This article argues that the interests of coffee and tea planters in colonial Sri Lanka shaped the foundations of wildlife conservation policies, in which the state only played a secondary role. By destroying the forests of the highlands, they were the principal architects of ecological change on the island in the nineteenth century. Their principal mode of recreation, hunting, also shaped their engagement with natural history. Some were naturalists in their own right; others funneled specimens and observational data to other students of natural history. They lobbied for the first game laws, not through remorse for their own role in the destruction of wildlife (the “penitent butchers” thesis) but to keep the peasantry from competing for the species that they sought, which had been decimated by the actions of both groups. The way planters engaged with nature, through hunting and the pursuit of natural history, motivated them to preserve what was left of the island's wild fauna.
The third-century king Devanampiyatissa's edict against hunting is sometimes cited by Sri Lankans today as evidence of the antiquity of the country's conservationist ethos. That, however, is an example of Buddhist piety. An ethic of conservation, by contrast, is grounded in the recognition that natural goods are limited as resources for human exploitation. Modern conservation emerged instead, as Richard H. Grove has argued, in the early colonial period. As European states established colonies in the tropical world, they engaged with “local classifications and interpretations of the natural world” that shaped their thinking on the environment and the destructive impact of their economic practices on tropical islands (Grove 1995: 3). Although Grove's ideas have been influential, they do not describe how conservation ideas developed in every colonial situation. They are of limited value in helping us understand how conservation developed in Sri Lanka over the course of the nineteenth century. As late as 1931, Sri Lanka lacked an effective environmental policy, mainly due to the well-organized power and influence of the plantation sector (Meyer 1998: 800–806). The country was sparsely populated and densely forested for much of the colonial era, and deforestation did not become a matter of serious concern to the island's government until the last third of the nineteenth century (McNeill 1938). By that time, engagement with “local classifications and interpretations of the natural world” on the part of colonial authority had long since ceased, and a feature of scientific work in the heyday of colonialism, as Deepak Kumar (2006) has argued, was belief in the superiority of the colonizer's ways of knowing.
Concerns over forest depletion, motivated by the importance of timber and forest produce for state making, as well as concerns over climate change, preceded anxieties over the destruction of wildlife in Europe's early colonies. In general, the policies adopted prioritized the interests and perspective of the state over other actors (Grove 1995). Forest policy in India in the nineteenth century varied, for example, depending on forest type and variety of local control: but this policy emphasized protection of commercially valuable forests and not the subsistence needs of peasants (Rajan 1998; Sivaramakrishnan 1999). By contrast, for much of the nineteenth century in Sri Lanka, conservation policy was dominated not by state interests but by the most important segment of the colonial society on the island: the coffee (and later tea) planters. The colonial government's land policy was also focused on enhancing revenue rather than on forest conservation (McNeill 1938: 200). The highland forests were, for both the state and the planters, cheap wasteland into which the plantations could expand. Planters used their clout in the colonial administration to ensure land remained cheap, and no policy obstructed their exploitation of it. Grove's argument that “the long-term economic security of the state, which any ecological crisis threatened to undermine, counted politically for far more than the short-term interests of private capital bent on ecologically destructive transformation” (1995: 7) has little purchase in the Sri Lankan context, as the work of Meyer (1998) shows. It would be surprising indeed if it were generally true, as political authority is seldom that farsighted; consider the failure of our own modern states to decisively address the issue of climate change. The planters had little interest in forest conservation—to which they were largely opposed—but sought to protect game animals from Sri Lankan hunters. In advocating for game conservation, they were part of a larger movement in the colonial world, but their motives were grounded in the particular circumstances of their lives in colonial Sri Lanka.
The push for the preservation of wildlife arose from multiple intersecting forces, which varied in significance across space and time. The colonial state was central to all of them, but in colonial Sri Lanka, the state played only a supporting role. In general, legitimate hunting under colonial rule was viewed as big-game hunting. In German East Africa, wildlife was an important economic asset that colonial authorities saw as being threatened by African hunting; in restricting hunting by Africans to traditional weapons, which were less destructive, they were motivated also by the fear of firearms in local hands, as well as the need to push Africans into the colonial economy (Gissibl 2016). M. S. S. Pandian (1998: 292) argues that game laws were passed in the Nilgiris to prevent native hunting that threatened the British discourse of masculinity. Elite hunters (colonial officials, European aristocracy), both British and German, were also beginning to recognize the devastating impact of the hunting practices of Europeans on Africa's wildlife (Adams 2004: 28–30; Gissibl 2016). In Sri Lanka, the changes introduced by colonialism—hunting by Europeans, the opening up of the interior through deforestation and road building, and the introduction of firearms, which expanded hunting by Sri Lankans—led to a similar destruction of wildlife. In Sri Lanka, however, the British who promoted wildlife conservation did so not out of penitence for the harm their practices had caused but to preserve adequate game numbers for their own sport.
Faced with a decline in the numbers of the kinds of large mammals they liked to hunt—elephants, deer, wild buffalo—colonial planters in British Ceylon founded the Game Protection Society to safeguard their interests by using their political clout with the colonial government to effect passage of the first comprehensive game protection ordinance in 1909. They also worked to have, in 1898, an area of the country set aside for their use as a hunting preserve (the Resident Sportsmen's Reserve in Yala). The “penitent butchers” thesis (Adams 2004; Dunlap 1988; Fitter and Scott 1978; MacKenzie 1988: 211; Mangan and McKenzie 2008), which argues that the impetus for conservation came from big-game hunters alarmed by the consequences of their practices, is not true for Sri Lanka; colonial hunters placed the blame for the destruction of wildlife squarely on the rural people, whose ways of hunting were declared illegitimate and inhumane. In Sri Lanka, for the most part, there was little acknowledgment of the role of Europeans in the destruction of the fauna.
