Green Gold: The Discovery of Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity,by Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda-By Ifham Nizam

Green Gold: The Discovery of Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity,by Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda-By Ifham Nizam


Dr. Pethiyagoda with his book


The idea of exploration for its own sake is associated very much with Western culture. The Sinhala word for this pursuit—gaveshanaya, literally ‘to search for cattle’—is evidence of this. While ancient Sri Lankans had names for every useful plant and animal, there was little thirst to discover every single species there is, to describe it, and to give it a name. That was an altogether European idea.

This is not to say that European explorers were all motivated purely by scientific curiosity. Many of them were in search of medicinal and other plants of economic value. Sri Lankan cuisine is defined by plants discovered in the New World by Portuguese colonisers and brought to our shores: sweet potatoes, manioc, cashew nuts and, not least, chilies. And what would European cuisine be if not for potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate and vanilla? Likewise, they ‘discovered’ cinnamon and black pepper in Sri Lanka, in addition to pearls—the mainstays of our pre-colonial export economy—and took these to the world. And then came tea and rubber, discovered in Assam and the Amazon by European explorers and introduced to Sri Lanka, with enormous economic consequences that have lasted to our day. It was these explorers that made the world go around, and their legacy still makes it go around.

Meanwhile, exploration with no expectation of commercial reward became a pursuit of its own: the gentleman explorer. These were people who took to doing what we would now call ‘field work’, collecting plant and animal specimens, and then going on to classify, describe and name them as species, genera and so on. This process of ‘pure exploration’ began in Sri Lanka only during the Dutch period. And it is the lives of these explorers, on to the early post-colonial period, that Rohan Pethiyagoda describes in his new book, ‘Green Gold: the discovery of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity’, published by Dilmah Conservation.

In this, Pethiyagoda draws together the threads that drew European explorers to Sri Lanka’s shores in the 17th and 18th centuries. Between 1717 and 1747 for example, three books were published on the flora of Sri Lanka, drawing the world’s attention to the island’s botanical riches. These expanded on local plant identifications, transliterating names into Latin and formalizing them in the scientific literature. With the establishment of the Herbarium at Peradeniya in 1821, Sri Lanka had an institution devoted to botanical exploration, attracting expert botanists to the island. The establishment of the Colombo Museum in 1877 likewise served zoological exploration.

The book is a completely revised and expanded edition of Pethiyagoda’s 2007 publication, ‘Pearls, Spices & Green Gold’. Two new appendices are of special interest. One of these is the diary of Anna Maria Walker, the first white woman to ascend Adam’s Peak, just two years after the Kandyan Rebellion of 1818. Her account of her second ascent in 1833 is reproduced in full: it makes fascinating reading. The other appendix is an account of the rubber plantation industry which, by the early 20thcentury, made Sri Lanka the most prosperous of British colonies.

But the bulk of the book is devoted to the biographies of the dozens of botanists and zoologists who discovered the island’s astonishing biodiversity. Some professional, some amateur, all dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. The depth of scholarship the book represents highlights the author’s own dedication to research. The volume is the result of countless visits to overseas museums, archives and libraries and graveyards. For example, Pethiyagoda himself travelled to Tasmania in search of the roots of William Vincent Legge, the most famous ornithologist to have worked in Sri Lanka. Not just that, he sought out the manuscript autobiographies of other well-known naturalists such as GMR Henry and WWA Phillips, allowing him to share details of their lives that would otherwise have been lost to posterity.

Among the most fascinating lives he describes are those of Harmanis de Alwis, a lowly draughtsman from Kalutara, who spend the major portion of his century long life over the 19thcentury illustrating the plants of Sri Lanka. Then there were the apparently gay Swiss cousins Paul and Fritz Sarasin who visited the island four times not just making zoological collections but slaughtering countless elephants in the name of science while raiding vedda graves to discover whether they were the missing link between apes and humans. Their work was inspired by the ideas of Ernst Haeckel, who visited Sri Lanka in the 1880s and was first to illustrate the Horton Plains. Pethiyagoda shows that the ideas of Haeckel and the Sarasins heavily influenced the rise of Naziism in Germany in the early 20thcentury. The quirkiness of the stories seems inexhaustible: it was a Swiss sexologist, Augustus Forel, for example, who made the greatest contribution to our knowledge of the ants of Sri Lanka.

‘Green Gold’ is a treasure trove of historical information and anecdotes that gives meaning and context to the discovery of Sri Lanka’s fauna and flora. The book is full of fascinating stories and insights that everyone interested in this topic will delight in.

Today, gaveshanaya is practised by large numbers of young naturalists who are in every way the peers of their colonial forebears. Exploration has now become a mainstream activity among native Sri Lankans. The example of people like Pethiyagoda, who took the torch of exploration from the colonial era and passed it on, often translated into Sinhala, to young Sri Lankans in the 1990s, greatly accelerated the pace of discovery in Sri Lanka. But the book doesn’t include details of his life or those of other living Sri Lankans: ‘You have to be dead to earn a mention in these pages’, explains the author. But that should not underplay the influence Rohan Pethiyagoda has had on young explorers and scientists in Sri Lanka. Many would argue that he helped enormously to spawn the current generation of taxonomists who now flourish in our jungles, discovering and naming species. What greater legacy can anyone leave to posterity than that?

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