Ceylon along the Rail Track by Henry W Cave

by Dr. Vernon L. B. Mendis,
Director General,
Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute
The main attraction of this book in the first instance is the standing and reputation of its author H W Cave who is one of the legendary personalities in the period of British rule in the island. He belongs to the company of other such figures like H C P Bell the archaeologist, John Still the naturalist, Emerson Tennent the encyclopaedic historian, Leonard Wolf proconsul and author of the classic ‘Village in the Jungle’, R. L. Spittel ethnologist and authority on Sri Lanka’s jungles, R L Brohier historian of the island’s ancient irrigation system and an eminent engineer himself, and several others who can all be described as the pioneers who laid the foundations of the civilisation of modern Sri Lanka. Their contributions were many sided and included scholarship, research, engineering, economic development, administration, literary works, archaeology, historical writings representing in all a remarkable saga of creativity. What is noteworthy is that many of them were British nationals who were in the island on official duty but who so identified themselves with the country as to transform it and its image in the eyes of the world.

H. W. Cave distinguished himself in this company for his wide range of activities which were as a businessman, traveller, writer and artist. In 1876 he established the business house in Fort which still exists and bears his name and which soon became the premier printing press, bookseller, stationer and publisher. However it was in other spheres that he personally made his mark which was as a writer and a photographer and ‘Ceylon along the Rail Track’ is the product of these skills. Perhaps his greatest skill as a writer was not only his felicitous and vivid style of writing but his choice of subject. It is a platitude to observe that the theme as much as the title of a work have often been the secret of success and this is particularly true of the works of H W Cave. A typical example of this is his work ‘Golden Tips’ which is a portrayal of the tea industry in the island than which one cannot think of a more appropriate title and theme, considering that the tea industry was the major contribution of the British to the island, it is in its own right a truly classic saga depicting the professional skills involved, in the setting of the incomparable beauty of the tea country.

Ceylon along the Rail Track is yet another example of such a truly inspired choice. It describes the island as seen through its rail track and herein lies a remarkable appropriateness of this choice of subject. British colonial administration in its far flung empire was outstanding for its control of logistics as a means of government as well as economic development. The keynote of such control was transport and this is a field in which it excelled. The classic illustration of this are the words attributed to Governor Barnes of Sri Lanka that what the country needs is ‘Roads, Roads, Roads’ and this was indeed borne out in the network of roads and railway which was established in the island and in fact became the foundation of its rule. This became the means for administration of the country as well as the instrument for its economic development.

Economic opening up of the country and the development in particular of the tea industry was only one sphere of the impact of communications. No less important was the opening of the country to the sightseer and traveller and that in brief is the unique contribution of this work of H W Cave which indeed is one of the earliest and the best travel guides to the island. The secret of this success is indeed its choice of the railway as the window through which to reveal the incomparable beauty of the island. The CGR as it was called which was begun around 1870 was intended primarily to open the central part of the island to tea cultivation but in due course it was extended throughout the island and became in fact a network which penetrated the main regions of the country. It is veritably a tourist guide to the island and this is what this book has become in the hands of the author as a panoramic view of the country seen through the eyes of the railway.

The sweeping network of the railway it must be said has lent itself admirably to the author’s purpose as it is divided into different lines each covering a particular region of the country. Typical instances of these lines are the Coast line, the main line traversing the entire hill country, the Northern line going from South to North. Each line covers a particular region with a climatic and physical character of its own and together they present a collective picture of the island which a tourist guide book would envy. The railway in short is a veritable tourist guide whether designed as such one could not say and this publication "Ceylon along the Rail Track" has become as a result incomparable as a virtual handbook of tourism to the island.

The highlights of this book are its descriptions of the different regions which are encompassed in the network. Each region has a distinctive character which is brought out vividly. To attempt a brief glance at these different lines the coast line covers the south of the island from Colombo to Matara where in the words of the author ‘Sinhalese life pure and simple can be seen to greater advantage than anywhere else in the island and its inhabitants are the purely Sinhalese section in the country; the main line is from Colombo to Kandy and its highlight is the hill capital of Kandy which according to the author is usually awarded the high distinction of being the most picturesque spot of the British Empire and there is a description of the Dalada Milgawa as one of the chief objects of interest to all travellers; the continuation of the main line from Peradeniya to Bandarawela which passes through the very heart of the greatest tea districts and leads to the amphitheatre of the majestic mountain country of the island. This section includes a detailed description of the tea production process from planting to packing of the product; there is a special section on Nuwara Eliya about which it is said that there is probably no other place in the world that possesses such a remarkable combination of attractions. There is a glowing description of Pidurutalagala as the only mountain top in the world from which one can see over a whole island; the account of the Northern line which links up with the north includes a detailed account of the monuments in Anuradhapura representing the remains of the ancient civilisations.

It will be clear from the above observations that Ceylon along the Rail Track is something far more than a mere travel itinerary. It is in fact a minor encyclopaedia on the country its history and peoples and this is because the rail track in the island and the way it was designed made it the finest vantage point from which to view the island. It gave an opportunity for the writer to give rein to his own exceptional knowledge of the island and interest in it which he cultivated during his many decades of living and working in it. The career of the author reveals that he was an extraordinary personality who combined business acumen with a profound knowledge of the island which he had acquired through his own painstaking efforts. His interest in photography was no doubt inspired by his study of the history of the island because it became to him a means of capturing that knowledge. As a result his various works have become famous not only for their learning skills and literary skills but as works of art which contain priceless photography.

It is pertinent to mention that Ceylon along the Rail Track was only one of several publications of which he was the author. These books dealt with different aspects of the island but they were all monumental in character for their sweep and wealth of knowledge and insights. In his early works the emphasis was on photography which produced priceless pictures of ancient monuments but later he gained a reputation as a historian with his ‘Golden Tips’ culminating in the Book of Ceylon which was a veritable encyclopaedia of the island with 650 pages and 750 photographs. He won recognition for his publications overseas especially in the British Press and in the island he is acknowledged as a pioneer historian.

Ceylon along the Rail Track is one of his outstanding works which embodies his scholarship, insights and deep commitment to the island. What is admirable about his achievements is that he was a foreigner but he belonged to a generation which stood above narrow nationalism or racism in their commitment to the furtherance of knowledge and peace and understanding between peoples. The recognition which is being given to this publication of H W Cave almost a century after its publication is a measure of the esteem in which he and others like him are held by posterity.