Lessons from Woolf for a Latter-Day American

Joe Kovacs, in Literary Traveller, 23 June 2005, where the title reads as The Accidental British Servant: Leonard Woolf in Ceylon”

When I joined the Peace Corps and went to Sri Lanka in 1997, I took a leave of absence from a graduate program in English literature at Fordham University. I was unhappy with academia as an aspiring creative writer; I wanted to make literature, not analyze it. I had no idea how international development work in Asia could help, but at least it would provide a long-overdue vacation from education. I’d never left the United States before, and after an exhausting trip west from New York through San Francisco, Tokyo and Bangkok, the third flight of my trans-global journey arrived in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo at two in the morning. I spent the rest of those benighted, pre-dawn hours in a retreat center in the jungle, trying to sleep. But the dense heat drenched me in sweat, even as I lay still in bed, the uncompromising mattress made my back sore and a swooping blue mosquito net left me entombed. Had I just made a mistake? From the jungle outside came a sudden high-pitched screech, convincing me that I’d come to a land of monsters.

Fortunately, I was not eaten alive my first night in Sri Lanka. The morning after I arrived, I learned that the strange screeching had been rogue monkeys, not a familiar noise in the Bronx, where I’d been living before that. But “Sri Lanka” re-named in 1972, the Sinhalese phrase means the resplendent island really was a land of monsters: monsters of the human kind. I came to a country suffering through the fifteenth year of a civil war between the Sinhalese government and an extremist Tamil organization seeking a separate homeland for Tamils on the island. Suicide bombers, terrorist strikes and vicious military campaigns have left 63,000 people dead to date and drained the nations economic resources, leaving thousands more in poverty.

Norway is currently brokering a peace agreement which may resolve the dispute. But in 1997, when I arrived, the fighting was so intense that scarcely a year later, the Peace Corps closed the program and the volunteers returned to the United States.

As I would soon discover, I wasn’t the first young man ever to leave the trappings of Western civilization and intellectualism for Sri Lanka. I would soon learn about other writers who were either from or had passed through Ceylon/Sri Lanka: locals Michael Ondaatje, Shyam Selvadurai, Carl Muller and Romesh Gunesekara, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Englishman D.H. Lawrence and Americans Mark Twain and Arthur C. Clarke. But it was Leonard Woolf, whose life as an intellectual had been shaped by his experience in Ceylon, who drew my greatest interest.

In 1904, Englishman Leonard Woolf – later the husband of literary giantess Virginia – completed his education at Trinity College in Cambridge and enlisted with the British Civil Service. The teardrop-shaped island that rises 18 miles off the coast of southern India is unimpressive in size (roughly the size of West Virginia, it hardly warrants a blip on the world map); but has a lucrative history of ancient cultural kingdoms and imperial rulers. The Portuguese first controlled the coasts in the early 16th century until it passed to Dutch hands in the 18th century, and finally to the newly rising power of England in 1796, when it was named Ceylon. The British dominated as no previous power had ………… for it managed to seize Kandy, the seat of power of the Sinhalese king in the central hill country. Ceylon became a lucrative British colony over the next century. Profitable trade in cinnamon, coconuts, rubber and coffee, and later tea, brought wealth to the coffers of English businessmen.

Woolf didn’t expect to go to Ceylon for seven years, but the experience would ultimately mold his unshaped intellectualism into that a lifelong anti-imperialist, and a writer and editor on international politics. Finishing his studies in philosophy, Woolf applied for the Civil Service, expecting his qualifications as a Trinity College scholar would earn him a position with the Home Service. Poor marks on his exams however, forced him to select an overseas post and he chose Ceylon, a Senior Crown Colony. In his autobiography, Woolf speaks about his harsh introduction to life as a colonial administrator during the sea journey from London to Colombo when an on-board businessman treated him with deep resentment. Behind him was the amorphous realm of intellectualism at Cambridge and in front of him a political world where friction might exist between civil servants, businessmen and planters in Ceylon.

His career began in Jaffna, the northernmost of the colony’s nine provinces. On a peninsula that hooks toward India, Jaffna was a region of unprotected sandy plains upon which the high sun blazed down, exposing Woolf to an unsparing tropical heat that once made him ill with typhoid. Each province under the administration was run by a government agent (GA) who was responsible for the oversight of all expenditures, the sale and development of Crown lands, and service as the head of customs and the police force. The structure of each provincial kachcheri (office) was rather fluid and on one or two occasions, when the GA was traveling through Jaffna, supervising village headmen and overseeing municipal operations, Woolf was left as de facto administrator, making important decisions for the whole province.

