As the train chugged its way into the highlands, Sir William Gregory surveyed the view from his window. The hills were crawling with olive-skinned men and women, clad in colourful robes, their nimble hands diving into the lush green bushes, plucking at the tea leaves. The elderly Irishman closed his eyes and cast his mind back to March 1872, the month he arrived to take up office as Governor of British Ceylon, the island known today as Sri Lanka.
The brutal ethnic conflict that has divided the Tamil minority from the Singhalese majority has been ongoing for the past forty years. However, many point the long finger at the British planters who imported the Tamils into Sri Lanka in the first place.
Increasingly under the spotlight is the administration of Sir William Gregory, the Co Galway landlord who presided as the island’s Governor during a period of unprecedented economic growth. By the time he left the island in 1877 - to marry the celebrated Lady Gregory, founder of the Abbey Theatre - Ceylon (aka Sri Lanka) was one of the most affluent colonies in the British Empire.
William Gregory’s forbears came to Ireland as puritanical supporters of Cromwell. In the 18th century, his great-grandfather prospered as a merchant in the East India Company and purchased the 15,000 acre estate at Coole Park in Co Galway where Gregory was raised. His grandfather was under-secretary of state for Ireland and lived at Ashtown Castle, Phoenix Park, where Gregory was born in 1817.[i]
Educated at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford, Gregory was 25-years-old when he was elected Conservative MP for Dublin.[ii] A staunch supporter of Robert Peel, he caused a stir at the height of the Famine when he successfully amended the Poor Law Bill to prohibit anyone who owned more than a quarter of an acre from seeking relief from the workhouse.[iii]
In 1847, his father died of typhus, caught while helping some of his fever-ridden tenants at Coole. Gregory lost his seat in the election that followed and retired from Parliament.[iv] He appears to have embarked on a wild phase at this juncture, becoming a notorious gambler with results that The Times described as ‘financially unfortunate’. A considerable chunk of the family lands were sold to pay off his debts, including Dún Guaire Castle and the Kinvara estate.[v]
His opinion counted for a lot more after 1857 when he was elected MP for Co Galway, standing on a liberal-conservative platform.[viii] He remained the voice of Galway at Westminster for the next fifteen years.[ix] During this time, he strongly opposed Home Rule, believing a self-governing Ireland would quickly transfer its allegiance to any enemy of England.[x] Nonetheless, he defended the Roman Catholic clergy and supported the cause of land reform.
In 1872, Prime Minister Gladstone dispatched Gregory to serve as Governor of Ceylon. He was the third consecutive Irishman to hold the post.[xi] Over the next five years, Gregory was to prove himself, in many ways, an ideal Governor.
Sri Lanka is about the same size as Ireland. Britain nabbed it from the Dutch in 1815 and quickly realised there was excellent money to be made by converting the ancient cinnamon estates to coffee.[xii] When the indigenous Singhalese population refused to work on the British plantations, the planters turned to the Tamil Nadu province of southern India for a cheaper, more pliant source of labour. By 1840, thousands of low-caste Indian Tamils were arriving on Sri Lanka’s north coast and making their way south through the treacherous highland to work on the coffee plantations.
Today, over four million of Sri Lanka’s twenty million inhabitants are Tamil Hindus. Most are the off-spring of the one million Tamils who came from southern India to work on the plantations in the 19th century.