Vijaya R. Mandala (2015) and John W. MacKenzie (1988) argue that game conservation policy in India and Africa was motivated by the needs of the colonial economy; protection was extended to useful species, like elephants, while species considered to be destructive or regarded as vermin were ignored (or their destruction encouraged). In colonial Sri Lanka, however, the white-dominated export economy depended almost entirely on the plantations, not on wildlife in any form (Beinart and Hughes 2007: 58). For much of the nineteenth century, elephants were regarded as a nuisance to agriculture, and their destruction was encouraged by the state (Tennent 1861: 143); leopard, sloth bear, and wild pig were classified as vermin (Phillips 1929). The British exploited wild animals as game—for subsistence initially, and later for sport. They were commercially important to local people, however, who hunted not only for subsistence but to carry on a thriving trade in dried venison and hides. Prompted by the planters, the most influential sector of colonial society, the state came to view these activities as illegitimate. For the duration of colonial rule, British writers placed the blame for the decline of wildlife on Sri Lankans (Phillips 1929; Storey 1907).
British planters engaged with the natural environment in three interrelated ways. They were first and foremost agents of environmental change in the Kandyan highlands during much of the nineteenth century, clearing the forest that blanketed the hill country and converting it to plantation agriculture. Their efforts transformed the southwest quadrant and the mountain regions of the island, even as the malarial north and east remained, for the most part, covered in jungle into the twentieth century, when state-sponsored peasant settlement schemes led to their being cleared. Secondly, many of them contributed to the development of natural history, either as first-rate scientific observers in their own right, or more commonly, by facilitating the research of others. Finally, by pursuing their self-interest as hunters, they laid the foundations for wildlife preservation on the island. In this article I discuss these three aspects of their role: transforming the environment of the highlands, developing knowledge of its natural history, and pursuing the conservation of the island's wild fauna. Hunting is implicated in all of these. For much of the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth, hunting was an important form of recreation for planters. Hunting skills were also a requisite for the study of natural history, for knowledge of wild animal species was often acquired through the barrel of a gun. And it was, finally, hunting that led to the turn to conserve nature.
Coffee and the Transformation of the Highlands
The highlands of Sri Lanka were sparsely populated before the British established their control of the interior in 1815.1 At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a person could walk from the southern end of the island to its northern tip (a distance of over 260 miles) without once leaving the vast forest that by then covered much of the country; the destruction of this forest is the single most important aspect of environmental change during the colonial period. The montane forest was felled for coffee in the nineteenth century; the lowland forests of the Dry Zone for the expansion of rice cultivation over the course of the twentieth.
Shortly after Sri Lanka became a British Crown colony in the early nineteenth century, the highlands were opened up for the cultivation of coffee. The earliest plantation was established in 1827 (McCarthy and Devine 2017: 34). This ecological transformation is the subject of an excellent study by the historian James Webb (2002). The coffee planter P. D. Millie, describing the environs of his modest planter's bungalow in 1844, wrote, “Nothing around was to be seen but forest, not a blade of grass: as far as the eye could see the horizon was bounded by this perpetual jungle” (1878: 19). And, to quote Webb (2002: 2), “British planters put the highland forest mantle to the torch and accomplished the most extensive conversion of rainforest into tropical plantation agriculture to be seen anywhere in the British Empire in the nineteenth century.” Planters saw the highland forests as an inexhaustible resource for their exploitation; they were influential and organized enough to block later government attempts to conserve forests and soil through measures that would have negatively impacted their practice (Meyer 1998). Their influence lasted into the second decade of the twentieth century, when it collapsed under the twin blows of the economic depression and the constitutional reforms of 1931 that transferred power over internal affairs to a Sri Lankan elite. By then it was too late to undo the damage that had been done (Meyer 1998: 816). Only fragments of the vast forests that once cloaked the highlands remain today.
The planters who came to the island early in the nineteenth century were single men, drawn mainly from middle- and lower middle-class backgrounds (Lewis 1926: 5). A handful were the younger sons of the British elite—the aristocracy, landed gentry, and the professional class—sent to the colonies to make their way in the world. For instance, of a total of sixty-eight boys who attended Harrow School (an elite private secondary school in England) between 1800 and 1911, whose subsequent careers took them to Sri Lanka, forty-two went as planters (and two as governors of the island). The rest consisted of nine army officers, four colonial civil servants, and eleven others in a variety of occupations. In addition, some played multiple roles: some planters joined the army during the Boer War, and a few became civil servants. Five were the sons of the aristocracy or the minor nobility. Of those who went out to plant, five had had an Oxbridge education, and at least three owned plantations on the island (Harrow School 1911). In the earlier years of the coffee boom, it was not unusual for those who managed the plantations to own them as well, but by the 1930s they were mainly “salaried employees” (Elliott and Whitehead 1931: xviii).
Planters were well known for their hospitality (to Europeans), a function perhaps of the isolated lives they led (Lewis 1926: 3). This is relevant to understanding their part in the development of the study of the island's natural history. The creation of a plantation economy brought with it a network of roads that facilitated access to the interior for naturalists in search of specimens, but they needed logistical support, and this was provided by planters. The German biologist Ernst Haeckel wrote of his time on the island that, “as there are neither hotels nor rest-houses in the hill country, excepting at one or two important stations, the traveller is almost entirely dependent on the hospitality of the English planters; and this is displayed everywhere and on every occasion with unlimited liberality” (1883: 285). Naturalists depended on that hospitality in their collecting forays into the interior.
