18 May, 2022


Old Colombo, ‘Race And Class’ Through The Eyes Of Some Australian Women

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Angela Woollacott wrote about “Australian Women’s Voyage Home” during the colonial period to the American Historical Review (AHR) in 1997. What she meant by ‘voyage home’ was Australian women going to England with some nostalgia. On their way to the West from Sydney, Melbourne or Perth, they encountered the East. This was before air travel became popular or cheap. As a result, they had to stop over mostly Colombo before they touched on Cape Town or Aden, depending on the route, but after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the latter route was most convenient and popular. The universal mode of transportation was steamship. Australian commercial air travel to in England first started in 1934.

In her essay, Woollacott’s concern was “not with what Australian women did when they arrived but with what they made of what they saw on the way there.” In my case, I am abstracting what is importantly recorded (not all) on old Colombo and Ceylon. They were all ‘forced tourists’ on their way to London. The route and the time they spent at various places were fixed. In Colombo, usually it was three to four days. Apart from Woollacott’s accounts, there are other records to ascertain the impressions of those who travelled via Colombo.

Other Travellers  

Let me first quote from another source where Veronica Norton gave her impressions about this country and the city. I am quoting from Faithe Jones, Grave Secrets Net, 2013. She was a Sister Nurse not going to London but to Bombay for British Indian Service. She arrived in Colombo on 10 September 1916 and wrote to her mother saying “I would like to be able to describe this beautiful place to you, but it is really all too wonderful. Coming into port the place looks beautiful, after not having seen land for ten days.” She further said that after seeing “all the palms and wonderful tropical vegetation in the distance made us think we were in fairyland.” She was not only expressing her impression but of many of her companions in the plural.

The natives are fearful cheats, and would fleece us if they could

She had many good things to say about the Grand Oriental Hotel (GOH) where she was staying, and the Galle Face Hotel where they went to dine mostly. But her account of travel to and in Kandy perhaps was the most revealing. It is both of good things and bad ones. Unfortunately, the bad things are about the people. As Woollacott rightly argued, the perceptions of the travellers of the natives were often mediated by their own perceptions of class or race (AHR, p. 1012).

“Yesterday morning we caught the train to Kandy at 7.30. It is right up in the hills, and really cool. We arrived there at 11.30, Gladys Bennett, Moroney and self were together. We went all round Kandy in a car that was lent to us: so the cost of this trip was nil. The palm groves and drives we went along made us think we were in Heaven. Rice fields in all their different stages, with bungalows dotted here and there on one side, and on the other great gullies of palms of all descriptions and the red soil and different colours the natives wear around them all add to the picture. The natives are fearful cheats, and would fleece us if they could. Only wish you were with me. We feel like tourists, and will find it hard to settle down to work again.” (My emphasis).  

A year ago, Anne Donnell, also a sister nurse, gave a similar impression of the “the native boys calling out Money, Money, Money, mixed with a lot of jabber of their own” even before they got on the shore. This time I am quoting from NSW Mitchell Library website. Perhaps the boys were trying to sell some victuals or souvenirs coming around the ferry in small boats. The date was 1 June 1915. It should ring a bell for history or political science students. She noted in her diary, “With the expectation of reaching Colombo in the small hours of the morning everyone seems more cheerful than usual and making plans for how they are going to spend the day.” But the opportunities were not that delightful.

All the natives seemed very excited over something and we soon learned what it was – Riots in the town between the Mohommadons and Buddists over religion. Over 300 had been killed and many wounded. We were told it was unsafe to go out of the Town and soon had orders from Colonel not to. That was rather a disappointment as several wanted to go to Kandy, Mt Lavinia and other beauty spots – anyway all soon fell to and made the most of things. Everything was so interesting, how those natives beat anything I ever struck for sharpness.” (My emphasis).

She noted, “There was the many oriental shops to see – the rickshaw rides down to the Cinnamon Gardens, back to the Galle Face Hotel for dinner – another rickshaw ride by the seaside – afternoon tea – a little more shopping when we found things greatly reduced – then back on board by 6pm.”

She noted, “There was the many oriental shops to see - the rickshaw rides down to the Cinnamon Gardens, back to the Galle Face Hotel for dinner – another rickshaw ride by the seaside – afternoon tea - a little more shopping when we found things greatly reduced – then back on board by 6pm.”

She noted, “There was the many oriental shops to see – the rickshaw rides down to the Cinnamon Gardens, back to the Galle Face Hotel for dinner – another rickshaw ride by the seaside – afternoon tea – a little more shopping when we found things greatly reduced – then back on board by 6pm.”

She further noted ‘no one was allowed in the streets after 6pm.’ It was Marshal Law. “We saw several shops that had been battered to pieces. Several were closed and trade generally at a standstill. Our people all suffering in consequence as having an overfull ward boat some supplies had run out especially in the soft drink line – Now we have to wait for Bombay.”

