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The Chinese ‘Debt Trap’ is a myth

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Chinese firms are not the only companies to benefit from Chinese-financed projects. Perhaps no country was more alarmed by Hambantota than India, the regional giant that several times rebuffed Sri Lanka’s appeals for investment, aid, and equity partnerships.

The narrative wrongfully portrays both Beijing and the developing countries it deals with

by DEBORAH BRAUTIGAM and 
MEG RITHMIRE
The atlantic

China, we are told, inveigles poorer countries into taking out loan after loan to build expensive infrastructure that they can’t afford and that will yield few benefits, all with the end goal of Beijing eventually taking control of these assets from its struggling borrowers. As states around the world pile on debt to combat the coronavirus pandemic and bolster flagging economies, fears of such possible seizures have only amplified.

Seen this way, China’s internationalization—as laid out in programmes such as the Belt and Road Initiative—is not simply a pursuit of geopolitical influence but also, in some tellings, a weapon. Once a country is weighed down by Chinese loans, like a hapless gambler who borrows from the Mafia, it is Beijing’s puppet and in danger of losing a limb.

The prime example of this is the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota. As the story goes, Beijing pushed Sri Lanka into borrowing money from Chinese banks to pay for the project, which had no prospect of commercial success. Onerous terms and feeble revenues eventually pushed Sri Lanka into default, at which point Beijing demanded the port as collateral, forcing the Sri Lankan government to surrender control to a Chinese firm.

The Trump administration pointed to Hambantota to warn of China’s strategic use of debt: In 2018, former Vice President Mike Pence called it “debt-trap diplomacy”—a phrase he used through the last days of the administration—and evidence of China’s military ambitions. Last year, erstwhile Attorney General William Barr raised the case to argue that Beijing is “loading poor countries up with debt, refusing to renegotiate terms, and then taking control of the infrastructure itself.”

As Michael Ondaatje, one of Sri Lanka’s greatest chroniclers, once said, “In Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.” And the debt-trap narrative is just that: a lie, and a powerful one.

Our research shows that Chinese banks are willing to restructure the terms of existing loans and have never actually seized an asset from any country, much less the port of Hambantota. A Chinese company’s acquisition of a majority stake in the port was a cautionary tale, but it’s not the one we’ve often heard. With a new administration in Washington, the truth about the widely, perhaps willfully, misunderstood case of Hambantota Port is long overdue.

The city of Hambantota lies at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, a few nautical miles from the busy Indian Ocean shipping lane that accounts for nearly all of the ocean-borne trade between Asia and Europe, and more than 80 percent of ocean-borne global trade. When a Chinese firm snagged the contract to build the city’s port, it was stepping into an ongoing Western competition, though one the United States had largely abandoned.

It was the Canadian International Development Agency—not China—that financed Canada’s leading engineering and construction firm, SNC-Lavalin, to carry out a feasibility study for the port. We obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents detailing this effort through a Freedom of Information Act request. The study, concluded in 2003, confirmed that building the port at Hambantota was feasible, and supporting documents show that the Canadians’ greatest fear was losing the project to European competitors. SNC-Lavalin recommended that it be undertaken through a joint-venture agreement between the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and a “private consortium” on a build-own-operate-transfer basis, a type of project in which a single company receives a contract to undertake all the steps required to get such a port up and running, and then gets to operate it when it is.

The Canadian project failed to move forward, mostly because of the vicissitudes of Sri Lankan politics. But the plan to build a port in Hambantota gained traction during the rule of the Rajapaksas—Mahinda Rajapaksa, who served as President from 2005 through 2015, and his brother Gotabaya, the current President and former Minister of Defence—who grew up in Hambantota. They promised to bring big ships to the region, a call that gained urgency after the devastating 2004 tsunami pulverized Sri Lanka’s coast and the local economy.

We reviewed a second feasibility report, produced in 2006 by the Danish engineering firm Ramboll, that made similar recommendations to the plans put forward by SNC-Lavalin, arguing that an initial phase of the project should allow for the transport of non-containerized cargo—oil, cars, grain—to start bringing in revenue, before expanding the port to be able to handle the traffic and storage of traditional containers. By then, the port in the capital city of Colombo, a 100 miles away and consistently one of the world’s busiest, had just expanded and was already pushing capacity. The Colombo port, however, was smack in the middle of the city, while Hambantota had a hinterland, meaning it offered greater potential for expansion and development.

(Read: The undoing of China’s economic miracle)

To look at a map of the Indian Ocean region at the time was to see opportunity and expanding middle classes everywhere. Families in India and across Africa were demanding more consumer goods from China. Countries such as Vietnam were growing rapidly and would need more natural resources. To justify its existence, the port in Hambantota would have to secure only a fraction of the cargo that went through Singapore, the world’s busiest transshipment port.

Armed with the Ramboll report, Sri Lanka’s government approached the United States and India; both countries said no. But a Chinese construction firm, China Harbour Group, had learned about Colombo’s hopes, and lobbied hard for the project. China Eximbank agreed to fund it, and China Harbour won the contract.

