Leonard Woolf: Innocent Imperialist turned Pragmatic Internationalist

Jane Russell

Leonard Woolf  &  Arthur C Clarke

Foreword:  “When I’m in the Strand or 42nd Street, or at NASA Headquarters or the Beverley Hills Hotel, my surroundings are liable to give a sudden tremor and I see through the insubstantial fabric to the reality beneath…” These words by Arthur C. Clarke, the sci-fi writer, are quoted at the end of Roloff Beny’s photographic chronicle “Island Ceylon”. But where does Clark’s reality reside? He writes, “No other place is so convincing as Sri Lanka,” and as he spent almost fifty years there, we are tempted to believe him.

Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, also lived in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. He served as his country’s Consul in 1929/30; but spent more time writing poetry than attending diplomatic parties. Neruda was equally struck by the convincing quality, the palpability, of Sri Lanka. Many years after he left, he published this poem:

“The light in Ceylon that was life to me

was death to me too – for to live

in a diamond’s intensity is the lonely lyceum of corpses;

a bird made diaphanous

suddenly, a spider webbing the sky, and then gone.


Stung by the light of those islands,

I keep circumspect always,

as though a beam of that faraway

honey might turn me to ash in a moment.”

Neruda captures the double-edgedness of Sri Lanka. It is not just the postcard image of palm-ringed sandy beach, an azure wave washing over bleached-bone coral reef, while an outrigger canoe turns to black silhouette against the flattening tropical sun – but also the fear and violence which is the underbelly of Sri Lanka.

In response to this highly-charged environment, the human imagination turns naturally to artistic expression. It was A.K. Coomaraswamy, Sri Lanka’s great art historian, who noted that “an artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.” The Sri Lankan villager, whose world is full of malevolent spirits and hungry ghosts who live in a parallel universe, organised just like that of the human, meets the challenge of his/her life with the music and dance of sorcery and ritual; with the poetry of Buddhist verse and the ceremonies of the yearly cycle of rain, harvest and drought. The insistent and penetrative drumbeat rules their existence. In this turbulence, death is inseparable from life:

“The mass of flowers, fresh-bred, fragrant and choice,

I offer at the sacred lotus feet of the Noble Sage.

Even as the flowers must fade,

so does my body march to a state of destruction.”

(Buddhist verse)


Leonard Woolf went off to Ceylon in 1904 as innocent as a present-day wannabe writer who goes off globe-trotting in search of adventure and creative sustenance in his “gap “year. Woolf joined the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) because he needed a respected pensionable job which would satisfy his family’s requirements, yet also feed his imagination and make him interestingly exotic to his Cambridge friends. It was a happy accident (the very definition of serendipity) which brought him to Ceylon. Both gained immeasurably.

But if Cadet Woolf cut a shine in his green collars at welcome parties in Colombo, he didn’t reckon on the dark and miserable side to his job – the “dirty work of empire” as Orwell called it – of supervising floggings, hangings, and the taking of witness statements from the nearly dead.

Ironically, it was this “dirty work” that fired the literary imaginations of the denizens of Bloomsbury: “Leonard can entertain the children with stories of hangings and the like,” Virginia remarked and it was stories of the gruesome side of colonial life which Strachey seemed to crave. Woolf was not above milking the need for vicarious experiences of the sheltered folk of central London squares.

As a symbol of his naivete, Woolf took with him a fox terrier, Charles. It was a wonderfully English, almost Kiplingesque, gesture by this West London son of a successful Jewish family: unfortunately it proved a disaster – certainly for Charles.  The first thing Charles did on disembarkation at Colombo was to urinate on the spotless white verti-clad leg of an unfortunate Sri Lankan bystander. The fact that Charles was a bit of a déclassé dog, having been purchased from Exchange & Mart, makes his actions forgivable: however, it is Woolf, the Apostle,’s behaviour in finding the incident mildly amusing which makes it rather unsavoury. (cf Glendenning).

When Woolf and Charles got to Jaffna a few weeks later, Charles killed the next door cat and a few minutes later caught a snake which he brought into the house. Within 4 months, Charles was dead, having suffered terribly from the scorching heat and dagger-like sun of Jaffna, going first blind and then paralysed. Woolf, to his credit, spent a lot of time in Charles’ last days bathing him in warm water to alleviate his distress.

Woolf and his dogs in Jaffna

Woolf like many novice  writers changed his style according to his audience: Douglas Kerr notes that Woolf’s Official Diaries are “a self-portrait of a dedicated and extremely capable colonial officer”, a quite different view to that of the “reluctant imperialist” shown in the autobiographical “Growing”, or the decadent  Apostle observing the ironies of Colonial life in letters to Lytton Strachey. “The (Official) diarist is a person, busy at the work of empire, on an agenda sketched by Kipling in the “White Man’s Burden”. (Kerr)

Indeed, so busy was Woolf at his imperial work that he was reported for violent, racist conduct by a leading Tamil member of the Jaffna Bar and a meeting was held by the educated Ceylonese in Jaffna Town Hall to have the newly promoted Office Assistant, Leonard Woolf, transferred out of the province with immediate effect. The incident went right up to the Governor’s office in Colombo. If it hadn’t been for the solid support of Woolf’s superior, Price, and the reputation for prickly litigousness of his accuser, HAP Sandrasegera, Woolf’s career in the CCS might have been permanently blighted.

“Oh dear, hardly the record of a fervent anti-imperialist!” one might think, and the Strachey-gossip in us wants to know “What on earth happened?”. Broadly speaking, these appear to be the facts.

One day the young Woolf was seated on a horse, talking with his new boss, the Government Agent (GA for short), Ferdinando Hamlyn Price, also on horseback. Price was known for his ruthlessness. He was also rather keen on his industrious and ambitious OA who took a lot of arduous, repetitive work off his hands.  They were both in the middle of Main Street in  Jaffna town, and Woolf was indicating to Price with his riding whip the areas where shopkeepers and others had encroached on the street lines, narrowing the highway. Woolf himself admits that he wasn’t a particularly good horseman and it is possible that as his restive horse kept wheeling about, his whip accidentally touched the face of the turbaned Sandrasegara as he rode past them in the rear seat of his chauffered pony and trap to his office near Jaffna Law Courts. However, Woolf did not recall the incident at all and was “gobsmacked” when he was accused of deliberately striking Sandrasegara across the face with his whip.

Having closely studied the career of Sandrasegera and also discussed the issue with his film-director grandson, the late Manik Sandrasegera, I suggest that this is what might have occurred.

Harris Sandrasagara (known as “Harry” to his friends) was a successful and rich lawyer in Jaffna. His brilliance and wit in the English language were universally acknowledged. He had, however, a somewhat dubious position in Jaffna society. He was not a high-caste Hindu like many of his colleagues in the Jaffna Bar but from Catholic stock. As such, he was particularly concerned about his status. At home, he would have had 8, maybe 10 servants, to wait upon his every beck and call and would have been the imperious master of his household. Outside home, his somewhat overblown ego required constant massaging.

In Jaffna in 1904/5, status was ascribed in rigid caste-bound privileges. People ‘below’ a certain caste had to sit on a lower level than others of a ‘higher’ caste. (This led to all kinds of problems when the British colonial government emancipated the so-called “scheduled” castes by insisting on their right to sit on equally high seats in state-run /licensed schools in the 1920’s and 30’s.) The fact that a recently arrived whipper-snapper of Jewish parentage (and by association not so much a “white” as an inferior “brown” sahib) was seated (literally) on his “high horse” discussing the affairs of the shopkeepers of Jaffna (many of whom would have been Sandrasegera’s clients) with the GA, the King’s representative in the Northern Province, pointing hither and thither with his riding whip as if he owned the place, while the highly regarded Sangrasegara, one of the “turbaned heads” of Jaffna, was driven past in his lower-to-ground pony trap, was a potential source of irritation. The fact that Sandrasegera, a martyr to his amour-propre, did not even merit the notice of his very existence from the aforementioned whipper-snapper Woolf might indeed have seemed like a slap across the face. That is certainly how the scenario was presented to the Authorities and Sandrasagara was so certain of his ground that he mobilised his colleagues in the Jaffna Tamil Association into holding a public meeting excoriating Woolf.

