In July 1816, former British Navy officer John Whitworth Bennett arrived in Ceylon with the prospect of employment in the Civil Service. His career in the colony was no great success, however, for he fell out with his superiors, even with Governor Sir Edward Barnes, against whom he brought charges of corruption and misuse of government funds. Eleven years later, Bennett left the island for good, taking with him a storehouse of knowledge that saw expression in several invaluable books published after his return to England. One of them was Ceylon And Its Capabilities: An Account Of Its Natural Resources, Indigenous Productions, And Commercial Facilities (1843). This volume contained travel description and advice, in particular ‘maxims for the tourist’s observance’ that reveal the concerns of the time, some of them valid even today.
Let us begin with the mosquito, the bane of every tourist throughout the centuries. Bennett suggests an ingenious method of erecting a mosquito net that avoided the need for what became known as the ‘mosquito dose’:
An umbrella should be carried, whenever practicable, during the heat of the day; and I have found a circular curtain of green mosquito net, about 12 feet in depth, with a central ferrule fitted to the curtain, so as to admit the point of the umbrella, a most excellent defence against that inveterate enemy of the new-comer, and constant annoyance to European travellers, the mosquito; for when the umbrella is expanded, and the handle tied to the head of a common rest-house bed, or couch, one may anticipate a night of comparative comfort, without having recourse to a mosquito dose [a dose of alcohol, usually wine!] as a soporific.
As for the conveyance best suited for travel within the island, Bennett’s advice is to abandon swift but location-inflexible horse-drawn conveyances, and instead climb aboard a more location-interactive, bearer-borne box. It is much the same as today’s advantage of taking a trishaw rather than a bus, although without the burden of knowing you are the literal burden on a squad of men: ‘To be perfectly at one’s ease, to stop when one pleases, to view the country, or to collect specimens in natural history, there is nothing like the old-fashioned way, by palankin [palanquin].’
Another particular concern was the manner in which to transport the extensive supplies required when travelling and staying at poorly equipped rest houses. Bennett suggests the use of simple tin boxes:
I would earnestly recommend the traveller in Ceylon to have nothing to do with those pretty looking canteens, shining with patent leather and brass nails, at every outfitter’s warehouse in town; for there are places where, unless the greatest care be taken, the white ants will soon devour the leather, and perhaps the wood; and as to the ornamental brass nails, they are sure to exchange their brilliancy, in the humid atmosphere of the island, for the green hue of old copper.
I have always found japanned tin boxes the securest and the best; and the traveller may have as many as his habits require; but he has one thing to bear in mind, viz., that the government regulations do not allow coolies to be compelled to carry more than 40 pounds to a greater distance than two miles from any town; and that therefore, a sufficient breakfast equipage, with supplies of tea, sugar, coffee, powder, shots, caps, a small lamp fitted to a low candlestick, with a couple of glass shades, wax candles, &c. &c, may be easily fitted into compartments in a tin box, 20 inches long, by 15 in depth and width, and sufficient space to be left for a tray, of light cedar, over all; and the dinner canteen should be similarly fitted.
The provision of the tourist’s meals required the services of a cook, who, Bennett believed, should combine his culinary duties with that of a valet, especially concerning the supply of cool bathing water:
Chatties [porous earthen water-pots] of the common size hold almost a gallon of water; these, emptied consecutively over the head, impart a delightful coolness to the frame, that disposes the tourist for one of those excellent breakfasts, à la fourchette, [‘with forks’; a cold collation], which the native cooks are second to none in preparing.
At this point in his peripatetic scenario, with his imaginary traveller receptive due to a typical breakfast à la fourchette, Bennett demonstrates concern for the well-being of bearers by dispensing some important advice:
During this gastronomic enjoyment, whilst coolness of temper conjoins with the temperature of the early morning, let the traveller treasure the following in mind, as the best advice that he can act upon. First, never to strike a native, how much soever his temper may be put to the test. Secondly, that for every day’s halting, his coolies are entitled to Batta [extra allowance], at the rate of threepence each, in addition to the regular hire. Thirdly, that they must not be compelled to travel more than 25 miles in 24 hours; or proceed in cases of actual illness; under penalty, to their employer, of fine or imprisonment, at the discretion of the nearest district court.