Ms. Donnell also noted that by the time there had been several other ships that had come from several other places. Colombo Port was a busy place at that time as some used to call it the ‘Clapham Junction.’ There were numerous passengers. She was surprised: “where they are all stowed is a mystery.” She noted there were a number of ‘Japanese boys going home’ after becoming doctors in the West. “We seem to have every nationality on board ‘barring Germans,” she added. When they were about to go, there was even a ‘Refugee’ hiding in the ship. But alas!

“The little stowaway was handed over to the Colombo police.”

Intellectual Women

The women that Woollacott selected for her analysis were fundamentally different to those I have recounted before. They were well educated, intellectual and partly feminist activists. They knew where they were setting off in the mid-way of their journey to London, particularly Colombo or Durban. Their interpretations were more sophisticated than those nurses. For example, the well-travelled feminist activist Bessie Rischbieth was one such person who set foot in Colombo in April 1913. Her routine was different to many others who usually went to tourist spots or bazars. She said,

“At Colombo I put in a quiet day. Went to the Galle Face Hotel for a room for the day, and then went and called on Mrs. Higgins of the [Theosophical Society] Centre and stayed to ‘tiffin’ with them.”

This must be Marie Musaeus Higgins who was the Principal of the Musaeus College in Colombo at that time. In fact there was a Melbourne woman before, Kate F. Pickett, the daughter of Mrs. Elise Pickett, President of the Melbourne Theosophical Society. Rischbieth knew about Theosophical Society beforehand and was interested in it. She knew that theosophists were countering imperial Christian evangelizing in Ceylon. She was particularly interested in this Buddhist girls’ school that ran by the Society in Colombo and visited the place. She said “It was so interesting going over the school again [with] dear little Buddhist girls. I had quite a lovely time with [them].

Another such enlightened visitor was Stella Bowen who set onshore early 1914. She was sailing from Adelaide to London to study Art. In her later recollections she gave impressions about poverty in Colombo. Perhaps those were her first impressions but she related them to the culpability of the Empire or colonialism only later. Her memoirs were written probably in late 1930s. However what she said was significant.

I saw the unimaginable squalor of the native quarter, the crawling heaps of brown limbs, the begging babies, the sickness. I admired the skill, industry and soft-voiced charm of the Hindu tailor who offered to copy your favourite suit in twenty-four hours for a pittance. All this is the Empire, I told myself, and no criticism of it entered into my mind. Not then.”

Rickshaw rides were a main attraction for the visiting Australian women in Colombo.

Rickshaw rides were a main attraction for the visiting Australian women in Colombo.

By the turn of the century, I mean the 20th century, Colombo had become a well-known tourist site in the Empire. The GOH, the Galle Face and Mt. Lavinia Hotel were well known among the travellers. As Louise Mack had noted “Everybody does the same thing. At Mount Lavinia, we meet our ship’s people in hundreds.” Winifred James (a feminist) who travelled from Melbourne to London via Colombo in 1905 gives vivid accounts in a fictionalized manner in her book Bachelor Betty. One account that Woollacott has quoted is a description of different people from different nationalities or countries that ‘Betty’ had met at the Galle Face Hotel at dinner. Similar or more stimulating accounts are available elsewhere. Here is a description of both the GOH and the Galle Face Hotel from Sister Norton whom I introduced before who went to Kandy and blamed the natives. She was writing to her mother.

“Well, this place surpasses all my expectations and I would not like to have missed it for worlds, as far as we have gone now. We are staying at this hotel [GOH], and Sister Bennett and have a beautiful room, with a tiled bathroom just off it. We will be suffering from swollen heads when we return. We arrived here just in time for dinner on Wednesday night. It was a beautiful sight to see the dining-Hall, which is of white marble, and has standing electric lights with pale pink shades and candelabra all around, and the string band was playing most beautifully. Four of us had dinner as the guests of two lady passengers by the boat, after which we all went out in   rickshaws: and the drive was great.

We had supper at the Galle Face Hotel (one of the best hotels in the world, they say), and is situated right on the beach. It was just a mass of light, and we had supper on the lawn, and then left for home. The palms growing all around the lawn were so lovely, and it was moonlight to add to the charm. I’ll never forget my first night in the East. All I was wishing for was you to be with me to see it all: it is so hard to describe.”

Rickshaw Rides

Rickshaw rides were a main attraction for the visiting Australian women in Colombo. Different women related their experiences differently depending on their social outlooks or values. For a person like Stella Bowen it was reprehensible, but there was no other alternative. She said, “I felt apologetic to the slim brown creature who paddled along between the shafts.” However this was not the case for Louise Mack. She said,

“The first ride in a rickshaw is a tremendous sensation. You feel like a queen. You own the whole world. You have a man-a flesh-and-blood man-running in harness between the shafts of your tall, black perambulator with two big wheels, and a hood that goes up and down. Off he tears. His rate is desperately swift. He is so thin that you fear he will break in pieces, that you will be arrested for cruelty to dumb animals.”