Woolf was exculpated of blame by the Governor. However, he remembered vividly towards the end of his life that the affair ”caused great unpleasantness…… but that I could swear more than ever – with greater belief than in many other things –  that my riding whip never touched him. I didn’t know that it had happened at all. ” (Michael Roberts interview with LW 21/12/1965).

As with Charles, the terrier, it was perhaps Woolf’s naivete that had got him into trouble. On the other hand, Neville Jayaweera, a Sri Lankan civil servant recalled that when he, Jayaweera, was  GA Jaffna in the 50’s,  he had  “met several senior professionals of Jaffna who remembered Woolf as an arrogant imperialist……  although they conceded that he was also a sensitive and fair-minded magistrate”. (cf Neville Jayaweera – An Evening with Leonard Woolf in 1960 – Sunday Island 7/8/2005)

It is a moot point that Woolf was also reported for unfairness and overbearing ruthlessness by Sinhalese headmen and salt carters in the Hambantota district in 1910 and 1911. He was also reprimanded by his British colleagues in the Colonial Secretariat in Colombo for adopting a “supercilious tone” in reports concerning the affairs of his boss, the GA of the Southern Province, Lushington, a man Woolf openly disliked.  Neville Jayaweera, who met Woolf in Ceylon in 1960, remembered his conversation as being “laconic, taciturn, even remote and cold. His demeanour was sullen and grumpy and ….I might have said that he was also supercilious and arrogant. I could even have interpreted all that as proof of an incurable imperialist lurking beneath the outer liberal socialist” (see above).  Michael Roberts (whose father had been an Afro-Caribbean member of the CCS and who interviewed Woolf in England in 1965) noted that Woolf‘s “appraisal of men was severe and he would not suffer fools gladly. His books reveal a sign of some conceit … (but) is the apparent conceit rather the result of dispassionate candidness than a desire to blow one’s own trumpet?”(see Roberts above) .

What is certain is that by the time of Woolf’s first furlough in England in 1911, he had begun to wonder whether the British Empire was as all-powerful as he had earlier believed. Although he could fantasise about returning to Ceylon as the king of Hambantota district, with a Sinhalese village girl as his concubine (much like today’s “gap” year student who daydreams of a Lord Jim existence on some remote jungle island), Woolf was a realist. His experience in Ceylon had made him realise that the strings of empire were loosening. The past lay with Empire and Ceylon: the future lay with Virginia, the novel and belles lettres, the Webbs, the Labour Party, internationalism and self-government for the Dominions.

Woolf’s preoccupation with “the paradox of self-government” permeates his 1915/16 book on “International Government”. It should be kept in mind that this book was the result of a project commissioned by the Webbs, not something undertaken by Woolf on his own initiative. But as with his administration of Hambantota district, Woolf carried out the commission with an amazing passion for thoroughness.  The discussion of the problem of self-government (whether of a sewing club or of nationalities encased within European empires) arises again and again. ‘Are such questions national or international?’ he asks (pp.35-39). “The problem of independence and government everywhere is to allow people to manage their own affairs without infringing the power and desire of other people to manage their own affairs” he states. (p.349)  Finally, he argues that the semi-independent, dominion-like status of Australia with its “complete and long-established system of local self-government … in a loose union (with other similar ‘national communities’) “ could serve as the exemplar for the International Authority he was outlining.(p.367)

Once embarked upon this train of thought, Woolf did not let it go. As the secretary of the two Labour Party advisory committees on foreign policy during the 1920’s, Woolf was in an ideal position to influence Labour party policy on imperial and international affairs.

