13: Chapter XIII
<< 12: Chapter XII || TOC
One of the most interesting objects to a tourist in Ceylon is a
secluded lake or tank in those jungle districts which are seldom
disturbed by the white man. There is something peculiarly
striking in the wonderful number of living creatures which exist
upon the productions of the water. Birds of infinite variety and
countless numbers - fish in myriads - reptiles and crocodiles
-animals that feed upon the luxuriant vegetation of the shores -
insects which sparkle in the sunshine in every gaudy hue; all
these congregate in the neighborhood of these remote solitudes,
and people the lakes with an incalculable host of living beings.
In such a scene there is scope for much delightful study of the
habits and natures of wild animals, where they can be seen
enjoying their freedom unrestrained by the fear of man.
Often have I passed a quiet hour on a calm evening when the sun
has sunk low on the horizon, and lie cool breeze has stolen
across the water, refreshing all animal life. Here, concealed
beneath the shade of some large tree I have watched the masses of
living things quite unconscious of such scrutiny. In one spot
the tiny squirrel nibbling the buds on a giant limb of the tree
above me, while on the opposite shore a majestic bull elephant
has commenced his evening bath, showering the water above his
head and trumpeting his loud call to the distant herd. Far away
in the dense jungles the ringing sound is heard, as the answering
females return the salute and slowly approach the place of
rendezvous. One by one their dark forms emerge from the thorny
coverts and loom large upon the green but distant shores, and
they increase their pace when they view the coveted water, and
belly-deep enjoy their evening draught.
The graceful axis in dense herds quit the screening jungle and
also seek the plain. The short, shrill barks of answering bucks
sound clearly across the surface of the lake, and indistinct
specks begin to appear on the edge of the more distant forests.
Now black patches are clotted about the plain; now larger
objects, some single and some in herds, make toward the water.
The telescope distinguishes the vast herds of hogs busy in
upturning the soil in search of roots, and the ungainly
buffaloes, some in herds and others single bulls, all gathering
at the hour of sunset toward the water. Peacocks spread their
gaudy plumage to the cool evening air as they strut over the
green plain; the giant crane stands statue-like among the
shallows; the pelican floats like a ball of snow upon the dark
water; and ducks and waterfowl of all kinds splash, and dive, and
scream in a confused noise, the volume of which explains their
Foremost among the waterfowl for beauty is the water-pheasant.
He is generally seen standing upon the broad leaf of a lotus,
pecking at the ripe seeds and continually uttering his plaintive
cry, like the very distant note of a hound. This bird is most
beautifully formed, and his peculiarity of color is well adapted
to his shape. He is something like a cock pheasant in build and
mode of carriage, but he does not exceed the size of a pigeon.
His color is white, with a fine brown tinsel glittering head and
long tail; the wings of the cock bird are likewise ornamented
with similar brown tinsel feathers. These birds are delicious
eating, but I seldom fire at them, as they are generally among
the lotus plants in such deep water that I dare not venture to
get them on account of crocodiles. The lotus seeds, which they
devour greedily, are a very good substitute for filberts, and are
The endless variety of the crane is very interesting upon these
lonely shores. From the giant crane, who stands nearly six feet
high, down to the smallest species of paddy bird, there is a
numerous gradation. Among these the gaunt adjutant stands
conspicuous as he stalks with measured steps through the high
rushes, now plunging his immense bill into the tangled sedges,
then triumphantly throwing back his head with a large snake
writhing helplessly in his horny beak; open fly the shear-like
hinges of his bill - one or two sharp jerks and down goes one
half of an incredibly large snake; another jerk and a convulsive
struggle of the snake; one more jerk - snap, snap goes the bill
and the snake has disappeared, while the adjutant again stalks
quietly on, as though nothing had happened. Down goes his bill,
presently, with a sudden start, and again his head is thrown
back; but this time it is the work of a moment, as it is only an
iguana, which not being above eighteen inches long, is easy
A great number of the crane species are destroyers of snakes,
which in a country so infested with vermin as Ceylon renders them
especially valuable. Peacocks likewise wage perpetual war with
all kinds of reptiles, and Nature has wisely arranged that where
these nuisances most abound there is a corresponding provision
for their destruction.
Snipes, of course, abound in their season around the margin of
the lakes; but the most delicious birds for the table are the
teal and ducks, of which there are four varieties. The largest
duck is nearly the size of a wild goose, and has a red, fatty
protuberance about the beak very similar to a muscovy. The teal
are the fattest and most delicious birds that I have ever tasted.
