Kipling's 1890 poem 'Gunga Din' - one of his 'barrack-room ballads' and telling the story of an Indian water-carrier who is abused by British solidiers. The narrator is wounded, Din saves him but gets shot and dies. The repentant narrator concludes the poem with the line 'You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din'. Kipling's work was very popular in the Edwardian era though he is more controversial in modern times.
A major portion of the rest of the day I spent in completing my mail to be ready for the morrow, when the Mail Boat Otway was due.
Day No. 82: Thursday 15 October 1914
During the matutinal (morning) promenade of the deck the fine Orient Liner Otway, homeward bound with the Australian Mail, slipped into the Harbour & swung her moorings near by us, (& just ahead of another Mersey friend – the Blue Funnel Troilus which had arrived during the night) her rails lined with passengers, enjoying no doubt, as I did, the entry into Colombo. In the evening she left with the Mails for England.
Naturally, the first opportunity after breakfast we aimed shorewards. We were a quartette, Besides the Captain, our lady passenger, the Doctor & self, and ultimately left the Captain with the intention of rejoining him after midday (incidentally through some misunderstanding we missed). We trio then spent the morning meandering round the shops, winding up at a Café after which the Doctor went aboard. Nurse, who had not been ashore before, & self then indulged in a rickshaw jaunt, first journeying to the Galle Face Esplanade – a Promenade sea wall with just a few yards of intervening beach & then, the surf, which came rolling & tumbling in most invigoratingly. It was so fine to watch that we stopped our jinrickshaws for a few minutes to enjoy it. There was the usual trot round the town after that, thence to the Landing Stage &, then, aboard.
I returned to shore alone in the afternoon bound for Mount Lavinia some 8 miles from Colombo along the Coast.
From a scenery point of view a more pleasing railway journey surely could scarcely be made. It was exquisite. The line runs at the edge of the shore, almost on it in fact, & to save the inroads of the sea large boulders have had to be dumped in a few places, looking very picturesque in their sweet disorder round & about the palm trees. Immediately after clearing Colombo the line runs all the way through a continuous grove of cocoa nut palms, the cocoa nut being the chief product hereabouts. As the tree will not grow beyond certain elevations all parts of the coast & plains are utilised for its cultivations.
But, as to the journey - & while I do not want you to think this a treatise on Cocoa nut palms, still, I must mention them. We passed through avenues of the palms so tall on either side of the line that the train many times ran under a complete bower formed by them. Landwards, plantations were passed where the trees were laid out in avenues, (with a thick black ring painted round the trunk a few feet from the ground which is supposed to keep the rats from ascending) but mainly the trees grow in a higgledy-piggledy fashion as in a wood. Clusters & clusters of the nuts hang down everywhere.
We passed many little settlements of native huts, just palm leaf plaited sides on a bamboo frame with thatched roof, frail looking structures but evidently habitable, with the tall palm trees so thickly around – a forest in fact – that the light of day was nearly shut out. The huts on the shore side were evidently those of the fishermen for their catamarans were often near by the doorway, drawn up there seemingly for repairs.
Arrived at Mount Lavina I made but a short journey towards the village, if such one could call it; although there was a road one appeared to be in a wood, so dense & so luxuriant was the vegetation, surmounted, of course, by the palm trees. A few bungalows were hereabouts in the little hills & dales, for just at this spot the land runs up & down like the sandhills and evidently when erecting the houses the idea of levelling did not enter into the builders calculations. The effect is very pleasing to the eye & it is certainly helped by the delightful gardens with their fine flowers & brilliant colourings. Tiny traps run from the Station drawn by a small breed of bullocks & it was somewhat on the funny side to see the ungainly little beggars trot like a little pony.
Towards the village I had an amusing experience. I met 3 English ladies who stopped me with the most profuse apologies. They explained that whilst they had money in their purses they had not enough local money to obtain Railway Tickets back to Colombo. They had only taken Jungle Tickets coming and here, when they wanted to return, the Local Station would not accept their money & they did not see how in the world they were going to get back to Colombo. They were passengers from Australia on the “Otway” & were greatly perturbed for fear they would not get back before their ship would sail.
Naturally I said I would gladly come to their rescue, knowing that I had some Ceylon money, but the funny part about it was that I could only scrape up 80 cento (about 11d) & that made up of innumerable small coins; I thought I had much more & then I remembered that during the morning I had accepted English money for some change so as to obviate being left with some foreign when sailing. They “skinned me out” & were quite put out not being able to repay me (they offered me Australian money) but when I explained that it was a privilege to help one’s own countrywomen - if they would only allow me – they seemed relieved. No doubt they caught the Otway.
Two native schoolboys, dressed European fashion, evidently returning from school at Colombo, passed me shortly afterwards. I noticed that one of the school books they carried was “Gills Standard Reader”, obviously therefore they could speak English – so we had a good jocular chat & I think the boys enjoyed it as much as myself. Getting back to the Station before my train was due I had the opportunity of studying a crowded platform of people who were waiting for a train going in the opposite direction. All costumes – all colours – all styles, but the tit-bit was a Bride & Bridegroom, natives both, & as dusky as the night.
The “happy man” was dressed in English “morning dress” de rigueur, & wore a flat-topped felt hat – the only “blocker” I’ve seen throughout the whole journey; I’m sure, in Calcutta, they don’t know what a “billycock” is – but the hat somehow was an incongruity. The blushing bride, if such a chocolate coloured lady could blush, had a dress which you would describe as a “dream”. Really & truly. – It was a creation & smacked of the latest from Paris. A beautiful white satin gown delightfully trimmed with lace &c, and splendidly made (Oh! I took it all in) and a wreath of orange blossom on top of her fine lace veil, white satin shoes, white satin stockings, and, garbed so, they were off on their Honeymoon. A rummy dress to travel in eh! They got into a Crowded second-class Carriage (my eye!) in a very crowded train. By the way all trains are crowded in India, Ceylon too, for the Native dotes on railway travelling especially as he goes so dirt cheap a pice per mile Government Railway.