By his own account, he was a shrewd, accountable and tireless civil servant though he also admits that at the age of 24 he could be impertinent and arrogant, and refuse tasks he felt beneath him. Woolf’s transformation to life in Jaffna was gradual, and his autobiography reveals a fledgling outsider content to describe the colonial structure and various personalities without direct personal involvement. He introduces us to the Jaffna GA: John Penry Lewis was a large, lazy and lethargic administrator with a voluble and overzealous wife. Woolf also lived for a time with fellow servant Dutton, whom he calls a weak, ineffectual man who was unequipped to handle life.

Woolf became police magistrate in Jaffna to try cases of assault, theft and other infractions. The Jaffnese were primarily Tamils, first imported from India to labor on tea plantations in the hill country, but who had since filtered north and east, overcoming in numbers the Sinhalese population. The administration of justice deeply impacted Woolf and planted seeds that would grow into distrust for most judicial personages. Actual experience from the inside of the administration of law and of what is called justice produced in me an eradicable and melancholy disillusionment with those whose duty it is to do justice and protect law and order. He writes that judicial power tends to corrupt (the higher the judge, the more criminal he tends to become), and suggests that exposure to assault, murder and other indignities as a magistrate tended to denigrate the value human life in the eyes of those wielding power over others. He cautions all judges to exact unswerving justice on the basis of hard evidence and universal right.

Woolf succeeded well enough in his objectivity to earn a reputation for ruthlessness. In his final months in the north, the Jaffna Tamil Association charged him with slapping one of its leading members in the face with his riding whip. The charge was false, but served as an epiphany for Woolf who abruptly felt a twinge in my imperialist soul, a doubt whether we [the British] were not in the wrong, and the Jaffna Tamil Association and Mr. Sanderasekara in the right. Woolf abruptly questioned whether justice might apply not only to relations between individuals, but to those between nations as well.

In August 1907, Woolf was promoted and transferred to Kandy where the climate was much more pleasant. The hill country offered lush green verdure, rolling hills, and a magnificent view of the night sky in a cool climate 1,600 feet above sea level, far from the intolerable arid plains of Jaffna. Kandy was the seat of Sinhalese culture and Woolf enjoyed working among them, independent, fine mannered, lively, laughing, in their enchanting villages compared to the dour Tamils. He also could appreciate the civilized, humane elements of their Buddhist philosophy. But Woolf was also put off by the Europeanized feel of the city and the following year reinforced his growing intolerance for imperialism.

ex-Empress Eugenie

The British governor’s residence was in Kandy, symbolically peering down upon the rest of Ceylon from its highest slopes, and a large European community made it easy to socialize at an exclusive club, which was only open to foreign administrators and planters. Woolf was relaxed, playing tennis and squash and socializing among his peers. But it was a singular encounter with the ex-empress Eugenie of France that made all the pomp and circumstance of colonial administration seem ridiculous.

When Eugenie arrived as a guest of the English government, the GA of Kandy was away on business, and responsibilities for her well-being fell to Woolf, who escorted her to lodgings at the King’s Pavilion, the governor’s residence. Mistaking him for the actual GA when they met at the train station, the empress invited Woolf to tea. He was put off by her bearing and regal retinue, and lightly mocked the self-important manner of an ex-empress meeting a mistaken government agent.

He arranged for Eugenie to visit the Dalada Maligawa, the famous temple of Sinhalese Buddhist culture in Ceylon, which was (and still is, today) reputed to hold one of Buddha’s teeth, extracted by an acolyte from Buddha’s funeral pyre 2,500 years ago. Wisely and perhaps strategically, Woolf invited the Colonial Secretary, Sir Hugh Clifford to escort her, earning his superior’s appreciation and friendship. Sir Clifford was a high-ranking administrator in the civil service who served for a time as acting Governor. The visit at the Dalada Maligawa went off well with several photographs taken, a suitably impressed ex-empress and a chance for Woolf to display the tooth, which he slyly admits resembles that of a canine.

(Most of my year in Sri Lanka was spent in Kandy. In January 1998, a bomb exploded at the Dalada Maligawa two miles from my home, killing 13 people and escalating interethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils nearly to the point of rioting.)