This was in 2007, six years before Xi Jinping introduced the Belt and Road Initiative. Sri Lanka was still in the last, and bloodiest, phase of its long civil war, and the world was on the verge of a financial crisis. The details are important: China Eximbank offered a $307 million, 15-year commercial loan with a four-year grace period, offering Sri Lanka a choice between a 6.3 percent fixed interest rate or one that would rise or fall depending on LIBOR, a floating rate. Colombo chose the former, conscious that global interest rates were trending higher during the negotiations and hoping to lock in what it thought would be favourable terms. Phase I of the port project was completed on schedule within three years.

For a conflict-torn country that struggled to generate tax revenue, the terms of the loan seemed reasonable. As Saliya Wickramasuriya, the former chairman of the SLPA, told us, “To get commercial loans as large as $300 million during the war was not easy.” That same year, Sri Lanka also issued its first international bond, with an interest rate of 8.25 percent. Both decisions would come back to haunt the government.

Finally, in 2009, after decades of violence, Sri Lanka’s civil war came to an end. Buoyed by the victory, the government embarked on a debt-financed push to build and improve the country’s infrastructure. Annual economic growth rates climbed to 6 percent, but Sri Lanka’s debt burden soared as well.

In Hambantota, instead of waiting for phase 1 of the port to generate revenue as the Ramboll team had recommended, Mahinda Rajapaksa pushed ahead with phase 2, transforming Hambantota into a container port. In 2012, Sri Lanka borrowed another $757 million from China Eximbank, this time at a reduced, post-financial-crisis interest rate of 2 percent. Rajapaksa took the liberty of naming the port after himself.

By 2014, Hambantota was losing money. Realizing that they needed more experienced operators, the SLPA signed an agreement with China Harbour and China Merchants Group to have them jointly develop and operate the new port for 35 years. China Merchants was already operating a new terminal in the port in Colombo, and China Harbour had invested $1.4 billion in Colombo Port City, a lucrative real-estate project involving land reclamation. But while the lawyers drew up the contracts, a political upheaval was taking shape.

Rajapaksa called a surprise election for January 2015 and in the final months of the campaign, his own Health Minister, Maithripala Sirisena, decided to challenge him. Like opposition candidates in Malaysia, the Maldives, and Zambia, the incumbent’s financial relations with China and allegations of corruption made for potent campaign fodder. To the country’s shock, and perhaps his own, Sirisena won.

Steep payments on international sovereign bonds, which comprised nearly 40 percent of the country’s external debt, put Sirisena’s government in dire fiscal straits almost immediately. When Sirisena took office, Sri Lanka owed more to Japan, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank than to China. Of the $4.5 billion in debt service Sri Lanka would pay in 2017, only 5 percent was because of Hambantota. The Central Bank governors under both Rajapaksa and Sirisena do not agree on much, but they both told us that Hambantota, and Chinese finance in general, was not the source of the country’s financial distress.

There was also never a default. Colombo arranged a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, and decided to raise much-needed dollars by leasing out the underperforming Hambantota Port to an experienced company—just as the Canadians had recommended. There was not an open tender, and the only two bids came from China Merchants and China Harbour; Sri Lanka chose China Merchants, making it the majority shareholder with a 99-year lease, and used the $1.12 billion cash infusion to bolster its foreign reserves, not to pay off China Eximbank.

(Read: How Xi Jinping blew it)

Before the port episode, “Sri Lanka could sink into the Indian Ocean and most of the Western world wouldn’t notice,” Subhashini Abeysinghe, Research Director at Verité Research, an independent Colombo-based think tank, told us. Suddenly, the island nation featured prominently in foreign-policy speeches in Washington. Pence voiced worry that Hambantota could become a “forward military base” for China.

Yet Hambantota’s location is strategic only from a business perspective: The port is cut into the coast to avoid the Indian Ocean’s heavy swells, and its narrow channel allows only one ship to enter or exit at a time, typically with the aid of a tugboat. In the event of a military conflict, naval vessels stationed there would be proverbial fish in a barrel.

The notion of “debt-trap diplomacy” casts China as a conniving creditor and countries, such as Sri Lanka, as its credulous victims. On a closer look, however, the situation is far more complex. China’s march outward, like its domestic development, is probing and experimental, a learning process marked by frequent adjustment. After the construction of the port in Hambantota, for example, Chinese firms and banks learned that strongmen fall and that they’d better have strategies for dealing with political risk. They’re now developing these strategies, getting better at discerning business opportunities and withdrawing where they know they can’t win. Still, American leaders and thinkers from both sides of the aisle give speeches about China’s “modern-day colonialism.”

Over the past 20 years, Chinese firms have learned a lot about how to play in an international construction business that remains dominated by Europe: Whereas China has 27 firms among the top 100 global contractors, up from nine in 2000, Europe has 37, down from 41. The U.S. has seven, compared to 19 two decades ago.

Chinese firms are not the only companies to benefit from Chinese-financed projects. Perhaps no country was more alarmed by Hambantota than India, the regional giant that several times rebuffed Sri Lanka’s appeals for investment, aid, and equity partnerships. Yet an Indian-led business, Meghraj, joined the U.K.-based engineering firm Atkins Limited in an international consortium to write the long-term plan for Hambantota Port and for the development of a new business zone. The French firms Bolloré and CMA-CGM have partnered with China Merchants and China Harbour in port developments in Nigeria, Cameroon, and elsewhere.