In 1927 Sidney Webb, with whom Woolf had collaborated closely over the years, was made Lord Passfield and given the portfolio of Secretary of State for the Colonies in the first  majority Labour Government . Passfield appointed and sent out to Ceylon the Donoughmore Commission to enquire into the administration of Ceylon and propose a new Constitution. The Commission contained two serious-minded Labour Party members (Dr Drummond-Shiels, a London County Councillor, being the most dynamic) under the chairmanship of Lord Donoughmore, a sleepy Liberal peer, more concerned with having a decent dinner than with constitutional matters. Donoughmore left it to his Labour Party colleagues to do the thinking, interviewing and writing of the Constitution which bore his name. The radical nature of the Donoughmore Constitution was the introduction of universal franchise (ie all Ceylonese residents, men and women, over the age of 21 were to have the vote—something the UK had only just achieved in 1928) and virtual self-government in the first non-white imperial possession of the British (or indeed any other European) Empire. The right-wing press baron, Viscount Rothermere, among others- (Churchill certainly)-, considered it the thin end of the wedge, setting a precedent for the grant of dominion status (ie self-government) to India and the ultimate dismantling of Empire.

And what was Leonard Woolf’s role in this unprecedented move towards self-government and dominion status for his former colonial employer? I don’t know. I have had neither the time nor funds to research it —I can only guess and your guess is probably as good as mine. Woolf could have been the instigator of the whole thing: more than likely he had met and probably influenced his Labour Party colleagues on the Commission. Did he also influence Webb in sending the Commission there in the first place?  Did he recommend the adoption of universal franchise and internal self-government for Ceylon? I don’t know but I commend this fruitful avenue of further research to the house.

So had the innocent imperialist Woolf become a liberationist, a freedom fighter for  submerged peoples within Empire? Perhaps.

Certainly Woolf did not lack forward vision – indeed he was unnervingly prescient. He had detected early signs of decay in a British Empire apparently in its heyday, and predicted and worked towards the end of European overseas rule. Similarly his internationalism pointed to developments well ahead of their time. Although not a supporter of the idea of world government, or indeed multilateral disarmament, on the pragmatic grounds that it would prove impossible, he discerned an existing and growing trend towards organisations, networks, and agencies such as those today referred to as INGO’s (international non-governmental organisations)  eg. the International Postal Union, the International  Anti-Slavery Society (which would blossom along with international trade unionism into the ILO); International law- making eg international copyright and maritime law; scientific international co-operation and even international organised crime (see Woolf’s literary flourish concerning the story of the international conference of White Slave Traffickers in a café in Warsaw which resulted in the arrest of one of them, Libermann, although the rest got off for lack of evidence –  “International Government”). These developments, along with international systems of communication and transport crossed national borders, transcended national interests, and constituted a nascent world-wide civil society. This tendency, which he termed the “internationalisation of society”, is easily recognisable today as the phenomenon we term “globalisation.”

However, globalisation and its forerunners lean heavily on technologies of transport and communication that developed in the west. Outside America and Europe, only Japan was quick to recognise the implications of this, and to move into these fields early enough to make them their own. As it was, the ocean liner, the railway, the telegraph, the postal service arrived in the colonies with their own freight of European cultural assumptions. And it is arguable that this technological and cultural imperialism formed an essential part of Woolf’s mental architecture. Woolf, while in some ways willing to embrace change, remained a product of his background and education, which were themselves the result of the culture which had developed in Britain as a consequence of ruling an empire. Stereotypically, the structure of the Victorian public school and university system had been adapted to serve the needs of empire. Woolf was a classicist, a scholar of Greek and Latin language, history and literature. He had been imprinted with the image of ancient Greece and Rome as the pattern of empire. The belief that European culture represented the pinnacle of a civilisation of which Athens was the cradle, never really left him – although in this, as in much else, he held ambiguous views.

Leonard Woolf at the gate of his house in Sussex (where Michael Roberts interviewed him on 22nd December 1965)

Much of his writing on empire centred on his analysis of conditions in Africa. Writing in 1928, in “Imperialism and Civilisation” he said,

“The end in view is an African population, with its own institutions and civilization…able to understand Western civilization and control the forces it has let loose on the world, governing itself through organs of government appropriate to its traditions and environment.”