She felt like a queen! She narrated her almost savage experience in An Australian Girl (London, 1901) which became criticised by many for its inhuman and racist attitudes on the natives and the colonized.

Cinnamon Gardens those days were a popular tourist destination for rickshaw travel by men and women, but mostly women. Many have reported the experience as sensual. Winifred James in her novel that I mentioned before in fact narrated the experience of ‘Betty’ and her friend in this respect as follows. It was almost a sexual attraction to a ‘rickshaw boy,’ transcending ‘race and class’ or perhaps mixed with them.

“Then all at once the air becomes heavy and sweet with spicy odours. The sweating coolies stop and carefully lower the rickshaw shafts to the ground. They walk away to the bushes, and plucking some branches bring them to us and thrust them into our hands, bruising the leaves as they offer them. We are in the cinnamon gardens. And as the thieving, lying rickshaw boy, with only a short life before him by reason of his profession, pushes his bruised flowers into my hands and says softly, “Laydee, you take,” a sudden savage longing for love and beauty comes over me, a glimpse of power and freedom, a desire for completion. And it is all in the magic of that wonderful voice that is half-lover, half-slave, and wholly- entreating child.”

Race and Class  

There were different views and attitudes from those women who visited Colombo from Australia on their ‘way home’ to London those days. Woollacott said “By drawing especially on the accounts of two Australian feminists, Winifred James and Vida Goldstein, I have attempted to explore how even women who condemned some aspects of colonialism still acceded to its privileges and the privileges of whiteness.” For example, Vida Goldstein said in 1911, “I left Colombo believing more firmly than ever in the wisdom of a White Australia.” What she proposed was a kind of distance or Apartheid within the Empire.

However, there were those who were willing to accept at least the educated or the upper classes of the natives as equal. There was an interesting revelation later on. The journalist author of “My Dream Trip Comes True” (Everylady’s Journal, 1931) recounted that when her ship left Colombo (the year is not clear), her fellow passengers included “a few Cingalese, young men for the most part, going home to complete their education at one of the Universities.” Among these men could have been some of the later day Left leaders. This is my speculation! However the important point here is that this feminist author was willing to accept them as equals at least in the sense to say that they were also ‘going home’ to England to pursue their university studies. Not only were these Sinhalese men, but there were few other educated Indians in the ship. Relating an interesting conversation on ‘race and colour’ with one of them, she also said the following with which I may conclude this article.

“It is interesting to learn that the educated Indian considers his colour due to climatic conditions. This point had never struck me before, until I spoke to two or three men, whom I thought were half-caste as they were so brown. I was amazed to find they were English, going home after five or six years on the sugar plantations; so possibly there might be something to this theory after all.”  

All these were just few years before, the most popular Australian in Sri Lanka, Mark Anthony Lester Bracegirdle, opted to fight on behalf of the ‘half-castes’ in the country, after being a planter briefly.

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Latest comments

  • 6

    Fascinating. Thank you.

  • 2

    Excellent. Ta.

  • 7

    Interesting and fascinating detail. One paragraph in particular caught my eye.

    “Yesterday morning we caught the train to Kandy at 7.30. It is right up in the hills, and really cool. We arrived there at 11.30, Gladys Bennett, Moroney and self… ”

    The train from colombo to kandy has taken these three ladies four hours to arrive, more than a century ago. Today, it takes more or less the same time… A century after…

  • 2

    Interesting information, Thank you. I read some where that Albert Einstein also visited Colombo in his visit to Asia in the same period you mentioned. He visited Only Colombo, Singapore and Japan, your articles clearly shows why Einstein included Colombo in his only visit to Asia.
    British with the help of wise Sinhalese, Muslims, Tamils and Burgers made a lovely country, what a mess we have done after British left…. In 1915, there were trains and it took only 4 hrs to travel from Colombo to Kandy (it takes 4.5 hrs by car in 2014, but the good side is even poor natives can do this travel in 2014 ).
    Even in 1915, there were majority and minority clashed over superiority issues.. ( after 100 years, it is still the same)

    • 0

      Yes AVB. According to the World Wide Web entries for the “Chronology of Einstein’s Life” the following appears for the Year 1922 among others. He was in Europe and then sailed for Japan via Colombo.

      Entry Reads: “As guest of a newspaper house Einstein and his wife Elsa begin a longer journey to Japan on October 8. On their journey they visit among other cities Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.”

      Prof Kirthi Tennakone (University of Cincinnati) wrote on this ‘obscure visit’ to The Island on 21 January 2011.

  • 1

    Deeply insightful, informative and well researched article. Thanks for sharing

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