There can be little doubt that the plantation owners exploited the Tamil labourers. Questions over their treatment have been raised ever since 1849 when the Colombo Observer claimed that close on 90,000 workers had died in the previous eight years.[xiii] That figure may have been wildly exaggerated but nonetheless, the mortality rate on the coffee plantations was still unacceptably high when Gregory arrived. [xiv]
Being a man of high moral fibre, Gregory sought to gain a keener insight into the matter. He embarked on a tour of the entire island, then stroked his lamb-chops and produced a 57-page memorandum. His rose-coloured report was something of a let-off for the planters. He concluded that most ‘coolies’, as the labourers were known, were treated perfectly well and that the law gave their jobs adequate protection.[xv]
Many of those who died, he said, had arrived on the plantations already sick and emaciated after the long voyage from India. Moreover, many Tamils were innately suspicious of Western medicine and refused to be treated until it was too late. He did highlight poor sanitation and noxious water supplies in certain places, but felt the conditions – with food, shelter, medical care and an income – were surely better than those back in India. He did not address the monotonous diet (one meal a day of rice, served with chillies, dried fish and overcooked vegetables) and skipped around the issue of the overcrowded ‘Coolie’ huts in which the labourers slept. He reserved his disdain for the island’s 2,000 kanganies, the men who went over to South India to recruit the plantation workers and to whom the labourers were then legally indebted.[xvi]
One of the first files placed upon Sir William’s desk when he arrived concerned the coffee blight which, for the previous two years, had threatened to wipe out over 700,000 acres of coffee plantations. [xvii] Sir William consulted the experts who advised converting the plantations to other cash-crops such as rubber and tea.[xviii] Gregory greatly supported this switch, flooding the planters with advice and grants, and signed a law permitting Tamil labourers to settle permanently in Sri Lanka. (As coffee was a seasonal crop, most workers had tended to return to India after the season. But tea and rubber were perennial crops, requiring a permanent labour force). It was a big step for the planters to abandon coffee, their livelihood for over half a century. But it meant that when the coffee blight returned in 1878, they were ready for it and the conversion to tea and rubber began in earnest.[xix] Sri Lanka continues to be the world’s fourth largest tea producer today, employing 350,000 tea pickers. Gregory’s rubber plantations were especially well-timed, as the planters were able to cash in an increasing global demand that would mushroom with the evolution of the motorcar.[xx]
By 1874, Gregory’s coffers were showing a considerable surplus of revenue, gathered from customs, railways and tolls. He ensured that the bulk of this surplus was pumped back into the island’s infrastructure, on the basis that this would stimulate further industry and enterprise.[xxi] His achievements in this regard were nothing short of remarkable.
During his five years, Gregory dramatically extended Sri Lanka’s road and railway networks from Jaffna to Galle, building a plethora of bridges and causeways, all of which would ultimately save the planters enormous time and money.[xxii] He ordered the restoration of the island’s ancient canals and irrigation tanks, many of which were desolate and abandoned when he took office. [xxiii] He established fountains and fresh water supplies in all major towns. He developed the first form of telegraphic network. He pitched the island as a possible tourist destination to wealthy Europeans, injecting a mass of money into making the tea planter town of Nuwara Eliya presentable. (Gregory’s Lake is one of the town’s foremost attractions).[xxiv] He orchestrated a massive replanting programme in the denuded forests.[xxv] He converted the Royal Pleasure Gardens of Kandy into the world famous Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, a wonderful 60-hectare oasis where Lord Mountbatten enjoyed many a pensive stroll during the last world war. He commissioned the building of a new port at Colombo.[xxvi] When the Prince of Wales came to lay the foundation stone of the port’s breakwater, he laid the flat of his sword on Gregory’s shoulder and knighted him ‘Sir William’.
He also made a considerable impact on society at large. A major school-building campaign was launched across the island.[xxvii] (It was notable that, whilst largely ostracized from the rest of Ceylonese society, the children of Tamil planters tended to be better educated). He instigated a law that provided mothers with a month’s maternity leave. To stamp out a rampant epidemic of public drunkenness, he brought in the island’s first licensing laws. All gaols and hospitals were given a major overhaul.[xxviii] Twenty-two new plantation hospitals and maternity homes were built in 1874 alone. When southern India became engulfed in a brutal famine that same year, the Colonial Office in London asked Gregory to provide free rice rations to immigrants. He refused, reasoning that such charity would turn Sri Lanka into ‘South India’s pauper asylum’.[xxix]
Of course, there were plenty of flaws in Gregory’s works. The hospitals were often ill-quipped flimsy shacks with poor water and ill-trained staff who spoke no Tamil. When the cholera and smallpox epidemics came racing down the pilgrimage routes and migrant trails in 1877, the island’s hospitals were unable do cope. Over 8,000 died that year on the plantations.[xxx]
Gregory also played a key role in preserving Sri Lanka’s ancient civilization. One of his foremost cultural advisors was RD Childers, father of the revolutionary Erskine Childers and grandfather of President Erskine Childers.[xxxi] His Governorship coincided with a spectacular reawakening in Buddhist and Pali studies across the island, spearheaded by the monks. He founded the National Museum in Colombo, where his statue stands today.[xxxii] He commissioned a major survey of the island’s antiquities.[xxxiii] When he created the North-Central Province, he designated the ancient city of Anuradhapura as its new capital.
