King Tom in Ceylon and the beautiful dancer….

We’ve reviewed  Sir Thomas Maitland’s career on various occasions, ( Yearbooks 1971, 1984,1986,1987,1992 and 2001), but now come to a picturesque period of his life when he was Governor of Ceylon from 1805 to 1811.

His career had already been active – action in India from 1778 to 1789 and the West Indies from 1794 to 1798, Brigadier General in San Domingo from 1797. During 1789 at the outbreak of the French revolution he had been sent to Paris to rescue royalists. Later in India he served in Bengal and was active in suppressing the 1806 Madras Mutinies, when  he sent all his available troops from Ceylon, and took an active part in re-organising  the East India company after the mutinies.

Maitland had a flair for colonial administration, and this was shown by the results, as well as his reputation after his death. When I met the former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, and currently Leader of the Opposition (almost the only Asian opposition leader not in jail!) he told me about Sir Thomas’ reforms of the legal system and establishment of the Supreme Court. He codified Ceylon law by taking existing legal practice and custom as the basis of the code, and then adding appropriate English law where necessary. His respect for local practice was and is greatly appreciated.  His tenure as Governor of Malta and the Ionian Islands was also marked by efficient and thoughtful administration and he is also regarded as the founder of Maltese liberties, with many of his institutions still in place.

He arrived in Ceylon on 17th  July 1805 with the British administration in some disorder after military defeats at Kandy in the mountainous centre of the island. The first three months were spent touring the island and examining the accounts  of every department under his control. On the 19th October he sent a massive report of 123 folios and 57 enclosures to the Colonial Secretary.

The final paragraph condemned the existing governor’s residence

“My own situation in one respect is exceedingly uncomfortable. I would have had no place to live in at all if Mr. North had not ordered the house I am now in, and which has been unroofed by lightning, to be repaired antecedent my arrival. As it is, it is an extra bad one, and will require constant repair, but I must have some place in the country without which nobody can go on.

I do not consider the house Mr. North lived in decent accommodation for any man.”

Maitland was not the man who awaited permission to go ahead with his plans – in any event , approval might be refused, so he began work at once on a new residence.

Five months later, in his next report, he was able to inform the Colonial Secretary that a new and satisfactory residence had been completed, at no cost to the Government.

Lord Camden
Downing Street
Point de Galle

March 10th 1806

Dear Sir,

In my last letter to you I stated my feelings about my personal accommodation in the point of houses. I gave to Mr. Twistleton, the sitting Magistrate for his Office, the house lately occupied by Mr. North (St. Sebastian’s) and I have been able to provide for myself perfectly to my own comfort, by building a small bungalow in the country, through the medium of the Artificers kept on constant pay, without any additional expense to His Majesty’s Government.

On the contrary, by having sold one or two houses belonging to the Government, there has been a Receipt to Government on the subject of about £20,000.

T. Maitland

Point de Galle, now known as Mount Lavinia,  is a small promontory about seven miles south of Colombo, and the bungalow was sited on rocks about a hundred feet above the sea, enjoying a cooling sea breeze during the day. It was also on land which belonged to the Government, so no property purchase was needed. Thomas has spent his first three months to very good effect to find such a fine site.

Maitland had followed his own principles closely by exercising substantial economy in building the new residence, and generating a surplus on the way. He had advocated that no government was entirely successful unless it could point to a surplus, and managed to cut expenditure in Ceylon by £30,000 in his first year.

The next day he wrote his first letter from his new home, and used Mount Lavinia as the address.

Why Lavinia?

It was customary for senior Government officials to keep a good table and entertain guests continuously – it was after all, the best means of meeting official visitors and subordinates, and it was noted that “he lived in a princely state and enjoyed the pleasures of the table and that he entertained lavishly, although not extravagantly.”

It was also customary in the East to provide entertainment,  and there were many troupes of dancers available. Today, the dancing is memorable, with Kandyan dancers, mainly men, and female dancing groups as well.

Thomas Maitland appears to have fallen for Lovina Aponsuwa, half Sinhalese and half Portuguese, the lead dancer of her father’s dancing troupe. We don’t have any contemporary pictures of her, but relying on the typical dancers of today, we have a reconstruction of the event. 

"As she danced before him, enticing him with her long flowing jet black tresses and fixing his attention with her large, expressive, hazel brown eyes, King Tom was mesmerised."

At any rate, she and her troupe became regular performers at the Governor’s house, and before long King Tom and Lovina were  engaged in a clandestine romance.  She lived not far from the Governor’s house and a tunnel led from near her home to the cellars of the house, so she could come and go without attracting undue attention.   The tunnel was probably been built for security to provide a means of escape in case of need, but served a useful purpose for their romance.