I duly returned to the Manipur before 7o’clock. It was very dark & in crossing the Harbour the lights on the ships laying in line reminded one of a Naval Review (pictures only not having seen the actual thing!) the calm waters reflecting them all – it was a truly beautiful scene especially when the searchlight from the Fort, looking like an approaching bank of fog, swept from seawards into the beams of the searchlight in use on the opposite breakwater, making a cordon of limelight round the lot.
I found we were not sailing then as had been anticipated, but were leaving in the morning. Accordingly the Captain and I had another jaunt ashore, intending to walk as far as the Esplanade to stretch our legs in the pleasant cool of the evening, but we had hardly got going when the daily thunderstorm was on us & we ran to the friendly shelter of the Hotel Bristol to save being swept down the gutters. How it can rain in these parts! We met there 2 or 3 gentlemen known to the Captain, amongst whom was the Captain of the poor ill-fated Harrison Liner Diplomat & he told me the full story of how the Emden captured & sunk his ship. It was most interesting to hear these particulars first hand. He has since been given command of one of the German Prizes lying in the Harbour, the Furth, which was then loading direct for London. H.J.C.D gave me a sly dig in one of his letters as to the difference of Ceylonese & Cingalese (or, to be correct, Sinhalese) so just a word about it. The Sinhalese are the people of the Island proper, the true native born. The term Ceylonese is applied to those people (Asiatics, of course, the world is not intended to include Europeans) of different nationalities & sects who are domiciled in Ceylon, or, have even been born there. These comprise mainly the Tamil from Southern India, the Madrasi, Eurasians & Malays; and for fear you wonder where I got this information from let me say that I obtained it from a native gentleman in the train, whom I engaged in conversation, & whom I found a delightful companion.
TheH.J.C.D. referred to here is the diarist's son Harold John Craston Davies.
Day No. 83: Friday 16 October 1914
Sitting up in my bunk @ 6/30 a.m. enjoying the last of my Chota Hazara &, at the same time, scanning through the Porthole at all the life & movement in the Harbour I heard the grind of the Anchor Chain. We were moving. I slipped out on to the deck, just pyjama clad & slippers, to see us pass down the avenue of shipping; past reminders of the Mersey – 2 Clan Boats – Clan Macnab, Clan Farquarson, and Alfred Holt’s (Blue Funnel) Troilus, and at 7a.m., by the Pilot Station at the outer Harbour we dropped the Pilot.
“Full speed ahead”, & in a few minutes passed the Breakwater and were out in the open sea. We were off for Home and strange to add, despite the fact that we have been Homeward-bound for some days, I have not felt it so – possibly because we had been running South (away, in a sense, from England) and, because the Manipur is turned towards England & making it all the time, it only seems real now. I went to the Bridge. We were passing a fleet of catamarans both sailing & rowing – weird crafts, particularly the row boats long & narrow & only just wide enough for a man to sit in, or, as it seems, to squeeze in.
I then had my last look at the land, Colombo and the Harbour looked as lovely as ever, despite the somewhat misty morning light, but high up the air was clear as crystal though held in suspension between hills were little seas of morning mist – a nice cloud effect, and away in the centre of the Island stood the mountains – the whole range, & Adam’s Peak towering above the lot. (Shaped so at the top, the peak portion, though, must be many hundred feet high, perhaps a 1000 - & looks well-nigh inaccessible, something after the Matterhorn shape). This was a wonderful view and I was informed that one might come trip after trip and not see it. As it is generally veiled in haze, it follows that it is visible but rarely from the sea and quite the exception for it to be clearly seen as I saw it this morning. I therefore once again deemed myself most fortunate.
Thus did I see the last of the lovely and enchanting Isle. Is it absurd to say, after but a 2 days’ visit, how the place gripped me and also to hope, that at the other end of life – if one but be spared – when one has earned one’s retirement & freedom from business, that it would be possible to visit Ceylon again. Such were my thoughts (almost melancholy!!) at leaving it.
Good bye Ceylon, the land of colourings,
I stayed on the Bridge for a while enjoying the coolest & freshest breeze experienced for weeks & then down to tub & dress for breakfast.
The Istra, which had left half an hour before us was passed by 9a.m. (she is chartered for this trip by Brocklebanks). About 10 o’clock the new Brocklebank Liner Malakuta bound for Calcutta on her maiden voyage went by. Courtesies were exchanged & being a new ship she was an object of great interest to all aboard. She is the first of the Line to be fitted with wireless. In the afternoon, another Brocklebank boat the Marwarri, also for Calcutta came along. She was signalling us & both ships slightly altered their course to come closer. At 5/30 the Gulf of Manar, dividing India from Ceylon, was crossed & the high land of Southern India was sighted 30 to 40 miles away. This was my last look of India, and again did I say “Good-Bye”. A roll & pitch motion was the order of the day – a good swell on.
It is worth mentioning that, amongst the general products of the East which comprise our Cargo, we have something over 6000 tons of Tea aboard, both Indian & Ceylon. I was curious enough to work out the Duty payable in England on this lot of Tea & find that it amounts to over £280,000. What a windfall for the Exchequer – truly we are a valuable ship.
The next page covers the journey onwards from Ceylon but you will find further images from Ceylon that didn't fit in well with the narrative but had been collected by the author on the Additional Images page Here.