Anxious to visit his dying mother in Ireland, Gregory resigned his post and sailed away in May 1877.[xxxiv] The revenue surplus that year was the biggest in the colony’s history and the island’s coffee industry was valued at an impressive STG£5 million on the European market.[xxxv]
Later that same summer, the 60-year-old bachelor spotted a pretty young girl sporting a fashionable dress, bought at Bon Marché in Paris, and a black and white straw hat decorated with corn ears and poppies. She was Augusta Persse, the daughter of a neighbouring Galway landowner.[xxxvi] The couple married in 1880 and settled at Coole Park.[xxxvii] Their only child, Robert Gregory, played cricket for Ireland but died when his plane was shot down in 1918. He became the subject of four WB Yeats poems, most famously An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’.
Sir William returned to Sri Lanka three times before his death in 1892, and saw many of his projects such as Colombo Port completed.[xxxviii] He may have turned a blind eye on the treatment of the Tamil labourers but, in the annals of the island’s many Governor’s, he is considered one of the very finest.
[i] Sir William Henry Gregory PC was born on 12 July 1817 and died on 6 March 1892. He was the only child of Robert Gregory (1790-1847) of Coole Park and Elizabeth O'Hara. Robert’s only brother William Gregory (1792-1840) became rector of Fiddown in county Kilkenny, and with his wife Anne had three sons and one daughter. The Gregorys originated in Leicestershire. Two Gregory brothers led the Protestant forces in the defence of Derry in 1689. In the 18th century, Robert Gregory prospered as a merchant in the East India Company. His industrious grandson William served as Under-Secretary for Ireland from 1813-1831 and was stationed at Ashtown Castle, Phoenix Park. In October 1789, William Gregory married Anne Trench (b. 1766), daughter of William Power Keating Trench, 1st Earl of Clancarty and Anne Gardiner. William’s oldest brother Robert (1754-1814) was apparently disinherited on account if his passion for cock-fighting. William’s wife Anne also seems to have been embroiled in a bitter feud with the wife of his other brother Richard, a schoolgirl who he had married secretly and then kept in a separate house disguised as a sailor. Richard was charged with cowardice when his troops deserted during the Valenciennes campaign in 1793.
[ii] He was at Harrow from 1830-35 where he won the Peel Medal and the admiration of Richard Colley (later Marquess of Wellsley) and future Prime Minister Robert Peel (who, as Chief Secretary, was his grandfather’s superior). One of his class mates at Harrow was novelist Anthony Trollope. He subsequently entered Christ Church, Oxford in 1836 but left three years later without receiving a qualification.
There is a tradition that Gregory beat Daniel O’Connell in the 1842 by-election. This is not the case. The Liberator was beaten by 150 votes at the General Election six months earlier when Messrs West and Grogan were returned. Gregory’s opponent was the Liberal Viscount Morpeth, later Earl of Carlisle, the well-known traveller, dilettante and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Gregory beat Morpeth by 3,825 to 3,435.
[iii] The so-called ‘Gregory Clause’ was an amendment to the Poor Law Bill of 1847. It meant that no tenant could seek relief from the workhouse for himself or his family, if he owned as much as a quarter acre of land. The tenant was forced to sell his little parcel, which was all the security he had in the world, if at the moment of extreme distress, he sought public assistance for himself or his family. When he left the workhouse he had nowhere to go but to the emigrant ship. Although Gregory himself never evicted any tenant from his estate, and his father before him had died from typhus caught while trying to ease the suffering of some of his sick tenants, other ruthless landlords used the ‘Gregory Clause’ to clear their lands of unproductive people.
[iv] In the 1847 general election, he was defeated by John Reynolds, described as ‘Draper and Repealer’. Little more than 6,000 votes were recorded out of a registered constituency of 19,562. He was appointed High Sheriff of Galway in 1849. Apart from Robert Peel, his close associates were Lord Lincoln, and Lord George Bentinck.
[v] In the early 1850s, Kinvarra Castle was reported to be on the verge of complete decay.
[vi] He travelled to Egypt in 1855 and wrote a two-volume work on his travels, Egypt in 1855 and 1856, and Tunis in 1857 and 1858, published privately in London in 1859.
[vii] The Times described him as frequently ‘eager and even enthusiastic in the cause of what he deemed to be the oppressed minority’. In 1859 Gregory travelled through North America, befriending several southern Congressmen, including James Murray Mason of Virginia and William Porcher Miles of South Carolina. In March 1862, he moved for papers on the blockade which he regarded as at once illegal and ineffectual. He declared that ‘secession was right, separation a fact and union an impossibility’. In the Balkans, he took a strong anti-Turk stance supported Serbian independence. He likewise supported Greek claims to the Ionian Islands and Crete. But he wasn’t all that picky about the minorities he supported. He also backed Egypt’s Arabic population when they rose up against the Muhammad Ali Dynasty, although he back-tracked when the political agitation turned violent. In 1866, he opened an important question at Westminster regarding the question of exempting private property from capture at sea.
