MURDER AT MIDNIGHT – By Bernard VanCuylenburg
In May 1941, the Nuwaraeliya district was rocked by the news of the dastardly murder of the Superintendent on Stellenberg Estate Pupuressa, Mr.George Pope. In an article which I wrote about ten years ago titled “Tales from the Thotum” I wrote about this crime in detail. I subsequently changed the title to “Marked for Murder”. His murder, the quick work by the police in arresting the accused, and the subsequent trial which followed which was heard by one of the most eminent judges of the time Justice Soertsz, made its way into criminal records as one of the most dramatic and brutal murders of the time.
Seventy seven years later, the aftermath of this crime still casts a dark shadow particularly on Stellenberg estate, and its memory lives on in the minds of some retired labourers of an older generation as I discovered recently. In September in the course of a visit to Sri Lanka I was privileged to enjoy the hospitality of an old Anthonian Sebastian Retty and his wife, in their home in the beautiful hamlet of Panwilatenna not far from Gampola. In terms of picture book natural beauty, Panwilatenna remains a hidden secret “far from the madding crowd” of commercial tourism. This area is blessed with stunning scenery and breathtaking scenic vistas where every prospect pleases. Mesmerizing mountain views are yours to enjoy if you care to put on your walking shoes and go where the road takes you……The area is dotted with small private tea holdings, charming little villages, desolate valleys, and undulating hills covered in a mantle of dark green forests.Here nature is at her pristine best.
Please pardon the digression, but into this story on the trail of a murder, a stone monument close to the home of my hosts compels me to introduce a historical note which goes back to the reign of King Rajasinghe the 2nd. This stone monument reads : HERE LIVED (AD 1657 – 1670) ROBERT KNOX, JOHN LOVELAND, JOHN BERRY AND WILLIAM DAY. For the record, Robert Knox an English sea captain arrived in Ceylon on the 19th of November 1659 in the good ship “Anne”. The ship was impounded by King Rajasinghe the 2nd, King of Kandy at the time, and Knox along with 16 of the crew were taken captive.
They were treated leniently but forbidden to leave the kingdom. After 19 years of captivity Knox and a companion Stephen Rutland made a daring escape to the Dutch fort in Arippu. The Dutch treated them generously and sent them to Batavia (present day Djakarta) from where they were put aboard an English ship the “Celeste” which took them to England. They arrived in London in September 1680. That was “The Great Escape” of the time ! On a poetic note, I am compelled to add that this monument an important historical landmark, stands in splendid solitude and isolation amidst picture postcard scenic splendour, bearing testimony to the fact that these intrepid Englishman once lived here.
A walk along a mountain track specially in the late afternoon when the landscape is bathed in sunsets golden glow is spiritual. The three main towns in the vicinity of Panwilatenna are Galaha, Pupuressa and Gampola. Nuwaraeliya is about three hours away. There are many tea plantations in the area, and one held special interest for me and that is Stellenberg Estate. I first heard of the “Pope Murder Case” from my Dad as a child. When my brother sister and I came home for the holidays from boarding school, one of our favourite pastimes was listening to Dad relate stories after dinner. Story telling was an art in which he excelled, and he had a flair for the dramatic. The stillness of a lonely estate bungalow at night created an atmosphere of suspense, and when he told us a “ghost story” or any tale with a tinge of mystery, the characters in the story really came to life ! As a senior student at St. Anthony’s College Kandy boarded in “The Journey’s End”, I read about this murder story in the Sunday supplement of “The Observer”, but could not cut it out for keeps as the paper had to be shared with my fellow boarders !
Now seventy seven years after this gruesome murder, here I was virtually a stones throw away from the scene of the crime. One morning, Sebastian took me to Stellenberg and along the scenic route to the estate I became determined to ” to get under the skin” of this story horrible as it was. It was a beautiful sunny day, but as we turned off to the estate from the main road, dark thoughts filled my mind at the realization that this was the same road that George Pope took that fateful night when he was killed. It suddenly occurred to me that I had some unfinished business – for want of a better phrase – to finish. Having written about this case and even receiving an acknowledgement from a veteran planter in the UK who was conversant with the story when it was first published, I wanted to “see” for myself the actual events as they happened on that fateful night 77 years ago.
