Bernard VanCuylenburg




STRANGE BUT TRUE – THE UNWELCOME VISITOR – By Bernard VanCuylenburg.

 

As an introduction to the crux of this story, I have to part the veil of time and go back to the early sixties in Ceylon, when a friend of mine and I went to the Trio Cinema in Slave Island to watch what was then rated as one of the best horror movies of its time  – “Cult of the Cobra”. Directed by Francis D.Lyon, this film was about six GI’s stationed in India, secretly photographing the arcane rituals of a group of Cobra worshippers ! In the film which the GI’ s were making, the bizarre climax was that some of the cult worshippers participating in these rituals turn themselves into snakes ! What was more horrifying was  the High Priest of this cult of snake worshippers, catching the GI’s red handed in the act of filming, and throwing a curse on them which could turn them into snakes !! After they return to the USA a mysterious woman enters their lives, and accidents began to happen resulting in the deaths of these GI’s. And before each death, a shadow of a cobra can be seen. This opening paragraph will have relevance in the concluding paragraph of this story when a slithery visitor from the reptilian world  –  the world of the Elapids  –  decided to announce its presence to a humble housewife.

Mr.and Mrs.Clarence Palmer were a quiet Burgher couple who lived in the suburb of Mt.Lavinia in the early fifties. This was a time when life was easy paced, people had time for each other, values were simple, and the “Pearl of the Indian ocean” lived up to its reputation. Mr.Palmer was employed by the postal department and Mrs.Palmer was a housewife looking after hearth and home. Mr.Palmer was a model employee and well liked by his bosses. One day he received a registered letter from the department confirming a well deserved promotion which made them both very happy because they could use the extra income. However, this promotion came with one major condition. His new position was at the main post office in Kandy which meant a transfer. Having lived in Colombo all their lives, transferring to Kandy was the biggest move they had to make. Stoic and calm as ever Clarence and his wife visited Kandy beforehand in good time before the commencement of his new job, and were able to rent a small house for a very reasonable price in a small hamlet close to Kandy  called Aruppola. Getting a house in the town was beyond their means as far as rent was concerned, but the small house they obtained suited them both. A week before he began work at the Kandy post office, the couple moved into their new home.

Today, this little hamlet has paid the price of progress and is crowded beyond imagination. It once was an idyllic place abundant with a  variety of trees and lush vegetation, blessed by Mother Nature’s bounty. The temple was the most important building in the area, and the sound of the temple drums with their pulsating rhythm added an air of sanctity to the bucolic landscape. The good folk of Aruppola were salt of the earth human beings and made the newcomers very welcome. The couple settled in beautifully, and the bracing climate was a boon after the heat of Colombo.

Life was good  until one Saturday morning while working in his garden, Clarence Palmer saw something which filled him with terror and shifted the tectonic plates of his calm demeanour !  A few feet away was a large cobra slithering its way very slowly by the small path in front of his house !  The reptile was in no hurry and went along at a measured pace. Clarence reacted as any human being would on perceiving a cobra  –  any snake for that matter. Cobras are venomous and potentially dangerous to human beings. Cobras are Elapids  – a type of poisonous snake with fangs fixed to the top jaw at the front of the mouth

and is famous for one of the most iconic displays of snake poses  –  the rearing hooded display, hissing and raising the upper portion of their bodies to stand erect. This defensive display is one of the most distinctive  characteristics of the cobra, and is purely an intimidating gesture to any potential enemy. My Dad was a tea planter and during his career he had a few close encounters with cobras and I was witness to two which I remember to this day.

But despite its fearful reputation the cobra is generally a shy snake avoiding confrontation with human beings as much as possible. Of course this is something which would never cross the mind of any human being when coming face to face with a cobra or any snake !

Clarence Palmer’s first thought was of the gun he kept in his house. This gun was given to him by his father and was hardly used. It was more of an heirloom. He surmised that in the time he took to get the gun, the snake would have vanished into the undergrowth. Vowing to keep the gun loaded and ready the next time this snake dared to pass his house, he immediately told his wife about the snake. But when he mentioned the presence of the cobra to his neighbour and word quickly spread in the little hamlet, the reaction of the good folk of Aruppola surprised him. They told him that this cobra lived close to the temple, was a familiar sight in the area, was completely harmless, and had been roaming this neck of the woods slithering its way through life as long as the older residents could remember ! Then came the warning that ill luck would befall anybody attempting to harm or kill this snake. Clarence was advised to ignore the snake whenever he saw it again and the reptile would do him no harm. Feigning acquiescence he listened to their words of advice, but in his heart he was determined to send the snake to eternal damnation the next time he saw it !

Time passed, and amidst the waft and web of life, the cobra became a distant memory. But fate had other plans and it seemed that the cobra and Clarence were destined to meet. The fatal encounter came one afternoon when Clarence went to his backyard to retrieve some washing which Elsie his wife had put out to dry. Close to a lump of firewood at the edge of the yard, was the cobra stretched to its full length on a rock in all its majesty, basking and enjoying the sun. Maintaining his composure, Clarence stepped back into the house and told Elsie to keep an eye on the snake while he fetched the gun which was fully loaded.  It all ended like the proverbial  gunfight and “draw” in any Western movie !  Gun in hand he stepped out into the yard very quietly, aimed at the snake squarely in his sights and pulled the trigger. Apart from blasting the snake to pieces, the sound of the gun broke the tranquility of the peaceful countryside and in a short while brought many of the folk in the vicinity to his front door to ascertain what had occurred.

Clarence informed them that he shot the snake because he could not take the risk of having it wandering about his property specially when he was away at work and his wife was alone at home. While understanding his predicament, the good folk of Aruppola seemed very agitated. They warned Clarence to take extreme care because he had killed a ‘sacred’ snake and dire consequences would follow……In good faith they told him that some form of retribution would eventuate sooner or later.The warnings came more in sorrow than in anger. Despite maintaining a steely sang froid in the face of these dire predictions, Clarence had an uneasy sensation he had not felt in a long while –   fear. That night he retired to bed with a huge dent in his confidence and for some inexplicable reason, a feeling that all was not right in his world. 

The following day Elsie and Clarence spoke about the unpleasant experience of the day before, but consoled themselves with the fact that at least they could now live in peace. There were other things to worry about in life than a dead snake ! The day of destiny came exactly three days later. Clarence as usual left for work at 7.30 am and returned about 5.30 each evening. Until he returned, Elsie was  alone at home. He once told her that under no circumstances was she to open the door if anybody knocked. There was a room in the house from which the main entrance could be seen through a window. He told Elsie if a caller was expected, she was to go to this room and gently parting the curtain assure herself that it was the caller she was expecting. One day when Clarence left for work she attended to the housework and after lunch decided to rest awhile due to a slight headache. Around 2.00 pm. she went to bed hoping to get some sleep. She had hardly dozed off into slumber land when she was awakened by what she thought was a distinct knocking on the front door. Hoping that  whoever it was would go away, she decided to ignore the sound. A few minutes later there it was again  –  a steady knock. This time she decided to answer the door and get back to sleep. Remembering her husbands advice, she first went to the room to see who could be calling at this time – it was round 2.30 on a sunny afternoon. She consoled herself with the thought that this could be the postman with a special delivery. Gently parting the curtain she had a good view of the main entrance.

It was then that the blood froze in her veins. The sight which met her disbelieving eyes nearly sent her into an apoplectic fit ! It was a scene from her worst nightmare or better still, a scene direct from the film to which I alluded in the opening chapter of this article – The Cult of the Cobra. There before the front door was a cobra. She watched in horror as the reptile half erected itself into a standing position and knocked its head on the front door as if wishing to enter ! It would then allow a time lag of about three minutes to pass before repeating the motion. I crave the readers indulgence if I digress at this point. Numerous are the well documented cases of animals grieving the loss of their owners. There was a famous case in Italy, where the owner of the dog concerned  worked in the railways and always returned home by train in the evening. Since he lived close to the railway station, his dog  went to the station every evening to meet and greet its Master.  One evening  the Master did not return home having died at work. For four years this dog went to the station every evening awaiting the Masters arrival and the canine companion became a familiar sight to travellers. He maintained this vigil faithfully until he too died, probably of grief.  There was a similar case in Japan. The “Readers Digest” featured both these stories in their editions.

About ten years ago there was the famous story of the “Truckie” in Australia who lost his dog somewhere near Alice Springs during a meal break. Since he had to maintain a rigid schedule he had no time to search for the animal and broken hearted continued his journey. Imagine his surprise when three weeks after the dog disappeared, it suddenly showed up at his home in Broadmeadows one evening looking none the worse for wear ! Words will not adequately describe the joyful reunion between dog and Master. It transpired later when the story was investigated that many pub owners and passers by etc. had fed this animal on its long journey South.