[viii] In 1857 Gregory re-entered parliament as MP for Galway ‘supported by the Catholic Church to address the economic and social needs of the west of Ireland’.
[ix] He made his mark at Westminster as ‘an excellent speaker and socially very popular’. Although a Liberal, he played a cautious hand, voting against Earl Russell’s Reform Bill in 1866 Reform Bill which proposed to give the vote to ‘respectable’ working men in Britain and Ireland. He was thus one of the Adullamites, or the ‘Cave’, with Robert Lowe, Lord Elcho, Mr Horsman etc. He later claimed he’d opposed the bill simply because Chancellor Gladstone had misquoted Aristophanes in his wrap-up speech at the end of the eight-day debate. [Letters to the Editor - The Late Sir William Gregory, The Times, Friday, Mar 11, 1892; pg. 15; Issue 33583; col A] Despite his opposition to the government policy, he retained his seat until 1872 when he accepted the Governorship of Ceylon.
[x] He was appointed a Privy Councillor for Ireland in 1871. In a letter published in 1881, he wrote: ‘Our country (after separation) would become the prey of the strongest, fiercest and most ruthless adventurers, with two prominent ideas amongst them – namely, spoliation and hatred of England and with a fixed resolve to convert the new nation into a kind of modern Decelaria, menacing at all times, and most formidable in case of England being at war with America or any strong maritime Power or coalition which could obtain command of the sea even for a short period.
[xi] His predecessors were Charles Justin MacCarthy (22 October 1860–1 December 1863) and Sir Hercules Robinson (21 March 1865–4 January 1872).
[xii] The first labourers were brought to Sri Lanka in 1827 to work on the experimental coffee estate by the Botanical Garden at Peradeniya. This was the initiative of Governor Sir Edward Barnes (1824-1831). In 1837, the island had 4,000 acres of coffee plantation. By the time Sir William Gregory arrived, some 773,000 acres was under coffee cultivation.
[xiii] The Colombo Observer article triggered the first real debates over plantation-labourer deaths. The figures were duly challenged by the likes of the Ceylon Agricultural Society who claimed many of those new arrivals had found work elsewhere in the colony or simply returned home, unrecorded, in small boats. Governor Sir Henry Ward (1855-60) attempted to improve conditions by establishing hospitals and sinking wells. However, despite Florence Nightingale’s concerns, Governor Charles MacCarthy (1860-63) tended to side-step the issue and play the laissez-faire card. The traditional government response was to deny the death rates were so high and to blame all the deaths on in-fighting brought about by family rivalry, gambling disputes and excessive consumption of the local liquor, arrack.
[xiv] The Government of Ceylon created the first immigrant labour commission in 1857, providing transportation, shelter, and rudimentary medical care. Planters were required to bear some of the costs. The new arrivals were known as ‘Plantation Tamils’ to distinguish the from the high-caste Sri Lanka Tamils who had come to the island many hundreds of years earlier. The Plantation Tamils were themselves greatly divided up by their caste, their position on the working hierarchy, their place of origin in Tamilnadu and such like. In 1873, Gregory signed a new law permitting the immigration of Tamil Indians into Sri Lanka. He favoured the Tamils over the Singahelese, referring to the latter as ‘an eminently listless and lazy population’. As he explained, ‘the great object of our government is to facilitate the flow of Indian labourers into the colony’ and thereby maximise profits
[xv] A three-year contract was in place for all labourers but few availed of it as the high demand for work ensured high security.
[xvi] Between 1843-1859 over 900,000 men woman and children migrated to work as indentured labourers. The cost of their transport was deducted from their wages after they had arrived, and they could not leave until they had repaid the kanganys their debt. Gregory hated the kangany system but said it would be impossible to abolish it because it was a custom in those parts. He estimated that each kangany made about 5 or 6 trips to India every year and returned with a gang of six or seven able-bodied workers.
[xvii] By the time Gregory arrived in March 1872, some 773,000 acres was under coffee cultivation. The leaf fungus was called Hemileia Vastratrix.