The other side of the debt-trap myth involves debtor countries. Places such as Sri Lanka—or, for that matter, Kenya, Zambia, or Malaysia—are no stranger to geopolitical games. And they’re irked by American views that they’ve been so easily swindled. As one Malaysian politician remarked to us, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss how Chinese finance featured in that country’s political drama, “Can’t the U.S. State Department tell the difference between campaign rhetoric that our opponents are slaves to China and actually being slaves to China?”

The events that led to a Chinese company’s acquisition of a majority stake in a Sri Lankan port reveal a great deal about how our world is changing. China and other countries are becoming more sophisticated in bargaining with one another. And it would be a shame if the U.S. fails to learn alongside them.

DEBORAH BRAUTIGAM is Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University

MEG RITHMIRE is F. Warren McFarlan Associate Professor at Harvard Business School.



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Dudley Senanayake: some personal anecdotes

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Excerpted from the Memoirs of Snr. DIG (Rtd.) Edward Gunawardena

Dudley Senanayake was a truly charismatic leader. By his exemplary behavior he enjoyed the respect of both sides of the House. He always entered the chamber from the main doorway and walked majestically down the aisle to his seat. Almost all Members rose from their seats to show their respect.

He was an excellent debater. If he had to make a speech it was a studied contribution. He never spent his time in Parliament without making use of every minute. If he was not in the chamber he would be in discussion with his colleagues and members of the opposition as well; or he would be in the library or even learning different aspects of Parliamentary procedure from the Clerk of the House.

A remarkable characteristic of Dudley was his ability to concentrate and focus his mind on what had to be done. If he had to attend a function where he had to make a speech, he would prepare his speech in the car with his eyes closed, seemingly but not asleep. When parliamentary sessions were due he would closet himself in his room either at Woodlands or the annexe at Temple Trees for hours, sometimes smoking the pipe as well as cigarettes, concentrating on the agenda for the morrow.

This desire for solitude even led to unpredictable situations. One day during the time of the 1965 budget debate, when I visited Woodlands at about 8 pm. the PM was not in. Carolis, his man Friday, and the sergeant on duty told me that he had walked across to his brother Robert’s for dinner. When I went there I was told by William, the driver, that ‘Hamu’ had driven away alone in a friend’s car that had been parked there. Asked for the description of the car I was told that it was a black Riley, a fairly large vehicle.

Nobody knew where he had gone. It was a tricky situation. But I did not panic because I knew he was a good driver. I put up Robert who was resting. He had seen Dudley driving off. “Dudley likes to walk up and down by the beach. That’s the way he prepares his speeches, Eddie,” were Robert’s words. He also added that Dudley was sure to be in the Kinross area.

I immediately called the Colombo Traffic Branch on my walkie-talkie, got down a patrol car and traveled to St. Peter’s Place. There were no vehicles to be seen down the lane. However turning to Kinross Avenue, a black vehicle was spotted at the end of the road. To my utter relief it was the Riley. Having instructed the patrol leader to call for an unmarked car to be close to the Riley and position the marked car at the top of the lane on the Galle Road, I walked across the railway line to the beach.

In the hazy moonlight I saw the Prime Minister’s figure in the distance. I got close and kept a reasonable distance behind him. He was bare-footed and the bottoms of his trousers were rolled up.

I kept on following him. It was amazing indeed, no one appeared to have recognized him. Approaching Kinross Avenue he stopped by the railway line until a train passed. When he was opening the door of the Riley, I surprised him by saying “Good evening Sir”.

 

“Ha, How did you know that I was here?”

“That’s my job Sir,” was my reply. With a guffaw he invited me into the car. The drive to Woodlands was smooth. We were talking of many things all the way. When he asked me why I followed him I explained to him that ensuring his safety was my responsibility. I also told him that if he had a flat and had to change a wheel as the Prime Minister, it would be headline news. “There is something in what you say”, was his response.

It was also on this drive to Woodlands from the Kinross beach that Dudley asked me a question the answer to which probably had serious consequences in the UNP. “Gunawardena, what do you think of this man Menikdiwela?” he asked me. Before I could ask him the reason, he said that he thought Joe Karunaratne (his private secretary) needed some assistance.

I knew Menikdiwela as a DRO in the Warakapola area when I was the ASP Kegalle. He was a very down to earth, rustic, betel chewing public servant recruited as a ‘Kandyan’ under the quota system that once prevailed. Backward and taciturn he kept a distance from even the GA and other Kachcheri officers such as the DLO, AFC and even officials of his own rank, the RDO and SSO. But he was a man of the times, with excellent rapport with the ordinary rural folk. Dudley probably wanted my opinion because I was the ASP Kegalle.