There are many cases where dogs refused to leave the graveside of their Masters, and cats that went missing finding their way home, one after five years ! This was in the USA. My logical conclusion is that the cobra at the front door of the Palmer house was the mate of the snake that was shot, and with that instinct common to animals  and reptiles, sensed this was the place that her mate was taken from her. The desperate knocking on the door was its manner of “demanding” that her mate come back. What other reason was there for this snake in all the wide world to make its way to the front door of the Palmer’s residence and then proceed to knock as if “demanding” for answers ?  Meanwhile, Elsie watching this bizarre display by the cobra at her front door seemed to be in some form of “Rigor Mortis”, and was completely paralyzed overtaken by cold fear. It seemed that life and time were suspended and reality had spilled out of its boundaries. Frozen in fear, unable to move she watched as the cobra after a few more “knocks” at the door, coiled and stayed awhile at the doorstep in resignation. Then, after what to Elsie seemed an eternity, it  moved very slowly away from the door and slithered away into the bush. It took a long while for Elsie to recover after the snake had gone. She thought meeting a ghost would not be so bad ! But to see a snake behaving in the manner that the cobra had, was a sight that would haunt her forever. She had just experienced a scene of horror from the deepest pit of hell.

When Clarence returned home and Elsie told him of her ‘ordeal’ he decided that staying in this house further was beyond question. When a cobra came calling, it was time to move on ! At work the next day he spoke of this incident to his boss, a very influential gentleman with useful connections across the hirearchy of Kandyan society as he was a Kandyan himself. Three weeks later he informed Clarence that there was a suitable house for rent in Mahiyawa which was almost in the heart of Kandy town. The owner of this house was a childhood friend of Clarence’s boss Mr.Shelton Pethiyagoda.  On the strength of this friendship he decided to give the house on lease for a very reasonable rent as a special favour.

Within a month, Clarence and Elsie moved into their new home, and to give this tale a happy ending I have to resort to the old cliche that “they lived happily ever after” until Clarence retired from the postal department after many years of service. Three years later they migrated to Australia.

EPILOGUE.

There is one unavoidable fact in this story. In this wide world of creation with its myriad complex and fascinating life forms, man as a species is not the alpha and omega in the animal world.

Snakes like all living creatures are a part of life’s dazzling tapestry. The best way I can express my sentiments in this regard is to quote the famous verse of the Red Indian Chief White Cloud,  one of the greatest conservationists who ever lived. He was born in 1784 and died in1833, one of several tribal chiefs of the Ioway (Iowa) tribe, a hero to his people. His verse titled THE CIRCLE OF LIFE is literary gold. Read, digest and treasure the words of this savant. The world today ignores his words at its peril. Chief White Cloud had the gift of prescience to the highest degree, because his words are a clear warning of what is happening in the world today as far as respect for the environment and other living species are concerned.

                               

                                                     THE CIRCLE OF LIFE.

“Man has a poor understanding of life as he mistakes knowledge for wisdom. He tries to unveil the holy secrets of Our Father, The Great Spirit. He attempts to impose his laws on Mother Earth. Even though he himself is a part of Mother Nature, he chooses to disregard and ignore this for the sake of his own immediate gain. But the laws of nature are stronger than the laws of mankind. Man must awake at last and learn to understand how little time there remains  before he becomes the cause of his own downfall. And he has a lot to learn –  to learn to see with the heart. He must learn to respect Mother Earth, she who has given life to everything  –  to our brothers and sisters, the animal and the plants, the rivers and lakes, the oceans and the wind.

He must realize that this planet does not belong to him, but that he has to care for and maintain the delicate balance of nature for the sake of the well being of our children and future generations. It is the duty of man to preserve the creation of The Great Spirit, mankind being only a grain of sand in the Holy Circle which encloses all of life. Only when the last tree has been cut and the last river and lake poisoned, will man realize that money cannot be eaten. “

Relentless hunting, adverse climatic conditions such as prolonged drought, and lack of protection have driven certain species to near extinction. To save endangered species it is essential to protect their habitats and understand the vital role of each species within the earth’s ecosystems.On a trip to new Zealand a few years back which involved some interesting travel in the North and South Island, I heard of the Maori Tribe living in the Whanganui River region who had a very interesting saying in their relation to the land, in particular to this life giving river. It is “I am the river and the river is me”. They nurtured the land in the ancient knowledge that nature has to be respected.  Snakes, like or loathe them as they slither their way doing the horizontal belly dance through life, are a part of the flora and fauna of creation. It is their world too. It is never too late to appease Mother Nature –  for all our tomorows.

Acknowledgements : I am very grateful to Clarence’s nephew a personal family friend who discussed this story with me at a family function a few weeks ago. He gave me the details for this story. Clarence and Elsie  passed away in Melbourne many years ago. They have a daughter who lives on the Gold Coast and another daughter living in Rockhampton.

Bernard Van Cuyenburg

Bernard VanCuylenburg.




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MURDER ROUND THE BEND – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

 

A beautiful city with a fortified Dutch Fort, world heritage site buildings, fine beaches with broad expanses of silver sand, and restaurants and hotels to cater to the most fastidious tourist is what comes to mind when one thinks of Galle.  All this and more is what the discerning traveller will experience when visiting this port city. One conjures up visions of a land with all the charm of the South –  the ubiquitous coconut palms, fishing, soaking up the sun on a sun kissed beach,and savouring the delights of a tourist haven. But Galle is not the focus of this article. In the spotlight today is a township known to residents of the area but not very familiar to the wider world, which lies in the district of Galle  called  Talgaswella.

Talgaswella is situated twelve miles from Galle. Travelling from Colombo, take the Elpitiya road at Ambalangoda, drive past lush green paddy fields, picturesque small villages, beautiful rural scenery and you reach Talgaswella township. Going to Talgaswella from Galle is only about eight miles distance through Akmeemana. One seldom associates Galle with the tea industry of Ceylon, but there are many tea plantations in the district, and Talgaswella estate is  one of them. To set the scene for this story, a brief history of this estate is timely. Talgaswella estate was first started by one of the leading estate agencies which feature prominently in the history of Ceylon tea, Messrs. Carson Cumberbatch & Company Limited. Tea was first manufactured on Talgaswella in 1920, and an Englishman named  Mr.Nikoli constructed the Superintendent’s bungalow in 1922.  He was the first Superintendent of the estate.  The bungalow as it stands today was renovated in 1924.

However, before tea was planted on Talgaswella, another sweeter crop held sway here  – Sugar !

Sugar cane was first planted  in the lower division after the installation of a sugar crane crusher.

Huge iron pans were imported from England to boil the juice from crushed sugar cane resulting in the golden treacle which is a favourite even today  –  just think of curd and honey !!. The manufacture of treacle was thus the first manufacturing process on the estate. Visit Talgaswella today and one can still see one of these pans which has been used as a pond in the gardens of the Assistant Superintendent’s bungalow in the lower division ! Apart from human consumption, treacle was also used for something totally different other than contributing to a sugar fix ! It was mixed with lime and used as plaster in construction works !  It is a widely held belief that this plaster was used in the construction of bridges, tunnels etc. particularly in the up-country areas instead of cement.

The owners of Talgaswella having experimented with sugar, were looking for new challenges. They brought about 300 rubber seeds from Matale and in 1928 cultivated two hundred acres with rubber.

Fortune favours the brave and with the success of the first crop, a sheet rubber factory was established in the lower division.

In 1930 Mr. Buket was appointed Superintendent of Talgaswella. That same year a new bungalow was constructed in the upper division for Mr.I.U.Wilson who had been appointed  Assistant Superintendent. Another bungalow called “Kosgaha Bungalow” (Jak Tree Bungalow) was also constructed in the lower division. I hasten to add that from the Upper Division there were delightful scenic views of the surrounding countryside with beautiful mountains in the distance. The first Staff quarters were constructed on the right bank of the lake on the estate, and it is on record that the first conductor was Mr.Kanaththage Martin Silva who started work in 1931.

TERROR ON TALGASWELLA.

Into this fairy tale beginning when every endeavour on the estate was crowned with success, it was not long before evil reared its ugly head. Over a hundred years ago, Bishop Heber in his poem ” From Greenlands Icy Mountains ” penned a verse on Ceylon in which he wrote:

                           And though the spicy breezes

                           Blow soft oe’r Ceylons Isle

                           Though every prospect pleases

                           And only man is vile 

This verse is a lead, into the dark deeds which were to follow. I refer to the bungalow in the lower division called “Kosgaha Bungalow” which was constructed in 1930. This bungalow was constructed for a young Assistant Superintendent, Roger Blumer who commenced duties in 1930. Roger Blumer was made for planting, and planting for Roger Blumer !! The two went together hand in glove and from the moment young Blumer held a pruning knife and stepped into a tea field immersing himself in  the myriad activities required in this very demanding profession, it was apparent that this was his destiny. It did not take long for his boss the Superintendent to realize that in his young Assistant, he had a potential future Manager who would blaze a trail in the tea fields of Ceylon, no matter on which estate he worked. In Colombo, Carson Cumberbatch & Company the Agents for Talgaswella having received glowing reports of Roger Blumer’s progress sat up and took notice. Clearly, he was singled out for greener pastures, professionally speaking.

