In 1870, at the zenith of the British Empire, Queen Victoria was revered by subjugated peoples worldwide, including the Ceylonese. This was a time when loyalty to the throne and subservience to British rule was considered advantageous – most notably by the servile bourgeoisie who benefited both economically and socially from imperialism. So when it was announced that Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, was to be the first British royal to visit Ceylon, the mood was one of glorious expectation. One of the most important aspects of royal visits was the official record, used to communicate to Britain’s population the loyal sentiments of the far-flung peoples of the colonies. In an age before electronic media, and when photography was still in its infancy, the reliance was instead on written accounts, supported by sketches and paintings, which were published in newspapers and periodicals.
For Prince Alfred’s visit, an illustrated book was commissioned to document the five-week stay. The individual chosen to write it was an Englishman resident in Ceylon, John Capper, the respected editor of the Times of Ceylon and a published author in his own right. Capper’s documentation of the trip, entitled The Duke of Edinburgh in Ceylon: A book of elephant and elk sport, was published in London in 1871, containing 39 brief chapters and eight lithographic illustrations (see images). The volume begins by describing the local population’s enthusiastic reaction to the impending visit. “That the children of the soil, the half-clad cultivators, the small traders, the untutored villagers, should have formed a willing army of workers was indeed something of which none had dreamed,” Capper wrote. The reference here is to the labour force needed to construct the massive kraals (enclosures for captured elephants), fell large tracts of jungle, build roads and generally to erect a complete town for the prince, his entourage and other assorted visitors. It had taken thousands of workers three months to complete these monumental tasks.
Towards the end of March 1870, in anticipation of the royal arrival, there was a general migration towards Colombo – “the provinces may be said to have come to town,” as Capper described it. According to Capper, toll-keepers were not prepared for such an influx of village headmen, travelling in pony-carriages and hackeries. “There is a limit to what Oriental human nature can endure,” he asserted. “Some toll-keepers’ assistants on the Moratuwa road were carried home on shutters, long before sundown; whilst one principal toll-renter was removed from the scene of his trials wrapped in a double cumbli.”
Of levées and kraaling
The much-awaited arrival occurred on 30 March with the prince’s vessel, the Galatea, giving an 11-gun salute. “Just at this juncture,” Capper wrote, “a fleet of fishing-canoes, 300 in number, scudded up to the approaching vessel. They knew no other way of testifying their attachment to the throne, their fidelity to the Sovereign, than by this simple act.” At four o’clock, the Royal Standard was hoisted by the Galatea as a sign of impending royal activity. “A fleet of boats of every description put out from shore, and stationed themselves along the waterway between the Galatea and the landing-place,” Capper wrote.
Every craft that was capable of floating – every mass of timber held loosely together by coir-shreds, and thought capable of not immediately foundering with the first ripple from seaward – was heavily freighted with human beings. Rarely has any shipwrecked crew in the Indian Ocean, crowded more desperately in any boat than did the hundreds upon hundreds in holiday attire who flung themselves upon these frail floating things. And the flags too, as primitive as the barques, were of varied shape and size and colour. Children gave up their richest waist-cloths; and one young, dark-eyed, comely child of Eve, threw off her rich red robe, and bared her bosom to the winds.
Festivities began the next day with a levée, or formal reception, at Queen’s House. “The Royal presence brought together chiefs and headmen who had not left their jungle homes for half a lifetime; whilst every European, near or afar, who could leave his house, came to the gathering … The blending of the Native and European costumes – official and unofficial – has at all times a striking effect, but on this occasion was rendered still more effective by costumes but rarely seen in Ceylon.” The next evening, the governor, Hercules Robinson, held a reception. A day or so afterwards, the prince, the governor and a large entourage set out before dawn to travel inland to witness an elephant kraal. The journey turned out to be particularly difficult. The road had been re-laid with inferior material, and thunder showers had turned it into a quagmire. Conditions worsened with every mile. “Horses gave in by the dozen, carriages were scattered along the road in thick profusion, and the number of travellers became fewer.”
A halt was called at a rest house, where a great deal of brandy, beer and champagne “found ready disposal”. There arose the problem of how those travellers whose horses had foundered were to proceed. “Some took kindly to chairs, others flung themselves into bullock carts, reckless of consequences; and some drew on their oldest boots, tucked their trousers inside their half-hoses, and sallied forth on foot,” according to Capper, who goes on to offer superb detail of the drinks quaffed even before the night wore on.
A crowd of planters, headmen and others gave the Prince a round of hearty cheers as the bizarre procession arrived. One of the decorations, erected by the planters of the Dikoya district, was made entirely of bottles consumed in honour of the Prince’s visit. Bass’s pale-ale bottles formed the span, the crowning one being a Jules Mumm bottle, while in the centre there was a shining star of soda-water bottles.