I knew Joe Karunaratne also very well. As such I was able to give a full and comprehensive answer to the Prime Minister’s question. I told him that I knew Joe well. Honourable and accepted in the highest circles, his Colombo 7 upbringing was an impediment to empathizing with people that mattered politically, particularly ordinary village folks and the Buddhist clergy. I still vividly remember the words that I used in my reply to the Prime Minister’s question. “Good to have a man like that, Sir. I know Joe well He is not comfortable meeting Buddhist priests and villagers. Menikdiwela is a ‘bulath hapaya’ sort who can handle them. Good fellow to meet the people coming from the electorate”.

The Prime Minister got the reply that he probably liked to have. Menikdiwela was able to thus became close to the top echelons of the UNP. The rest is history.

As a parliamentarian, Dudley not only enriched the quality of debate and deliberation, he epitomized dignity and decorum. His voice was that of a leader. When he spoke there was rapt attention. Seldom was he heckled. He never got angry. He sometimes pretended to be angry in the course of arguments, aggressively walking across the floor of the House was not in anger but for effect. That was his style.

Devastating wit was one of his strong assets. During the debate on the Dudley- Chelvanayakam pact I was seated in the speaker’s gallery following the proceedings. When he was speaking he was interrupted by none other than a respected parliamentarian Maithripala Senanayake. Pretending to be annoyed he stopped speaking, prompting Sir Albert Pieris the Speaker to say “Carry on Prime Minister”.

Dudley laughed and turning to the Speaker said, “Mr. Speaker, the Hon. Member for Medawachiya (Maithripala Senanayake) is Sinhala Only by day and believes in the reasonable use of Tamil by night!” There entire House roared with loud laughter. Maithripala Senanayake was then courting his wife-to- be, Lake House journalist Ranji Handy from Jaffna!

 

His habits, likes, dislikes and simple ways

Simplicity was the hallmark of Dudley’s life. He was a typical bachelor least concerned about the neatness of the place where he lived. At Woodlands there were only a few basic pieces of furniture. These were generally in disarray. In the drawing room was a dust laden glass cupboard with memorabilia consisting mainly of garlands of artificial flowers and empty gift boxes. The items of value had apparently been spirited away.

After his days work, in the evenings, either at Woodlands or at Temple Trees he liked to be in the bedroom dressed in sarong and bare bodied or in a banian. on numerous occasions he had got me to sit beside him on his bed and go through petitions particularly against the police, a file prepared by Joe Karunaratne. In fact once there was an anonymous petition which said that Edward Gunawardena was a Trotskyite in the University. When I read this out, he laughed and commented, “Who is the undergrad who is not a leftist?”

Dresswise, to office, Parliament and all other formal functions he wore English tussore or drill suits. To have his laundered suit ready was one of Carolis’ main tasks. He was very particular to see that his slightly graying hair was well groomed. As already mentioned Yardley Brilliantine was his hair cream. It was Robert who saw to all these needs. Once a month he took a haircut at the saloon that had been patronized even by his father, Gabriel’s Hair Dressing Saloon, Colpetty. I am not certain whether this saloon exists today. Perhaps the Bally’s Casino building has swallowed up this modest place!

He had a fair collection of Tootal ties. However, he used only one or two of these regularly. These had more of green or brown. Carolis had neatly arranged all his clothes in two wardrobes. His formal wear including socks, underwear and handkerchiefs were in one large nedun almirah. In another large almirah of teak were his bed linen, towels and sarongs. Stacked neatly in one shelf were about 10 — 15 casual shirts he was fond of wearing in the evenings, when he went out for a drive or for golf. He wore only tan leather shoes custom made by the Majestic Boot Works. Carolis was the man who polished these shoes.

As a rule he was up by 6 a.m. Sipping from a large mug of tea prepared by Carolis he would skim the newspapers before going to the washroom. He would take only about 10 minutes for his ablutions, shave and a shower, which he liked cold. Robert once told me that Dudley had been taking cold showers even when he was at Cambridge; and this was probably the reason for his bouts of catarrh.

As a rule he took his lunch and dinner at Robert’s or ate meals sent to Woodlands from his btother’s home. His favourite dishes were curried or baked seer fish and roast chicken, particularly for dinner. He did not take any alcoholic drinks, but was a heavy smoker, mainly a pipe, but smoked cigarettes too. His collection of pipes consisted mainly of Dunhill’s and Peterson’s and although he received from his friends tobacco brands such as Dunhill, Three Nuns and Balkan Sobrani, his preferred brand was the locally made Island Pride. Ardath and Markovich Black and White were his favourite brands of cigarettes.

He was generally healthy and fit but for a chronic stomach problem and occasional bouts of bleeding catarrh. Both Dudley and Robert believed in a body massage about twice a month. Don Thomas the well known masseur whose nick name was ‘pocket Apollo’ regularly visited Woodlands. Don Thomas had been the masseur attached to the Ceylon team that took part in the 1948 London Olympics at which Duncan White won a silver. The physician who attended on the Prime Minister was Dr. Lucian Gunasekera the son of Sir Frank Gunasekera who was physician to D.S. Senanayake.

Dudley was very fond of photography. On all his field trips to see him with a camera slung on his shoulder was a familiar sight. He had several expensive Canons and Nikons. The exposed reels were sent to Lake House for processing. He merely looked at the prints and put them aside. He did not care to preserve the photographs that he took in albums. Nobody really knows what has happened to the thousands of photographs that he took.