Following his meteoric rise performing his duties as Assistant Superintendent on Talgaswella, in three short years the Company  appointed Roger Blumer as Superintendent in 1933 when Mr.Bukit resigned  – an appointment welcomed by the labour and clerical staff because this young planter, apart from being a wizard in the field –   in both tea and rubber  –  was also a good administrator and had very good relations with labour, the clerical staff and factory staff.  But while Talgaswella prospered achieving good prices at the tea auctions and fast gaining the reputation of a model estate, none could foresee that there were evil minds at work with malicious intent lying low in the shadows planning to strike a mortal blow to the fortunes of this plantation   –  a blow from which they would never recover, at least in the foreseeable future. 

This was a period when there were very few rural banks to service the plantations. Consequently, each month the estate Superintendents travelled to Colombo to transport the wages in hessian bags labelled division by division. Accordingly Roger Blumer made these trips to Colombo when pay day was due during which time he also visited the Agents to discuss any official matters. One day in 1933   – his first year as Superintendent, he drove to Colombo to collect the wages, and drove back. Pay day was common knowledge and everybody knew how the pay was brought to the plantations. In those days there was no consideration given to security, and collecting the wages became another routine chore.

He returned to the estate in good time and drove straight to his bungalow. Just round a curve not far from the bungalow his way was blocked by another vehicle and in a split second he was waylaid by five thugs fully armed, who demanded that he hand over the wages.  Since there were no witnesses to the robbery, nobody will ever know if he acquiesced or put up any resistance  –  it was one unarmed man against five who were armed  –  but  the thieves shot Roger Blumer in cold blood killing him instantly and escaped with the loot. Thus ended the life of this good and decent man, leaving a son of five years behind. A pall of gloom descended over Talgaswella at the loss of this well loved planter and the manner of his death. There was suspicion that if ever a robbery was planned and executed to rob the labourers wages, it had to be done with the connivance of a person  –  or persons  – living on the estate. But justice was swift and fast and the long arm of the law reached far and wide to bring the criminals to justice. The police worked long hours meticulously following up on all the leads in their inquiries, and within ten days the five accused were arrested. The case was heard in the Galle Magistrates court, and all five were condemned to death   –  a death which they met at the hands of the Hangman in the Welikade Jail in Borella. 

If Roger Blumer’s son is alive, he will be 91 years this year. With the passage of time the murder of this Superintendent faded into the mists of memory . As the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne said   “Time flies over us but leaves its shadow behind.”  Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the USA  and a Polymath, once wrote “Time is like a petal in the wind blowing softly by. As old lives are taken, new lives begin. It is a continual chain which lasts through eternity   –  every life is but a minute in time, but each one is of equal importance……” And Roger Blumer’s life was very special and cherished by the staff of Talgaswella and to all who knew him. Visit the estate today and just below the Superintendent’s bungalow at the spot in the road where he was murdered, a monument has been erected in honour of his memory  –  the memory of a man who paid the supreme sacrifice in the line of duty.

A few years after this crime, another estate Superintendent lost his life in silmilar circumstances, on the Colombo – Ratnapura road close to a spot where the Palmgarden tea factory now stands. That was Mr.John Frank Whitehouse, the Superintendent of Madampe Group Rakwana. He was cruelly gunned down by thugs of the underworld in the process of stealing the labourers wages. I have written about this story in an article titled TALES FROM THE THOTTAM. I later changed the title to MARKED FOR MURDER.

Acknowledgements : I am very grateful to an ex planter and an old Anthonian Norman Thompson, who

                                  provided me with the material for this article. During his planting career, Norman

                                  was Assistant Superintendent on Talgaswella estate from 1972 to 1975 It was he

                                  who first informed me of this story. And while I struggled to find a suitable title for

                                  this article, Norman to his credit came up with the one I have used which I think

                                  is appropriate..                   

Bernard Van Cuyenburg

Bernard VanCuylenburg        

                                              

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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.

EPILOGUE

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.
Bernard Van Cuyenburg

Bernard VanCuylenburg.

Murder at nightMurder at night
TWO PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE SUPERINTENDENTS BUNGALOW ON STELLENBERG ESTATE.

Murder at night

THE SPOT WHERE MR.GEORGE POPE WAS MURDERED. NOTE THE CURVE IN THE ROAD WHICH CAUSED HIM TO SLOW DOWN.

STELLENBERG FACTORY.

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GEORGE WALL – THE LION THAT ROARED – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

A few months ago I wrote an article titled “David and Goliath” which featured a young English tea planter Mark Anthony Bracegirdle, who rocked the colonial establishment when he sided with the workers and the unions, by demanding better living conditions for  the estate labourers on the plantations. His colonial masters were dumbfounded and furious to find that it was “one of their own” who by the courage of his convictions, proved to be the proverbial thorn in their side.

This story is about another hero George Wall  – an Englishman – a philanthropist who fought for the rights of the Ceylonese in the days of colonial rule almost a hundred years before Bracegirdle. I wonder how many will remember the Town Hall end of the De Soysa Circus in Slave Island, Colombo. There was an ornate fountain here with an inscription in mosaic which read “GEORGE WALL – PHILANTHROPIST – 1820 – 1894. I dont know if this fountain still stands and I came across it during a ramble in the gardens over fifty years ago. It was not working then and if it is still there, I am sure it is not working now !, It is a tribute to a giant among men, and will perhaps part the veil of time and evoke a host of memories particularly to Sri Lankans of an older generation, who reminisce on life in the land we once called home.

George Wall had many strings to his bow and was a luminary in his own right. Using more romantic prose, it could be said that in an academic sense he wore a coat of many colours.

 Apart from being a salt of the earth human being who never lost the common touch, he was a coffee planter, botanist, astronomer, politician,and a merchant. Above all this he was a great humanitarian. He came to Ceylon in 1846 and became Acting Manager of The Ceylon Plantations Company which then was in Kandy. Many years later  this Company moved to Nuwaraeliya and managed their estates from there until the nationalisation of the plantations. He inaugurated The Planter’s Association and held the position of Chairman for twenty eight years though not consecutively. While Acting Manager of the company in Kandy, he resided in a building which today is the Hotel Suisse. He also owned a home in Nuwaraeliya.

He was  a member of the Chamber of Commerce and the Legislative Council and resigned from both. But it is his stand for the rights of the Ceylonese working class and advancing unpopular reforms in their favour, for which he is most remembered. In later years he became the editor of “The Ceylon Independent” one of the most popular journals of the time, and this was his platform to voice his opinions by one of the strongest weapons at his command – his pen ! He became a prolific writer and did not win any sympathy from his English colonial masters by his scathing editorials. Conversely, the working class looked upon him as the greatest of all Englishmen in the islands public life. Like a lion that roared, George Wall used his pen to maximum effect in order to drive fear into the ruling class of the colonial establishment.

As a  businessman he won and lost fortunes but it is sad to record that fate did not treat him kindly in the end. Four years after his arrival in the island, he opened his own firm in Colombo, George Wall & Company. It was one of the pioneer European firms in Ceylon which lasted till 1879 and collapsed in the coffee crash. This collapse spelled the loss of George Wall’s fortune. This champion of the working class returned to England in 1894 and died a few days after his arrival in a Home in London. It is on record that this man of noble spirit who once paid three hundred English pounds for a single lens for his telescope died nearly bankrupt.

Men of his calibre were seldom seen again and the lion’s roar was silenced, until Mark Bracegirdle almost eighty years later arrived on the scene to rekindle the flame of fairplay and justice on behalf of the underdog.
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Bernard Van Cuyenburg

Bernard VanCuylenburg

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TO SIR WITH LOVE – Bernard VanCuylenburg

PROLOGUE

The history of any business enterprise will reveal that success was possible due to the will of the entrepreneur, tenacity of purpose, and defiance in the face of any challenges or adversity. Sri Lanka recently lost a doyen of entrepreneurship who strode the business world like the proverbial colossus. His passing leaves a void in the  business ranks of the nation, and an even bigger void in the hearts of his family and all who knew and love him. On my shoulders fell the task of writing and delivering a tribute at the memorial Mass held for George Ondaatjie on the 4th February at St.Mary’s Church, Bambalapitiya.

He was a man who believed in the phrase “From little things big things grow” and brought it to fruition

with a lifetime of achievement.

The world is a poorer place for his passing.

P.S. The “Travice” referred to in the tribute is one of George Ondaatjies sons

 

Subject: Tribute for the Memorial Mass of Mr.George Ondaatjie on the 4th February 2019.

TO SIR WITH LOVE

I am Bernard VanCuylenburg, and I joined Nilaveli Beach Hotels Limited in April 1973  as Administrative Manager of the Company under George Ondaatjie who was my boss. I have agonized writing this tribute trying to find the proper words to express my sentiments, and I paraphrased the song title of a popular hit song of yesteryear which sums it  up  – To Sir With Love.   When my telephone rang  that Summer night of January 4th and I heard Travice’s voice at the other end of the line, I shuddered anticipating the news I was about to hear. And now as I try to find the perfect words to pay tribute to a man who leaves an enormous void in the hearts of his family, friends, and all who knew and loved him, the past few weeks have been a whirlwind of emotion for me.