Colonial Hunting Culture
In the early 1840s, William Taylor, an Irishman arriving as superintendent of a coconut estate in the east-coast town of Batticaloa, commented on the abundance of wildlife:
There is an immense deal of game about here. Elephants within 5 or 6 miles Panthers Bear Deer Elk wild Buffaloes wild Hogs Peafowl Junglefowl Teal Widegen [sic] . . . one of our servants is a capital shot . . . it is surprising the quantity of game he will bring home. Peafowl, junglefowl, Ducks, Curlews, Teal etc and sometimes a couple of wild hogs or a deer which are all welcome in such a large Establishment where everybody eats meat—we have little beef or mutton . . . a few nights ago we had a visit from 3 elephants who broke down our strong fences like twigs and destroyed 30 young cocoa nut trees . . . A bear also, being in an enterprising mood, climbed our fence one night.
He added, “The naturalist could make a wonderful collection here, for the ground is untrodden.”2
Hunting was an integral aspect of life on the plantations, a way both to supply game for the pot and to amuse oneself. There were no game laws before 1891, no restraints on shooting, and for much of the nineteenth century, wildlife seemed plentiful. An account of a day's hunt by a couple of planters in the 1840s yields the following bag: two spotted deer stags, a sambhur, a crocodile, a wild boar and five young, a jungle cock, ninety-three snipe, and nine teal, “a very enjoyable and satisfactory day's sport” (Millie 1878: 54–64). As late as 1914, “an old Ceylon Shikari” could describe “the free-and-easy, do-as-you-like, go-where-you-please kind of feeling one experiences on these occasions, camping and roaming about with the gun at will” (Millett 1914: 1).
The British in Sri Lanka came from an island where hunting was hemmed in by restrictions of class and property ownership to a place where no such restrictions existed, and they made the most of it. P. D. Millie is eloquent on the travails of the Englishman or Scotsman who returns to his native land after spending thirty years in the relative freedom of Sri Lanka and quite out of touch with the property relations of home: “He did not know he was transgressing the laws of the land in walking along the banks of [a] stream, in a remote mountain district, and catching a few fish, but he was told ignorance of the law was no excuse, and that he must pay the penalty, or go to jail” (1878: 232). The historian Rollo Arnold has noted that “hunting and shooting [in England] were class sports, which became more and more fashionable throughout the [nineteenth] century. While the villagers craved for meat, they saw the wild creatures about them protected by the Game Laws to provide sport for their ‘betters’” (Arnold 1981: 29, quoted in Hunter 2015; brackets hers). Just as the freedom to hunt in New Zealand was extolled by working-class immigrants to those islands (Hunter 2015: 184–85), it is possible that the same freedom was one of the pull factors that brought British men of the nonelite classes to this one.
Sri Lankans hunted for a variety of reasons. Villagers hunted for subsistence and to protect their fields from the depredations of wild animals. A thriving trade in hides and horns developed during the nineteenth century, fueled by “cheap guns and gunpowder” (Ievers 1899: 261), to participate in the expanding cash economy under colonialism. Rural people had of course hunted and trapped in precolonial times, but the introduction of firearms and the opening up of the highlands with roads, coupled with the destruction of wildlife habitat, allowed them to extend their practices (Webb 2002: 99). A handful of the elite also hunted for sport in the British sense of the term, and in the British way. Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, one of the most powerful Sri Lankans in colonial Ceylon, used his status as aide-de-camp to the British governor to go out shooting “with a rather valuable pack of fox terriers” (Bandaranaike 1929: 26), but he was not typical of his countrymen.
British hunting was pursued with different motivations—for sport, for trophies, and for recreation, as well as, in the early years, for subsistence. It was also destructive. For much of the nineteenth century, for example, elephants were regarded as a pest to agriculture and their destruction encouraged. Most famously, Major Thomas Rogers killed between fourteen hundred and sixteen hundred elephants over an eleven-year period ending in 1845 (Toussaint 1933: 60). Samuel Baker notes that “three first rate shots in three days bagged one hundred and four elephants”; that was before his own arrival on the island, when such feats were no longer possible because of the decline in their numbers. Baker attributed this decline to the increase in the number of guns in the hands of “the natives” rather than to the depredations of his own countrymen. One incentive for the native hunting of elephants, according to Baker, was the bounty of seven shillings per tail offered by the government (Baker 1883: 107–8). Bounties were also offered for leopards and bears (Ievers 1899: 261).
European hunters depended on the skills and knowledge of local people to guide them through the forest, find game, and teach them survival skills. The colonial secretary, Sir James Emerson Tennent, was in fact quite disparaging of the European part in hunting the elephant, writing of the Sinhala tracker, “He shows an instinct for hunting, and exhibits in the pursuit of the elephant a courage and adroitness far surpassing in interest the mere handling of the rifle, which is the principal share of the proceeding that falls to his European companions” (1861: 150). Acknowledgment of the role of local guides (“trackers”) in their sport is more commonly found in twentieth-century British accounts than in nineteenth-century ones; an example are the tributes by sportsmen to one such tracker, Sarnelis, on his death. He is described as a “real tracker and a courageous sportsman” who “would go to endless trouble to satisfy the wishes of those he accompanied” (Pearson 1940: 110). The planter Morgan-Davies wrote of his jungle guides, “They taught me much about wildlife and the art of fieldcraft, carried our spotted deer, sambhur or wild boar meat, and generally kept me out of serious trouble.” He added, “With the skills and knowledge passed on to me by these jungle folk, and with a rifle in my hands, I grew increasingly confident of my ability to roam about Ceylon's low-country jungles in relative safety” (2008: 19). A Sri Lankan sportsman wrote about what he learned from another such tracker: “to judge the wind, to spy game at a distance before they spy you, to stalk them, to track a wounded animal from its blood on ground or leaves, to know which part of it was hit, whether fore or hind leg, stomach or lung” (Nimrod 1941: 271). Writing in an earlier era during the high noon of colonialism, however, Storey disparaged his guides; novice elephant hunters should not rely on their guide as backup, he cautioned, because “he gets excited and blazes off before he has time to think, and with the vaguest aim” (1907: 93–94). Even so, Harry Storey recognized his dependence on local knowledge of the environment, as his advice on interpreting (and relying on) the tracker's knowledge of a forest for a successful elephant shoot indicates (117–18).
