By Tuan M. Zameer Careem –
Sri Lanka has played host to throngs of tourists for over many centuries, but the most notable among them have always been the reclusive members of European Royalty & aristocracy, who have sojourned our resplendent island since the early 19th century. Surprising as it may sound to many readers, it wasn’t until 1870 that the first member of the British Royal Family visited the far-flung colony of Ceylon, almost fifty-five years after the signing of the Kandyan Convention. In December 1869, the Government of Ceylon was kept apprised about the intended Royal tour to Ceylon by Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the second son of Queen Victoria, who was at the time, travelling the length and breadth of India, shikaring the wild beasts & wallowing in the luxury of the Maharaja’s palaces & forts. The Ceylonese officials & native headmen who were highly thrilled about the forthcoming visit of the Prince made scrupulous arrangements well in advance, to host the son of their sovereign. The most notable among them was philanthropist Sir Charles Henry de Soysa, dubbed as “Ceylon’s Rothschild”, who decided to revamp his palatial retreat, Bagatelle Walauwe, which stood upon his 120 acres sprawling estate in Colpetty, stretching from what is now Duplication road to Cinnamon Gardens & from Thunmulla Junction to Charles Circus. Interestingly, many Lankans assume that Bagathale is probably a Sinhala word or name, howbeit, much to the contrary, it is actually the corrupt form of the English word “Bagatelle”, borrowed from French bagatelle or Italian bagattella meaning a trifle, a billiard derived indoor board game or a short piece of music, like for example, Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126.
Sir Charles who was discontented with the look of his priced property, Bagatelle, which he had acquired from the Layard family somewhere in the 1860s decided to transform it into a palace capable of playing host to a British Royal & his entourage who were expected to arrive on Lankan shores at the end of March 1870. With less than three months left for the arrival of the Prince, Sir Charles, with no restraints, spent exorbitant amounts of money on his home, trying to accomplish the herculean task on time. He imported some of the finest articles of furniture, plush carpets, brassware, paintings, chandeliers, cutlery and other paraphernalia necessary to spruce up Bagatelle, & he is said to have paid as much as ten times the actual price & wage just to have them shipped to Ceylon on time. Moreover, the Governor at the time, Sir Herculean Robinson, later Baron Rosmead (Rosmead Place was originally called Robinson St after Governor Robinson, & when he became Lord Rosmead the road was renamed Rosmead Place.) also had his official residence, the Queen’s House (now called President’s House) down Janadhipathi Mawatha (formally Queen’s Road) refurbished to accommodate the visiting Prince. When the people of Ceylon learnt of the impending visit of the Duke of Edinburgh, they too displayed a great deal of enthusiasm. In fact, the streets of Colombo were paved with cobblestones for the first time, street lamps were installed (the British employed lamplighters to light & maintain candles), the streets were festooned with buntings, flags, and streamers, pandols were erected & and long rows of bamboo pillars stood throughout the length of Colpetty. During the last few days of March 1870, immediately preceding the Prince’s arrival, several marquees were set up in Colpetty & Fort to accommodate hordes of visitors, those who had travelled all the way from their distant villages, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Prince.
The steam frigate H.M.S. Galatea carrying the Sailor Prince, Alfred & his crew reached Colombo shortly before noon on Wednesday, the 30th of March 1870 to commence the first royal tour of Ceylon. When the Galatea bringing the Duke was sighted approaching the Roadstead, the Fisher Mudaliyar with a fleet of 300 fishing canoes sailed out to greet him. On arrival, the Galatea gave an eleven-gun salute, and the Prince was rowed across to the jetty where he was received by the Governor, Sir Robinson and a bevy of native chieftains, Mudliyars, Mohandirams, and Aratchies. To control the thousands, who had flocked, Sir William Campbell got down extra police, among whom the great majority were sturdy Malays assigned to patrol the route of the procession. But the Malay officers, famed for their formidable demeanour had a tough time trying to control the wildly enthusiastic crowds that had gathered to witness the first occasion when British royalty alighted on Lankan soil. It is worthy of mention, that Sir Campbell was the first British colonial Inspector General of Police & Prisons of Ceylon & it is he who granted 20 acres of ground in the neighbourhood of Welikada ward for a Public Recreation ground, aptly named “Campbell Park” in his honour.
Levees and hunting
The prince who was received in a grand oriental style was then escorted to the Queen’s House to attend the levee hosted by the statuesque wife of the Governor, Lady Robinson, daughter of George Annesley, 2nd Earl of Mountnorris & 9th Viscount Valentia. Lady Robinson who was fond of gaiety & society, invited not just the English & European residents in Ceylon to attend her levee, but also the Burgher elite, Ceylonese entrepreneurs & the native Singhalese chieftains who had never set foot outside their own villages. The merriment continued into the night and again the next day & John Capper, the editor of the Times of Ceylon, who was commissioned to write the travelogue titled, “the Duke of Edinburgh in Ceylon”, describes Lady Robinson’s levee as, “”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.” On the evening of the April 1st, the Governor, Sir Robinson, gave a reception in honour of the Prince, & the dancing and carousing continued until dawn. A day or so, after the reception, Prince Alfred who was filled with joie de vivre, accompanied by Governor Robinson & coterie of friends, sallied forth to the village of Labugama to witness an elephant kraal. Henceforth, the Prince & his retinue travelled to villages like Hanwella, Bope & Dikoya to engage in hunting elephants, leopards, sambar, and bears for that matter any animal that crossed their path was shot dead. Alas, Prince Alfred, a Crackshot, is said to have slayed hundreds of tuskers & elks during his five week long stay in Ceylon.
Belle of the Jungle
During one of his hunting expeditions, the twenty six year old Prince set eyes on the Oriental beauty, the 18-year-old Iddamalgoda Manike of Avissawella, daughter of the Adigar of Ratnapura & Sabarugamuwa (Saffragam) who was the principal director of the kraal arrangements. Prince Alfred was deeply enthralled by her ravishing beauty & Sir Capper, in his book, describes the exotic Ms Iddamalgoda, as “a splendidly-formed classical beauty, and an heiress into the bargain; 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”. Howbeit, according to Capper, Ms Iddamalgoda was already betrothed against her will, to “an ugly old Kandyan chief ”. I surmise that the Prince would have been quiet disappointed having learnt of her pitiful fate. After the exhilarating hunting expedition, the Prince returned to Colombo on the 6th of April, to attend a public ball hosted by the general community. On the morning of the following day, he travelled post-haste to Ebawalapitiya for another elephant kraal, where an elephant nearly killed one of the onlookers. At the conclusion of the kraal, the Prince travelled by train from Polgahawela to Kandy, to attend a lavish levee, where he hobnobbed with the Nilames, Radala gentry, Singhalese elite, European planters & also the unclad Veddhas.
After his visit to the Temple of tooth, the Prince left Kandy on April 16th, to continue his shikaring expeditions in the jungles of Dikoya & Bopatalawa. Wherever the prince travelled, he was received by myriads of men, women, and children & he was hosted in splendid hunting lodges furnished with all the luxuries, built exclusively for the Royal tour, by the native headmen. But the Prince returned to Kandy & hosted a reception for “the ladies of native chiefs” at the Kandy Pavilion, and it was at this reception that the Prince was presented with an opportunity to renew his acquaintance with the vivacious, Ms Iddamalgoda Manike. “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.”
In his honour
A few days later, Prince Alfred returned by train to Colombo where, he laid the foundation-stone of the Municipal Council’s Edinburgh Hall (Edinburgh market) in the Pettah Old Town. Edinburgh Crescent in Cinnamon gardens (now called Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatte) was named in honour of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh. Later that evening, the Prince was entertained by Susew and Charles H. de Soysa at Bagatelle Walauwe. The invitees who amounted to about 3000 were entertained by a wide array of native & foreign performers. The most notable among them were the Tamil nautch-girls, Ceylon Malay Rifle band, jugglers, trapeze artists, & the Hungarian wizard who beguiled everyone with his magic tricks and stunts. It is worthy of mention, that the plate, goblets, and knife and fork provided for his Royal Highness were of gold, set with rubies, emeralds and pearls. More so, altruist Sir Charles kept Bagathale walauwe open to the public for a week following the magnificent bash, just so that everyone, irrespective of their social status, could feast to their stomachs’ content. Sir Charles, who was made Justice of the Peace for the Island by the Prince, decided to rename his stately home, “Bagathale” as “Alfred House”, in honour of Prince Alfred. Alas, the streets, Alfred Place & Alfred House Gardens, are all that remain to memorialize Sir Charles’s château, Alfred House which was demolished while constructing the Duplication road. More so, in pursuit of creating a centre for excellence in agriculture and animal husbandry, Sir Charles set up a farm & school of agriculture in 1871 & named it, Alfred Model Farm, again in honour of Prince Alfred. (officially converted to the Royal Colombo Golf Club in July 1896). Forbye, he is also believed to have named his second son, “Alfred” (A. J. R. de Soysa of Lakshmigiri) after Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh. On May 6th, 1870, after his final hunting escapades in Mutur, Trincomalee, the Prince made his last trip to Galle, where he attended a few receptions organized by the locals. Later, on the 11th of May 1870, after a five-week sojourn in Ceylon, the Prince & his crew sailed to England.
“Memories are treasures that time cannot destroy.”
For more information please read Sir Capper’s book, “The Duke of Edinburgh in Ceylon—A Book of Elephant and Elk Sport (1871)”, which contains lithographic illustrations by artist, J L K van Dort.
*Tuan Mohammed Zameer Careem is a Medical doctor, who has written extensively on Lankan ethnic groups, and has authored two scholarly tomes on Lankan Malays, namely, ‘Persaudaraan’ (Brotherhood) (2016) and ‘Malay Life in Sri Lanka’ (2017).