He spent quite some time dusting and cleaning the lenses of his cameras which were in almirahs and drawers here and there. Likewise, he spent much time cleaning his smoking pipes too. Sometimes he would get so engrossed in these that he lost sight of even official engagements. One day when he was operating from the annexe of Temple Trees, there were several people seated, apparently to see him. The time was 9 a.m. When I walked in Shantun Abeygoonwardena was on duty as security officer. He told me that the Prime Minister was in his room upstairs doing some work. But I was surprised when I saw that one of the persons waiting to see the Prime Minister was Hector Kobbekaduwa, the Chairman of the Public Service Commission.

I knew Hector well. He was the brother in law of Sydney Ellawala. The latter was a first cousin of Robert Gunasekera, my father-in-law to be. When I was stationed at Ratnapura I used to drop in regularly at Sydney’s on my visits to Balangoda. Hector too was a regular visitor there and it was here that I befriended him, even enjoying bathing together in the cold waters of the Belihuloya. He told me that he had come to hand over his resignation from the Chair of the PSC to the Prime Minster. The time given to him had been 9 a.m.

As it was already past 9 a.m. I hurried upstairs to the Prime Minister’s room. He was standing outside on the corridor looking skywards holding a camera lens to one eye. He had been cleaning his cameras. He was surprised when I told him that the Chairman of the PSC was seated in the lobby waiting to hand over his resignation He did not care to dress up. He asked me to bring him up immediately.

Hector was greeted very cordially and they had a long chat seated close to each other. Apparently he knew Hector well, with Sydney Ellawala being a friend and a staunch UNP supporter.

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“… And death will have its day” Shakespeare

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Hearing of the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on Saturday April 10 was like losing a family member. I acknowledged to myself that was strange for who are we to the Royal Family – the House of Windsor – not even their Commonwealth subjects now. But there was that transitory sorrow and the desire to listen to the details of his life as presented on BBC, and read about him. I found later that a young Lankan man, now domiciled in the US, felt the same. “I felt sad on hearing he had died, though he lived long enough.”

This direct descendant of Queen Victoria, a Greek Prince, gave up his citizenship and his name and became British. Much of it, as also the proposed marriage to Princess Elizabeth, was maneuvered by his ambitious uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Princess Elizabeth conveniently fell in love with the dashingly handsome Naval Officer, Philip, when on a visit to the British fleet with her father King George VI, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. She was 13 when first attracted, and he a mature 19, already in the Royal Navy.

 

The Netflix film series of the House of Windsor/Mountbatten

I also ascribe his death being like the goodbye of a person known, as I had watched the Netflix film series The Crown which traces the life of the Queen from childhood up with Clair Foy playing the Princess and young Queen and Olivia Coleman playing the aging sovereign, brilliantly. Incidentally Tobias Menzies who played the role of the Duke in series three and four resembled the Prince more than the younger Matt Smith. The Crown is claimed to be true to life and therefore warts being shown, plus of course the incidents that prove the Queen’s regality, constancy, dedication and dealing tactfully with her stubbornly rash sister, five Prime Ministers including Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, when personalities clashed just a wee bit.

And then the annus horribilis – year of disaster and misfortune of family divorces and fire at Windsor Castle. In all these personal and national travails, Prince Philip stood steadily by her side; in public one step behind, and she leaned on him though steely strong herself. She acknowledged this fact and her gratitude to him on many occasions. It is accepted that Philip steered the Royal Family through troublous times. I include here Tobias Menzies’ tribute to the Duke on hearing of his death:

“If I know anything about the Duke of Edinburgh I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t want an actor who portrayed him on TV giving his opinion on his life, so I’ll leave it to Shakespeare. ‘O good old man! How well on thee appears the constant service of the antique world. When service sweat for duty, not for need. Thou art not for the fashion of these times where none will sweat but for promotion, and having that do choke their service up even with the having. It is not so with thee;’” (As You Like It – Orlando in Act 2, Sc 3)

When the Navy Officer Philip was questioned by King George VI, who with his wife did not quite approve of this seeker of their daughter’s hand in marriage due to his penury and family connections to Germany, he promised he would always stand by Elizabeth, care for her and protect her. Which he did. It was no easy task for a strong man to be consort and play second fiddle to the Queen of Great Britain, and far flung Commonwealth countries which accepted her sovereignty. She told her parents she would marry Philip and no other and the love story unsentimentally yet sincerely continued for 70 years.

 

Poignant and revealing

I remember well the narrative in the series of The Crown of one of his rumoured major discretions. His physio invited him for a weekend party convincing him he was under mental stress and needed relaxation and diversion. Thus while the Queen had to travel alone to Sandringham, he went off with a couple of men for a weekend of golf and drinking. It was on this occasion that Christine Keeler who rocked the political stability of Britain with her ‘charms’, was present. Photographs had been surreptitiously taken and in one, the Prince’s rear view was seen.