Some Sri Lankans did not approve of the destructive ways of their colonial masters and may have on occasion found opportunities to make their protest felt. In her biography of Richard Burton, Fawn Brodie writes that Burton's brother Edward returned from “the east,” suffering from mental illness. This was attributed by his niece to a severe head beating “from Ceylon natives, who were said to have been enraged at his wanton killing of wild animals on a hunting expedition” (Brodie 1984: 172). An old man in the Badulla district told Frederick Lewis that Rogers, who was struck by lightning, had been killed by the gods, because he had shot an elephant that belonged to them (Toussaint 1933: 66). E. L. Layard recounts the disgust of the local people when he shot a cobra in his path, for he had killed a “high-caste snake” (Layard 1853: 329).
By the end of the nineteenth century, the British had developed a code of sportsmanship, largely tied to social class and wealth, that set them apart both from native hunters throughout the empire and from the lower orders of white society, and which, at least in principle, regulated their own practices as hunters (Adams 2004: 30; Bennett 1984; Hussain 2010; Pandian 1998). Those who abided by this code were referred to as sportsmen; those who did not were referred to pejoratively as poachers (these were usually the “natives”), shooters, and butchers. The thrust of colonial game conservation laws everywhere in the last decade of the nineteenth century was to institutionalize this code of hunting as a legal (rather than merely moral) mandate. The colonial regulation of hunting also underscored the social distance between the British and those they ruled; as “natives” became proficient with guns, some British hunters in the Nilgiris objected to allowing them to hunt on the grounds that British sportsmen should not have to shoot “the leavings of the native shikarries” (Pandian 1998: 286).
This hunter's code, although not yet formalized, was beginning to take shape in colonial Sri Lanka in the early 1840s. For instance, Millie recounts shooting two bears by moonlight from behind a screen at a waterhole as they approached to drink, but he could not bring himself to shoot an elephant because “one would not have derived much pleasure or satisfaction in taking rather a mean and unsportsmanlike advantage under cover of our concealment to slaughter such a magnificent creature” (Millie 1878: 197). On the other hand, Samuel Baker, in 1852, saw nothing wrong in taking twenty-seven does (about half of all the large mammals he hunted that year), which would have violated the code of sportsmanship as it had taken form by century's end.3 D. J. G. Hennessey, a British police officer, hunter, and naturalist who spent his career in Sri Lanka, thought villagers lacking in sportsmanship for catching snipe in nets after dazzling them with flashlights (Hennessy 1939: 340).
Shooting only the adult males of the species, not shooting at night with the aid of flashlights, and not shooting excessive numbers of animals: all were aspects of this code (Phythian-Adams 1948). A tea planter argued in defense of sportsmanship that “it is not the actual killing of the quarry that matters to the true sportsmen, but the fact that he is called upon to exercise all his knowledge of woodcraft, his perseverance, his stamina and, maybe, his courage, under conditions of extreme nervous strain—it is in these factors that the attraction of big game hunting lies, allied to the deep and abiding pleasure which every jungle-lover possesses in the wild, unspoilt beauty of forests” (Graham 1949: 89). While killing animals for the reasons cited were, to the sportsman, admirable, killing them for financial gain was to be condemned.
Not all British hunters subscribed to these notions, even when they were enshrined in the game laws. Adams writes that in the Nilgiris, planters, locally based army personnel, and “visitors from the plains” disregarded the game regulations (2004: 31; see also Pandian 1998). In 1940 the planter organization the Ceylon Game and Fauna Protection Society (CGFPS), advocated deterrent punishment for a Mr. P. O'Neill Dunne, who was accused of night shooting in the Wirawila Sanctuary.4 But sportsmanship was an ideal to which the British aspired and that helped set their practices apart—at least in their own eyes—from those of local hunters, as well as from the lower classes in Britain, whose practices in both cases were pejoratively labeled “poaching.” In effect, hunting for sport and for trophies was valorized and legitimized, while hunting for subsistence and for commercial purposes were transformed into criminal acts.
Planters and the Study of Natural History
The study of natural history in colonial Sri Lanka was not limited by the island's bounds nor those of the British Empire; it was also shaped by links to scholars and institutions in the non-English-speaking European world. The natural historians of British Ceylon came from many backgrounds; some, like Ernst Haeckel, the Sarasins, and the ornithologist Gyula Madarász, were European visitors, making lengthy or brief forays into an island that had become well known as a destination for natural historians (Schär 2020); others, like Henry Trimen and George Thwaites, came from Britain to take charge of government institutions like the Botanical Gardens; yet others were colonial officials, like the colonial secretary, Sir James Emerson Tennent, who wrote a comprehensive treatise of the island's fauna (Tennent 1861). Three of the four founding figures of ornithology on the island were military men (Robert Templeton, F. W. Kelaart, and W. Vincent Legge), and the fourth, Edgar Leopold Layard, became a magistrate, although he had come to the island to work on a coffee estate.5 Most of the early nineteenth-century naturalists were hunters and treated the shotgun and rifle as tools of their science as well as of their sport.
Planters are not well represented among nineteenth-century natural historians, with a few important exceptions, such as Frederick Lewis (1858–1930; see below). They came into their own as scientific observers of the island's fauna in the twentieth century, which is also the era in which significant steps were taken to conserve what was left of it. Nevertheless, the natural historians of colonial Sri Lanka, like the men mentioned above, depended on the coffee planters not only for logistical support and specimens in varying degrees but also, in an era (i.e., much of the nineteenth century) of limited roads and even more limited hostelries, for hospitality, which was famously generous and forthcoming.