Contrary to some estates which pre nationalisation were managed by the Agency Houses, Stellenberg to her credit seems to be in good hands judging by the fields which were neat and in very good condition. Conversely, some estates in the area I saw prior to this visit, would break the heart of any planter who had worked on Company managed estates. One large estate a showpiece in its heyday, had been completely abandoned after nationalisation, when a tyrannical Superintendent was forcibly driven out of the estate by a disgruntled labour force ! It is still there in ruins with grass, weeds and undergrowth flourishing where tea bushes once held sway. Only the factory still stands – a dilapidated wreck. But I digress……..
The road we travelled on Stellenberg leading to the factory and the Superintendent’s bungalow is a drivers nightmare, in contrast to the tea fields. This is characteristic of most estate roads today, due to lack of maintenance. My first stop was the factory. This was the factory to which George Pope was taken, after a search party organized by the tea maker Mr.Lodewyke found him mortally wounded by his car. In fact it was a worker on the night shift named Cassim who led the search party as instructed by Mr.Lodewyke. He found George Pope bleeding to death lying by his car at the spot where his car was waylaid that fateful night. The six assassins had done their deadly work, hacking him to death with pruning knives. Cassim broke all speed records running back to the factory to inform Mr. Lodewyke of the gruesome find. The latter then telephoned Mr.Shand, the Superintendent on the adjoining estate Delta Group, who in turn contacted the police. Whenever he left the estate in the evening usually to his club, or to visit a fellow SD for dinner, George Pope instructed the tea maker that on passing the factory on his return, the latter was to telephone his bungalow and ask the Appu to keep the garage doors open. On the evening of the 9th May 1941 he left to have dinner with the Superintendent of another estate in the vicinity. That night when he was unusually late, Mr.Lodewyke fearing something was amiss, organized a search party.
At the factory I was fortunate to meet an elderly labourer – and still more lucky to have Sebastian with me as his Tamil was more fluent than mine ! When this labourer was asked if he knew about the “Dorai” on this estate who was murdered long ago, he told us he heard about it from some labourers – now in their late eighties whose fathers had worked under Mr.Pope. He directed us to the exact spot on the road round a curve where the ambush was laid, not far from the factory. Two trees were placed across the road, while the murderers under cover of darkness hid in the tea bushes. When Mr.Pope stepped out of the car attempting to move the obstacles, they struck with pent up rage and deadly force.
Sebastian and I went to the spot, and in my minds eye I could visualize Mr.Pope negotiating his way on the narrow road at night, then slowing down at the bend in the road, finally stopping to move the obstacles in his path. I always harboured some questions regarding this murder and found the answer here. First, how was it that Mr.Pope did not fine tune his antenna to the sensitivities of the situation – relations between labour and management were very strained and tenuous to say the least – did he not suspect that this could be a deadly trap ? If that were so, why did he not reverse down the road to flee the scene until he came to a spot where he could turn around and go back to where he came from, thus avoiding returning to the estate that night ? At least, he could have reversed and driven to the bungalow of the Superintendent on Delta estate adjoining Stellenberg, Mr.Shand. He knew Mr.Shand and could have stayed the night in his bungalow.
Hindsight is always easy and the trouble with hindsight is that one projects one’s thoughts to another time frame – to another time and place – whilst living in the present !! My questions were answered in an instant ! Studying the crime scene I surmised that even if he reversed, he could not accelerate downhill at speed as the road was very narrow. This was not a main road. IF he reversed, his murderers could have easily overtaken him on foot and their deadly intent would have given them wings. It was apparent that they had chosen the spot for ambush with meticulous care. George Pope was driving uphill, he had to slow down at the curve, and they were hiding in tea bushes by the road from which they could practically reach out and grab him the moment he stepped out of his car. Whichever way one looked at this, it certainly was a deadly ambush and murder at midnight. Visualizing the murder in my mind I experienced a chill although it was a day of glorious sunshine. There is a powerful form of energy here which should not be taken for granted. The most sensible thing is to always be aware of the need for caution in a spiritual sense, and make sure that one does nothing to upset the balance.
