The colonial heritage of Hambantota | Sunday Observer

The colonial heritage of Hambantota

14 May, 2023
The tamarind tree in Migahajadura where Leonard Woolf set up the mobile court under the tree
The tamarind tree in Migahajadura where Leonard Woolf set up the mobile court under the tree

A few decades ago, the delightful seaside resort of Hambantota was a sleepy town in Southern part of Sri Lanka. It was an amazing white sandy shore for foreign tourists who headed for the Yala National Park and a resting sea shore for local pilgrims who visit the sacred site of Kataragama.

I still reminisce as a boy, most of our pilgrimages to Kataragama, we used to stop in Hambantota sea beach to have our lunch. Under the towering coconut palm groves, we sat under a shady trees and had our meals. After that, we ran to the wet shore to collect sea shells. Sometimes, we watched fishermen tugging Maa Del to shore with bountiful harvest. However, as children, we had a fun time at Hambantota during the pilgrimages to Kataragama.

Throughout the country, particularly in the South, where former President Mahinda Rajapaksa came from, he enjoyed widespread support. While President until 2015, his key development projects were the building up of Hambantota Magampura port, Mattala International Airport, Suriyawewa International Cricket stadium and highway construction of the new multilane overpass in Southern Expressway that was connected to the Hambantata port and airport.

So, these projects are said to form part of the government’s plan to transform Hambantota into the second major urban hub of Sri Lanka, away from Colombo.

Salterns and bird sanctuaries

Woolf reads his official diaries from Hambantota in 1960
(Pic courtesy: Woolf in Ceylon)

Henry Engelbrecht, the first game warden of the Yala Game Sanctuary (Pic courtesy: Woolf in Ceylon)

The city of Hambantota laden with salterns and bird sanctuaries, sheltering a placid bay is 238 kms from Colombo. The old name of Hambantota appears to have been Sampan-Thurai. There the name thurai in Tamil means a harbour or a port. The word Sampan is derived from the Malay language. The Malays were great navigators and were even said to be pirates of old as well. These seafaring set of people had found their way during the rule of the Sinhala kings and subsequently during the British times.

The elite Malaya Rifle Regiment of the British Raj comprised these Malays of old and they were proud of their elite Regiment exclusively made up of them. A few descendants of these peerless Malay regiment are still found in the town of Hambantota. Sadly, the 2004 Tsunami devastated the Hambantota town and its environ, and reportedly killed more than 4,500 people.

The striking landmark of the Hambantota is salterns (Lewayas). Beyond the 147th mile post, the land is flanked on the Western side by the seashore, while the other side is studded with salt pans. In the main salterns (Maha Lewaya – Hambantota), are studded with lagoons and Lewayas.

Coming to the seaside, are huge sand dunes formed through the winds that swept the sand and became deposited in mountainous heaps. These Palmyrah palms were planted by an Assistant Government Agent, Hambantota, C.A. Murray during the British times. Down in Hambantota, there is a street called Murray Street (named after the Assistant Government Agent Murray).

Martello Tower

Overlooking this prominent promontory that runs into the wide open deep blue sea, stands the imposing Martello Tower with many small pigeon holes – narrow squares like lookout towers facing in all its directions. This striking landmark Martello Tower facing the vast ocean is a relic of a British fortification, though some mistakenly allude it to a Dutch fortification or some kind of bastion. The other conspicuous sentinel is the towering Light House that stands almost alongside this Martello Tower.   

Among the illustrious Assistant Government Agents of the Hambantota district was scholar Leonard Woolf (1908-11), author of ‘The Village in the Jungle’. His classic, but immortal diaries were later published in printed form under the title of Leonard Woolf’s Printed Diaries – 1908-11. His diaries are replete with first-hand accounts of the life and times of the poor and miserable villagers sunk in the backwoods of the Magam Pattuwa (Hambantota district).

In October 1904, Woolf became a cadet in the Ceylon Civil Service in Jaffna and by August 1908 was named an Assistant Government Agent administering the Hambantota District. Jungle images, sounds and emotions took possession of Woolf in the course of moving around the villages of Magam Pattu by horse, by bicycle or on foot during his regular circuits or while on special calls. Circuits were intended for inspecting roads, irrigation works and schools, for regulating the use of cleaning of the jungle to cultivate dry crops (a process known as chena cultivating), for keeping an eye on hunting and poaching in the game sanctuary.

During one of our visits to the Northern tip of the Hambantota District, a serene farming village known as Migahajadura, where I came across a huge tamarind tree which is still exist on the wayside. Woolf settled disputes under the shade of this tree, and carried out judicial work in the regular mobile courts as a magistrate.

Village in the Jungle

His classic English novel, based on the wild rural background in the Hambantota District, ‘The Village in the Jungle’ was translated in to Sinhala, titled ‘Beddegama’. Even a film was produced under the theme of ‘Beddegama’.

During our recent journey to Hambantota, we visited another unforgettable, but memorial landmark in the form of requiems from British times in the little Catholic cemetery facing the main road, by the seashore with parapet wall. This cemetery in the Hambantota District contains attractive memorial tombs in revered but loving and everlasting memory of the British departed ones.

They had served as engineers and administrators in this great wilderness. But today Hambantota has emerged into a fine township with modern facilities. In this cemetery by the seashore also stands the tomb of the famed Boer prisoner of war Henry Engelbrecht, the first game warden of the Yala Game Sanctuary from 1901-1922 (the present Ruhuna National Park in Yala).

Along with 5,000 other Boer prisoners of war, Engelbrecht was kept in Sri Lanka by the British until the war in South Africa ended in 1902. These prisoners were allowed to go back provided they took an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. All of them complied except Engelbrecht and four others who were not allowed to return.

Engelbrecht was sent to Hambantota and the other four to Jaffna and Batticaloa where they were maintained on a government allowance of Rs. 1.25 per day, paid on a monthly basis from kachcheries.

After the four Boers in Jaffna and Batticaloa died, Engelbrecht remained to eke out an existence on his measly dole. When he was turned out of the house he was living in because he could not pay the rent, he received a great deal of public sympathy.

His case was accordingly looked on favourably by the Governor, who appointed Engelbrecht game warden of the maritime area between the Kumbukkan Oya and Menik Ganga (the present Ruhuna National Park) which had been declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1899.


Engelbrecht was also an excellent marksman, a skill that he used in a humane way to protect pilgrims using the old trail from the Kumbukkan Oya to Kataragama from the threat of leopards.

During the British-Dutch times, Hambantota was a busy port where even passenger seagoing vessels called over from Colombo en-route to Batticaloa (that was long before the advent of the rail road transport). The relics of this old jetty, a few piers still peep out of the bay.

The Malala Kalapuwa and Bundala lagoon have been the favourite refuges of the stately migrant birds called flamingoes (Siyakkaraya – in Sinhala). But since 1991/92, their sightings have waned. Wild life enthusiasts and nature buffs, attribute this sudden disappearance and their scanty sightings to an ecological disaster. After the damming of the Kirindi Oya at Lunugam Vehera, its drainage waters flood into the Bundala and Malala lagoons, making their usual habitat unsuitable for them.

And what Leonard Woolf said so many decades ago rings true when visiting abandoned villages such as Migahajadura, for the lives of the peasantry and their fight for survival do not seem to have changed much from those times to date.