Cooked in Soyer's magic stove, with a little butter, cayenne
pepper, a squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of salt, and a spoonful
of Lea and Perrins' Worcester sauce (which, by the by, is the
best in the world for a hot climate), and there is no bird like a
Ceylon teal. They are very numerous, and I have seen them in
flocks of some thousands on the salt-water lakes on the eastern
coast, where they are seldom or ever disturbed. Nevertheless,
they are tolerably wary, which, of course, increases the sport of
shooting them. I have often thought what a paradise these lakes
would have made for the veteran Colonel Hawker with his punt gun.
He might have paddled about and blazed away to his heart's
There is one kind of duck that would undoubtedly have astonished
him, and which would have slightly bothered the punt gun for an
elevation: this is the tree duck, which flies about and perches
in the branches of the lofty trees like any nightingale. This
has an absurd effect, as a duck looks entirely out of place in
such a situation. I have seen a whole cluster of them sitting on
one branch, and when I first observed them I killed three at one
shot to make it a matter of certainty.
It is a handsome light brown bird, about the size of an English
widgeon, but there is no peculiar formation in the feet to enable
them to cling to a bough; they are bona fide ducks with the
common flat web foot.
A very beautiful species of bald-pated coot, called by the
natives keetoolle, is also an inhabitant of the lakes. This bird
is of a bright blue color with a brilliant pink horny head. He
is a slow flyer, being as bulky as a common fowl and short in his
proportion of wing.
It is impossible to convey a correct idea of the number and
variety of birds in these localities, and I will not trouble the
reader by a description which would be very laborious to all
parties; but to those who delight in ornithological studies there
is a wild field which would doubtless supply many new specimens.
I know nothing more interesting than the acquaintance with all
the wild denizens of mountain and plain, lake and river. There
is always something fresh to learn, something new to admire, in
the boundless works of creation. There is a charm in every sound
in Nature where the voice of man is seldom heard to disturb her
works. Every note gladdens the ear in the stillness of solitude,
when night has overshadowed the earth, and all sleep but the wild
animals of the forest. Then I have often risen from my bed, when
the tortures of mosquitoes have banished all ideas of rest, and
have silently wandered from the tent to listen in the solemn
quiet of night.
I have seen the tired coolies stretched round the smouldering
fires sound asleep after their day's march, wrapped in their
white clothes, like so many corpses laid upon the ground. The
flickering logs on the great pile of embers crackling and sinking
as they consume; now falling suddenly and throwing up a shower of
sparks, then resting again in a dull red heat, casting a silvery
moonlike glare upon the foliage of the spreading trees above. A
little farther on, and the horses standing sleepily at their
tethers, their heads drooping in a doze. Beyond them, and all is
darkness and wilderness. No human dwelling or being beyond the
little encampment I have quitted; the dark lake reflecting the
stars like a mirror, and the thin crescent moon giving a pale and
indistinct glare which just makes night visible.
It is a lovely hour then to wander forth and wait for wild
sounds. All is still except the tiny hum of the mosquitoes.
Then the low chuckling note of the night hawk sounds soft and
melancholy in the distance; and again all is still, save the
heavy and impatient stamp of a horse as the mosquitoes irritate
him by their bites. Quiet again for a few seconds, when
presently the loud alarm of the plover rings over the plain -
"Did he do it?" - the bird's harsh cry speaks these words as
plainly as a human being. This alarm is a certain warning that
some beast is stalking abroad which has disturbed it from its
roost, but presciently it is again hushed.
The loud hoarse bark of an elk now unexpectedly startles the ear;
presently it is replied to by another, and once more the plover
shrieks "Did he do it?" and a peacock waking on his roost gives
one loud scream and sleeps again.
The heavy and regular splashing of water now marks the measured
tread of a single elephant as he roars out into the cooled lake,
and you can hear the more gentle falling of water as he spouts a
shower over his body. Hark at the deep guttural sigh of pleasure
that travels over the lake like a moan of the wind! -what giant
lungs to heave such a breath; but hark again! There was a fine
trumpet! as clear as any bugle note blown by a hundred breaths it
rung through the still air. How beautiful! There, the note is
answered; not by so fine a tone, but by discordant screams and
roars from the opposite side, and the louder splashing tells that
the herd is closing up to the old bull. Like distant thunder a
deep roar growls across the lake as the old monarch mutters to
himself in angry impatience.
Then the long, tremulous hoot of the owl disturbs the night,
mingled with the harsh cries of flights of waterfowl, which
doubtless the elephants have disturbed while bathing.