From the murder scene we headed for the Superintendents bungalow. The latter was away, and we were greeted by his Appu. He belonged to a younger generation, had heard about the murder, but could not tell us much about it. The once beautiful bungalow and the gardens were badly in need of maintenance. It still retained its colonial charm as most Superintendents bungalows do, but when maintenance is absent an air of dilapidation sets in and becomes visible. I felt a a sinister aura about this bungalow in the context of the horrible murder of its one time occupant. There is nothing so sad as to see a lovely garden, in this case what once would have been a lovely “English Country Garden” surrendering to weeds despite the beautiful roses in bloom. We could not enter the bungalow in the Superintendent’s absence, but as I stood at the entrance to the hall it occurred to me that it was through this door that George Pope left his home for the last time on the evening of the 9th May 1941 not dreaming he would never return. I wandered about the garden, keeping sight of the bungalow with my camera working overtime and my thoughts racing back to that night in 1941 – the night of the long knives, to quote the title of a film. In this case it was the night of the pruning knives. The Appu then pointed us to some labourers quarters in the distance informing us that there were two who could give us more information on the Pope murder case.
Little did I realize that within the next hour I would come face to face with two of the assailants of George Pope, Weeraswamy, and Velaithen, the letter of thanks which they wrote to the presiding Judge who heard the case Justice Soertsz, and to their defence lawyer thanking them for hearing the case, – all in print of course. This letter ended with the slogan “Long live the Sangam !” (The Union). An English translation accompanied the letter originally written in Tamil. An inquisitive crowd surrounded us and when Sebastian introduced me as someone writing about this murder, they became very eager to help. In a short while we were introduced to two labourers whose fathers had worked on Stellenberg at the time of the murder. Better still, one of them had a full page newspaper clipping of the murder in Tamil, with the photographs which I referred to in the previous paragraph. At last – I could “see” two of the assailants. I read their letter of thanksgiving to Justice Soertsz.
But although I can read Tamil it was Sebastian who elicited all the information I needed. Justice Soertsz looked very distinguished and regal in his robes. The only photograph missing I thought sadly, was the victim – George Pope himself. Of course there was no chance of photocopying this news sheet, so I did the next best thing – I photographed the photographs in the newspaper ! Of interest were two photographs of George Pope’s car, based on a police reconstruction of the crime scene. One photograph clearly showed the car stopped in front of the two sturdy trees (not big, but big enough to create an obstacle) the way the victim saw them. The second was a photo of the car some distance away from the scene accentuating the curve in the road which compelled George Pope to reduce speed. I could not help but notice that the road we were on, now in shambles, looked in excellent condition with not a pothole in sight in the black and white photographs of Mr.Pope’s time, which were taken soon after the murder.
We spent over five hours on Stellenberg that morning and I came away emotionally drained. The macabre events that transpired that night in 1941 played over and over in my mind to the extent that I had in some way “relived” this murder in all its brutality. There were six accused. They were Weerasamy, Velaithen, Iyaan Perumal, Rengasamy, Sinne Muniyandy, and Marimuttu Velaithen. The 1st and 2nd accused, Weerasamy and Velaithen were sentenced to death by hanging. They appealed the death sentence to the Supreme Court, which was denied. Weerasamy was hung at the Welikade jail on February the 27th 1942, and Velaithen followed him the next day. The rest received a sentence of life imprisonment. Mr.Pope who had been Superintendent on Stellenberg estate since 1938 was buried in the Anglican cemetery in Pussellewa. I surmised his body would have been so badly mutilated that sending a corpse by sea all the way to England even under refrigeration would have been improbable. With an ache in my heart I realized that in this sordid story there is no mention of family. The thought that he died all alone apart from the gruesome manner of his death still fills me with sadness.