The most unpleasant feature of Woolf’s year in Kandy was visiting criminals at Bogambara Prison who were to be executed. On the morning of each hanging, Woolf would ask the Sinhalese prisoner whether he had something to say before being put to death, and he noted their terrified prayers to Buddha for deliverance, their wishes to their families, their fear and complacency. Woolf was repulsed by the ghastly spectacle of prisoners whipped with a cat-o-nine-tails or hanged and he called capital punishment inhumane and disgusting. He believed in law and order but also that British paternalism in Ceylon was arbitrary in its perception of the Sinhalese as less than human, and its support for a system of justice that unfairly sent many men to their deaths.

The final phase of Woolf’s service began as assistant government agent (AGA) of Hambantota in late August 1908. At age 27, he was the youngest AGA in the British civil service, which he admits was somewhat due to the patronage of the influential Sir Clifford. The Hambantota district was a hot, dry and malarial zone, some 100 miles in length on the southeastern coast of Ceylon, far from the cool hill country of Kandy and dizzying Jaffna. The district was mostly jungle, with paddies for cultivating rice pressed up against the Indian Ocean and slipping further inland. Woolf lived a simple but busy life among the Sinhalese, riding from village to village, accounting for them and the cattle, serving as judge in disputes, and attending to his duties with fervor and efficiency. He worked mostly in seclusion but writes that he learned to like solitude and [does not think he] ever experienced what people call loneliness. He also did not get along well with the GA of the Southern Province, whom he believed was jealous because of his good standing with the Colonial Secretary.

One of the great challenges Woolf faced was the outbreak of rinderpest, an infectious and deadly disease among cattle, which, in 1909, struck his district. Rinderpest threatened the crucial irrigation works at Tangalla, which utilized a process called mudding where bulls were driven over the soil to stir it up and soften it in preparation for rice cultivation. No fences or hedges existed to impede disease-stricken cattle and Woolf spent nearly a year struggling to contain rinderpest, riding swiftly among the villages, ordering Sinhalese headmen to prevent cattle from mixing, in some cases ordering them slaughtered. But his orders were not always obeyed, and he expressed frustration at the times he believed all the suffering animals had been destroyed only to have the disease break out elsewhere. The incident shows Woolf in true form …. an efficient, tireless worker whose cold, unsparing sense of order got results but also earned the resentment of those he served.

When not guarding against rinderpest, Woolf conducted other business on behalf of the Empire, looking after rice and salt production that were essential to his district, and guarding against theft. Traveling immersed Woolf in the jungle, and he recounts the creatures he observes: stomping elephants, mild deer, wild pigs, dancing jackals. The Magampattu jungle was a sportsman’s paradise, but Woolf detested big-game hunting. A dog owner throughout most of his life in Ceylon, he had a capacity to display great empathy for others, including animals and he became more fascinated with watching game. A portion of the jungle was designated a game sanctuary, and Woolf describes with awe, the idiosyncratic Engelbracht who was captured in the Boer War and interned in Ceylon. Later assigned as sanctuary ranger, Engelbracht was, in Woolf’s words, the only nerveless person he’d ever known.

Henry Engelbracht – game warden

A dark, philosophical tone creeps into Woolf’s prose regarding the jungle, which he regards with a mixture of beauty and fear, in a way somewhat reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Woolf observes two elephant bulls fighting each other like huge monsters, and encounters a crocodile with a tortoise stuck in its throat and who would have died a horrible, slow death if, Woolf says, he hadn’t been there to shoot it. The jungle is a terribly cruel place, he writes. Twice during his travels he became lost in the dense, heated overgrowth without a sense of direction, and once he had to spend a night alone, successfully starting a fire only with his final match.

The greatest stage of maturity for Woolf came during these three years, as his disturbing appreciation for the jungle mirrored a growing awareness of the hostility, or sheer indifference of life around him, the sometimes savage human creatures who might convict others harshly or order them put to death. His development was no doubt quickened by his isolation from other Europeans. At the same time, Woolf was a timid, empathetic individual, and though occasionally tempted by the call of imperialistic power, the lone sahib amongst thousands of natives – he remains a lone observer, never submitting to the conquest of others that finally consumes Kurtz in Conrad’s novel.

Woolf returned to London in May 1911 on a year’s leave from the civil service. Despite seven years away, he easily renewed ties with his Cambridge friends, with whom he would later participate in the famous artistic and intellectual Bloomsbury group, and re-entered the lifestyle of an intellectual and a gentleman. He took a house in Brunswick Square with Adrian and Virginia Stephen, Maynard Keynes, and Duncan Grant, where he soon began falling in love. Woolf was due to return to Ceylon in April 1912, but his uncertain relationship with Virginia Stephen and his negative attitude toward the colonial empire made him finally request an extension of leave from the Under Secretary for the Colonies. Woolf had left Ceylon with the reputation as an able and competent administrator, and he knew his connection with Sir Clifford could help him establish a successful career in the central office in Colombo. When the Under Secretary replied to Woolf’s request by asking his reasons for the desired extension, Woolf hedged and ultimately resigned. It is perhaps telling that he left the service before proposing to Virginia. Whether or not she would accept him, and despite the promise of an excellent career, his days as a colonist were over.