Once more all sounds sink to rest for a few minutes, until the
low, grating roar of a leopard nearer home warns the horses of
their danger and wakes up the sleeping horsekeeper, who piles
fresh wood upon the fires, and the bright blaze shoots up among
the trees and throws a dull, ruddy glow across the surface of the
water. And morning comes at length, ushered in, before night has
yet departed, by the strong, shrill cry of the great fish-eagle,
as he sits on the topmost bough of some forest tree and at
measured periods repeats his quivering and unearthly yell like an
evil spirit calling. But hark at that dull, low note of
indescribable pain and suffering! long and heavy it swells and
dies away. It is the devil-bird; and whoever sees that bird must
surely die soon after, according to Cingalese superstition.
A more cheering sound charms the ear as the gray tint of morning
makes the stars grow pale; clear, rich, notes, now prolonged and
full, now plaintive and low, set the example to other singing
birds, as the bulbul, first to awake, proclaims the morning.
Wild, jungle-like songs the birds indulge in; not like our steady
thrushes of Old England, but charming in their quaintness. The
jungle partridge now wakes up, and with his loud cry subdues all
other sounds, until the numerous peacocks, perched on the high
trees around the lake, commence their discordant yells, which
The name for the devil-bird is "gualama," and so impressed are
the natives with the belief that a sight of it is equivalent to a
call to the nether world that they frequently die from sheer
fright and nervousness. A case of this happened to a servant of
a friend of mine. He chanced to see the creature sitting on a
bough, and he was from that moment so satisfied of his inevitable
fate that he refused all food, and fretted and died, as, of
course, any one else must do, if starved, whether he saw the
devil-bird or not.
Although I have heard the curious, mournful cry of this creature
nearly every night, I have never seen one; this is easily
accounted for, as, being a night-bird, it remains concealed in
the jungle during the day. In so densely wooded a country as
Ceylon it is not to be wondered at that owls, and all other birds
of similar habit are so rarely met with. Even woodcocks are
rarely noticed; so seldom, indeed, that I have never seen more
than two during my residence in the island.
>From the same cause many interesting animals pass unobserved,
although they are very numerous. The porcupine, although as
common as the hedge-hog in England, is very seldom seen.
Likewise the manis, or great scaled ant-eater, who retires to his
hole before break of day, is never met with by daylight.
Indeed, I have had some trouble in persuading many persons in
Ceylon that such an animal exists in the country.
In the same manner the larger kinds of serpents conceal
themselves by day and wander forth at night, like all other
reptiles except the smaller species of lizard, of which we have
in Ceylon an immense variety, from the crocodile himself down to
the little house-lizard.
Of this tribe the "cabra goya" and the "iguana" grow to a large
size; the former I have killed as long as eight or nine feet, but
the latter seldom exceeds four. I have often intended to eat
one, as the natives consider them a great delicacy, but I have
never been quite hungry enough to make the trial whenever one was
at hand. The "cabra goya" is a horrid brute, and is not
considered eatable even by the Cingalese.
One curious species of lizard exists in Ceylon; it is little
brown species with a peculiarly rough skin and a serrated spine.
A long horn projects from the snout, and it is a fac-simile in
miniature of the antediluvian monster, the "iguanodon," who was
about a hundred feet long and twelve feet thick - an awkward
creature to meet in a narrow road. However, the crocodiles of
modern times are awkward enough for the present day, and
sometimes grow to the immense length of twenty two feet.
It has frequently surprised me that they do not upset the small
canoes in which the natives paddle about the lakes and rivers.
These are formed in the simplest manner, of very rude materials,
by hollowing out a small log of wood and attaching an outrigger.
Some of these are so small that the gunwale is close to the
water's edge when containing only one person.
Even the large sea-canoes are constructed on a similar principle;
but they are really very wonderful boats for both speed and
A simple log of about thirty feet in length is hollowed out.
This is tapered off at either end, so as to form a kind of prow.
The cylindrical shape of the log is preserved as much as possible
in the process of hollowing, so that no more than a section of
one fourth of the circle is pared away upon the upper side.
Upon the edges of this aperture the top sides of the canoe are
formed by simple planks, which are merely sewn upon the main body
of the log parallel to each other, and slightly inclining
outward, so as to admit the legs of persons sitting on the canoe.