Although planters were part of the scientific networks that linked naturalists in the colonies to the centers of calculation in Europe (to use Latour's  term), the extent of their participation in such networks should not be exaggerated. If to be networked means the exchange of correspondence with, and the submission of specimens and papers to, scientists and learned societies and journals in the metropole, a perusal of the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London suggests the limited extent to which naturalists in Sri Lanka were directly connected with the work of centers of calculation—in this instance, of the empire of which they were a part. Between 1836 and 1875, material from Sri Lanka (specimens and papers) is referenced, described, or published about twenty-six times in the Proceedings; of the nineteen individuals who are named as the source of these materials, only two are coffee planters. Most of the rest are well-known figures in the study of the island's natural history: Kelaart, Templeton, Layard, Thwaites, Tennent, Legge, Neville, and Holdsworth. The rest are colonial officials and travelers to the island.
A scientific network is a hierarchy of agents through whom and by whose agency information and materials flow, to be aggregated, synthesized, and theorized by particular nodal individuals and institutions (Latour's centers of calculation). The more central the position one occupies in the hierarchy, the broader one's network; the more peripheral one's position, the narrower and more limited it is. The ornithologist W. Vincent Legge, who spent nine years in Sri Lanka, mentions forty people on the island who corresponded with him about birds and sent him specimens; only six can be identified as planters (Legge 1880). The professions of seven others are unknown; one or two of them were probably planters as well. Sixteen are officials in the colonial administration. Legge was a principal node in the network of natural historians working on birds in Sri Lanka; he collected and synthesized material he obtained from his correspondents on the island and transmitted it to naturalists like Sharp, Sclater, and the Marquess of Tweeddale in England, and to scientific organizations in India, England, and Australia. Those who were networked directly to metropolitan science as well as to centers of calculation in the colonial periphery such as Calcutta were typically the most productive naturalists within the colony, as the foregoing suggests; they in turn were locally networked to people who provided them with specimens and data—and for many of the latter, that was the extent of their participation. Only one of the planters in Legge's network, Samuel Bligh, who published five papers on birds in the ornithological journal Ibis, could be said to be directly connected to metropolitan science.
The historian Saurabh Mishra has suggested that the relative isolation (presumably from other Europeans) that colonial officials (and planters) endured in India may have encouraged an interest in birds. He writes, “This sense of isolation is a constant presence in Captain Bates' account of birds in his garden, especially when he describes the sound of nightbirds. It is easy to imagine him in his room, having retired for the night, listening intently to the “chuckling of the nightjars” and the “grunting hoots of the owls” (Mishra 2017: 3; citing Bates 1931: 18). Certainly, birds would have been among the most kinetic and aural aspects of nature for men who lived life outdoors, which was the lot of the coffee planter.
The relationship of planters and the planting life to natural history is illustrated in the careers of Frederick Lewis in the nineteenth century and W. W. A. Phillips (1892–1981) in the twentieth century. They contrast with each other in many ways. Unlike Phillips, Lewis was born in Sri Lanka and grew up relatively poor on a coffee estate, acquiring a fluency in Sinhala and Tamil that Phillips never enjoyed.6 As an Englishman born in the colonies, Lewis was socially handicapped (“country-bottled” was the pejorative term applied to such people by their British-born compatriots). Unlike Phillips, he never received a formal education, being homeschooled by his mother before leaving home at fourteen to take up his first job as an assistant manager on a coffee estate. Yet he was well read and had an indefatigable interest in a variety of subjects, including ornithology, ethnology (of the Veddas, Sri Lanka's aboriginal people), forests, and the history of British rule in Ceylon; he published articles or books on all of them. Phillips, by contrast, was interested in birds and mammals and their ectoparasites; he published voluminously on those topics, and on game conservation, but not on much else. Lewis worked at a time when the chief mode of transport, especially for an impecunious planter who could not afford a horse, was shank's pony. He walked everywhere and lived rough, and he was an assiduous ornithologist: “At odd times I would go out with my little 20-bore muzzle-loading gun, and come back with a couple of birds, which I would carefully describe in a little book I kept for the purpose. I noted migration, nidification, and other habits of birds, with particular attention, added to which I made drawings from life. In this way, I filled up all my spare time, and so felt no inconvenience from a lonely existence” (1926: 105).
W. W. A. Phillips's career illuminates the relationship between planting, hunting, natural history, and conservation. He came out to the island as a planter in 1911 and stayed until 1957. Unlike Lewis, he worked in the context of a fully matured plantation economy, which included a well-developed infrastructure of roads, railways, and motorized transport. His contribution to our knowledge of both the mammals of Sri Lanka as well as the island's birds was immense. He never received a university education (his father's death precluded that), but unlike Lewis, he attended secondary school, at the prestigious St. Peter's in York. He produced an enormous body of scientific papers and articles on birds (nearly a hundred) and on mammals. Thanks to his early work collecting birds' eggs for the ornithologist Stuart Baker, he became one of the foremost authorities on the nests and eggs of Sri Lankan birds, publishing his studies in a series of articles that appeared in Spolia Zeylanica, the journal of the National Museums of Ceylon. He kept in touch with authorities around the world, sending them material (for example, two tailor bird skins to Joseph Grinnell at Berkeley), and corresponded with various people on birds and mammals, as well as on fleas (with F. G. A. Smit at the British Museum).7 At the time of his death in 1981, he was at work on a book on the ectoparasites of birds.
Phillips's central place in the development of natural history in Sri Lanka spans both his contributions to ornithology as well as the study of mammals. Unlike the extensive work on ornithology that resulted in more or less regular publications in journals and several über-texts (Henry 1955; Legge 1880; Wait 1925), mammals had received much less attention, with nothing of significance published on the subject since Tennent (1861). Phillips advanced his study of mammals in the same way he did his knowledge of birds: by collecting them, observing them in the field, and obtaining specimens through a network of friends and colleagues, often tea planters like himself. Sometimes his plantation laborers, knowing of his interest, brought him creatures they had caught; occasionally this led to new discoveries, as when a laborer brought him a couple of bats that proved to be of a species new to science, the tube-nosed bat, which he named Murina eileenae in honor of his daughter (Phillips 1932).
