|Discomedusae, by Ernst Haeckel|
by Ernst Haeckel
translated by Clara Bell
translated by Clara Bell
This is a delightful account of a visit to my native country by one of the greatest naturalists of the latter half of the nineteenth century, who was a fine writer and a brilliant artist to boot. His book concentrates mostly on the geography and natural history of the country, though he makes some observations about the people, too. Although his outlook and his ideas inevitably reflect his time, he brings a devotedly empirical attitude, as well as a refreshingly modern scepticism, to his observations. Haeckel was, of course, a great supporter of evolutionary theory and the man chiefly responsible for introducing Darwin’s work to the German-speaking world. Less admirably, he was also a proponent of racist and eugenicist views – which are, fortunately, present only in germinal form here.
I’d known about this book for many years and even repeated one oft-quoted passage from it in my own writings, but somehow never got round to reading the whole thing until a few weeks ago. What a treat it turned out to be. Haeckel’s breezy, confident, yet somehow unassuming style is a delight, and his descriptions of sights and scenes in Ceylon are lapidary. He gives us an island full of laughter, light and air, a far cry from the stygian forests, brooding ruins and shiftless devil-worshipping natives portrayed by Christian missionaries, who were embittered by their largely fruitless struggles to convert the Ceylonese from their native superstitions to those of Europe. Even these disappointed souls, however, never failed to testify to the natural beauty of the country – at which Haeckel never ceases, in his book, to marvel.
Ceylon: Jungle River by Ernst Haeckel. Lithograph by W. Koehler
His account of his excursions in Ceylon made me want to travel back in time and see my native land as it used to be before modernity, money and a growing population took their inevitable toll. The land he describes is Edenic, with only the faintest marks of human habitation and industry to mar it – except in the hill country, where he laments the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of primaeval forest to the colonial plantation enterprise. Ceylon was then in truth the paradise of nature clumsily and mendaciously evoked in present-day tourist advertising. Accessible fragments of paradise still remained when I was a young man, but they are nearly all gone now. Books like these, old sketches, paintings and photographs are all that remain. Ceylon no longer exists; we are all Sri Lankans now, to our great loss.
|Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel|