C.W. Nicholas - a man of both substance and style

I am glad that at long last, the attention of the general public has been drawn to the achievements of a great scholar and conservationist. I refer to the article on Mr. Cyril Wace Nicholas that appeared in The Island (Sunday Edition) on 1 September 2002. I was more than pleased when I found that a person fully qualified to do so wrote it. Since reference has been made to me that I was a personal friend of Mr. Nicholas, I feel that I should expand on this statement.

I came to know about Mr. C.W. Nicholas from Mr. Nicolai Leiter, a Lecturer in the Geography Department of the University of Ceylon, to whom I was both a student and a companion on our hikes into the Dry Zone in the 1930’s. It was he who introduced me to Mr. Nicholas in 1947. For over three hours Mr. Nicholas questioned me about my interests and the places I had visited during my peregrinations across the low country Dry Zone. I learnt later that it was his method of finding out whether I knew what I was talking about, for Mr. Nicholas was an inveterate traveler himself, who visited remote areas in search of ancient inscriptions found in caves and rocks in his quest to unravel the Brahmi script - an activity that kept him busy throughout his life.

I was one of the few people who came into close contact with Mr. Nicholas, when he was the Director of the Wild Life Department. He was a man of both substance and style. Although taciturn by nature, those who shared his love for the outdoor life found him a stimulating companion and a friend for life. He did not suffer fools, and hated sycophants and spongers. He was a creature of habit, and would insist that his driver came to pick him up sharp at 5 o’clock in the morning, when he had to go on circuit. He was a kind man, who cared for his field staff posted in the remote areas. He never failed to take adequate provisions during his visits, and would always leave whatever that was remaining, for the use of the field staff. It was through his writings that he became well known to the general public. He would take a few sheets of paper and a number of pencils home, and work on the Warden’s Annual Report on Wild Life through the night, and the document would be ready for printing the next morning. Such was his skill and grasp of the subject. The Annual Reports that he prepared were so good that all copies would be sold out, and re-prints were published almost immediately to meet the demand. The Annual Reports still remain great historical documents read by many, cherished by a few, and stolen by one or two.

Mr. Nicholas had the habit of collecting brush-wood from the wilderness. He told me that brush-wood was rich in seeds dispersed by birds through their droppings. He would use them to grow flowering plants such as Vitex negundo (Nika in Sinhala), Cassia fistula (Ehala in Sinhala) to name a few, in Wilpattu National Park. Mr. Nicholas also planted quite a few of the trees that you may still see in Wilpattu today. Although not a trained Botanist, Mr. Nicholas was interested in training his field staff in the identification of the common trees, shrubs, herbs, sedges and grasses found in the national parks and game reserves. The keys that he prepared for the identification of trees in the field used easily recognizable features such as bark architecture, canopy shape, leaf arrangement, etc for the benefit of the game guards and rangers, to whom the Plant Taxonomy and Systematics as taught in the Universities would have been as useful as Ornithology to birds.

My impression of Mr. Nicholas is that of a great humanist. He had a wonderful knowledge of village life gained from his numerous visits to the remote areas. Although a few people referred to him as a hunter, he like many other game hunters and sportsmen of the day, was responsible for the establishment and subsequent effective administration of conservation areas. He recognized the plight of the poor in arid areas unsuitable for agriculture. Children remained malnourished, as their mothers did not have adequate food. Long before sustainable utilization became vogue among conservationists, Mr. Nicholas recognized it as part of rational management of wildlife and natural resources. On 8 December 1950, he sent out a Directive - "The prosecuting habit is a vicious one and I don’t want this Department to acquire it and start dragging to Court every person who commits some minor misdemeanor under the Ordinance. There should be no truck with the professional poacher and dealer in meat and skins, but there should be no persecution of villagers. Please admonish all your staff accordingly".

None other than Prof. Senarat Paranavitana conferred the greatest honour on Mr. Nicholas, whom he recognized and respected as an authority on the history and antiquities of Ceylon while he was still alive. The University of Peradeniya gave him an Honorary Doctorate posthumously, while the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) awarded a Medal in recognition of his outstanding contribution to historical research, but Mr. Nicholas died a few days prior to the presentation. To the future generations, Mr. C.W. Nicholas has left his contributions that are truly monumental in depth and diversity. To those of my generation, who knew him personally, he has bequeathed warm memories of a man modest to a fault, a man of the highest personal integrity, and one whose friendship brightened our lives.
Christy Wickremasinghe
Divisional Game Ranger (Retired)