Since I arrived in the country, I have been deeply touched by the tremendous outpouring of love and grief by those who spoke to me about his passing.

As mortals we have to resign ourselves to the fact that we are a small part of God’s grand design.

Oh! But George Ondaatjie was such a big presence on God’s earth ! Love is not an easy feeling to put into words, nor is loyalty, trust or joy. But George Ondaatjie was all of these, and I pay this tribute mainly from my experience of having worked with him as my Boss   –  in fact of having worked only for him which was an experience and a privilege. He was always busy, and I do not say this lightly. Working for him, I soon found you had to be one step ahead because he was a visionary who broadened his horizons with daring decisions. But the horizons he saw were bright, hopeful, and full of promise. 

He was genuinely optimistic and I saw first hand how he faced any challenges life threw at him. He made me believe that anything was possible, and with him it usually was !

I mentioned before that he was always busy. But, he was never too busy to share his love of life with those around him. He was an empathetic man who had an enormous capacity to give of himself and, to give in a philanthropic sense. I saw first hand the extent of his philanthropic deeds, and he gave the word new meaning. I have seen him help others more times than I can remember, and he once practically swore me to secrecy, saying he did not want me talking about this to anybody. He wished me to maintain strict anonymity and privacy whenever he did somebody a good deed…..a big man with a big heart…….

Although he strode the business world like the proverbial colossus, he could relate to people from all walks of life. He looked for the good in people and usually found it.

We live in a broken world which has lost its way. A world in which great men often lead with their egos. But George Ondaatjie led with his heart, his compassion and more importantly, his honour. He had a great time living , and to us who grieve there is one comforting thought. I have no doubt he is having the time of his life in that eternal city where the roses never fade.

To conclude I wish to share a small verse for all those who grieve, shed bitter tears and journey through this dark night of the soul. I hope it will solace and comfort you, and ease your burden of sorrow. The title of this verse is called HORIZONS and sadly, I had the painful task of reading it at my own Mother’s funeral.

Life is eternal

And love is immortal

But death…….what is death?

Death is only a horizon

And a horizon is nothing but the limit of our sight……..


George Ondaatjie’s life has just begun.

 

Bernard Van Cuyenburg

Bernard VanCuylenburg.

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THE SPIRIT OF ONE – MR GEORGE MACKY – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

Rather late on the road of an Anthonian journey, I take my place in line, pen in hand as I endeavour to pay tribute to a gentleman whose name now dwells in the realms of legend in the Anthonian community and beyond. I am at a distinct disadvantage  because, although I was a student of that venerable institution St. Anthony’s College Kandy, I did not study under the great man and in my entire eleven years of life as an  Anthonian, never had any conversations with him particularly about the things that matter in life. We crossed each other many times and apart from the customary greeting, went our separate ways.   One of the disadvantages of being an ‘Arts’ student !!  However, his second son Louis and I were classmates from the 2nd Standard in 1951 right up to the senior form, until I left college in January 1962 and I think Louis left at the end of 1963. Friendships forged in childhood run deep and through Louis I came to “know” and  virtually had some insight into the Macky family and his iconic Dad. Disadvantage No.3 is that over the years  many articles have been written about Mr.George Macky, and I  feel I am only trying to gild the lily, concerning the high standard of literary ornamentation in the brilliant tributes that have been paid to him over the years.

The initials in his name GM seem to signify the mettle and  spirit of the man.  – The ‘Great Man’ who was George Macky. My impressions of Mr.George Macky are not “first  hand”, but those fragrant petals which I have treasured in memories chain having watched him from afar. I also  recollect what many of his students told me when I was in college, and even after I left those marble halls. Had I been one of his students I would have fared much better writing this tribute. So it is with some  trepidation that I put pen to paper.

George Macky was not a magic teacher, but a realist who made most of the realities at hand. He was of a rare breed that had the power to discover enduring truths, making him popular with his students who succumbed to a beguiling vision, of a world unmoored from realities restraints. So why did he shine and excel in the challenging task of teaching ? It was not just his reputation and the aura about him, but his strength of character that drove him on. He had a total “Joie de Teaching”. It oozed from every pore and his showcase was the many students he taught and nurtured. He commanded the class   –  a teacher who never gave less than his all. And his students never gave him less than the best results in their exams, and their unconditional love. He also brought a magic realism into the mainstream. He loved his students. By love, I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encouraged one to develop courage and build bridges. And  then, to  trust those bridges and cross them in an attempt to reach other human beings  –  which is exactly what he did by his teaching. He also had the rare ability to cross the social spectrum with equal insight and empathy  –  a trait  which endeared him to many. To quote one of his past students, “He did not believe in the “professional pattern”  that invariably left the less capable to manage the best way  they could…..” And, always impeccably turned out, his sartorial elegance added to the Macky mystique. This same student emphasized the fact that although he did not tolerate careless mistakes, never in living memory did he use the cane or hands by way of punishment. All his past pupils will vouch for this. I personally remember an incident where he refused to enter the classroom, until the cane which was left on the desk by the teacher who had taught the class in the preceeding period was removed. This student paid a very humble but “straight from  the heart” tribute to his old teacher when he told me, quote – “I will remember him as a great teacher, a good man and most importantly, a great human being…..”

Another past student of my vintage paid this classic tribute to his old teacher when he told me  – quote -“He made me fall in love with Mathematics ! To this day, I can take “short cuts” in this complex field and surprise my Accountant friends. What he taught me paid rich dividends in my professional life which included wage fixing and  negotiations. I would rate Mr.George Macky as world class” .Tributes do not come better than this. This student was appointed a Prefect. On the day of his appointment Mr.Macky congratulated him with these words “I must congratulate you,but I voted against your appointment because your father and I are friends !!”. That was typical of the man. He was true to rigid codes of conduct and intolerant of cronyism. This student who was with me in the boarding and later played cricket for college, recalls an incident where his Father (also an old Anthonian) presented him with an expensive Swiss watch as a reward for doing well in a cricket match. He wore the watch with pride and the next day chanced to meet Mr.Macky along the corridor in the quadrangle. Noticing the expensive watch Mr.Macky told him ” Tell your Father not to buy you expensive watches. Instead, tell him to buy you things which will improve your mind !!” To the credit of this particular student, he never resented what some would perceive to be sarcasm, reflecting that Mr.GM only wanted him to rethink his priorities and in the greater scheme of things, learn what to value most in life. He also added “To me, Mr.George Macky was the oracle. When he told you anything, you took it seriously . A stern and uncompromising disciplinarian at first glance, once you really knew him, you had the confidence to go to him with any problem, personal or otherwise. I looked upon him as a father figure and the perfect gentleman : dignified, decorous and always predictable in his ways”……… That is one of the the most  glowing tribute from a student to his  teacher which I have ever read. There are several layers to the George Macky story, but there is one that shines like a beacon to anybody who loses hope in a sometimes dark world. He was successful in the London BA Examination in the Classics, securing a pass in Latin, Greek and Mathematics. What is laudable about this success is that he achieved it by sheer dint of self study, without a teacher. And, life was not always kind to GM. He recalled that at this time he had no desk and a light. As he says it, “My desk was a box, and for light all I had was a bottle lamp”. In the vernacular that would be a “Pakkis pettiya” and a “Bothal lampu”. 

One particular incident laced with humour is worth mentioning. Mr. Macky was taking an English Language class where the subject under study was a poem titled “Mrs. Reece Laughs”, taken from the book, “All Poetry”. The principal character in this poem Mrs.Reece had a dimple.  He came to a line in the poem which read “Laughter with Mrs.Reece is much less simple. It generates, it spreads, dimple by dimple……”. Stopping the lesson for awhile, he asked the class if anybody knew what a dimple was ! One student brimming with enthusiasm promptly arose and facing the rest of the class, pointed to the  large pimple on his face !! He had confused the “Dim” and the “Pim” !!  Loud laughter followed this display, with Mr.Macky joining heartily in. I am grateful to Tom Deen for informing me of this anecdote.

His talents and ability were not confined to the halls of  academia. They were on display for all to see on the playing fields of St.Anthony’s and beyond. His prowess in cricket, soccer, and athletics was dream material for any sports journalist, and an inspiration to a lover of sport. He captained the college cricket, soccer and hockey teams, winning the coveted “Eagle” in cricket. It did not end there because he also excelled in tennis and billiards. He later captained that all star soccer team known as “The Invincibles”. I have seen a photo of this team shown to me by another Anthonian whose Dad was also a member of this formidable side. Watching his artistry on the soccer field another prominent old boy of Mr.Macky’ s vintage observed “He could head a ball into the goal without disturbing his hair !!” Now that is sartorial elegance on a hitherto  unimaginable level ! He had a sense of humour which was predictable and unpredictable at the same time ! One of his best students was seated under the landmark flamboyant tree  when Mr.GM passing by, asked him what position he had achieved in class.The student said that he had come 1st. To which Mr.Macky replied, “But that is useless  because you cannot hold a bat !!!” This same student later became a Neurosurgeon, and today practices in England. As a finale, I have to  part the curtain of memory and time  travel back to the year 1865, to a land far far from the sacred grounds of St.Anthony’s College. We are now in the White House a day after the assassination of President  Abraham Lincoln. His formidable Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton and other officials are standing round the coffin of the late President, the silence of the room broken only by muffled sobs. Mr.Stanton was asked to say a few words. Tears streaming down his face he began a speech which ended with  these immortal words  “And now he belongs to the ages……” Fast forward to the present day and 150 years later, his words echo the sentiments of all Anthonians who with one voice would say in an Anthonian context, when the legends, lore and stories about that great College on the hill are told and retold, for generations to come, “George Macky too belongs to the ages”.

