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 Post subject: Embers of empire - colonial powers of Britain in Lanka
 Post Posted: Sat Jul 09, 2005 2:54 pm 
Embers of empire

You can't escape history - even on holiday. In a three-part series, Michelle Jana Chan explores the legacy of the colonial powers of Britain, France and Portugal. She starts in Sri Lanka, where, in the central highlands - unaffected by last December's tsunami - locals still praise the British for introducing cricket, decent roads and tea.

(Filed: 09/07/2005)
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2005.


'This was the seventh and last Englishman to be killed by a wild elephant," the cemetery caretaker said in a soft, measured voice. Above us, among the white frangipani blooms and the roaring flame trees, monkeys screeched. "There were three brothers. Two climbed up a tree to escape the elephant charge; the eldest wasn't so fortunate."

Sri Lanka is now one of the biggest tea exporters in the world

Such was the fate of John Spottiswood Robertson, born 1823, died 1856, just 23 years of age. His body lies in one of the dozens of carefully tended graves in the British Garrison Cemetery in Kandy, Sri Lanka's ancient capital. The cemetery caretaker, Charles Carmichael, is an elderly local with taut nutmeg skin, a BBC World Service voice and bare feet. He told me the story of each of the deceased British citizens as if he were the family doctor.

"This is the grave of the British governor's wife, Mrs Elizabeth Gregory, who died after severe diarrhoea," Carmichael said with startling intimacy. "Then he married Charles Dickens's great grand-daughter." We stepped over the corner of the marble masonry. "Poor Oteline Rudd, the wife of a wealthy coffee plantation owner. She died of sorrow after blight killed their coffee plants and they were made bankrupt." Then with a wink: "Ah, and Captain James McGlashan, who fought in four battles including Waterloo, but something much smaller eventually got him: the mosquito."

Many laid to rest here died of malaria, usually very young. Beneath the lichen most of the names are Scottish: Thomas McCall, William Watson Mackwood, Henry Mackenzie. They ventured to what was then called Ceylon in search of the colonial dream: merchants looking for new markets, emigrants for new land. They built up tea estates, sweating in the tropical heat; and relaxed over gin-and-tonics on the lawn at sundown, evening piano recitals and cricket matches at the weekend. They brought Britain to Sri Lanka, even after death. The chiselled headstones in this cemetery were carried from the British Isles as ballast on ships.

The British wrested control of Sri Lanka in the late 1700s from the Dutch, who had fought the Portuguese for the island 150 years previously. All three powers left their marks, but the British - as the most recent occupying force - are the most evident.

The British influence becomes apparent on the journey to Nuwara Eliya, high in the heart of Sri Lanka's hill country, a region that escaped entirely the impact of the tsunami.

My trip from Kandy - with its gardens of coffee, cinnamon, cacao and cardamom - began at the railway station. The trains are no longer steam-powered, but the wrought-iron Victoriana remains. On the walls, clerks post schedules on polished wood by manually turning the hands of clocks. They write tickets in bulky receipt books interspersed with sheaves of carbon paper, creating half-a-dozen copies for every purchase. A first-class ticket to Nuwara Eliya, four hours up-track in a glassy observation saloon, costs £2.50 (second class costs just 40 pence).

I passed through the barrier on to the station platforms. Hawkers were traversing the tracks, balancing baskets of oranges, nuts and lentil cookies on their heads. Men in uniform were moving up and down the platform alongside the carriages, hammering the steel springs beneath, listening, heads cocked, for a crack before a whistle set the locomotive in motion with a heave-ho jolt and a rattle.

It is an achingly gradual ascent from Kandy up through the hill country. Railway workers weed the tracks, waiting until the last moment to step out of the way - and can do safely because the trains are so slow. As lines are single-track, there there are plenty of lengthy pauses at passing loops.

We stopped every quarter of an hour at places with names such as Hatton and Great Western, rundown stations with British-style red telephone boxes and pillar boxes embossed with a crown and GR (for George V). At Mapane, beside the curvaceous script of the local Sinhala language, the station had old-fashioned signs in English: the "Station Master's Office", the "Locomotive Foremen's Office" and the "Ladies' Restroom". We passed a broken carriage strewn with red hibiscus flowers rusting by the side of the tracks, and sleepers stacked up, rotting in the wet air. If you had any nostalgia for Empire, this is when you might wipe away a tear.

As the coconut palm groves petered out, glistening terraces of rice paddy-fields began to take their place. I put on a sweater as the air chilled and the fields gave way to neat patterns of tea plantations, speared by pale eucalyptus trees planted to keep the soil in place. Tamil women weaved in between the rows of dense bushes, dressed in bright saris with sparkly plastic bangles, plucking the young lime-green tea leaves twitching in the sunlight. They stopped to wave, looking up with smiles stained red with betel nut juice, baskets on their backs, straps around their foreheads.

It was the British who introduced tea to Sri Lanka, from Assam in India, Senthil Kumar, a curator at the Historical Museum in Galle, had told me. "Here a lot of people still appreciate what the British brought, like tea, like roads, like we can all speak English. I do think the British were overall good for the country."

Certainly, tea was one of the success stories: Sri Lanka is now one of the biggest exporters of tea in the world.

Nuwara Eliya, in the heart of tea country, is known as "Little England". As the train approached the station, the scent of pine wafted over from a cluster of trees. There was mist on the hills. Appropriately, it began to rain.

Driving into town I had an odd feeling of déjà vu, passing the gardens of rambling guesthouses such as Glendower, the Ascot Hotel and the Glen Fall Inn.

There is a Victoria Park, a run-down racecourse, a cricket pitch and snobbish golf club - all founded by the British. I checked into the Hill Club, which is modelled on a Scottish hunting lodge, with stuffed heads of the sloth bear and spotted deer adorning the walls, as well as elephant legs converted into stools. Until a few months ago, women were not allowed into the bar.

I went up to my room and turned on the hot tap. There was a squeak, a long pause and then the water struggled out with a choke and splutter. Cold.

Then it turned blisteringly hot. This couldn't have been too different from a hundred years ago. The same noisy plumbing. The smell of polished wood and mould. The chink of china. The charmingly proper staff in starched white, saying Madam this and Madam that. Quintessential English traditions - which have largely evaporated from our lives - have been retained and preserved.

Down the road at The Lion pub I chatted to locals slurping mugs of draught, picking at spicy devilled sausages. There was a range of opinions on British colonialism, but it was rare to find something derogatory. My guide, Chandima Jayaweera, said: "If the British were still here, it would be better for us. We haven't found any good politicians since 1948." His friend added: "The British changed the whole world - both fortunately and unfortunately. But here a lot of people still appreciate what they brought to the country." They did all seem to agree on that. A local hotel manager said: "If we have educated people in Sri Lanka, it's because of them. We had our best period in British times."

Consequently, British visitors are warmly welcomed, respected, perhaps even treasured. There is a strong desire to rekindle the affection of the past and reminisce together. Locals will tell you about their studies in London or their cousin living in Leeds.

Back in the commercial capital, Colombo, I wandered around docklands where Victorian warehouses lay derelict. It was early evening and I watched the setting sun from the seafront terrace of the Galle Face Hotel, once used by royalty and military brass and now a popular spot with visiting tourists. In days past, when the sun went down on Sri Lanka, it rose somewhere else on another part of the British Empire. Nowadays, there are no such dawns and the first-hand memories of colonial life will pass away in less than a generation. But as the red sun slowly slips into the Indian Ocean, you can still get a sense of it here.


© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2005.


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