Chapter 10 - A Visit to Colombo

Richard’s father William Rowlands who had left the army in 1850, traveled to Trincomalee to see some of his friends from his army days. While he was there, he took ill and died within the week. The Register of Burials at the Church of St Stephens, Trincomalee, Register No: 20-C-922/80-153 Entry No: 922/9210 shows that William Rowlands died on 19th December 1858 at Trincomalee, aged 56 years.

When the family was notified they were devastated and Richard’s employer, Mrs. Cavendish recommended he take a few days off and visit Colombo with William Sabondiere who was going to the city on business. They rode horses to Kandy, where Mrs. Cavendish was there to greet them. They stayed the night at the Queens Hotel in Kandy and took the stage coach to Colombo the next day.

Queens Hotel, Kandy

With the unification of Ceylon in 1815, Sir Edward Barnes as Governor in 1824 gave Ceylon a fresh appearance.

The country was well connected with a network of military roads, bridges were constructed across major rivers and the first mail coach in Asia was started between Colombo and Kandy. These improvements were mapped out from his palatial residence at Mount Lavinia, built at a cost of thirty thousand pounds sterling. That same year, he also built the Pavilion at Kandy.

Up to about the 1840’s, Ceylon was a military dependency with about six infantry regiments with artillery. All maintained by the Imperial Government. Colombo being the Capital enjoyed the advantage of having headquarters of a Lieut-Governor. For security reasons, the entire workforce was stationed within its headquarters.

Governor Barnes’ Residence, Mt Lavinia

In 1858, Colombo seemed a truly busy city, with a dozen sailing ships with 300 to 1,000 tons at anchor, and all operations carried out with the utmost care and attention. Foreign visitors to the city were few.

There was only one hotel worth mentioning, but the mercantile hospitality made up for all the deficiencies and all visitors to the island were welcomed as dear friends from the homeland.

In the meantime, William Sabondiere and Richard Rowlands visited Colombo to see the loading of coffee at the Colombo Harbour and also see the horse races at the Galle Face. They stopped at the Galle Face Races where they caught site of carriages flying hither and thither on Galle Face Green and the crowd that had come to witness the events of the day.

Horse Races at Galle Face
After the spectacle of horse racing at Galle Face they were glad to get away from the noisy crowds and made their way back to the Fort. After a well earned cup of tea at the Galle Face Hotel, they took a stroll through the Fort to Pettah, but Richard not being used to the heat and stench of Colombo, they retraced their steps to their Hotel.

They then decided to hire a carriage to do a little more sight seeing. They met a Portuguese on the street and asked him whether he knew where to hire a carriage. “Come this way please” he said and they followed him back to Pettah, where opposite a very disreputable looking Wrights Shop they saw a shop with about a dozen readymade coffins and right above them a sign saying “Conveyance for Hire”. Richard would experience many similar situations in the future as he came to know more about life in Ceylon. They thanked the rascal and made their way back to the Fort to find a more reputable person who had a carriage for hire. They decided that a Rickshaw journey would be more appropriate to see the rest of Colombo. Street in Pettah.

Street in Pettah

Once they found a rickshaw for hire and noted the sign that indicated the rates for Rickshaws, which read:-

By Day Extra by Night
Rupees – Cents Rupees – Cents
Not exceeding ten minutes 0 10 0 5
Each hour 0 25 0 5
Each hour 0 50 0 10
For each subsequent half hour 0 10 0 5

They decided to hire two rickshaws as they felt that they both could not fit into one, for an hour and made their way around Colombo. Just out side the Fort and from Turret Road eastwards the land was covered with cinnamon, until in a bid to beautify the city the Government had laid out a park and flower gardens and on the surrounding land was built elegant colonial houses. This area would in time become known as Cinnamon Gardens and there the de Soysa family would build their Mansion “Alfred House”.

Galle Face Hotel in the 1860’s

Richard was not to know, that soon he would make friends with one of the richest plantation owners in Ceylon at that time and would be dining with royalty at their mansion in Cinnamon Gardens in the not too distant future.

During their visit they also visited the British Garrison stationed in Colombo and the new buildings constructed on Slave Island. The buildings were constructed to plans drawn up by the Government Architect and were of a high quality and designed for the tropics.

The first mail coach in all Asia was inaugurated on 1st February 1832 and operated between Colombo and Kandy until July 1867. It was this mail coach that they boarded for Kandy at 4.00a.m, on the only cart road from Colombo to Kandy via Kaduganawa.

Rifle Mess on Slave Island in 1860

The morning gun would fire at 5a.m. for the gates of the Colombo Fort to be opened for the coach to leave.

They would then go to Pussellawa on horse back, via the cart road from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. Richard found that the cart road from Colombo to Kandy was no more than a clearing through the forest that served both as a military and commercial road. The fare from Colombo to Kandy was Two Pounds Sterling for an inside seat.

Rickshaws in Colombo
The coach was drawn with two horses and had accommodation for four passengers beside the driver. Instructions issued to the driver insisted that the coach should never be driven at a speed exceeding six mile per hour. One hour was allowed for a bath and breakfast at the Royal Hotel, Mahahena. The journey from Colombo took 14 hours.

Miles are passed and still the country is thickly populated – paddy cultivation in all the flats and hollows and even the sides of the hills were carefully terraced out in a laborious system of agriculture. Sixty miles are passed; the top of the Kaduganawa Pass is reached, eighteen hundred feet above sea level, the road walled with jungle on either side.

The Kandy Road was a toll road. Also, that the road led through robber infested country and was consequently never safe. They were fortunate not to be accosted by “Sardiel”, Ceylon’s Robin Hood or any other bands of highwaymen, not to mention rogue elephants and other savage animals. The journey took them to Gampaha where there was a Rest House established for travelers for a short break.

Colombo-Kandy Coach

Then to Kegalla, where a similar establishment was available for lunch and finally to Peradeniya via the Kaduganawa Pass.

William Sabondiere told Richard the construction of the Colombo to Kandy road was steeped in legend. There was ancient prophecy amongst Kandyans that whoever pieced the rock on the final ascent to the pass and made a road from the plains would receive the Kandyan Kingdom as a reward.

The Portuguese had failed, as did the Dutch. The prophecy was finally fulfilled by the British, who broke through the rock in 1823.

The other landmark that they crossed was the bridge built at Peradeniya in 1831 spanning the Mahaveli Ganga, the fourth longest in the country. The bridge was constructed entirely of satinwood dovetailed together without the single nail or bolt. This huge bridge was supported by stone buttresses set into foundations on each side of the river.

Road through Kaduganawa Rock

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