I am grateful to the old Anthonians who provided me with information for this article. One was a contemporary of  mine, and the others belonged to an older generation of Anthonians. And I penned this tribute  “To Sir with love…..”

 

Bernard Van Cuyenburg

Bernard VanCuylenburg.

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Kumaradhatusena – the great unknown – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

PROLOGUE

 

“Cometh the hour cometh the man” from John Chapter 4 Verse 23 in the Holy Bible, signifies that the right man will arrive at the right time. However, I may stand corrected on this, as there are varying interpretations of this saying. But it is an appropriate introduction to a great unknown in Lanka’s ancient history who is seldom spoken about, unlike some of the better known heroes of Sinhala royalty. Prince Kumara Dhatusena in his brief reign of nine years ruled the island with a firm but just hand and won the loyalty of his subjects by his meritorious deeds. Sadly, after his death there followed a period of violence, greed, treachery and murder, so often a feature in ancient Lanka’s history and in the history of many lands. His name in the chronicles is recorded as one word, ‘Kumaradhatusena’. I have broken it up to facilitate easy reading.

 

                           KUMARA DHATUSENA  –  THE MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.

 

In the year 513 AD following the death of King Moggallana, his son Prince Kumara Dhatusena ascended the throne. The chroniclers account in the Culavamsa regarding this young king is almost a  contradiction. While referring to him as “a vigorous figure of God-like form” he  writes that “He had repairs carried out to the Vihara built by his father”  but the Vihara is not named . He further wrote ” He had a revision made to the sacred texts and reformed the Order”.  The nine year rule of King Kumara Dhatusena ends with the words ” After many meritorious works he passed away in the ninth year of his reign, that is in the year 522 AD.  He was after all the grandson of the great King Dhatusena but while the chronicler goes into rapture singing the praises of the great tank builder, the grandson’s rule and his “many meritorious works” have been skimmed over.  Despite the flowery phrases describing King  Kumara Dhatusena’s reign, there is a woeful lack of detail. Unless any new discoveries are made by way of rock inscriptions, stone tablets etc. referring to his rule, he will remain for the most part, another great unknown.

 

However, two  ancient publications, the “Pujavaliya” and the “Rajavaliya” refer to a certain friendship which King Kumara Dhatusena had with Kalidasa, a boyhood friend and son of King Moggallana’s first minister.  (This ‘Kalidasa’ is not to be confused with the great Indian Sanskrit poet and scholar by the same name). In the “Pujavaliya” Kumara Dhatusena is referred to as ‘Kumaradasa”.  There is a sensational account in these manuscripts which state that the bonds of friendship between them were so strong that on Kalidasa’s death, Kumara Dhatusena was so distraught and overcome with grief that he flung himself on the pyre of his dead friend in a sort of immolation and perished with him. This is supposed to have occurred in present day Matara, and people in the area are familiar with the names of the two friends and their tragic fate. This of course is in conflict with the account in the Culavamsa which simply states that King Kumaradhasa “passed away in the ninth year of his reign….”

 

The  stability which was a hallmark of the reigns of King Moggallana and his son King Kumara Dhatusena, was followed by a political firestorm. To call it an orgy of blood is no exaggeration. Prince Kittisena, Kumaradhatusena’s son ascended the throne in 522 AD the year of his father’s death. What followed was a family squabble of intrigue and lust for power with daggers drawn. King Kittisena ruled for only nine months and was murdered by his uncle , his mothers brother Siva. King Siva however did not last the distance. He ruled for twenty five days  (The Culavamsa records that he ruled for “Five and twenty days”) and was killed by Upatissa. Upatissa in various Sinhalese sources is referred to as ‘Lamanitissa’ signifying that he came from the Lambakanna clan. It gets worse because Upatissa was the late King Moggallana’s brother-in-law, having married King Moggallana’s sister.

  

King Upatissa ruled from 522 – 524 AD but in the brief period of two years he managed to win the populace over and also gave his daughter in marriage to Silakala with a substantial financial grant. This was the same Silakala who fled the island twenty six years ago for fear of his life and sought refuge in India, when King Kasyappa 1st ruled in Sigiriya. He is best remembered for having brought the hair relic of the Buddha to Ceylon . Silakala however had other ideas.  Deluded with a lust for power he fled to the central mountainous region of the island (which the Culavamsa for some unknown reason calls “Malaya”). Here he wasted no time in gathering a large and strong force. Confident that he could now take the throne he  arrived on the outskirts of Anuradhapura in a show of might terrifying the populace and the royal court. And this is where in the confused blood soaked fortunes of this family, history repeated itself once more. Enter the second Kasyappa, King Upatissa’a son. Following the example of his ancestor by the same name twenty six years ago, Prince Kasyappa mounted his favourite elephant and with an army ventured forth to confront the would be usurper Silakala. Fortune favoured Prince Kasyappa because Silakala suffered defeat after defeat in eight encounters. Silakala is referred to as ‘The Sword Bearer’  – a title which suits his capability in the field of battle and his staying power against all odds.  He was never captured and managed to flee, to live to fight another day. This ‘Sword Bearer’ seems to have been endowed with supernatural powers.

 

After some time in the wilderness, he raised another army and advanced on Anuradhapura for the second time. A ferocious battle raged for seven days and Prince Kasyappa finally saw the writing on the wall. Discretion he surmised, was the better part of valour and he decided to flee with his father King Upatisa and his mother, to the state of Merukandara in present day Malaysia. Merukandara was at the time a favourite place of refuge. It all went horribly wrong. The guides heading the fugitives and their band of loyalists lost their way and were surrounded by Silakala’s forces. If one does not believe in the saying that history repeats itself, the following incident may dispel any doubts.

 

In the final battle which the Culavamsa describes as “a fight between Gods and demons” Prince Kasyappa’s royal elephant succumbed to grievous flesh wounds and the prince doing what an ancestor of the same name did twenty six years ago. The chronicler writing in the Culavamsa states ” he cut his throat, wiped the blood from his dagger and stuck it back in its sheath. Then, supporting both hands on the temples of the elephant he sank down in death”.   King Upatissa when he heard the news “died pierced by the arrow of grief ” (Culavamsa). This could be interpreted that the news when conveyed to him caused him such shock and sorrow that he died following a heart attack.

 

In 524 AD Silakala ascended the throne and this one time rebel rouser now turned out to be a benevolent monarch who ruled the island for thirteen years. Also known as Lamani Ambaherana Salamevan, he first increased the revenues of the hospitals and forbade the killing of wild animals.  The Abhayagiri sect were particular  recipients of his benefactions and he made daily sacrifices to the sacred Bodhi tree. Throughout his reign the Culavamsa confirms that “he performed meritorious deeds without number”.

 

In the year 527 AD he sent a letter to the Chinese court. There is no mention of this in the Culavamsa, but receipt of the letter at the Chinese court is confirmed by Chinese annals although the contents and purpose of the letter are not known.  He died the same year after a just and peaceful rule. The orgy of blood and violence did not end with his death, but ultimately paved the way for one of the most distinguished Kings to sit on Lanka’s throne, who ranks second only to  King Mahasena and  King Dhatusena as one of the great tank building kings of the island, apart from being a gifted poet. He is better known as a king “who had poetic gifts without equal” (Culavamsa).  The chronicles refer to King Silakala as “an abode of virtue, generosity and goodness”.

 

Regarding the chronological investigation of Lanka’s history, it is a matter of regret that often one has to rely on foreign testimony. I refer specifically to relations with China, particularly in the Culavamsa.

The name of “China” is not mentioned even once whereas Chinese historical records and South Indian inscriptions bear ample testimony to relations between ancient Lanka and China. So much on this subject that is important to the reader, has been concealed  –  a great pity. 

 

Bernard Van Cuyenburg

Bernard VanCuylenburg.

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THE LAND OF MY FOREFATHERS – (Part 2) THE BENELUX BONANZA – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

 

My memories of Luxembourg and Belgium will forever remain etched in memory as two jewels in the crown of  any travel odyssey I have undertaken………..Pristine in their natural beauty, these countries have a rich history and vibrant culture, both of which are evident at every step of the road less travelled as I discovered. Recent history however has been bloody and I cannot avoid mentioning some incidents relating to World War 2.

