‘No jungle was more evil than the jungle which lay about the village of Beddegama,’ writes Leonard Woolf in his novel ‘Village in the Jungle’.

A foreigner, a judge, a civil servant – Leonard Woolf was all the above. But he was also a person who connected with the locals, who saw day to day struggles of local men and women and sympathized. Even empathized.

Born on 25 November 1880, Leonard Sidney Woolf was the third of nine children in his family. Graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1904, he sat for the Civil Service Examination and accepted cadetship to work in Ceylon Civil Service that laid a foundation for a strong bond with the local people in this small island, where they would still read his book to revisit the colonial past in Sri Lanka.  

It has been over hundred years since The Village in the Jungle was published [1913], which speaks of constant battles the villagers have with the jungle. And Woolf beautifully encapsulates the life in the villages based on his own experience. Though Woolf is known for his time in Hambantota as the Assistant Government Agent (AGA) from 1908-1911, his first posting was to the Jaffna Kachcheri where he worked for three years as a Cadet and then as an Office Assistant, after which he was appointed Office Assistant to Kandy Kachcheri. He worked in Kandy for one year, before being promoted as the AGA in Hambantota, at a young age of twenty-seven. This young AGA traveled to rural villages in Hambantota district, learnt local languages, religions and superstitions and tried to understand the pulse of the locals, which is aptly reflected in his book.

In Christopher Ondaatje’s book Woolf in Ceylon, he describes an incident that upset the liberal-minded Woolf who had gained a reputation as an anti-Native man in Jaffna since he banned spitting in the Kachcheri. He was arguing himself to be fair minded and not anti-Native when well-known lawyer in Jaffna, Harry Sandarasekara accused him of deliberately lashing out at him with his whip. Woolf presented his case that it was an accident, and the government accepted his version, but he doubted that the Tamil Association in Jaffna did. “…for the first time I felt a twinge of doubt in my imperialist soul”, he writes speaking of how it troubled him to think that as a white man ruling Ceylon, he should consider a brown man to be beneath him. The man who arrived in Hambantota as an AGA and a Judge had this baggage of experience in dealing with locals, more careful, and more observant.

The administrative system during that time combined two roles – the civil servant and judge – into one designation, and as the Assistant Government Agent, Leonard Woolf also worked as the judge of the Police Courts, Courts of Request and District Court as explained by former district judge Prabhath de Silva in his book titled ‘Leonard Woolf as a judge in Ceylon’. Back then, especially in his role as a judge, he met Silindus, Arachchis, Punchi Menikas and Hinnihamis and many others who inspired him to write his epic.

Woolf’s father was a barrister. Though he died when Woolf was just eleven years old, he has clear memories of watching proceedings of an arbitration case in which his father appeared, and how arguments got heated between his father and the opposing counsel. But come lunch break, the opposing counsel would come towards young Woolf, introduce himself as a friend of his father – giving him an insight into the life inside the courtroom and outside. Woolf greatly appreciated his father and wanted to be like him, and claimed he has his father’s temperament and intelligence.

He also inherited a nervous tremor that his father had, which often manifested when he was about to write a guilty verdict. He never knew why for sure but in his autobiography, he sure analyses his position as a white man, passing judgement on a Sinhalese who deserves to be punished, and whether the tremor was an internalized resistance against the power that he held. Or maybe because he was a coward – he writes “I used to tell Virginia that the difference between us was that she was mentally, morally and physically a snob, while I was mentally, morally and physically a coward – and she was inclined to agree.”

In the Village in the Jungle, Woolf had the difficult and complex task of portraying the plight of the oppressed as well as the rule of the colonisers while being part of the system – though he wasn’t a judge when the book was published, his portrayal of the story stemmed from his position within the system.

He sympathized with the villagers, he saw what went wrong, and truly believed that he was there to maintain law and order. Did he believe that this tiny island should be decolonized when he wrote the book? Maybe. Maybe not. But colonization was not included in his depiction of struggle between the evil forest and the village, since he saw that there were local power structures that the poor villagers have to fight for survival, in addition to the foreign rulers.

There is still this evil lingering in forests – and cities too. (YK)