Some 10,000 people attended the kraal the following day, and so the encampment was necessarily the size of a small town. The elegant and spacious building erected for the prince and the governor’s party consisted of a central reception hall topped by an octagonal smoking room. There were also two large wings – one for the prince and his suite, the other for the governor and his party – comprising dining, sitting and bedrooms. Overall, reading about the kraaling of elephants in the present turns out to be a rather depressing experience. “It realized to our imagination the wild-beast fights within the amphitheatres of old Rome,” Capper wrote. But instead of a Roman emperor to witness the events, here was Queen Victoria’s son, enthroned in a special royal stand, from where he could see the proud tusker of the captured herd gunned down because it posed a threat.
Among the visitors present at this kraal were “the wife and daughter of Idulmagodde, a chief of the Ratnapura district and director of the kraal arrangements, who came to see the kraal somewhat, and the Prince a good deal”. This last, cryptic, remark is partly explained by Capper’s portrayal of Miss Idulmagodde, for it appears her beauty did not go unnoticed by the prince. “Miss Idulmagodde is a splendidly-formed classical beauty, and an heiress into the bargain,” he writes. “She was just entering upon the ripening development of oriental eighteen; her limbs might have formed studies for a sculptor; her features would have charmed Carreggio; her rich black glossy hair, dark as midnight, falling in luxuriant clusters over her bare shoulders, and looped up here and there with threads of gold studded with jewels, might well have been the envy of any queen.”
The prince returned to Colombo at the conclusion of the kraal, and then by train to the hill capital of Kandy to attend another levée. “The gathering was very different from that at the Colombo levée,” Capper states. “The dresses were far more picturesque, and the numerous attendances of coffee-planters, with their fine, manly, healthy and ruddy countenances, presented a striking contrast to the pale faces of the Colombo residents.” Here, Capper reveals typical prejudice towards the aboriginal tribe, the Veddah. “In strange and uncouth contrast to these, was the party of Veddahs unwashed, uncombed, and all but unclad, carrying primitive bows and arrows … There they stand, in a close compact group, with matted hair and haggard features, resting on their bows, and eyeing, in silent marvel, the gay and merry throngs that passed them on the way to the audience room.”
After witnessing a special exhibition of the Relic of the Tooth of the Buddha at the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, the prince went for a spot of elk hunting, handling the reins of his own carriage. Where the driveable portion of the road ended, the prince transferred to horseback, and proceeded to a coffee estate where the night was spent. Before dawn, the journey, a long and difficult one, was recommenced. Handrails had been installed on the hillsides, and most of the party dismounted and used them. But not the prince: he remained in the saddle during the ascent. Eventually, the party rode into the temporary camp of the Dikoya hunt, where the prince was greeted by members wearing green velvet hunting caps. Of the hunt, little need be said. As can be imagined, it was a distasteful and bloody affair. It is difficult to feel much sympathy for those members of the royal party who had awoken earlier suffering from asphyxia, apparently induced by an overdose of soda water and corned beef.
Trophyism and Hungarian wizards
On his return to Kandy, the prince held a rare reception for the ladies of the Kandyan chiefs, and there he also renewed his acquaintance with Miss Idulmagodde. “Attired in her richest gala dress, and bending beneath the weight of ponderous jewels, she surpassed all the other native-beauties, and was looked upon by all as the Queen of the assembly,” Capper declared. The chronicler clearly had an eye for Eastern beauty, and he provides a detailed description of the elegant Kandyan ladies: “A few diamonds and pearls artistically garlanded among their rich raven locks, a jacket of snowy whiteness, an ample collar, and a skirt or cloth of surpassing richness, mostly of silk, with a profusion of massive bracelets, rings, necklaces and pendants as low as the waist, make up an attire which is certainly magnificent.”
The prince returned to Colombo to attend an entertainment given in his honour by Ruwan Susew Hawega and Charles H de Soyza, whose family had certainly benefited from the colonial system. The gala, to which some 3000 guests were invited, was “the first of the kind given by any native of Ceylon,” Capper informs readers.
Long ranges of covered way led in various directions to temporary buildings, in one of which a famous Hungarian wizard astonished a large crowd of spectators by feats of magic. In another building was a group of Hindoo nautch-girls, attired in gorgeous but apparently uncomfortable garments. In another structure, a band of boy dancers, clad in red dresses of grotesque fashion, amused many spectators; and immediately adjoining, a puppet theatre, a band of jugglers, and performers on the slack rope and trapeze.
On 6 May, the Galatea sailed for Galle, where a few days later the governor bade the prince an official farewell. And so ended the first royal visit to Ceylon, one characterised by imperialism and ‘trophyism’, pomp and ceremony, excess and expense.
~ Richard Boyle is an English writer who has lived in Sri Lanka for 25 years. His latest book is Sindbad in Serendib.