 

THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE OR THE ARDENNES OFFENSIVE.

 

The Germans called their offensive the “Wacht Am Rhine” (The watch on the river Rhine) and the allied forces termed it “The Ardennes Offensive”.  Due to the natural terrain on which this battle was fought in the Ardennes forest, history recorded it as “The Battle of the Bulge”. The Ardennes is a heavily wooded plateau in North East France extending to South East Belgium and Northern Luxembourg, which cuts through the river Meuse. It is breathtaking in in its natural beauty with thick forest cover in shades of glorious green and perceiving it from anywhere is soothing to the soul, a panorama of peaceful beauty resplendent in its verdant solitude. The Japanese have a phrase for nature’s treasures such as the Ardennes expressed in one simple line……”Take a walk in the wind and clear your mind…….” They refer to it very aptly as “Forest Bathing “.  It is difficult to imagine that a little over seventy years ago this part of paradise around the town of Bastogne was the scene of savage blood letting, guts and gore and killing unlimited, as Adolf Hitler unleashed his plan for a breakthrough in the allied forces defensive line by his Field Marshall Von Runstedt.

 

The German attack took the allies by complete surprise, but ultimately they held out against a very superior  German force in a conflict which lasted from the 16th December 1944 until the 28th January 1945. The allies lost 80,000 soldiers and the German casualties were listed at 130,000, including Hitler’s last powerful reserve, the Panzer Elite. The beauty of the Ardennes today conceals the horror and barbarism of that terrible time. Perhaps a line from the poem “The Windmill” by Henry Longfellow sums up the contrast today…… :

 

                                ”  On Sundays I take my rest, church going bells begin

                                    I cross my hands upon my breast and all is peace within…..”

 

All is peace within today, but over seventy years ago it seemed that hell was unleashed on earth.  A visit to the Luxembourg American  cemetery and  Memorial in Luxembourg City is a harsh lesson in reality. I spent a long time reading the names on the graves of the American soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice, and what tears one’s heart out is reading the ages of the soldiers  22, 25, 23, 32, citing a few examples, and  there was one of a soldier who was just nineteen years old. I suppose it is one of many. The graves are laid out row by row in a beautiful garden setting. At the entrance to the cemetery, as if by some bizarre twist of fate is the grave of General George S.Patton who was Commander of the US 7th army in the Mediterranean, and the US 3rd army in France and Germany. It was his decisive leadership which turned the tide in relieving the beleagured allied troops in Bastogne at ‘the Battle of the Bulge’. The graves of the fallen soldiers are laid out in a slight slope below his grave which is set apart. It gives one the impression that even in death he is at the head of his troops. It was General Patton who after the war once remarked ” We have accepted the mystery of the atom  – and rejected the Sermon on the Mount”……” Having survived the dangers of  war, General Patton was tragically killed in a car accident in Mannheim Germany, a few days before he was to return home to the USA.

 

In the senior forms at St.Anthony’s College Kandy, I recall the English literature class where under Mr.John Isaacs we studied the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, two in particular “Kublai Khan” and “The Ancient Mariner”. Amazingly, while reading the epitaphs of the fallen US soldiers, the veil of time was parted and  through the mists of time I recalled a passage from one of Coleridge’s passages dealing with melancholy thoughts of the past. It read ” If men could learn from history, what lessons it would teach us ! But passion blinds our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind us…..” I surmise what he was telling us is that the lessons of history are never learned.

 

The Mardasson Memorial also in Luxembourg city is worth a visit for those interested in World War 2 history, and is another  tribute to all the American soldiers who gave their lives for their country.

 

A leisurely walking tour in the beautiful city center of Luxembourg is  therapeutic to heart and mind. Marvel at the Grand Ducal Palace with its Flemish renaissance facades, and the medieval cathedral. To add a fairy tale character to this ethereal city, there are spectacular views of the gorge of the rivers Alzette and Petrusse. Here nature has excelled…….Following this walk, some of my travelling companions and I spent a leisurely afternoon in the leafy Place d’ Armes watching the world go by fortified by some of the best coffee in the world ! 

 

The 12th century Cistercian Orval Abbey in an excellent state of preservation is a pearl of great price. This medieval abbey which was founded in 1132, is in the Gaume region of Belgium and is renowned for its distinct cheese and for being one of the few breweries that produces Trappiste beer.

 

BELGIUM:  Since 1945 this small country has been a  major force for international co-operation in Europe being a founder member of the Benelux Economic Union, the Council of Europe, and the Economic Union. (EU). I found this country to be the proverbial pearl of great price   — a rare gem in the chain of any travel itinerary. My introduction to this resplendent land commenced with a visit to the historic city of Bruges in North West Belgium. Bruges is the capital of the province of West Flanders. And there are more gems to behold  –  The 14th century cathedral of Notre Dame has a rare statue of the Virgin and Child by Michaelangelo. Visit the Gothic Town  and Market Hall and you think a time machine has taken you back 800 hundred years, because the historic buildings and the old roads weaving in and out are the originals from that period……Bruges incidentally has been named for its many bridges. For lovers of chocolate, a visit to a chocolate factory or even a shop will reveal why Belgian chocolates are the most exquisite and so highly prized  worldwide. I have no sweet tooth, but having tasted Belgian chocolates  I swear they are worth every calorie !!

 

 Before this however, there was another surprise in store. We stopped at the charming town of Dinant, an enchanting medieval village with history in every corner. But the most famous son of this town is Adolphe Sax, credited with having invented the saxophone. His home today is a museum visited by many, specially jazz music afficionados. This town is on the banks of a lovely river, and the scenery surrounding the area is once again, nature’s handiwork. Arriving in Bruges in the evening, another surprise awaited the group  –  a dinner invitation to the home of Marc and Judy Nyssen at their 17th century Bruges farmstead to learn about Flanders farm life and enjoy hearty Belgian fare. And cordon bleu fare it was, washed down by copious amounts of the nectar of the Gods  – Belgian beer and homemade wine !  Much more than that, the dinner was prepared and served with a lot of love and hospitality and was a feast for the Gods. I wished the night would never end ! In this simple act of kindness  – entertaining strangers in their home  – Marc and Judy were sharing the essence of who they were, their humanity and generosity with us. Where there is sharing, everybody wins  – the giver and the receiver.  Waking up the next morning in beautiful Bruges was akin to living in a dream. The hotel was by the banks of a river and in a very historic quarter. Taking a stroll down the old medieval road before breakfast, I made a note of the house numbers…..1604, 1624, 1658, 1712, 1759, 1780, 1792…….all original historic houses still standing….the place is a time warp. I started the day with a walking tour of Bruges, and then took to the water to enjoy a whimsical sightseeing cruise along the city’s wonderful canals lined with Gothic facades. A visit to a Lace Centre run by the nuns of the Immaculate Conception to admire the delicate art of Belgian lace followed. I spent the rest of the day soaking up the old world charm of this beguiling city. 

 

The next stop was the city of Ghent to delve into the centuries of port heritage of this city with its picturesque riverine backdrop. What stands out in Ghent are the three famous medieval towers – Saint Nichola’s church, the belfry and Saint Bavo’s cathedral dating from the eleven hundreds, in an excellent state of preservation. There was another surprise in store. Passing the municipality of Ixelles located South of the city centre of Brussels, I was told that this was the birthplace of  Audrey Hepburn. Her mother was a Dutch baroness Ella Van Heemstra, and her father was an English banker. They divorced when she was only six years old and she spent her childhood in Belgium, the UK and the Netherlands. Hollywood and stardom followed much later.

 

The multicultural melting pot of the Belgian capital Brussells is a revelation. The Atomium which was designed for the 1958 Brussel’s World Fair and the exquisite Grand Palace with its opulent and ornate guildhalls are only a small sample of the many splendoured delights and attractions of this charming city. The first enchanted evening in Brussels was spent sampling taste bud tantalizing Belgian cuisine washed down with the city’s best beers ! The next day I embraced a full day at leisure to explore the Belgian capital  on my own terms. A visit to the Cinquantenaire taught me all I needed to know about Belgian military history through the centuries. From there I meandered to the Royal Palace through the leafy lanes of the Brussels park. Intoxicated with the beautiful architecture of the buildings, I immersed myself in all this city had to offer and was not short of any food for thought.

 

The Belgian town of Ypres in West Flanders is not far from Brussels. Called ‘The City of Peace’ which I thought was very ironic, Ypres was a centre of heavy fighting during World War 1. I visited the cemeteries of Paschendale and Taryn Cot where many of the allied soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice are buried. Again, the ages of the soldiers engraved on the tombstones will move the hardest heart. The poem by William Collins “How Sleep the Brave” expresses the emotion felt by any visitor to this spot…..As I pondered life’s futility in the calm of an Autumn evening, some lines from this poem came to mind……

 

How sleep the brave who sink to rest

By all their countries wishes blest

When Spring with dewy fingers cold

Returns to deck their hallowed mould

She there shall dress a sweeter sod

Than fancy feet have ever trod

 

By fairy hands their knell is rung

By forms unseen their dirge is sung

There honour comes a pilgrim grey

To bless the form that wraps their clay……..