Princess Margaret stormed into Queen Elizabeth’s solitary breakfast with the newspaper published picture and said there was no mistaking her husband having been partying. What followed was so revealing. The Queen was devastated emotionally but was completely stoic. She was seated on a window sill in Buckingham Palace when Philip came in. She was aloof. He knelt by her and apologized. Then he sat on the window sill himself. Slowly she moved her hand to his extended arm. And he said: “I promised your father I would care for you? Haven’t I done that all these years?”

 

Early Life

He was born in Corfu in 1921. The following year, his father, Prince Andrew of Greece, was banished from the country. The family was taken to Italy on board a British naval destroyer. The baby Philip slept in a cradle made from a box that had been used to store oranges. For the next ten years or so, he lived a peripatetic existence, with no fixed home. His mother, Princess Alice, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and consigned to a sanatorium. (Later, she sheltered Jews in Athens during the German occupation and was honored, in 1994, as Righteous Among the Nations).

Prince Andrew, the father, exited to Monte Carlo to live with a mistress. He left nothing to his children. Netflix’s BBC-approved The Crown showed that his mother, now a nun, was invited to stay with their family in Buckingham Palace, the move being more Queen Elizabeth’s. He somewhat ignored his mother, who was befriended by Princess Anne. Later, the film shows Philip walking with her to the garden beside her quarters. She died December 5, 1964 aged 84 in Buckingham Palace and was buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, and in 1988 in the Church of Mary Magdalene, Gethsemane, Jerusalem.

All four of Philip’s sisters married Germans. One of the sisters died in 1937 with her entire family in a plane crash. He attended her funeral amid throngs of Germans giving the Nazi salute. None of them was invited for his wedding, though his mother was present, later at the coronation of the Queen, dressed in a sort of nun’s habit designed by her.

When the Duke was asked whether he had been traumatized by his fractured upbringing, with so much turmoil, he replied: “My family broke up. My mother was ill. My sisters were married, my father was in the South of France, I just had to get on with it. You do, One does.” However,the Mountbattens in Britain took him over and then his uncle Dickie, Lord Louise Mountbatten, his wife and two female cousins, welcomed him. Lord Mountbatten continued the role of mentor and advisor and later shifted to Prince Charles who was completely devastated when Lord Louis died at the hands of the IRA while sailing.

 

Gaffes and quotes and doing good

Of course Prince Philip had his quirks, mostly through being frank verbally. Many are the undiplomatic comments of his. “I would very much like to go to Russia,” he said at the height of the Cold War, “although the bastards murdered half my family.” I distinctly heard on TV Prince Philip give vent to annoyance at one of his final public appearances of meeting a special group of soldiers. He and others were seated while all else stood behind. The cameraman was fussing.

Then came Prince Philip loud and clear: “Take that f….. picture!” (The f-word pronounced full).

“That fierce and funny view of the world was at once a boon and a curse. It both stood Philip in good stead and, notoriously landed him in trouble which made headlines and drew accusations of racism. …. There is no denying the pressure was there from the start, long before he was forced to become a liege.” Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said: “He consistently put the interest of others ahead of his own.”

In the New Yorker of April 9, Anthony Lane titled his article – ‘Prince Philip‘s death is the last embers of British Stoicism.” Lane wrote: “That is indisputably true and was demonstrated for decades by the sight of Philip patrolling in the slipstream of the Queen, like a frigate in the wake of an aircraft carrier – a step or two behind her, to one side with his hands diplomatically clasped behind his back. To maintain that secondary position without tiring requires a formidable level of self control, especially in a man who had once as a naval officer enjoyed command of a ship. Renouncing his own career in 1951, he was required to kneel before Her Majesty, at her coronation, two years later, and swear to be ‘liege man of life and limb.’”

He was also, considering Prince Charles’ life, too strict in his upbringing of the heir to the throne. By any measure sending him to the Spartan boarding life at Gordonstone, which he had enjoyed but was near traumatic to the sensitive Charles, was a mistake. However, to compensate, as seen in The Crown, he tried to sort things out between Charles and Diana when cracks appeared in their marriage. He spoke to her as a father saying they were both strangers and aliens in the royal family that was so different to other families, but tradition and duty called for restraint, sacrifice and dignity. He had overcome strains and restraints by taking an interest in matters global (wild life), service (his help to young people) and for recreation to polo, after being a good cricketer.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was much more than that. He was an outstanding global figure with peculiarities tempering a stoic, strong personality.

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Dangerous and meticulous work copying Sigiriya frescoes in Bell era (1896)

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(Excerpted from Sigiriya Paintings by Raja de Silva, retired Commissioner of Archaeology)

RE-DISCOVERY AND DOCUMENTATION (Early Visits)

The village of Sigiriya is mentioned in the 16th century book of Sinhala verse titled Mandarampura-puvata. From then on, the site seems to have disappeared from the public record until its rediscovery in the 19th century. Major Forbes of the 78th Highlanders and two companions rode from Polonnaruva through Minneriya and Peikkulam in search of Sigiriya, and reached the site early in the morning of a day in April 1831 (Forbes 1841).