I have been asked many times for my opinion on life after death. Call it ” The Other Side”, “The Spirit World”, or “Life after Life”, I firmly believe that life continues in other dimensions. I have also been asked if I believe in “Hauntings”. My answer is in the affirmative. There are reasons why spirits become earthbound, and those reasons are mostly unhappy. A person who has lived a rich and fulfilling life is not likely to be earthbound. The low vibrations of negative emotion are what binds a spirit to the earth plain – one reason why ghost stories are full of sadness and despair. It is well known that Queen Catherine Howard the fifth wife of King Henry the 8th, still walks the halls of Hampton Court Palace screaming in terror and pleading for mercy from her ex husband King Henry. In fact The Readers Digest in one of its editions a few years ago published this story in an article titled “The Haunted Castles of Britain”.
The ‘Supernatural’ and everything associated with it is is too complex a topic for “discussion” in this article. But in my readings on the Supernatural I found that more and more scientists are convinced that accounts of “life after life” merit serious study and research. A few years ago Doctor Raymond Moody in his book “Life After Life” detailed over one hundred cases of life beyond the grave. Soon after the publication of Doctor Moody’s book, the sensation hungry press and television media gave it wide publicity.
Anyone who puts forward an idea that is contrary to all scientific views and long established beliefs is a suitable target for ridicule. The good Doctor was no exception, and he had his detractors.A firestorm of discussions and debates on life after death followed. This resulted in many Doctors, Psychiatrists and spiritual leaders launching independent investigations to review the data in Doctor Moody’s book. They were surprised to find – and more surprisingly reached the unanimous conclusion that the Doctor’s observations and the cases he mentioned in his book were verified and confirmed – namely, that upon a person’s death existence does not cease, but on the contrary the soul continues to hear, to think and to feel…….If you want the stimulus of unexplained phenomena and a theory to fit them and cause you to think, this provocative book should fit the bill.
I spent an entire day at Hampton Court Palace on a visit to England a few years ago. I visited the passage where the haunting which I mentioned takes place, and asked two police officers who were rostered to work the night shift at the palace about the veracity of this story. I expected a flippant answer with words like “Do not believe everything you read” “We have never seen anything” even “Poppycock !” – in fact any answer in the negative. Their reply to my question really gave me food for thought. – Quote ” We have seen this spectre so many times that we dont take notice anymore !!”. The world knows that Queen Ann Boleyn the second wife of King Henry the 8th sometimes walks the Tower of London. There have also been sightings of the luckless Queen in the gardens of her childhood home, Hever Castle in Kent on the anniversary of her death. Sightings which have been well documented. I was asked if there were any hauntings on Stellenberg estate. I never ventured to ask anybody . This was the last subject I wished to discuss as I felt it was too sensitive. Most estate folk are very superstitious and I did not wish to open the floodgates because by this time I was drained of all emotional energy.
But who knows ? Perhaps in the dead of night when the world sleeps, on this lonely estate one still hears the plaintive voices of the protagonists of this murder, mingled with the howling wind as they in a ghostly re-enactment play out the tragic events of that dreadful night seventy seven years ago……The night has a thousand eyes…..
I remember seeing a tombstone in a small cemetery not far from Balangoda many years ago. It read “Sacred to the memory of Mr.H.G.Ross – fatally shot at Galbodda Estate Ratnapura in May 1937”. My attempts to obtain information on this murder always drew a blank.
In conclusion, my heartfelt thanks are due to the following, without whose help writing this article would have proved an uphill task :
Old Anthonian Sebastian Retty and his wife for their hospitality, specially to Sebastian for taking time off despite a busy work schedule to take me to Stellenberg Estate and help me in my inquiries there.
Victor Melder for providing me with relevant information from his well stocked library which filled in many blanks, thus making my task easier.
Norman Thompson, whose geographical knowledge of the tea plantations of Ceylon is phenomenal. He shared this knowledge with me not once, but many times before.
To them I owe a debt of gratitude.
TWO PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE SUPERINTENDENTS BUNGALOW ON STELLENBERG ESTATE.
THE SPOT WHERE MR.GEORGE POPE WAS MURDERED. NOTE THE CURVE IN THE ROAD WHICH CAUSED HIM TO SLOW DOWN.