OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fifth Series (1893-96)
by Henry Steel Olcott
WELCOMING MRS. BESANT
HAVING been suffering from nervous debility, a reaction from the excitement which I had been passing through, I went for a change to my cottage in the mountains for three weeks, and then sailed for Colombo, to arrange with the Buddhists for the reception of Mrs. Besant and for her lectures. I reached there on the 30th of October, and from that time onward had my hands full with a variety of business, such as inspecting schools, meeting committees, consulting with the High Priest, and explaining who Mrs. Besant was and what had been her public services. She and Countess Wachtmeister arrived on the 9th of November, late in the evening. From 2 to 8 p.m. a thousand people, including 200 of our boy pupils and 125 girls, had waited patiently for them and then dispersed. They landed at about 9 o’clock the next morning. At our headquarters, three engrossed addresses were read to them in the presence of a large crowd, and at the Sanghamitta School, where they were to be the guests of Mrs. Higgins, another address was read by the
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prize girl of the school. Mr. R. C. Dutt, C.I.E., the respected Hindu publicist and historian, and other passengers breakfasted with us, and altogether a charming impression was made on our ladies by their reception in the Island. At 2 p.m. we took train for Kandy. We were escorted from the station to our lodgings by a great torchlight procession and the whole Buddhist population of the town lined the streets and made noisy demonstrations of welcome. At 8.30 p.m. Mrs. Besant lectured in the Town Hall on the subject of “The World’s Great Needs”. The large audience was deeply impressed and excited to enthusiasm by her eloquence, frankness of speech, and sympathy for the views and aspirations of the Sinhalese people. The next morning was devoted to a drive around the lake, visits to temples and a prize distribution at our local High School. We returned to Colombo by the 10.40 a.m. train and were given a garden party at the Sanghamitta School. Mrs. Besant lectured in the evening at the Public Hall to a packed audience. H. E. the Governor and Lady Havelock, H. E. the Commander-in-Chief, and most of the influential Europeans and other inhabitants of the town were present. The audience listened with the closest attention to the lecture, and the applause at the end was vehement. There was great disappointment because of the impossibility of her giving a second lecture. The impression made upon the Buddhists maybe gauged from a remark that was overheard as the audience were passing out. “There is not much use,” said
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an enthusiastic Sinhalese man, with his eyes sparkling, “in our getting the priests to preach Bana to us when we can hear lectures like that”; and really the remark was justified, for I doubt if the basic Buddhist doctrine of Karma was ever more clearly or attractively expounded in the Island before. With these two lectures the great Indian tour of Mrs. Besant, 1893-4, was inaugurated and the success which crowned them was but a foretaste of that which followed her throughout.
On the 12th we went from Colombo to Galle by train. At all the principal stations the children of our Buddhist schools cheered her with their piping voices and swarmed like bees outside the door of her carriage. Flowers they brought—loose, in bouquets, and in wreaths. At Ambalangoda the children read an address to her, and at one or two other stations where the train made but brief stops, written addresses were handed in to her along with the tribute of flowers. Reaching Galle at 3 p.m. we had an enthusiastic reception at our Mahinda College, from the 200 or more pupils, and Mrs. Besant lectured to a very large mixed audience of Europeans and Sinhalese. In the evening, at our quarters, there was a display of fireworks and an exhibition of that weird and striking devil-dancing for which Ceylon is famous. We drove around Galle the next day; at 3 p.m. I lectured by request on “The Aims and Work of the Maha-Bodhi Society”; at 8.30 p.m. Mrs. Besant lectured in the great dining-hall of the Oriental Hotel. This closed our visit at Galle.
WELCOMING MRS. BESANT 53
We rose on the morning of the 14th at 4.30 a.m. and took the train an hour later for Colombo. At Panadure, often miscalled Pantura—the place where occurred the famous controversy between Megittuwatte, the Buddhist champion, and the Reverend Silva, a missionary, in which the latter was completely worsted—we had arranged to stop over one train to enable the citizens to present an address to Mrs. Besant and to hear her lecture. Our local Branch there has a fine large school building, and in that the meeting was held and addresses were given by Mrs. Besant and myself. The journey was then continued and we reached Colombo at 5 p.m. On the following day I took the ladies to pay their respects to the High Priest Sumangala, after which Mrs. Besant laid the corner-stone of a new school building that Mrs. Higgins was planning to build on a piece of land given her for the purpose by Mr. Peter de Abrew. This was the last public act of Mrs. Besant during her present visit to the Island, for the next day we crossed over to Tuticorin to take up the Indian tour proper.