As laudable as this sounds, it was at odds with the process of preparation for independence which he had proposed elsewhere. He saw the world in terms of different levels of civilisation. Readiness for self-government was to be measured according to what level of civilisation a country, or a “people”, had reached. His yardstick for this was Europe. Thus different regions of the empire were at different stages of readiness, with Ceylon, India etc. already prepared and Africa still in a state of “backwardness” from which it needed to be raised through development by the colonial powers. This involved an entirely “top-down” process, with education as its chief tool. Belief in education was a longstanding tenet of Woolf’s, dating from his days in Hambantota district where he had built many elementary schools.) An important element of this would be training of native populations in the structures and processes of civil society, and the provision of appropriate governmental structures by the colonial powers. He did not appear to consider that his vision of education inevitably entailed passing on the culture and values of the educator, nor to question just how culturally “appropriate” such structures might be. He certainly had no truck with notions that native cultures should be preserved and nurtured or western ideas limited in their application. His response was typically pragmatic:

“It is extremely doubtful whether such an attempt to isolate and mummify African society in the closely integrated and explosive world of the 20th century can possibly be successful; it might have been possible to keep savage Africa virgin and savage….if the (Imperial) Governments had not let in the copper mining companies, the soap makers, the gold-diggers, the cocoa buyers and the white planters….” (1928 “The Political Advance of Backward Peoples”)

Woolf’s language and general tone in his writings would certainly offend 21st century sensibilities. He speaks of “savages”, “backward peoples”, “non-adult races” etc. In “International Government”, he remarks that “states undoubtedly do stand upon different levels of civilization, however much we may disagree as to which are the high and which the low levels” (p. 120). Certainly Woolf considered that in any international society of nations, British and French exceptionalism would be a sine qua non. (ibid)

In conclusion, Leonard Woolf,  however much he was liberated from the straitjacket of colonial overlordship by his marriage to Virginia Stephen,  never lost that sense of intellectual and cultural superiority (a product perhaps of the Apostles Society of which he had been so proud to be a member) which characterised him as a young colonial officer. As late as 1965, at the age of 85, in an interview with Michael Roberts, he says, “It’s obvious that in Hambantota, I could run the local government much more efficiently than the people” … and later “They (the Sri Lankan villagers) treated you as superior and naturally you felt superior. It was like a father to his child.”  It is therefore important not to become too sentimental where Leonard Woolf is concerned. He was a great man and certainly possessed clarity of political vision (great insight) , but he was also (as Woolf notes in regard to Carr  in “Utopia and Reality”) “unconsciously infected with the temporary social psychology of the time”. (p173)


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3 responses to “Leonard Woolf: Innocent Imperialist turned Pragmatic Internationalist

  1. anoma abeyerwardene

    Dear Michael and Jane,

    Thank you very much for the many faceted view of Leonard Woolf, something I’ve not come across before. I’ve seen him painted as a savant,or a shit, but never someone in between like the rest of us. I also appreciated that vignette of Lord Donoughmore and the dynamics of his commission. BTW when it came to snobishness, Virginia Woolf cvould give her husband a correspondence course on the subject.

    It is quite right to highlight the vanity of Sandrasagara which could have led to an imagined blow. But Leonard was no shrinking violet either; so his swearing that it never happened should be viewed with equal scepticism of. I think that emotionally, both Woolf and Sandrasagara had a lot in common when it came to insecurity: One was a Christian in an overwhemingy Hindu Vellala environoent and the other, like Disraeli, a Jew in an ocean of Anglo-Saxon Anglicanism.

    I totally agree with the conclusion that one should not judge people from earlier epochs by the standards and assumptions of one’s own.

    Regards, Anoma

  2. Tikiri Jayawickrama

    Dear Michael and Jane:

    This is Tikiri. First of all, thank you very much Michael for introducing me to a wonderful group of people. It is an honour.

    My father and I managed to read the brilliant essay by Jane. We both find this essay is so wonderful and here are my thoughts.

    This essay gave me a better understanding of the background to Leonard Woolf. Also, I looked through various posts in Michael’s website. With these ideas, I am now readings the Village in the Jungle and have ordered Growing by Leonard Woolf.

    Jane’s essay also gave me an idea about Ceylon as a British colony, and how the young British men went to Ceylon to govern (Woolf was 24 years old when he went there for the first time). It is interesting that Woolf went to Ceylon because he wanted a pensionable job and some exotic experiences.

    I am also fascinated about the power dynamics between the rulers and ruled, especially reading the incident with Harry Sandrasegera. This made me realise that when one is educated in the same way as the British, they would have some power and authority even against the British.

    This essay confirmed my understanding of the British society during the late 1800 and early 1900. Woolf himself thought himself representing a superior system. This essay gave me the impression that Woolf thought the British and French are responsible to civilize the uncivilized. This is exactly what Frantz Fanon argued in his writings. Do you think I got this right?

    Growing-up in Sri Lanka, my father has read the Sinhala translation of the Village in the Jungle at school and they were given the idea that Woolf was a kindhearted person who wished all well for Sri Lanka. Now after reading this essay, my father also started to think about this complex nature of a human being and to understand Woolf within the context of colonialism.

    Thank you very much to both of you and I will certainly come to you with questions and thoughts as I read Woolf.

    Warmest wishes,


  3. Edward T Upali

    Hello Michael & Jane,

    For long years I have never questioned Leonard Woolf’s account of the “Sandarasagara Incident ” although the whole episode seemed uncharacteristic of what I had come to believe of Woolf.

    Describing the incident Woolf says, in page 111 of Growing, that his whip could have accidentally touched Sandarasagara’s face, when S drove past him on the main street of Jaffna, while he & Price were going in the opposite direction on the same street. Woolf also says that at the time he was trying to calm down his fidgety horse.

    However, the Jaffna Tamil Association and Mr. S complained to the Governor General requesting Woolf’s dismissal. Their complaint said that as S drove past Mr. Wolf and the GA Mr. Price, Woolf turned his horse and deliberately hit Mr. S in the face with his whip.

    More recently, while reading Piers Brendon’s authoritative “The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997”, I was struck by the possibility that the version given by Mr. S could be true. Brendon in his book refers to the practices in India at the time and the Brit’s expectations from the natives. Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) in the early 1900s was probably similar to the Indian Civil Service (ICS), manned by Brits, whose mindset would also have been very similar to those of the ICS.

    I have given below two quotes from Brendon, which confirms my suspicion – (pg 128): “An American visitor to India, who was astonished to see everybody bowing to us in the streets “noted that “a rich native had narrowly missed a horse whipping because he did not stop his carriage and make obeisance to a British Officer riding on the same road”. (excerpt from Our New Way Around the World (1883),

    Brendon (pg 128) quoting Lord Baden Powell-founder of the Boy Scouts: “…as a rule niggers seem to me cringing villains. As you ride or walk along the middle of the road, every cart or carriage has to stop and get out of your way, and every native, as he passes you, gives you a salute. If he has an umbrella up, he takes it down, if he is riding a horse he gets off and salutes….”

    Baden Powell was definitely not a “Boy Scout” !! After I read Brendon’s book I have continued to find excuses for Woolf. The best I could come up with were: a) Woolf was only in his second year of service in Ceylon & was trying hard to be like the other Brits, who were very contemptuous of the natives, b) At the time Woolf had been just promoted to OA and he was trying to impress his new boss Price – an old time Civil Servant.

    What gives more credibility to Sandarasagara’s complaint is the fact that Woolf states on Pgs 52-53 of Growing “… many civil servants never really get over this initial annoyance and distrust. However much they liked their work and, up to a point, the people of Ceylon, as they walked into their office in the morning there was below the surface of their minds, when they passed through the crowd on the verandah, a feeling of irritation and contempt. I too like everyone else was at first irritated and contemptuous.”

    At the time Woolf was only in his second year of his work in the CCS and says he gradually got over these feelings.

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