Woolf penned The Village in the Jungle shortly after his return to England. It is an anti-imperialist novel, which tells the story of an eccentric jungle man from Hambantota, Silindu, who kills the jealous headman of his village and is brought before the white assistant government agent to stand trial, a role Woolf had himself fulfilled. The novel is invested with Sinhalese yakkas (devils), spirits and village superstition which Woolf did not appreciate. But he sympathetically draws Silindu and a complex Sinhalese culture, and implies that it is beyond the reckoning of a foreign power to administer justice in the Ceylonese jungle. Silindu is hung according to the law of civilization, but the reader leaves the novel believing that Silindu was just in murdering the headman to protest his and his family’s honor, and that an innocent man has been destroyed.

Woolf went on to establish a career in journalism and international politics, becoming editor of The International Quarterly and The Political Review, writing several books on the state of war and civilization and becoming active in the Labour Party to help lay the groundwork for a League of Nations following the Great War. He also lived to see Ceylon granted independence in 1948 and visited again in 1960, where he was welcomed and, despite his strict rule, his sympathies for the Sri Lankan people remembered.

Following his 1960 visit to Ceylon, Woolf wrote, “We [the English] never did anything to prepare the way for self-government or responsible government.”

After Peace Corps closed and I returned to the United States, I finished my masters degree, but no longer found it possible to seclude myself in a library. I left the university, moved to Washington, DC and began working for several organizations that support international education, science and financial accountability for humanitarian programs around the world. I also began writing a quarterly magazine column highlighting international affairs and human rights issues.

I originally went to Sri Lanka, doubtful about my future, but also uncertain of my present life in academia. Discovering Leonard Woolf helped me understand how my experience was hardly a unique one, which was a great comfort. My life since has exhibited certain parallels to his, which I suspect is the case for many Americans experiencing firsthand the cultures of the developing world. And I am finally convinced that leaving the university was the right decision to make.

Joe Kovacs is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer. Much of his writing is inspired by travel and internationalism, and he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sri Lanka from 1997 to 1998. He recently won a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and the Humanities to research a novel about U.S.-Mexican border issues in southern Arizona.



Filed under accountability, authoritarian regimes, British imperialism, cultural transmission, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, meditations, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, travelogue, unusual people

2 responses to “Lessons from Woolf for a Latter-Day American

  1. Joe Simpson

    Hi Michael, surely this quote from the Kovacs must be a-historical (in the sense of being historically inaccurate)? It’s well-known history that “indigenous” Jaffna Tamil population long predates the British-colonial importation of Tamil Nadu tea plantation workers from southern India in the later 19th cent! No such infiltration occurred of the SL northern and north-eastern peninsula by migrant tea-workers from central hill country somehow displacing the Sinhalese population. Surprising to read such a massive “blooper” in an otherwise scholarly and interesting article.
    Quote from article as referred to in my above comment:
    “ The Jaffnese were primarily Tamils, first imported from India to labor on tea plantations in the hill country, but who had since filtered north and east, overcoming in numbers the Sinhalese population…”

  2. EDITORIAL COMMENT from Michael Roberts, 7 June 2022:
    “You are on the ball,Joe. Amazing ERROR froma person who spent more than a few weeks in Lanka.
    KOVACs is referring to those usuallu identified as “INDIAN TAMILS” -most of whom migrated initially to work in the coffee plantations in the early-mid 19thcentury ….often ona short-term basis; and then became more permanently settled albeit with an affinity and links to Tamilnadu.
    But the category INDIAN TAMILS also embraced the migrants in the Colombo area encompassing both working class personnel (harrbour workers, scavengers, etc) and middling rich/enormous rich businessmen.

    As for the CEYLON TAMILS their migration to the jAFFNA Peninsula and other northern arenas was way earlier and even in the centuries BC ( large, intricate and complicated topic which cannot be covered ina brief note …and one calling for readings that embrace studies by Paranavithana, Indrapala, Pathmanathan, Bopearatchchi, Maloney, Dharmawardena, Reg Somadeva ….

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