Phillips was an avid hunter in his youth. He describes going out for a walk with his shotgun and firing at every wild creature he saw. Later in life, however, he became a staunch conservationist. In his younger days, he observed, killing birds and other wildlife was the chief object of his forays into the jungle, but “with advancing years,” the killing instinct had given way to a desire to learn more about “the inner lives” of the birds and animals he loved to shoot (Phillips 1936: 24). Lorimer and Whatmore (2009: 685) suggest that unease over this slaughter might have prompted some British settlers to embrace natural history, which legitimated their hunting with a scientific veneer, at least in their own eyes.
Phillips and his compatriots, however, considered the threat to wildlife to come not from their own activities but from the locals, especially “Moormen” engaged in the dried meat trade and other forms of illicit (and in their eyes, unjustifiable) ways of hunting. Phillips attributed the change in the status of wildlife to the development of good roads, the availability of motorized transport, and the availability of cheap guns since the end of the Great War (Phillips 1929: 942). These concerns led him, and others of the planter class before him—as well as other members of the British colonial establishment—to embrace the cause of wildlife preservation. Phillips served as secretary of the Game and Fauna Protection Society for nine years (1929–38) and was described by the society's president as “an indefatigable worker in the interests of Game and Fauna Protection” (Gaddum 1942: 345).
By the end of the nineteenth century, game in European overseas empires was noticeably less abundant than it had been when the century began. The British in Sri Lanka (at least those who published their opinions) viewed commercial hunting on the part of villagers and local traders, who hunted wild animals for their hides and horns as well as for the trade in dried meat, as the chief cause of the decline of game animals (Ievers 1899; Storey 1907). These were widespread imperial attitudes towards native hunters (Gissibl 2016; MacKenzie 1988). Not every European agreed with this conclusion, however; Hermann von Wissmann for example, the commissioner in German East Africa, believed the demise of Africa's game animals was due to “the profligacy of Europeans with guns” (MacKenzie 1988: 206). He was in a minority, however, and I have found no British writer in colonial Sri Lanka who espoused that view.
Over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a global discourse of conservation emerged, spearheaded by organizations like the Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire (today Fauna & Flora International), established in 1903. Although in other parts of the British Empire these efforts were led by colonial officials, aristocrats, and wealthy colonial landowners (Mackenzie 1988: 201), in Ceylon it was the planters—who, by the twentieth century, were a managerial rather than a landowning class—that pushed for legislation to preserve game. Colonial elites increasingly turned to legislation to regulate or prohibit the exploitation of wild nature by the colonized, and to the creation of hunting reserves and later national parks as a means to their own exploitation of wildlife.
In 1894 a group of expatriate Britons, including military officers and planters, founded the CGFPS (today known as the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society). Its aim was “to prevent the elimination of Game in Ceylon, by destruction of animals for trading purposes, to further the interests of legitimate sports, and to conserve one of the food supplies of the inhabitants” (R. W. B. 1939: 728). The aim of conserving food supplies was later dropped because, it was argued, the decline in the number of animals no longer allowed it. According to C. E. Norris, in an unpublished account of wildlife preservation in Ceylon, the moving force behind these efforts was the planter Harry Storey, who “rallied, from amongst the planting community, a handful of true sportsmen and nature lovers, all of whom, when they realized what was taking place, were appalled at the ghastly state of affairs.”8
Their first meeting produced a resolution that the export of deer hides and horns be prohibited for a period of one year; the government responded by banning the export of hides for a few years. As Storey ( 2000: 2–3) writes, “Many other schemes for game protection . . . were, from time to time, suggested but nothing eventuated”; government was reluctant to take the matter up because it would require “too much legislation.” The tactic that the CGFPS would use, with varying success over its history, was thus prefigured at its inception: lobbying government by using the social and official networks as well as the class ties that linked the society's membership to those in power. This was also how the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire operated (Adams 2004). As the commanding officer of the Royal Navy's most important military base east of Suez, the first CGFPS president, Admiral William Kennedy, had privileged access to the governor and was an important member of the island's small European society. As the CGFPS became institutionalized, the governors (and later the presidents of independent Sri Lanka) became the society's official patrons.
The society functioned as a pressure group on the colonial government, a task made easier not only by the bonds of shared ethnicity and nationality but also by the central role played by the planting community in the politics of the island. They were for all of the colonial period the largest component of the European population; they comprise just over 50 percent of the names (all men) in a list of the principal European residents and public servants on the island compiled in 1861 (Ceylon Almanac 1861). The colonial economy depended on the plantations, in particular on tea, which had replaced coffee by the end of the nineteenth century; by 1900, about 77 percent of the colony's export earnings came from tea and, to a lesser degree, coconut (de Silva 1981: 291). Planters were represented on the legislative council, which functioned as an advisory body to the governor. Their views in other words carried weight in the affairs of the island. They used their influence to press their case for game conservation while also opposing government efforts to stem deforestation and soil degradation, both of which had been blamed on the plantation sector.
Between 1872 and 1909, a number of ordinances were introduced to curtail the killing of wild animals, protect wild birds, prevent use of dynamite in fisheries, and achieve other limited ends. The last quarter of the nineteenth century was the period during which the imperative for conserving what had hitherto been regarded as a free and limitless resource was taking hold worldwide, and these initiatives in the colony paralleled what was going on globally. These ordinances were modest in scope; the Wild Birds Protection ordinance (no. 18 of 1886) for example, did little more than grant to each government agent (GA—the administrative head of a province) the right to declare a close season, during which wild birds could not be hunted or exploited, and imposed penalties on those who violated it. Another ordinance, no. 6 of 1893, was explicitly intended to protect introduced (exotic) game animals and fish (mentioned are pheasant, English partridge, French partridge, francolin, roe deer, fallow deer, English hare, trout, perch, tench, and gourami) by allowing for a close season and requiring a license. These animals were introduced for the benefit of colonial hunters, and the ordinance was intended to protect those animals from village hunters; none, besides the fish, managed to establish themselves.