[xviii] The move from tea to coffee was pioneered by James Taylor who opened 10 acres in tea on his estate at Loolecondera in Upper Hewaheta. Taylor set up the first tea ‘factory’ on the island. It was in fact a rather rudimentary set up. The factory soon became famous throughout the island. In 1872, Taylor invented a machine for rolling leaves, and one year later sent twenty-three pounds of tea to Mincing Lane. Taylor trained a number of assistants, and from that point on; Ceylon tea arrived regularly in London and Melbourne. Its success led to the opening of an auction market in Colombo in 1883, and to the founding of a Colombo tea dealer’s association in 1894. Taylor continued to test new methods and techniques at the Loolecondera Estate (which he would never own) until the end of his life. He never left the estate, except for a single short vacation in 1874 – spent at Darjeeling, needless to say, in order to study the new tea plantations. His talent and determination were officially recognised when Sir William Gregory, Governor of Ceylon, paid Taylor a visit in 1890 to congratulate him on the quality of his tea. (http://www.forbestea.com/abouttea/aboutteaindex.htm)
[xix] Today, Britain drinks upwards of 187 million cups of tea per day. In order to make those cuppas, some 350,000 Sri Lankans are employed to pluck tea leaves by hand.
[xx] On the downside, plantation agriculture meant that rice production stagnated so that Sri Lanka became dependent on the export of cash crops and the import of food. In 1948 it was only producing about 35% of its rice need.
[xxi] He did this by working closely with the agents responsible for each province. The agents met with Gregory at an annual court (or durbar) he hosted in Colombo. As well as the profits, the administration’s coffers were buoyed by money from the railways, the road and bridge tolls, the import duties on rice and the government monopoly on arrack and toddy. The railway became a major source of income as planters shifted rice up and coffee down. William Digby estimated that in 1877, the government spent £10,000 a year on road and ports, and £35,000 on medical facilities. However, he argued that a further £40,000 could have been raised if the government did not exempt large numbers of planters from paying tax.
[xxii] The new roads also sped seasonal labourers directly to the plantations so that they avoided the death, disease and misery which had befallen earlier generations who came by the perilous cross-country routes. It was during this time that the arterial roads to Trincomalee and Jaffna were built, as well as the causeways at Mannar and Jaffna. The seaside railway was extended from Colombo to Kalutara (and ultimately on down to Matara). In 1874, he opened up the Madurai-Tuticorin rail line which, linked to the Colombo-Kandy line (opened 1865). There was even a plan for a railway to link India and Ceylon but it didn’t pan out.
[xxiii] By 1874, 900 were operating again, enabling nutritious crops to grow and bringing more revenue into the government coffers. Amongst these was the tank of Kalawewa, constructed by King Dhatusena in 459AD which had a 35 mile circumference.
[xxiv] The hill station of Nuwara Eliya (City of Lights), also known as 'Little England', was designed as a typical English Village. At Gregory's Lake, the Governor dammed a swamp to create a unique man-made high altitude lake, upon which visitors now go boating and rowing.
[xxv] In 1873, Sir William Gregory laid the foundation of a more systematic conservancy of forests by the appointment of four foresters for the four northern provinces, and assistants for other districts, whose duties included not merely checking improvident destruction of existing timber, but also establishing in the neighbourhood of the great tanks, nurseries for valuable forest trees.
[xxvi] When the Suez Canal opened for business, he shifted the entire focal point of the island from Galle to Colombo where he built a mighty port.
[xxvii] In 1876 the then Governor Rt. Hon. Sir William Gregory laid the foundations stones for the two leading schools in the island, Prince and Princess of Wales’ Colleges. He also encouraged the Wesleyan Methodists to establish missions throughout the island
[xxviii] When coffee-stealing became epidemic in 1873, Sir William wrote to the Chief Justice and told him how, in Ireland, outbreaks of sheep-rustling and timber theft had both been significantly reduced by the passing of legislation that obliged every person in possession of mutton or wood to prove that it was legitimately obtained.
[xxix] As South India experienced a bitter drought and famine in 1874 and again in 1876-78, this caused an explosion in refugees to Ceylon and inevitably meant more people died on arrival. But the famine, which continued into 1877, maintained the impetus on upgrading the island’s medical facilities.
[xxx] Cholera was the biggest killer of ‘Malabars’ but, in 1877 alone, over 330 refugees were found dead on the roadside by police. Smallpox was also deadly. Over 8,000 people died on the coffee plantations that year, many of tem refugees drawn in from the kangany gangs. The planters take considerable blame for failing to look after them (maybe even expelling their sick) or to bring them to hospital in time. Most patients were self-admitted or brought in by police. Hospitals did not have a good track record. Of the 16 hospitals with surviving records from 1877, three had mortality rates of over 60%. The government claimed it was because the sick only went into hospital at the lasts stage of the illness, that they were suspicious of western medicine. The government closed down such reports for six years; when they came back again in 1883, the mortality rate was down to 10-20%.
