Situated off the coast of Southern India is the tropically lush island nation of Sri Lanka. Formerly known as Ceylon from 1802 to 1972, Sri Lanka was administered under British crown until gaining independence in 1948. That was also the year India gained her independence from Great Britain. More recently, Sri Lanka is better known for the 26 year Tamil – Sinhalese civil war which officially ended in 2009. Sinhalese Buddhists make up 70% of the 20 million plus living on the island.
During colonial rule, vast quantities of wealth were extracted from this island – primarily teas and spices. Young men, and sometimes women, were sent forth from the British Empire to build and expand business interests and establish government outposts to administer trade.
Travelling by train from the capital of Colombo to the center of the island – on a spectacularly scenic transport route – took me to the highland tea country. While I was there, I made time to check out a couple of cemeteries dedicated to the British colonists from the 1800’s to early 1900’s. The tombstones in these cemeteries were fabricated and shipped from England and then transported by rail, and then elephant, to the interior of the country. This was all at a time when roads were little more than trails and elephant power provided the muscle for heavy lifting.
The average age of death on the tombstone engravings was around 40 years of age – most were younger than that. That’s understandable as life was likely very difficult for expatriates relocated and driven to prosper in a rugged, rural and tropical jungle environment. At the British Garrison cemetery museum in Kandy, the caretaker gave me a typed sheet with colorful stories explaining the causes of death. Here a few examples:
William Watson Mackwood, 1847-1867. Alighting from his horse, he was transfixed by a stake placed to mark the ground.
John Spottiswood Robertson, 1823-1856. The seventh and last recorded death of a European in Ceylon killed by wild elephants.
David Findlay, 1823-1861. Killed when the Mullegodde House, owned at the time by Advocate J.A. Dunuwille, collapsed on him forthright.
Captain James McGlashan, 1791-1817. This tombstone was brought to the cemetery in the late 1890’s from Lady Longden’s drive. The Captain distinguished himself at the battle of Busaco, Albuera and Waterloo. With reckless disregard of precautions, he walked from Trincomalee drenched with rain, wading, sitting and even sleeping in saturated clothing; not surprisingly, he was seized with violent fever and accepted his end with fortitude.
These examples evoke echoes of a history and time in a country under foreign rule. The British Empire both gave and took at the same time, and a certain segment of people who helped “build the system” sacrificed a lot.