Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Woolf on rinderpest and salt

A century ago today, while the Bloomsbury Group of literary friends was beginning to coalesce in London, one of its future members, Leonard Woolf, was more concerned about salt stocks and outbreaks of rinderpest working as a government administrator in Sri Lanka (then still a British colony called Ceylon). Never a diarist like his future wife, he did keep a diary of his duties in Ceylon, and these were published in the early 1960s.

Leonard Sidney Woolf, born in 1882, was the third of ten children. When his father died ten years later, Woolf was sent to board at Arlington House, a preparatory school near Brighton. Thereafter he was educated at St Paul’s and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he joined a group of writers and intellectuals - including Bertrand Russell and E M Forster - who called themselves The Apostles. In 1904, however, he left behind the literary world, and went to work in Ceylon. For the last three years of his time with the Civil Service there, from 1908, he served as the Colonial Administrator for Hambantota, in the very south of island. He returned to London in 1911; and, the next year, married Virginia.

Woolf opposed Britain’s involvement in the First World War, and, having been rejected for military service on health grounds, began to focus his writing increasingly on politics and sociology. The couple settled in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, and together set up The Hogarth Press, with Leonard as the main director, a position he retained until his death in 1969. His main work, however, was as a political writer and editor. He also spent much time caring for his wife, through the ups and downs of manic depression. After Virginia’s death, he had a long relationship with Trekkie Parsons, an artist, despite her being married.

More information about Woolf can be found at Wikipedia, of course, and at The Diary Junction. Sussex University holds most of his papers and has an extensive catalogue online. Also online - at Internet Archive - are many of his books, now out of copyright, including his first novel The Village in the Jungle. Publicity (on Amazon) for a modern print of the novel says: ‘It reads as if Thomas Hardy had been born among the heat, scent, sensuality and pungent mystery of the tropics. Translated into both Tamil and Sinhalese, it is one of the best-loved and best-known stories in Sri Lanka.’ In the 1960s, Mr Saparamadu, of the Ceylon Civil Service, said it was ‘generally acknowledged to be the best work of creative writing in English on Ceylon’.

In January 1960, 50 years after his administrator’s stint in the country, Woolf returned to Ceylon (although independent by this time, it would remain Ceylon until the name Sri Lanka was adopted in 1972), where he was received with ‘much honour’ (again according to Saparamadu). As a result of the visit, and because of Woolf’s literary eminence, the country’s prime minister directed that the official diary written by Woolf half a century earlier, when serving as the Hambantota administrator, should be published by the government. An edition was thus printed by The Ceylon Historical Journal in 1962, and another by The Hogarth Press (the company set up by Woolf but, by then, part of Chatto & Windus) in 1963 - Diaries in Ceylon 1908-1911, Record of a Colonial Administrator

Saparamadu explains, in the book’s introduction, that there is a vast corpus of official diaries written by government agents and administrators from 1808 to 1941, and that the diaries were meant to contain a full record of work done by each writer and a full description of events and and the conditions of their districts. ‘Woolf’s diaries,’ he says, ‘have been selected as a good introductory to them not only because they are typical of the diaries but because of the wide public interest in them and also since they help to throw some light on the experience in the villages of Hambantota which provided the inspiration for Woolf’s celebrated book The Village in the Jungle.’

Here are two extracts, taken from exactly 100 years ago today, which give a good indication of Woolf’s preoccupations at the time - cattle and salt!

3 March 1909
‘I was woken at 3am by the Stock Inspector’s messenger. My wrath was appeased by learning that it is not rinderpest. I heard today that all the contractors who are removing salt from Palatupana on Government account at Rs1.70 per ton had left the lewaya [shallow lagoon]. This was a strike to force my hand and make me pay Rs2 per ton. In the evening I got hold of the previous contractor and I was determined that he should take another contract. Eventually with great difficulty and a certain amount of pressure I induced him to enter into a contract to remove 10,000 cwts a month until all the salt on this side of the lewaya is removed. As he will probably pay the carters about Rs1.50 a ton, I feel that I have scored. He undertakes with me to do it at Rs1.80 per ton which is the old rate.’

4 March 1909
‘Another case of rinderpest but again out of the isolated contacts. There are now 4 isolated contacts left. In the evening I went down to the Maha Lewaya and released the 230 bulls there. I have had them in quarantine since February 18th and the Stock Inspector considered it safe to let them to go yesterday but I thought I would keep them an extra day. Great rejoicing among the carters who told me that in future they would obey any order I gave them, so I told them they had better prove what they said by going away and removing salt for two months from Bundala. 32 carts immediately left for Bundala, at least so they said.’

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