They returned to the site two years later and Forbes explored further the cavernous walled gallery on the western side of the great rock, which led towards the summit. Forbes was surprised to observe a durable plaster on the brickwork of the wall, while above the gallery, especially in places protected from the elements, the plaster was seen to be painted over in bright colours. However, he was disappointed and puzzled in not recognizing any representations of the lion, which, according to local lore, gave the name of Sigiri, i.e., Sinhagiri to the rock.

The lion that eluded Forbes was tracked down by the next visitor, who remained anonymous in recording his impressions in 1851 under the title “From the notebook of a traveller” in a magazine known as Young Ceylon. This early visitor described the gallery as a long cavernous fissure, the outer edges of which were deeply grooved and a brick wall raised there, nearly to the roof. The inner surface of the “cave” was described as “covered with a coating of white and polished chunam gleaming as if it were a month old”.

Some of the plaster from the ceiling and the rock side of the gallery had fallen off, but it was noted by the visitor that “there was a profusion of paintings, chiefly of lions, which is said to have given the name of Singaghery, Sihagiri or Seegiry to the ancient site”. No other visitor had reported on these lions.

Twenty four years later, Sigiriya and the paintings were brought to public notice by TW Rhys Davids (1875), formerly of the Ceylon Civil Service, in a lecture given before the Royal Asiatic Society, London. Rhys Davids described his observation, through a telescope, of the “hollow” halfway up the western side of the rock, with its surface covered with a fine hard “chunam” plaster on which were painted figures. He mentioned that the northern (i.e., further) area of the gallery was covered with ornamental paintings (again, to be lost not long after) and thought that a large number of these may have been erased with the passage of time. By the close of the century, when the Archaeological Survey Department (ASD) commenced work at Sigiriya, these paintings had all disappeared.

TH Blakesley (1976) Public Works Department, viewed the paintings from afar in 1875, and reported for the first time on their subject, which he recognized to be female figures “repeated again and again”, showing only the upper parts of their bodies, and richly ornamented with jewellery. The figures (he said) had a Mongolian cast of features. Blakesley also examined the plaster layer adhering to the accessible parts of the main rock, and remarked on the existence of paddy husks in the ground.

Reports of the existence of paintings at Sigiriya had attracted the attention of connoisseurs of art in Sri Lanka and in England, and Sir William Gregory, the former Governor, requested Alick Murray (1891), Provincial Engineer, to attempt to reach the paintings and make reproductions of them. This proposal was sanctioned by Sir Arthur Gordon, the Governor, who gave every encouragement to the project. Murray went to Sigiriya, fired with enthusiasm for this pioneering venture, but was disappointed to discover that the local villagers would have no part of his plans for disturbing the rock chamber which, they imagined, was inhabited by demons. The populace, however, was, persuaded to clear the jungle at the base of the rock in the required direction, while Murray awaited the arrival of Tamil labourers who were urgently requested from South India.

The Tamil stone-cutters (who had no fear of Sinhala demons) bored holes in the rock face, one above the other, into which were fixed with cement, iron jumpers. As they went higher up the rock towards the cavern containing the paintings, the man of the lightest weight had to be selected to bore the holes. After a while, even this labourer found it difficult to ascend higher. He supplicated that if he were allowed three days of fasting and prayer, he might succeed in finishing the task. Murray answered his prayer in the affirmative, thinking that it might lighten the man’s weight and thereby help him to reach the pocket containing the paintings. Once this goal was reached, it was found that the rock floor was at too steep an angle to permit one to stand or even sit on it. A strong trestle or framework of sticks was made and secured to iron stanchions let into the rock floor. A platform was made and placed on the framework to enable one to lie on his back and view the paintings.

On June 18, 1889, Murray made his historic climb into the fresco pocket, and he worked for a whole week lying on his back on makeshift scaffolding to make tracings of six paintings in coloured chalk on tissue paper. The work was done, climbing up and down each day, (as he said) “from sunrise to sunset”, the only inmates of the cavern being swallows who used to “peck at him resentfully”. When his work was reaching conclusion, a few of his friends including SM Burrows, Government Agent, Matale, hazarded the climb to the pocket to visit him, and it was suggested that a memento be left behind. A bottle was obtained and in it were deposited a newspaper of the day, a few coins, and a list of names of friends who had visited him at work. Murray’s party was astonished when a Buddhist monk and a Saivite priest sought permission to enter the chamber, and they were accommodated by Murray. They prayed for the preservation of the bottle, thereby adding solemnity to the occasion of its sealing into the floor with cement – a ceremony that was accompanied by Murray and Burrows singing “God Save the Queen”.

An unfortunate result of Murray’s excellent efforts at tracing the paintings under the windiest of conditions was that, on detaching the tracing papers that had been pasted with gum on the periphery of each figure, an egg-shell thin layer of painted plaster (i.e., the intonaco) also came away revealing a white framework of the layer of ground underneath. Another deplorable result was that a few Tamil labourers had scribbled their names on the painted plaster. The copies made by Murray were stated by Bell to have been exhibited above the staircase of the Colombo Museum.