In their representations to the government on the need to control hunting, planters made distinctions between different kinds of local hunters on the basis of ethnicity and hunting purpose. Although hunting for subsistence by village hunters was countenanced (unless they were Tamil estate laborers), hunting for commercial reasons (to supply the trade in dried meat, hides, and horns, which exploited deer) was not. In 1908, the colonial secretary appointed a committee to advise the government on revisions to the game laws. It consisted of a senior civil servant as chair; John Ferguson, the press baron closely associated with planting interests; three planters, including Harry Storey; and two prominent Sinhalese, including Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike. The committee's recommendations led to the promulgation of the 1909 Game Protection Ordinance. Given the composition of the committee, it is not surprising that the ordinance conformed closely to planter interests. The ordinance was the result of the CGFPS's lobbying (Storey  2000: 5–6). It was the most comprehensive legislation enacted up to that point, and it extended protection to game animals (deer and certain game birds) as well as elephant, buffalo, introduced species, and many birds.
Although the committee believed that prohibiting the dried meat trade was the most effective way to stop the destruction of deer, they recommended exempting those Kandyan villagers whose service tenure consisted in the provision of dried meat; this magnanimity is most probably due to the presence of the Kandyan aristocrat Sir Solomon Bandaranaike on the committee. This exception was enshrined in the Traffic in Dried Meat Ordinance of 1908. On the other hand, they argued that “no Tamil immigrant labourer” should ever be permitted a game license, both because of the destructive impact of their hunting practices and perhaps more significantly, from a planter's point of view, “the demoralizing effect on the coolie himself in preventing him from working” (Ceylon Sessional Papers 1908).9 A “coolie's” place, emphatically, was on the plantation, where he could devote himself to honest toil. The committee saw the Tamil laborer's hunting as a “pastime”; in truth, given the appalling conditions in which the plantation workers lived, it was necessary to their survival.10 The Game Protection Ordinance did not explicitly prohibit estate laborers from receiving licenses to hunt; instead, it gave the issuing authority discretion to refuse to issue a license, a decision that could only be appealed to the governor in council (Collins and Akbar 1923: 876). It is unlikely that a government agent refusing a license to an estate laborer or villager would have his decision challenged by an appeal to the governor, much less countermanded.
The enforcement of the game laws appears, however, to have been lax (Storey 1907: xvii–xviii). This may have been because the burden of enforcement fell on the government agents, who had other demands on their time, and because village tribunals (as well as police courts) were given jurisdiction for offenses committed by “natives” under the Ordinance (Ceylon Legislative Council 1909). Punishments imposed by village tribunals were much lighter than those of the police courts. Game conservation in colonial Sri Lanka was largely a project pushed forward by private (mainly planter) interests with inconsistent support from the government. Legislation was passed, but enforcement (in the eyes of the CGFPS) left much to be desired. Most early attempts at enforcement came, in fact, from the Society, which appointed “watchers” to protect game in its Southern Province reserve (see below). The rules of the Society called for its members to familiarize themselves with the game laws, ensure they were enforced in their areas, and to inform police courts when the ordinances were violated (Uragoda 1994: 7).
The 1909 Ordinance reflected (and protected) planter interests. Residents of the island (defined as those in residence for at least twelve months) paid less in license fees than nonresidents did, but residents also included military personnel, public servants, and owners of immovable property (of whom the most significant were plantation owners) irrespective of the length of their stay on the island. An attempt by the GA of Uva (a prime hunting district) to limit the number of licenses a sportsman could obtain was eventually overturned by the governor after much angry lobbying by planters, even though the GA had that authority under the statute (Storey  2000: 7–8). Jungle fowl (Gallus lafayettii) were exempted from protection during the close season, on the grounds that it was during that period that they could be shot most easily in the hills. In the case of the jungle fowl, the close season would stop “fair and legitimate sport” (Ceylon Legislative Council 1909). Any organization that had taken measures to protect fish in any body of water was also given the right to control access to that resource and exploit it; as it happened, the coffee planter Hugh Hubbard had stocked the streams of the Horton Plains with trout, and his initiative had led to the founding of the Ceylon Fishing Club in 1896, with the governor of the colony as its patron (Wright 1907: 267).
The British were also interested in enhancing their sport. They sought to introduce exotic game species onto the island, including Hungarian and French partridges11 and chukars (Alectoris chukar). Thanks to their lobbying, hunting at elevations above four thousand feet was prohibited unless done with hounds, a practice foreign to the Sri Lankan population living at those elevations but a favorite pastime of the local planters. Thanks to the lobbying of the society, a wildlife sanctuary was established on the southern coast in 1898—which became the nucleus of the modern Ruhuna National Park, the third oldest in the world (Uragoda 1994: 55)—adjacent to the shooting reserve for sportsmen. The shooting reserve was intended only for British hunters resident on the island and excluded the titled European gentry who regularly visited the colony to shoot. Other attempts to safeguard their interests were not, however, successful; a proposal that visiting sportsmen (i.e., Europeans not resident on the island) be taxed was unsuccessful (Tutein-Nolthenius 1931: 2–3). Aristocratic foreigners coming to the island to shoot game (fig. 1) was a sore point with local British hunters, a matter noted in the press: “The ever-increasing numbers of outside sportsmen, nearly always of foreign birth and generally titled, who visit Ceylon annually for purposes of big game shooting, has become a settled grievance with local sportsmen of all classes. The evil shows no sign of abatement” (quoted in Tutein-Nolthenius 1931: 5).
