December 10, 2004
Well before he became famous as a member of the Bloomsbury Group in London or as husband of Virginia Stephen, Leonard Sidney Woolf landed in Sri Lanka as a cadet of the Ceylon Civil Service. He was 24 at the time, and the date was December 16, 1904. It is doubtful if Leonard himself would have cared to remember the date, but Sri Lankans do. A group of Sri Lankans in London, who run their own Ceylon Bloomsbury Group, is proposing to remember old Leonard this December 16 by planting a tree in Bloomsbury near where he lived. Also, the International Conference of Sri Lankan Studies and the University of Ottawa (Canada) are returning to the Ruhunu University in southern Sri Lanka about the same time for an international conclave to consider how culture and society have changed in Sri Lanka since Leonard’s time.
Leonard Woolf served in Sri Lanka in various capacities, including as a district officer in Jaffna and as magistrate in Kandy. But it is the three years that he spent as assistant government agent (equivalent of a deputy commissioner) in Hambantota in the south that made the most lasting impression on him. In 1911, he quit the service as he felt “sick of being an imperialist” (an example George Orwell was to emulate a decade later) and returned to his literary fraternity in London. The Village and the Jungle was based on his experiences during this last posting. He did not write much during his Lankan stay except for maintaining a diary that is seen as important source material. His literary career still lay ahead.
Years later, when proposals for Indian independence were being discussed in London, he, then an influential member of the Labour Party, lobbied strongly lest “Ceylon” be left out just because it hadn’t had a freedom movement. “If a large measure of responsible government be granted to India and not to Ceylon,” he argued, “the position will be grotesque and impossible.”
In the thirties, Leonard suggested that the island nation be reconstituted after the fashion of Swiss cantons with each canton enjoying a considerable degree of autonomy. That was well before the Sri Lankan Tamils had thought of federalism as part of their political agenda.
Aged 80, Leonard came back to Sri Lanka in 1960. His second coming was treated as an event by the government and the media. He was aghast to find that the court system in independent Sri Lanka functioned exactly the way it had during his time half a century earlier.
In The Village and the Jungle, he had derided the colonial judicial system on the basis of his experiences as a magistrate. The novel highlights the absurdity of delivering justice to an indigenous population ignoring their own value system and their way of looking at things. But some things just won’t change — not much, in any case — the post-colonial judicial system among them!
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