A vessel of this kind would of course capsize immediately, as the
top weight of the upper works would overturn the flute-like body
upon which they rested. This is prevented by an outrigger, which
is formed of elastic rods of tough wood, which, being firmly
bound together, project at right angles from the upper works. At
the extremity of these two rods, there is a tapering log of light
wood, which very much resembles the bottom log of the canoe in
miniature. This, floating on the water, balances the canoe in an
upright position; it cannot be upset until some force is exerted
upon the mast of the canoe which is either sufficient to lift the
outrigger out of the water, or on the other hand to sink it
altogether; either accident being prevented by the great leverage
required. Thus, when a heavy breeze sends the little vessel
flying like a swallow over the waves, and the outrigger to
windward shows symptoms of lifting, a man rims out upon the
connecting rod, and, squatting upon the outrigger, adds his
weight to the leverage. Two long bamboos, spreading like a
letter V from the bottom of the canoe, form the masts, and
support a single square sail, which is immensely large in
proportion to the size and weight of the vessel.
The motion of these canoes under a stiff breeze is most
delightful; there is a total absence of rolling, which is
prevented by the outrigger, and the steadiness of their course
under a press of sail is very remarkable. I have been in these
boats in a considerable surf, which they fly through like a fish;
and if the beach is sandy and the inclination favorable, their
own impetus will carry them high and dry.
Sewing the portions of a boat together appears ill adapted to
purposes of strength; but all the Cingalese vessels are
constructed upon this principle: the two edges of the planks
being brought together, a strip of the areca palm stern is laid
over the joints, and holes being drilled upon each plank, the
sewing is drawn tightly over the lath of palm, which being
thickly smeared with a kind of pitch, keeps the seams perfectly
water-tight. The native dhonies, which are vessels of a hundred
and fifty tons, are all fastened in this simple and apparently
fragile manner; nevertheless they are excellent sea-boats, and
ride in safety through many a gale of wind. The first moving
object which met my view on arrival within sight of Ceylon was an
outrigger canoe, which shot past our vessels as if we had been at
The last object that my eyes rested on, as the cocoa-nut trees of
Ceylon faded from sight, was again the native canoe which took
the last farewell lines to those who were left behind. Upon this
I gazed till it became a gray speck upon the horizon and the
green shores of the Eastern paradise faded from my eyes for ever.
How little did I imagine, when these pages were commenced in
Ceylon, that their conclusion would be written in England!
An unfortunate shooting trip to one of the most unhealthy parts
of the country killed my old horse "Jack," one coolie, and very
nearly extinguished me rendering it imperative that I should seek
a change of climate in England. And what a dream-like change it
is! - past events appear unreal, and the last few years seem to
have escaped from the connecting chain of former life. Scarcely
can I believe in the bygone days of glorious freedom, when I
wandered through that beautiful country, unfettered by the laws
or customs of conventional life.
The white cliffs of Old England rose hazily on the horizon, and
greeted many anxious eyes as the vessel rushed proudly on with
her decks thronged with a living freight, all happy as children
in the thoughts of home. The sun shone brightly and gave a warm
welcome on our arrival; and as the steamer moored alongside the
quay, an hour sufficed to scatter the host of passengers who had
so closely dwelt together, as completely as the audience of a
theatre when the curtain falls. That act of life is past -
"exeunt omnes," and a new scene commences. We are in England.
A sudden change necessarily induces a comparison, and I imagine
there are few who have dwelt much among the Tropics who do not
acquire a distaste for the English climate, and look back with
lingering hopes to the verdant shores they have left so far
behind. The recollection of absent years, which seem to have
been the summer of life, makes the chill of the present feel
doubly cold, and our thoughts still cling to the past, while we
strive against the belief that we never can recall those days
How, as my thoughts wander back to former scenes every mountain
and valley reappears in the magic glass of memory! Every rock and
dell, every old twisted stem, every dark ravine and wooded cliff,
the distant outlines of the well-known hills, the jungle-paths
known to my eye alone, and the far, still spots where I have
often sat in solitude and pondered over the events of life, and
conjured up the faces of those so far away, doubtful if we should
ever meet again. Thus even now I picture to myself the past; and
so vivid is the scene that I can almost hear the fancied roar of
the old waterfalls, and see the shadowy tints which the evening
sun throws upon the tree-tops. My old home rises before me like
a dissolving view, and I can see the very spot where it was my
delight to live, where a warm welcome awaited every friend. And
lastly, the faces of those friends seem clear before me, and
bring back the associations of old times. Those who have shared
in common many of these scenes I trust to meet again, and look
back upon the events of former days as landscapes on the road of
life that we have viewed together.
For me Ceylon has always had a charm, and I shall ever retain a
vivid interest in the colony.
I trust that a new and more prosperous era has now commenced, and
that Ceylon, having shaken off the incubus of mismanagement, may,
under the rule of a vigorous and enterprising governor, arrive at
that prosperity to which she is entitled by her capabilities.
The governor recently appointed (Sir H. Ward,) has a task before
him which his well-known energy will doubtless enable him to
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