[xxxi] R. D. Childers (1838-1876) was one of three British civil Servants posted to Sri Lanka during this golden age, or ‘Dharmasasthra’, of Buddhist and Pali studies. Another was T. W. Rhys Davids (1843-1922), a Welshman who accompanied Gregory on his first tour of the island. All three men took a keen interest in the language, religion and culture of the island, introducing this hitherto unknown wealth of Buddhist scholarship to the English speaking world at large.
[xxxii] Among the exhibits in Museum are the regalia of the Kandyan Kings dating back to the 17th century, including the Royal throne, crown and scepter.
[xxxiii] He commissioned a number of historians and archivists to travel the island with cameras and notebooks, and to etch down every ancient inscription they came upon in order to ‘throw light on the ancient usages, religious customs and early history of Ceylon’.
[xxxiv] Back in London, Disraeli appointed him a Trustee of the National Gallery and he spent most of the following years travelling. He was an ideal Trustee. He had a long association with the British Museum and had studied art closely. He was a member of the Arundel Society and the Athaeneum Club. He made many visits to Spain and Italy with Sir JC Robinson. As a Trustee, he frequented Christie’s and other sales rooms, acquiring works for the National Gallery.
[xxxv] In 1879 there were about 1382 plantations covering 275,000 acres with 300,000 labourers.
[xxxvi] Gregory married twice. On 11 January 1872 he married Elizabeth Temple Bowdoin, (d. 28 June 1873) widow of James Temple Bowdoin and daughter of Sir William Clay. On 4 March 1880 Gregory married Isabelle Augusta, daughter of Douglas Persse. He and Augusta met at a cricket match.
[xxxvii] ‘Although her family were slow to notice the blossoming friendship that was developing between the two, Sir William was anxious to press home his intentions of marriage. He briefly agonised about their age differences to his close friends, but felt he could not bear another winter of loneliness. Augusta, when she remembered the moment she agreed to marry, wrote: “I felt extraordinarily happy and serene, happy in the thought of being with him, of serving him, of learning from him. And I was happy also in the thought of not leaving the country, the neighbourhood which I loved.”’ (‘A moment’s memory to that laurelled head’, Galway Advertiser, January 29, 2009, Ronnie O'Gorman).
[xxxviii] From October 1881 to April 1882, he toured Egypt and reported on the revolution there. Gregory returned to Ceylon in 1884 and 1885, to see Colombo port finished. On his last trip in 1890, he ‘had the gratification’ of driving over the Yoda Ela, the completely restored Giant’s Canal to Anuradhapura. Sir William Gregory died on 6 March 1892 of respiratory failure in St George’s Place, London. He had been ailing all winter and, 3 weeks earlier, on a bitterly cold morning, he imprudently attended a meeting of the National Gallery trustees from which he caught a chill ‘and gradually sank, though with occasional rallies’. His autobiography was edited and published by Lady Gregory in 1894. One anecdote from Sir William Gregory’s An Autobiography (1894) runs as follows: ‘One evening at dinner we had a surprise. The subject of conversation was snakes, and Mr Twynam mentioned that the huge python was not uncommon in the forests. I happened to say I should like to see one. ‘That is easily managed,’ he said; and gave an order to his servant, who brought in a box, opened it, and out glided a monstrous snake, at least 16 feet long. Everyone, and the party was large, sprung on tables and chairs, but Mr Twynam exhorted us to dismiss our fears as the reptile was harmless, indeed very friendly.
“He amused himself by gliding about the room till it was thought high time to get rid of him, when a hen was brought in. He did not seem to notice it at first. At last he turned suddenly on it, and threw all his coils round it with the rapidity of lightning, and extended it by this squeezing process to at least a yard in length. He slowly, very slowly, began to swallow it. And was carried off with two long legs sticking out of its mouth.”
Twentieth century impressions of Ceylon, Arnold Wright (mentions TLM Bunbury as Private Sec to the Governor).
Death Of Sir William Gregory, The Times, Monday, Mar 07, 1892; pg. 10; Issue 33579; col E
The Plantation Tamils of Ceylon, Patrick Peebles (2001).
An Autobiography, Sir William Gregory (1894)