Up close with Moodilla Flowers and Emerson Tennent


A fallen Moodilla flower at Akurela. Sri Lanka. 13 January 2012. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

I had hardly given moodilla flowers a second glance before, but the way they lay delicately poised on the lush green grass at Akurela was quite something.  The white stamens with rosy red tips glistened in the morning light while the breeze over the mangroves gently brushed over them.  A rare moment of beauty no doubt, before nature heralds their decay.

Akurela just off the main Galle road with the new railroad.  Akurela, Sri Lanka. 13 January 2012. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The flowers, the lush foliage for me was also nature showing us that regeneration from devastation is possible.

The garden of a holiday hideout. Akurela, Sri Lanka. 13 January 2012. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Akurela was an area that was dotted with coral kilns and where the reef was mined extensively for coral.  The land and the people paid a high price of it in the tsunami of 2004.  Seven years after, nature has rebooted itself – lush, green and sparkling, a sight for sore eyes.

A search for more information on moodilla trees, landed me into the writings Sir James Emerson Tennent, a British Colonial Secretary to the Government of Ceylon, (1845-9) and his classic record of Ceylon: An Account of the Island: Physical, Historical and topographical.”

Sir James Emerson Tennent — a sketch by Ulsterman Andrew Nicholl.

Tennent’s description still has lasting value. He describes with certain warmth the tree (Barringtonia Speciosa) as “noble specimens,” “remarkably shaped fruit” and flowers that “are white, tipped with crimson. … and the stamens of which there are hundred to each flower. …

Tennent also states that its “native” name implies it “loves the shore of the sea”  and describes how the tree propagates through the fruits that are carried out to sea by the waves and then tossed back on a shore to root themselves on a different area of the  beach.  Not unlike coconut trees that grow along the seashore.

Ruchira Gunathilaka and friend showing the “moodilla,” saplings planted by the youth. Ipomea creeper with the purple flowers on the ground provide cover against soil erosion. Photograph©Chulie de Silva.

Interestingly my search also takes me to an article I wrote in 2006, where a youth group led by  Ruchira Gunathilaka was replanting a section of the Kalutara coast after tsunami to create a buffer zone with moodilla plants.  According to Ruchira Sri Lankan villagers use the fruit as a fuel.

My curiosity raised by reading Tennet, I was chiding myself  for knowing so little about this man.  Obviously not only a politician, but a scholar par excellence with a meticulous mind for details and love of nature, that centuries later could still engage a reader with lasting descriptions.

Foraging on the Net, I find the ubiquitous article on Wikipaedia, and a page for Tennet on FB! Yes he might never have imagined in a hundred years the social media revolutuion or that he would have his own space in Mark Zuckerberg’s Face Book — albeit an inactive one!

More interestingly for me was to discover a wealth of information online on the Emerson Tennent Papers maintained by the Public Records office of Northern Ireland, Nov.2007. 

Obviously a much loved Irish son, the Public Records Office holds an extensive collection of Emerson Tennent Papers — “c.5500 documents and c.75 volumes, 1773-1916, that mainly comprise the personal, political, estate and business papers of Sir James Emerson Tennent, 1st Bt (1804-69), of Belfast and of Tempo Manor, Co. Fermanagh, politician, civil servant and man of letters.”

While his writing on Ceylon was well known, it was a discovery for me to learn that he was the originator of a milestone Copyright of Designs Act (1842).

“Born James Emerson, he double-barrelled his name to Emerson Tennent in 1832 under the will of William Tennent of Belfast and Tempo, a wealthy banker whose daughter and heiress, Letitia, he had married in the previous year.”

The papers highlight his political career as a Whig, and of his controversial period of office in Ceylon.  “He was MP for Belfast, 1832-1845, Joint Secretary to the India Board, 1841-1845, Colonial Secretary in Ceylon, 1845-1849, Permanent Secretary to the Board of Trade, 1852-1867 (and usually regarded as the inventor of competitive examination for the Civil Service), author of major books on Greece, Ceylon, natural history, antiquities, etc, friend of Dickens and other literary and artistic people, and builder of Tempo Manor, Co. Fermanagh (to the designs of Sir Charles Lanyon), 1861-1869. He was knighted in 1845, and created a baronet on his retirement from the Board of Trade in 1867.

He produced a whole library of valuable books, amongst which are “Belgium, A Treatise on the Copyright of Designs for Printed Fabrics, Christianity in Ceylon, An Account of Ceylon, Physical, Historical and Topographical, Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon, Wine: its Uses and Abuses, and a large number of other works.”

His book on Ceylon, published in 1859 [sic – 1858], was one of the most popular works which had appeared for a number of years, either at home or abroad. It was translated into several foreign languages, and at home ran through several editions. Upon natural history, Sir James Emerson Tennent was a high authority.” Apparently. until he wrote about the habits of the elephant, practically nothing was known in the west about the magnificent elephants.

According to Wikipedia The Oxford English Dictionary attributes to his book  “The Wild Elephant and the Method of Capturing and Taming it in Ceylon (1867) the first use in English of ‘Rogue Elephant‘, a translation of the Sinhala term hora aliya.

Wikipedia also states that during his tenure in Ceylon, “an economic depression in the United Kingdom severely affected the local coffee and cinnamon industry. Planters and merchants clamoured for a reduction of export duties. Tennent therefore recommended to Earl Grey, Secretary of State for Colonies in London that taxation should be radically shifted from indirect taxation to direct taxation, which proposal was accepted. It was decided to abolish the export duties on coffee and reduce the export duty on cinnamon leaving a deficit of £40,000 Sterling which was to be met by direct taxes on the people. This was one of the causes of the Matale Rebellion of 1848.”

For more info see:

Emerson Tennent Papers /Public Records office of Northern Ireland, Nov.2007: http://www.proni.gov.uk/introduction__emerson_tennent_papers_d2922.pdf

Youth Helps Protect Tsunami Damaged Coast in Sri Lanka, Dec 22, 2006: Permanent URL for this page: http://go.worldbank.org/GAUSC05RV0

Wilipedia Article on Tennenthttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Emerson_Tennent

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3 thoughts on “Up close with Moodilla Flowers and Emerson Tennent

  1. An interesting blog. Do you know that the Akurala swamp is believed to be one of the last haunts of the Hog deer in Sri Lanka. In decades gone by the Akurala Reef was one of the best places to see sharks. Sadly most of the sharks have now disappeared. Sir Emmerson Tennant’s books have been reprinted and are available in the better bookshops in Colombo. Thanks for the interesting blog.

  2. At the lower school of S. Thomas’ College a memorable Moodilla tree stands under which lies a Japonese Air Pilot who crashed his plane at the play ground during the 2nd World War . STC was a Military Hospital then .As a result all Thomians are quite familiar with Moodilla .
    Keep up the good work Ruchira . Its a Magnificent tree , beautiful flower and a unique fruit .

  3. Pingback: What’s This Flower? Moodilla, they call it – Barringtonia Asiatica | The Wanderlust Gene

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