Excellent advice, no matter the century!
Travellers are always concerned with distance. In Sri Lanka this can be problematic, for the islanders seem to have different methods of gauging distance. Thus a question about how far a place is can elicit widely varying answers. Perhaps this is because traditional measurements of distance are based on abstract concepts such as how far a shout travels or a load can be carried.
There are two traditional measurements of distance associated with Sri Lanka that are included in the second edition of the Anglo-Indian glossary, Hobson-Jobson (H-J2). Hoowa, the onomatopoeic expression for a loud call used to calculate distance, is exclusively associated with Sri Lanka, while gaw, a measurement connected with how far a person can carry a ‘pingo-load’ (a pole across the shoulders with the load suspended from each end) without having to put it down, is associated with South India as well.
First, hoowa. H-J2 states: ‘A peculiar call used by the Singhalese, and thence applied to the distance over which this call can be heard. Compare the Australian coo-ee.’
No references from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka are given in the entry. The earliest I have found, employing a variant spelling, is by John Davy from An Account of the Interior of Ceylon, and of its Inhabitants (1821):
In estimating the distance between place and place, their smallest measure in common use is the whoo, a loud hollo; two of which are considered to be equal to an attakme; four of the latter to a gow, and five gows make a day’s journey, i.e. about five-and–twenty or thirty miles.
Edward Sullivan describes the hoowa but fails to name it in The Bungalow and the Tent: A visit to Ceylon (1854):
We witnessed, to-day, a very primitive method adopted by the Cingalese in computing distances. When asked how far it is to such and such a place? they say, two or three calls, meaning thereby, two or three times the distance at which one man can hear another call; of course this would vary considerably with the direction of the wind, and the strength of the individual’s lungs, but on an average, I fancy a call is heard about half a mile off.
Herbert White employs the expression hoo cry in The Ceylon Manual (1904): ‘The hoo cry used by the Sinhalese to denote a distance at which a loud call can be heard. Roughly perhaps ¼ mile.’
Ralph Pieris explains in Sinhalese Social Organization (1956):
The hoo, an onomatopoeic expression for a loud cry, was a measure in common use: it was, moreover, the ‘natural’ basis of larger units, although much depends on whose hoo it was. Two hoos were supposed to equal a hatakma, roughly equivalent to a mile, or the distance a man carrying a pingo-load could travel without putting down his burden for a breather. Four hatakmas made a gavva and five gav a day’s journey. Four gav equalled a yoduna, estimated to be about 16 miles.
The hoo cry is also used to attract attention over a distance, as R L Brohier reveals in Seeing Ceylon (1965): ‘A reverberating hoo … oo attracted one, and then another, of the handful of inhabitants.’
Then there is the gow or gaou, which according to Hobson-Jobson is an ancient measure of distance preserved in South India and Ceylon. In the latter island, where the term is still in use, the gawwa is a measure of about four English miles. The yojana with which the gau is correlated, appears etymologically to be ‘a yoking,’ viz. ‘the stage, or distance to be gone in one harnessing without unyoking;’ and the lengths attributed to it are very various, oscillating from two-and-a-half to nine miles.
The earliest reference from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka given in the entry is by James Emerson Tennent from Ceylon (1859). Tennent finds it ‘remarkable that this singular word gaou, in which Cosmas gives the dimensions of the island, is in use to the present day in Ceylon, and means the distance a man can walk in an hour.’ He adds that the gaou
expresses a somewhat indeterminate length, according to the nature of the ground to be traversed, a gaou across mountainous country being less than one measured on level ground, and a gaou for a loaded cooley is also permitted to be shorter than for one unburdened, but on the whole the average may be taken under four miles.
Sopater, considered the first Western traveller to Ceylon, said the island, according to its inhabitants, is ‘300 gaudia, or 900 miles long, and as many in breadth.’
References to gow include one from fiction, contained in the following dialogue by William Dalton from Lost in Ceylon (1861):
‘Sar Excellency, Dissauva at village half a gow through cocoa-nut trees.’
‘Half a cow! That’s a queer measure,’ said Bob.
~ Richard Boyle is a contributing editor to this magazine.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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