The relationship only ended in 1811 when Thomas Maitland was forced to resign the Governorship due to ill health and return to England where he almost at once became  in suppressing the Luddite Revolt in Yorkshire in 1812.

However, he did not leave Lovina penniless, and presented her with a large piece of land in Attidiya, a village some miles away.

After his departure his successor, Sit Robert Brownrigg found some problems – most of the land used for the residence did not belong to the Government at all – Maitland had simply built on it. In a minute to the Legislative Council of Ceylon, Brownrigg observed:

"Of the whole extent occupied by the Buildings and enclosures the single spot belonging in property to the Crown, is the mere site of the house, being the summit of a Rock which had never been granted away by the Dutch Government all the rest including a compass of about 35 acres, consists of small allotments belonging to a variety of individuals from whom ever since my arrival here to the present time, a succession of Petitions and Applications have come before me, some demanding rent for a number of years back, others praying that the publick premises may be removed and a very few consenting to sell their land, but exacting, as might be expected from the circumstances of Government having placed itself in some measure at their mercy, a very unreasonable consideration."

An expense of 18,000 rix dollars (silver coins about 1 inch in diameter, worth one third of a Spanish dollar, minted by the colonial government), worth about £1,600 was approved to regularise the situation, a modest amount in the situation, to buy 35 cres of land covered by Government buildings.

Subsequent correspondence reveals that Mount Lavinia was surrounded by barracks, offices and accommodation for colonial officials. The building was single storey and made of local materials in local style which required constant repair in the hostile climate whose searing heat alternated with tropical downpours. Much of the correspondence relates to the need for substantial expense to maintain the buildings, their ruinous state, and the  urgent need for works. Finally, in 1825 Governor Sir Edward Barnes obtained approval to rebuild Mount Lavinia using stone and other durable materials – Maitland’s building had been a wooden structure with a thatched roof. Little was left apart from the foundations. His final expenses amounted to £5410/10/4 3/4d, the most part labour, with some smoke and mirrors accounting. A trade training school was established in Ceylon at that time, and Mount Lavinia chosen as its site. 150 trainees were employed, but not paid until they became proficient. On completion of the new Mount Lavinia , the European instructors returned to the UK, whilst the now qualified tradesmen were sent to Kandy in the mountainous centre of Ceylon to build a new Governor’s residence. If the engineers salaries were excluded, as they were in government employment as trainers, than the cost was nearer £2,000.

However, this was all a far cry from Sir Thomas Maitland’s style who did not seek permission to build the house which he asserted had cost nothing and that he had raised £20,000 by some asset sales at the same time.

The new building reflected English design of the 1790’s and was an English country house on the edge of the Indian Ocean, and is now the centre of the Mount Lavinia hotel.

Only a few years later, in 1832 the Government proposed to sell it, but were dissuaded by the Governor, who pointed out that there were no local potential buyers, and it would fetch only the demolition value of its materials. The Government prevailed,  and finally sold it in 1842 for a mere £120.

Mount Lavinia today

Colombo has encroached  on the former country house, and a railway line forms one boundary of the property which has become a very attractive resort hotel, well known throughout Sri Lanka as the country is now known. Built over the sea, rooms have splendid views and there are attractive  restaurants with polls and a fine beach – the only beach hotel in Colombo. Actively managed, there  are often six wedding receptions in a single day.

Our visit to Mount Lavinia celebrated the 200th anniversary of the completion of King Tom’s country house, which was attended by a great range of visitors and featured in Hi, Sri Lanka’s version of Hello!

Sir Thomas Maitland as a colonial administrator

In his instruction to the Government Collectors (senior regional administrators), Sir Thomas wrote “The sole object of Government is and always ought to be ….to ensure the prosperity of the island solely through……increasing the prosperity and happiness of the natives.”   He is remembered in Sri Lanka as a caring and thoughtful administrator who took full account of local law and custom when codifying Ceylonese law.

This pattern was followed in his administration of Malta and the Ionian Islands. In Malta his reforms included the abolition of torture, establishment of a High Court of Appeal (to hear appeals from Commercial and Civil courts), a Supreme Council of Justice, separation between legislative, executive and judicial authorities and suppression of the grain monopoly.

In establishing the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1818 for exclusive use in the Mediterranean, Sir Thomas made it clear that all Maltese and Ionians, not just those of noble birth were eligible for the award.

Walter Frewen Lord in his "Mastery of the Mediterranean" summarised Sir Thomas as "the only Mediterranean statesman that England (sic) ever produced." Sir Charles Napier, an eminent soldier who had served under King Tom for many years wrote "King Tom was a rock; a rock on which you might be saved or dashed to pieces, but always a rock."