 

If the dead are always with us, it is in places like this that their presence is felt so intensely. I cannot remember who asked the question “If we can rest in peace, why cant we live in peace?

 

Ypres was the town in which the bulk of the allied forces were stationed. Each morning they sallied forth to the battlefield, and many never returned. Exiting the town, they had to go through The Menin Gate. Today, a very moving memorial ceremony takes place at 6.00 pm. sharp each evening. It is a ceremony to remember the soldiers who perished in the battles of World War 1 fought around the town from 1914 to 1918, and commences with a small parade, a eulogy followed by a hymn or two, and then the climax of this ceremony when a trumpeter plays “The Last Post”.  If one has managed to hold back his or her tears through the entire proceedings so far, the trumpeter’s rendition of ‘The Last Post’ will soon break down any emotional resistance. The sadness epitomised in each individual note sears through one’s very soul, and the only relief to assauge one’s grief is to let a few teardrops fall. The names of the soldiers who perished are engraved on the huge columns of the Menin Gate and I was also happy to read the names of the Indian and Bengali soldiers who left their home far away to fight for the empire and never returned to their homeland. I mention this because often in any remembrance ceremonies, the soldiers from the colonies hardly merit a mention. I hasten to add that this memorial ceremony has been enacted EVERY EVENING SINCE THE END OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR TO THIS VERY DAY. I was told that the place is packed every evening  –  there was hardly any room the evening, when I with the rest of the group were privileged to attend.

 

Two Canadians from the group and I made a special visit to the tomb of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, the Canadian poet  who served as a medical officer in the first World War. This poet has left us a lasting legacy in his masterpiece IN FLANDERS FIELD, which was the reason I made the visit because I had admired this poem for as long as I care to remember. Google it and you can read all three verses, but I shall quote the first verse to emphasise its poignancy :

 

“In Flanders Fields the poppies grow/ Between the crosses row on row/ That mark our place and in the sky/ The larks still bravely singing fly/ Scarce heard amid the guns below………”

 

This poem which was published in 1915, honours and commemorates the men who died in the horrific battles in Flanders. He was inspired to write it having presided over the funeral of a comrade Alex Helmer, and having seen the blood red poppies grow on the graves of the soldiers who lost their lives. He wrote it seated in the back of an ambulance. Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae died of pneumonia towards the end of the war.

 

WATERLOO –  In the year 1815, a battle was fought here which changed the face of Europe forever. The all conquering Corsican colonel Napoleon Bonaparte confronted the British army led by the Duke of Wellington in what history records as The Battle of Waterloo. The result is known to history, and this is where the once mighty emperor met HIS Waterloo. I visited the house which the Duke of Wellington occupied for the duration of this conflict located in the town of Waterloo. It is a museum today and houses many valuable exhibits, maps, letters, arms, swords, and other interesting exhibits. The room occupied by the Duke is still preserved with his writing desk and the bed he slept on. At one stage in this battle Napoleon almost had the upper hand, and it was the gallant arrival of the Prussians under General Blucher which turned the tide and saved the day for the English. Having played his part, General Blucher suffered an unexpected mishap, and suffered a broken leg when his horse fell on him ! He had to be removed from the field of battle and there is a picture of him being commended and presented with honours and awards a few weeks after the battle lying on a bed, his injured leg swathed in thick bandages. General Blucher was also the oldest soldier on the field that day. He was 72 years of age, while Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington were in their forties.The battlefield is partly farmland today and wide beautiful fields and grassland bordered by a few farms.

 

EPILOGUE

This has been a journey on a long road of many twists and turns……there have been moments of euphoria, delights, surprises, sadness, a lot of inspiration and philosophy –  and beautiful salt of the earth human beings who give of themselves unhesitatingly to make the world a better place. Art, culture, history, interaction with different people, unseen miracles which defy description but have to be experienced, the handiwork of Mother Nature, and other travel tit bits all combine to enrich one’s spirit and soothe the soul in a world which has lost its way.  And I headed home having learned the best lesson of all – The more I saw and learned, I realized how little I knew, and how much more there was to learn……..

 

Bernard Van Cuyenburg

Bernard VanCuylenburg.

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THE LAND OF MY FOREFATHERS (Part 1) – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

 

                                       The journey I was about to undertake would not only  in geographical terms span vast distances over land and sea……it was an odyssey which would cover a period of over four hundred years and one in which I would try to establish a “connection” with my ancestors. Navigating the paper chase of history and ancestry is never easy, but I was armed with a copy of the family tree which was sent to me by The  Hague in Holland in 1987, packed in my hand luggage, and one which I had perused times without number. The records I had obtained set the dates from 1625, but a cousin of mine who  travelled to Holland a few years ago had visited the town of Cuylenborg and even met some townsfolk with the same surname. The records he sent me dated from 1320. I was off on a tour of Holland and two Benelux countries and time was of the essence since the tour involved a packed itinerary everyday with some free time in between. I hoped to make a special trip to Cuylenborg in the free time available. It was a long long trail a winding, to quote the lyrics of an old song……….When I met my Tour Director in Amsterdam, he told me that in view of the busy tour schedule, which commenced the next day, a special trip to the home of my ancestors would be highly unlikely even in the free time available in between our daily travel itinerary. I still held on to the dream…….

 The gentle throbbing of the four Rolls Royce Trent Jet Engines   –  the beating heart of the giant  Airbus A-380 –  as it sat on its designated runway at Tullamarine International airport, resembled the  disgruntled growls of an angry beast straining at the leash in order to break its chains and seek its freedom. Inside the huge airbus, the cabin crew were all “action stations” as they prepared for take off, while the complement of passengers  –  542 as I later found out, sat patiently lost in their own thoughts in anticipation of the long journey ahead. Ensconced in seat No.41 D, the lyrics of a country hit by the late Don Williams came to mind –  “Some broken hearts never mend / Some memories never end……..” I mentally paraphrased the lyrics with my own version adding the words “Some Journeys never end……..” My experience has taught me that at the end of each destination, a new journey begins, there are new trails to explore, and distant horizons beckon, depending on how one fine tunes one’s antenna to life’s sensitivities. While the cabin crew explained the safety precautions, I was lost in a reverie of my own, until the calm collected voice of the Captain came soothingly over the speakers “Cabin crew prepare for take-off…..” and a few minutes later the behemoth of the skies  slowly hurtled down the runway picking up speed as it went along. Then gradually, with the grace of a ballerina this giant Beluga gently lifted up into the night sky its engines at full throttle, slotted on to its flight path, and roared off defiantly on the 14 hour 15 minute non stop flight to Dubai. I was bound for Amsterdam after a three hour transit in Dubai, from where the flight to Amsterdam entailed a time of seven hours and fifteen minutes.

 Twenty four hours and thirty minutes later I was one of the hundreds of passengers at Schipol International Airport standing in line in the “ALL OTHER PASSENGERS” queue waiting to clear Dutch immigration. Citizens of all European countries had a separate queue to facilitate immigration formalities. Exhausted beyond limits, I was finally happy to present my passport to the immigration officer. He took one look at it, looked at me again and then stated the obvious “But this is a Dutch name !!”  As coherently as possible I explained to him that my Dad’s ancestors originally hailed from the Dutch city of “Cuylenborg”‘ and left Holland around the mid 1600’s to go to Dutch occupied Ceylon to seek their fortunes. He then replied that he had heard about the Dutch East India Company, and with a cheery “Enjoy your stay in Holland” he stamped my passport and waved me on……And this was my genesis to getting acquainted with the land of my forefathers.

 In the collective human mind, the stereotyped image of Holland is a land of windmills, tulips and wooden shoes. This is almost cliched, because Holland today is much more than that. Amsterdam was my first port of call and I soon found it to be a free spirited city with an incredible diversity of cultures and cuisines in a fairy tale village like setting. The Dutch word “Gezellig” roughly translates it as ‘Cosy’ and ‘Convivial’. Its full meaning is more experienced than defined. It is a fascinating city. One hundred and sixty five canals criss cross the city spanned by 1753 bridges adding to her charm.  In fact Amsterdam has more canals than Venice and getting on the water is one of the best ways to feel her pulse. The canals were built during the “Golden Age” which roughly spanned a good part of the 17th century. Feel the good vibrations as you sit by the canals and watch the boats glide by and time permitting, you can check the cities 3050 houseboats. A cruise along the famous “World Heritage” listed UNESCO canal district will reveal the elegant merchant’s houses which have lined the canals over the past 400 years, the majestic facades and gables, beautiful churches and the iconic “Magere Bruge (” The ‘Skinny Bridge”) and many more delights.  The canals are just a backdrop for Amsterdams treasure packed museums, vintage shops, breweries, ultra niche restaurants, Dutch gin distilleries, and all the chocolate, coffee and cheese shops one could wish for ! It must be noted that since 2005 the houseboats have been required to connect to the cities sewerage system, and specialised cleaning boats patrol the canals regularly, to keep the waterways as pristine as possible. I would add that Amsterdam today is a city of coffee, cheese, and chocolate!   Practically every street has one of these shops to satisfy one’s sweet tooth or caffeine cravings. And there is an added bonus  – or temptation. Wander into any of these shops and there are rows of samples with all types of cheese and chocolate for the customer to sample before making a purchase. If one does not make a purchase, he or she is free to sample all they wish to anyway ! That is what I call an incentive to an indulgence – just nibble your way through on your own “tasting tour !”