Murray described the paintings as having been done on the roof and upper sections of the sides of the chamber; that they represent 15 female figures in all, but no doubt many more had existed originally, as traces of them were to be seen. The freshness of the colours (he observed) was wonderful, curiously, green predominating. Each figure was stated to have been life-size and many were naked to the waist, the rest of the form being hidden by representations of clouds. They were arranged either singly or in sets of two, each couple representing (he said) a mistress and a maid.

 

Access to Fresco Pockets

In 1896, Bell made regular access to the fresco pockets possible by the construction of a vertical ladder of jungle timber from the gallery to the cemented floor that was spread on the sloping -round of the rock cavern 40′ above. The shorter and narrower pocket A was made accessible from pocket B by a floor of iron planks set on iron rods as supports let into the surface of the rock horizontally and grouted in.

The early timber ladder was replaced by an iron wire vertical ladder with safety measures of hoops of cane and wire netting around it in 1896. A spiral staircase of iron steps was constructed in 1938. Another similar staircase was recently constructed by the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) cheek-by-jowl with the earlier construction, and is used as the method of access to the fresco pocket at a point to the south of the original doorway. Visitors now use the old stairway as the exit from the pocket.

Eighty five years ago entry to the fresco pockets was restricted to those who had obtained permits from the Archaeological Commissioner. (AC).

The public has the opportunity of taking their cameras into the fresco pockets, on permits issued by the ASD, and photographing the paintings. No persons are allowed to have their photographs taken in front of the paintings, and at least two guards are stationed inside the fresco pockets as a security measure. No electronic or other flash-lights are permitted in photographing the paintings.

 

Documentation and Copying of the Paintings

Bell decided to photograph the pockets from a distance at the same elevation, and record the disposition of the paintings within. For this purpose a four inch hawser was let down from the summit to the ground with an iron block tied to the end. Through the block a two inch rope was passed and an improvised chair firmly tied to it, whereon the photographer took his seat. The hawser was then hauled up from the summit, 150 feet up until the chair was level with the pocket and 50 feet clear of the cliff, but due to the force of the wind that caused it to sway in the air, the photographs taken were not clear.

It took DAL Perera, Chief Draughtsman and Bell’s “Native Assistant”, a week to do an oil painting to scale, while perilously suspended in mid-air like the man on the flying trapeze. The painting was later photographed and lithographed to make a plate. From the top of the iron ladder the rock curved inwards for four feet or so to an upward rising floor of pocket B where it was not possible to safely stand or even sit on the smooth surface. As a safeguard at the head of the ladder and along the entire edge of both pockets B and A to the north of it and the ledge between them, iron standards three foot three inches in height, with a single top rail, were driven into the rock Bell stated: “Without such a handrail, a slip on the smooth inclined floor of the pocket would have meant instant death on the rocks fifty yards below.”

In the last week of March 1896, Perera made copies of six paintings in pocket B while being dangerously seated on the sloping floor. In the following year with additional safeguards and working platforms, Perera continued copying the remaining paintings in the two pockets. Bell reported that 13 of the paintings in pocket B could be easily reached from the floor, being painted on the rock wall and the lower part of the oblique roof of the cave, but they were not at one level. It was these paintings that Perera copied in 1896 and 1897 while being uncomfortably perched on the sloping floor of the fresco pocket, which had in 1897 been cemented towards the outer edge.

The painting at the extreme south, i.e., No. 14 and the fragments No. 15, 16, 17, were out of reach and well up on the roof of the pocket. To get at these paintings, it was necessary to construct a “cantilever” of jungle timber, firmly lashed to a stout iron cramp let into the rock floor. To the end of this projection was tied a rough “cage” of sticks, from which uncomfortable and perilous perch Perera made copies of the last and highest figures in pocket B.

It was even more difficult and dangerous to fix a hurdle platform outside the narrow and slippery ledge separating pocket B from pocket A and onwards to the end of this pocket. It took 10 days to construct this stick-shelf (massa). In addition to P iron bars supporting the woodwork, the whole braced strongly to thick iron cramped into the rock, the platform had to be further held up by a central hawser and side ropes, hauled taut round trees on the summit 300 feet up. When finished this improvised platform stood out 15 feet from the cliff.

It took Perera 19 weeks to complete copying the 22 paintings – 5 in pocket A and 17 in pocket B.

The constructional details and measurements given above are intended to serve several purposes: to enable the reader to appreciate the labour and expertise in 1896 exercised by the authorities in setting up the elaborate apparatus for Perera to copy and photograph the paintings – all for the love of preserving our ancient artwork; to appreciate the great care taken by Perera under perilous conditions to make such excellent copies of 22 paintings, now exhibited in the Colombo Museum, which Bell extolled in superlative terms:

“It is hardly going too far to assert that the copies represent the original frescoes as they may still be seen at Sigiriya, with a faithfulness almost perfect. Not a line, not a flaw or abrasion, not a shade of colour, but has been reproduced with the minutest accuracy”. (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Ceylon Branch (1897).

The details and measurements are also intended to impress upon readers the magnitude of the feats of our craftsman in ancient times, who constructed broad, long scaffoldings rising to a height of around 400 feet using jungle timber and creepers; and to marvel that the artists painted their subject so well, during a very long period upon multi-layered plaster on the wind-blown exposed rock.

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