Leonard Woolf’s Judicial Eyes in Hambantota

Leelananda De Silva, in The Island, 31 December 2016, where the title is  “Judging Leonard Woolf”

woolf  In the 150 years of British rule in Ceylon, there must have been 500 members of the Ceylon Civil Service who were Britishers. Very few of their names remain in the country’s memory. They largely ruled the districts and provinces, and only a few served in Colombo. One or two like Rhys Davis and H.W. Codrington are still known for their scholarly activities. These civil servants kept diaries of their daily activities, as they were required to do so by a minute made by Governor Maitland in the very early years of the 19th century. The British civil servants were curious about their surroundings as can be seen from these diaries, but they were not scholars or intellectuals. Even Leonard Woolf, who can be described as an intellectual and scholar, achieved such fame after his departure from Ceylon. Leonard Woolf’s Ceylon experience of seven years and specially in Hambantota appears to have left a lasting impression which has influenced his later writings and his political work. 

The volume under review is about Leonard Woolf as a judge in Hambantota. This is a second edition after 20 years, and it has been expanded. The author Prabath De Silva is also an unusual official (he was district judge in Tissamaharama in the 1990s) as very few administrators or judges have undertaken any scholarly activities in the post independence period. He is in fact unique in this regard, and I would think that he joins Codrington and Rhys Davis in this select group of officials who were scholars. De Silva has perused in detail the court records of Hambantota and Tangalle to examine the nature of Woolf’s judicial activities and identify the kind of influence they had on Woolf’s intellect and scholarship. Apart from court records, De Silva brings together the writings of many other Woolf scholars who have examined Woolf’s role as a judge in his very early years. One has to remember that judicial work could not have been strange to Woolf, as his father himself was a highly successful British barrister practicing in London. Woolf says in his autobiography that he used to go to courts with his father.

The volume consists of nine chapters. Chapter 1 is a long introduction, and the next two chapters deal with some aspects of Woolf’s personality, which could have impinged on his judicial role (Nervous Tremor and Justice, & Humour and Severity). Chapter 4 is a general survey of judicial work. Chapter 5 deals with the case of Engelbrecht: the Boer prisoner of war. Chapter 6 is entitled “Among the Case Records of Hambantota”. Chapter 7 deals with the police, village headmen and crime. The police and village headmen were supposed to be guardians of the law, but it is questionable whether they acted in that kind of impartial way. Chapter 8 of 60 pages is the longest, and takes up about one third of the book. Chapter 9 is a long conclusion. Chapter 8 is about “The Village in the Jungle”.

De Silva points out how the novel was influenced by Woolf’s judicial activities. The courtroom dramas described in the novel have a strong resonance of Woolf’s own judicial role in the Hambantota courts. When De Silva’s volume first came out in the 1990s, Regi Siriwardhana, a leading English scholar in Sri Lanka at the time, reviewed it and said that “one should hardly ignore the fact that in this novel Woolf was daring enough to attempt what no other English writer of his era — not Kipling or Conrad or Maugham or Forster — had ventured to do: to depict the experience of Asian peasants through characters belonging to that milieu”. Woolf’s judicial role undoubtedly contributed to this achievement. Kipling, Conrad, Maugham, and Forster never had that firsthand experience of the local peasant.

Right through this volume, and also in the novel “Village in the Jungle” there is an underlying question: whether the kind of justice that was meted out to the common people of the country by the British rulers was real justice.

The British colonial system applied laws and regulations which were strange to the common man, and justice was dispensed through the English language, which was not known to those who came to courts. There is no doubt that justice must be dispensed in the language of the people, so that it can be seen to be fair to all concerned. However, there is another aspect to judicial administration, which has little to do with the language of the law. Most of the laws deformations are due not to the language, but to the oppressive nature of its administrators -– the village headmen, interpreter mudaliyars, and the police.

Hambantota at that time was managed under a feudal system. The British were few and far between, and they were the top layer. For the common man, the people who mattered in their daily lives were the headmen and the police who distorted their duties due to pressures, connections, and corruption. (People who lived under a feudal system will be more at home with the current systems prevailing in Sri Lanka). The novel “Village in the Jungle”, is not only a tract against imperialism, but is also a tract against the feudalism that prevailed in Hambantota at the time.

a22 Engelbrecht

Let me refer to the chapter on Engelbrecht. This story is included in the volume to illustrate whether justice should not only be done, but should seem to be done. Many people in Hambantota remember Engelbrecht even now. This Boer prisoner of war was a kind of friend of Leonard Woolf. He was a British prisoner or war, and allowed to live in Hambantota, and was even appointed the warden of the Yala National park. He was a man of the jungle and a great hunter, and he went out shooting with Leonard Woolf. Engelbrecht need not have been in Hambantota, and could have gone back to his native South Africa, if he took an oath of allegiance to the British monarch. He told the government that he would take the oath of allegiance to the present king of England, because he knows him, even at a distance, but that he cannot take an oath of that kind to his successors, because he does not know who they would be.

Engelbrecht comes into this volume due to a case filed against him in the Hambantota courts. A young woman had complained that she had given birth to a child by Engelbrecht and that he was not paying any maintenance to her. When the case came up, there was a large crowd in courts to observe the way in which Leonard Woolf handled the matter concerning his friend. In the courthouse the young woman who had brought a little baby, unwrapped her and showed this very white baby to the judge. Leonard Woolf held against Engelbrecht and ordered that alimony be paid to the woman by Engelbrecht. The crowd was thoroughly pleased. Hambantota lore in the 1960s had it that Leonard Woolf had said in courts, after looking at the baby, that the father has to be either Engelbrecht or Woolf, and that as he knows that he is not the father, it has to be Engelbrecht. This story is not in the volume. It is a great gap in the literature on Leonard Woolf that the many stories and impressions of Leonard Woolf which the people of Hambantota had have never been recorded.


It is difficult to distinguish one from the other — whether his judicial role or his administrative work in Ceylon had more influence on his future role in public life. Which one was more dominant when he was writing “Village in the Jungle”? When he became an anti-imperialist and wrote several books on this subject, which experience was more dominant? In terms of the time he spent in administering the district and working as a judge, the former took most of his time. But in the influence on his own mind, the judicial role appears to have made the most negative impression of British imperial rule. This is a theme in the novel “Village in the Jungle”. The administrative aspects of his work had more positive influences, such as the development aspects of his official activities, and the opportunities he had to see another kind of life in total contrast to the life at Cambridge. Woolf scholars might explore this aspect little more. Prabath De Silva’s volume is beautifully printed and is a valued edition to Woolf scholarship.


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