The planters were motivated more by the desire to preserve their privileges as hunters in the colony than to preserve wildlife per se. Wider concepts of nature preservation (rather than the narrowly conceived focus on game) had to wait for the increased participation of Sri Lankans in the affairs of both the colony and the society, which came later in the twentieth century. There was, by then, a strong Indigenous elite parallel to the British colonial elite, which came to wield significant political power as the twentieth century progressed. Sri Lankans who gained entry to the bastion of white colonial privilege that was the CGFPS were drawn from this social class, and they had little interest in the narrow focus on game that the British founders of the society had espoused. The preservation of game and an emphasis on hunting remained central to the society's objectives until 1955. Under the pressure of the Sri Lankan members, who were by then numerically preponderant and had little stake in hunting,12 the objectives of the society were widened to include preservation of all wild fauna and flora, and the emphasis on hunting dropped (Uragoda 1994: 24).
The framework of modern wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka—the game laws, protected areas, and governmental institutions—are built on foundations laid during the colonial period by British expatriates sent to the island to conduct the business of empire. They included officials in the colonial government, people in commercial establishments, military officers and—most important for my argument—coffee (and, later, tea) planters. Unlike in much of the colonial world where the state and colonial elites played a major role in conservation efforts, in colonial Sri Lanka these efforts were led by planters, who were acting to protect their interests as sportsmen against competition for a limited and declining resource by both Sri Lankans hunting for subsistence and profit and by elite European sportsmen for whom Sri Lanka had become an important sporting destination. It is their activism that produced the two main pillars of wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka, on which Sri Lankans themselves would later build a more comprehensive edifice of nature conservation. The first was the Game and Fauna Protection Society, which, shifting away from its focus on game, became in 1955 the Wildlife Protection Society. The second was the 1909 Game Protection Ordinance, replaced by the far more comprehensive Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of 1937. These changes were driven in both cases by Sri Lankans, with a much broader understanding of the goals to be achieved.
The colonial state is never a monolith; its policies are shaped and indeed constrained by other actors in the wider colonial society, according to the relative influence they wield. In colonial Sri Lanka, because of their numbers and their economic and political influence in the colony, the most important of those actors were the British planters, whose industry was the basis of the colony's prosperity. One cannot understand the environmental history of Sri Lanka in the modern period without knowledge of the role they played. As a social category, they were among the most important catalysts for the environmental transformation of the interior of the island during the nineteenth century, being the chief agents of the destruction of its highland forest cover and at least equal partners with others in the destruction of the fauna. Their close engagement with their natural environment in pursuit of their sport led many of them to become acute observers and collectors of natural history specimens. Their efforts contributed to collections as far afield as those of the Bombay Natural History Society, the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, the British Museum in London, various private collections in Britain, and the National Museum in Colombo. Their engagement with nature led them to focus on conserving what the actions of their class had helped to degrade, even though the initial impetus came from a desire to preserve the privileges they enjoyed as the occupants of the dominant position among the island's hunting cultures. Although they leveraged their influential role in the island's affairs to persuade the state to their way of thinking on the conservation of game, they also obstructed attempts by the state to introduce measures that would have mitigated both forest and soil loss in the highlands because that would have adversely impacted their planting activities. As collectors, conservationists, and primary agents in the transformation of the island's environment, they played a role of lasting significance in Sri Lanka's modern environmental history.
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at meetings of the Sri Lankan Literary Society, in the UK in 2020, of the European Society for Environmental History in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2019, and of the American Society for Environmental History in 2017. My thanks to all those who gave useful feedback on those occasions and to Nancy Jacobs and Kate Bjork for their comments. Comments from the two anonymous reviewers for the Journal of Asian Studies helped refine the final version of this paper.
The earliest British estimate of the population of the Kandyan provinces, by Henry Marshall in 1821, is 253,554 persons, which is unjustifiably precise. See Webb (2002: 30).
William Selby Taylor Papers, 1844–1851. Mss Eur D 1221, British Library.
S.W. Baker Journal 2, arSWB/2, Royal Geographic Society.
Minutes, Executive Committee meeting, April 8, 1940, Ceylon Game and Fauna Protection Society, Wildlife and Nature Protection Society records, Colombo.
E. L. Layard, autobiography. Ms. Blacker-Wood Autograph Letter Collection, McGill University. Transcribed by Robert Nash, retired curator of entomology, Ulster Museum, Ireland.
Although Phillips must have known some Tamil to deal with his labor force, his knowledge of Sinhala was probably cursory. In 1978, long after his retirement, he observed that he was “not sufficiently familiar with the Sinhalese language to be able to trace the place names” [in Knox's An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon]. Phillips to Brandon Jones, January 29, 1978. Mammals of Sri Lanka, box 2, folder 12, Z.89.f.P, National History Museum, London.
Grinnell to Phillips, August 16, 1929, Tring Manuscript Collection, M. Phillips [Correspondence relating to Ceylon birds, 1919–1966]; Phillips, Mammals of Sri Lanka, box 2, folder 14: Ecto-Parasites of Ceylon Mammals, Z.89.f.P, National History Museum, London.
Page 14 of photocopied typescript titled “First in Asia” by Norris. Courtesy of Rohan Wijesinha.
Phillips notes that barking deer (Muntiacus muntjak) are the “great prize” of Tamil plantation laborers, who also hunt wild pigs (Sus scrofa cristatus) and purple-faced monkeys (Trachypithecus vetulus) for subsistence (Phillips 1929).
Duncan (2016: 93) notes the “unbearable level of debt” that tied Tamil labor to the plantations, much of it incurred to buy food to survive.
The reference is probably to the gray partridge (Perdix perdix) and the red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa).
The Sri Lankan elite that emerged under colonialism were not invested in hunting either as a recreational activity or as an aspect of their collective social identity. They subscribed more generally to broader ideas of conservation that had taken root in the years preceding independence from Britain.