 Amsterdam’s love affair with coffee goes back a long way. The first coffee beans in Europe were “discovered” in the conquered Ottoman army garrisons. In the 17th century the Dutch bypassed the Arab trade monopoly in coffee and also opened up large plantations in the territories which they conquered.  The writer Sanne Deurloo in her book “Why  do we drink so much coffee?” writes “…….Coffee and the Dutch are made for each other !  Unlike with wine and beer, you can drink coffee all day long and not get sick….!!!”  What a tantalising incentive to join the thousands of caffeine cravers ! The latest statistics place Spain and Italy second to Holland’s coffee rankings, and the American giant “Starbucks” got a foothold in Holland only five years ago. Much bigger than “Starbucks” is “Bagels and Beans” the Dutch Coffee giant which quoting their advertisements, “serves coffee pastries and happiness”.

ON YOUR BIKE !

Bicycles are what moves the masses to work in this delightful city which has more bicycles than cars. The young and the old, everybody rides a bike. Policeman on duty, executives in suits, clerks, schoolchildren, teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers , pedal power is their preferred mode of transport, and two wheeling is a way of life here. It is how the Amsterdammers get to work, do their shopping, and keep a date . The visitor if so inclined has an abundance of bike rental shops if he or she wishes to take a spin. Many visitors rent bikes and leaving the city behind head for the beautiful and green nature reserve called very aptly, “Waterland”.

THE JEWISH QUARTER

In the heart of Amsterdam is the Jewish Cultural Quarter. Magnificient synagogues, striking buildings and impressive memorials dominate the streetscape of the city’s Jewish neighbourhood. Jewish history, culture and traditions are evident in the Jewish Historical Museum and the national Holocaust Museum. Visiting the home of Anne Frank is a powerful and moving experience. During World War 2 the Germans occupied Holland in just five days, and many Jews like the Frank family went into hiding. The Franks moved into the upper floors of a building with another couple, the Van Pels. Here they survived until they were betrayed by the Gestapo in 1944. Except  for Mr.Otto Frank, Anne and the rest perished in the gas chambers in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  The story is too well known to bear repeating here.

THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT

The centuries old Red Light District  – or should I say the infamous Red Light District is where the action is pretty volatile ! And here’s the contradiction  – The oldest historic church in Amsterdam the “Oude Kerk” (Old Church) is incongruously situated in full view of The Red Light District !! Once a Catholic church, it is now Protestant and dates from 1306. Many famous citizens including Rembrandt’s second wife Saskia VanCuylenburg are buried under the tombstones. The city’s oldest church bell which dates from 1450 is in this church.

 THE ART WORLD

Each year, millions of visitors visit Holland and head for the world class art museums. Art collections take pride of place and one cannot walk a kilometre without bumping into a masterpiece. The glory goes to the tortured genius Vincent Van Gogh who toiled in ignominy while supported by his brother Theo. The other favourite Dutch  Masters like Vermeer, and Rembrandt, are big drawcards, but the art scene in this city goes well beyond them. Several art galleries in the city provide an outlet for avant-garde and emerging artists. But three iconic figures like Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Jan Vermeer are some of the world’s most revered and celebrated painters. Perhaps the 17th centuries greatest artist Rembrandt Van  Rijn was born in Leiden in 1606, the son of a miller. By the 1620’s this genius of the brush and pallette had become an accomplished painter. I crave the readers indulgence if I dwell on Rembrandt among a host of other painters, because this is where my family name enters the picture. In 1631 he went to Amsterdam having obtained employment to manage an art studio of a wealthy art dealer, Hendrick VanCuylenburg. In 1634 he married his bosse’s niece, Saskia VanCuylenburg. Unfortunately, Rembrandt fell out with his boss, but his wife’s money helped him to buy the house next door. Here he turned out his masterpieces, his paintings were a success and his studio became the largest in Holland. Saskia and he had a son Titus who was born in 1641. But then tragedy struck. In 1642 Saskia died and the business suffered a sharp decline. That same year he produced his masterpiece “The Night Watch” which can be seen in all its splendour in the world famous Rijks Museum. If one has been travelling a jaded vale in the world of art, one look at Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” will propel one to a mountain of enthusiasm. So graphic and realistic are the characters in this painting that they seem to be reaching out to the viewer over the centuries. This painting literally comes alive……….

 The Rijks Museum and the Vincent Van Gogh museum are a must for lovers of art. The Rijks is of course Holland’s top treasure house, while the latter houses the largest collection by Van Gogh. There are over two hundred canvases on display, plus other works by Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Monet. While Van Gogh expressed the emotion of his tortured soul in his paintings, perhaps the most beautiful words he ever spoke were “The more I think it over, the more I think there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people…..”

The port city of Rotterdam is worth a visit.  Most of the city was bombed out during World War 2, but has been completely rebuilt and is a joy to behold. To really appreciate the panoramic views of Rotterdam, ascend the iconic Euromast Tower and the beauty of this city and its surrounding landscapes will stun the senses. Visit the famous Food Market which has food from almost every European, Meditteranian, North African and Middle Eastern country to whet one’s appetite. A visit to Delft famous for its porcelaine blue pottery will not disappoint. Having visited the Wedgewood Pottery Plant in England a few years ago, and now having visited the Royal Delft Pottery workshop in Delft I surmised that beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder………

 The fortified city of Maastricht with its beautiful old churches, ancient city walls and stunning merchant houses took centre stage on my visit to this city. Ambling through the cobblestone streets  is a delight. And, on the way to Rotterdam discover the spectacular straight line of nineteen working windmills or the “Kinderdijk”.These windmills built in 1740 are below sea level and were built to pump water out of reclaimed land. And Masstricht is the home town of the classical music virtuoso Andre Rieu   –  the genius who gives the classics a shade of pop, which has kindled a love of the classics in pop and rock music fans. He is their favourite son as I soon discovered in the short time I spent in this city.

 DEN HAAG –  or THE HAGUE: Its treasured monuments, historic districts and prime location near the North Sea coastline makes The Hague one of the most extraordinary cities in Holland. Popularly known as “The Royal city by the sea”, The Hague is the residence of the Dutch royal family who have occupied it for the past four hundred years, and is also the seat of government. This entire area is set in a dreamworld fairy tale setting and a feast for the eyes to behold. It is a city easy to explore on foot and visitors who stay here for a few days will be amply rewarded with the numerous attractions the city offers   – museums, theatres, royal parks, restaurants galore, art museums, historical monuments……..in short a cultural cornucopia to satisfy the most fastidious visitor.

On the way to Rotterdam and Utretcht in the North, my Tour Director showed me the sign leading off the highway to the town of ‘Cuylenborg’. (The “Van” has been omitted because it simply means ‘OF’ in Dutch).   Alas for reasons explained earlier, a visit to this town was not possible and for now remains an elusive dream.  What I have highlighted is only a very brief thumbnail sketch of the myriad delights of this country which will always be a land of scenic landscapes dotted with windmills, centuries old picturesque villages , babbling brooks and green pastures, meandering canals, locals dressed in traditional costumes, Dutch specialities and picture postcard beauty. There are certain things in this world which one sees with one’s soul…….as Helen Keller, the American author and lecturer who lost her sight at the age of 18 once said, “The best and  most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart……” .Helen Keller was one of the most visually challenged and inspiring people, and the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree .

 EPILOGUE

Part two of this article  THE LAND OF MY FOREFATHERS  –  THE BENELUX BONANZA   –  will follow. It deals with my visit to two Benelux nations, Luxembourg and Belgium. It further confirmed to me that journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware……..

 

Bernard Van Cuyenburg

Bernard VanCuylenburg.

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ANCIENT GRANDEUR – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

 

Present day Xian in China is more famous today for the Terra Cotta Warriors. But in ancient times this grand city was once the capital of China and was known as Chang An. This is the city which saw the genesis of the Silk Road which ultimately led to ancient Rome.

 

The  Muslim Quarter in Xian deserves special mention due to its cultural diversity. As the name indicates, the Muslim Quarter has been home to the cities Hui community (Chinese Muslims) for centuries. Although Muslims have lived here since the 7th century, the community today did not take root until the time of the Ming dynasty. It is a fascinating place  – full of shops of every description  – books shops with copies of ancient maps and other historical trivia, coffee shops, tea shops, spice shops, shops with the best silks and items of clothing, shoe shops, shops with mountains of raisins, walnuts, almonds, pistacchios, plus the usual gauntlet of souvenir stands…..you name it, it is here.

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