Editing “Grandfather’s Snakebite”

I am waiting to hear back from my editor about the book I was writing frantically in November, so this is a chance to catch up on some other projects that get put on hold whenever a deadline looms. I’m keen to get back to transcribing the wardmote court records but first I want to finish editing my great-grandfather’s letters from 19th-century Ceylon, where he was a colonial administrator. They contain a description of being bitten by ‘one of the most dreadfully dangerous snakes in Ceylon’, as a result of which the letters have always been referred to in the family as ‘Grandfather’s snakebite’.

Sri Lanka snake

Snake charmer in Colombo in 2006


In June 1870,my great-grandfather was woken by the bite of what later turned out to be a karawala snake. Having summoned his servant and killed the snake, he determined to cut off his finger before the venom could spread, but then changed his mind in case he bled to death. A tourniquet was fashioned instead, and he decided he had to see a doctor in Colombo, 16 miles away.


I unlocked your little clock and saw that it was just 20 minutes past 3 and a happy thought came across me that I might perhaps just catch the night coach from Galle. I bundled on a few clothes and made Kellner wrap the snake up in brown paper and put him in my pocket with a flask of brandy and a knife in case I might have to cut off my finger and hurried to the river. Just as I got there I heard the horn of the coach. I got into a canoe and Kellner and my chef de cuisine and cooly rowed as hard as they could and we shouted desperately and just managed to stop the coach. Of course it was full, but I insisted on going and at half past 3, about 20 minutes or half an hour, was on my way to Colombo, not knowing whether I should get there alive or dead. I got very faint from pain and took some brandy and at last, after the most dreadfully anxious and painful drive, got to Colombo at about 5.40 a.m. I walked half a mile to Dr. Rowe, who was out and then went on to the hospital of the Ceylon Rifles, where he had just been. I saw all the officers of the Rifles there and also Dr. White, a very good man. I was told that it was a wonder I had not been killed 3 hours ago and that I was quite safe as I had lasted so long. They said the snake was a Tic polonga, which is very venomous indeed. Dr. White got his knives and I stood up in the open air in a crowd of fellows and he cut out the place, and then I insisted on having it burnt. He cauterised me and burnt me right to the bone. The pain was something exquisite, but I did not faint and was delighted to see the blood and my flesh frizzling up. Then I walked half a mile more to Stretch and Dobree and there at last I gave way and was completely exhausted.



BFH in 1882, after his return to England

Bertram Fulke Hartshorne was 25 when he travelled out to Ceylon in 1869 and took up a post as a ‘writer’ in the Ceylon Civil Service. He wrote home to his doting mother and sisters once a fortnight until his return to England in 1874 and almost a complete set of correspondence survives. As originally transcribed by my father, the letters amount to over 400,000 words. Deleting most of the letters from the family, he later edited them down to 280,000 and now I’m planning to self-publish his edition, which means cutting further to a maximum of 140,000 words.

The letters vividly describe life as a colonial administrator.   BFH, as he signed himself, was a typical product of a Victorian rectory: he was an appalling snob and hugely pleased with himself, and the casual racism in his letters can make for uncomfortable reading. Still, I find myself drawn into the world he describes – the long journeys, the shooting expeditions with his friends, learning Singhalese, tedious dinners, cases of murder he had to investigate, pet mongeese and crocodiles and walking 26 miles through the jungle to a rest house where all he has to drink is a bottle of ‘filthy champagne’. And I was delighted to come across a shared interest in rubbish disposal yesterday. Here he is, writing from Haldumulla in 1871:

 I got up at about 6 a.m. and inspected the town, as I am very strict in not allowing any sort of dirt or rubbish to lie about in the street or drains. The people are in an awful fright when they see me coming and I sometimes see someone run on ahead to give the alarm and when I arrive I find everyone very busy sweeping up and clearing away rubbish.




BFH was a good writer, and could be very funny at times, but I am finding the editing something of a challenge: as his great-granddaughter, I’d really like to cut out all the remarks that seem so offensive today, but as a historian, I don’t think it is right to sanitise history, so I am doing a lot of dithering.   I need to cut something, though, so am concentrating on descriptions of his life in Ceylon, and editing out all the family letters from England as well as his comments on those, and long, repetitive moans about Government salaries. Eventually, I will put the complete set of letters on a website in case they’re of interest to anyone studying colonialism in that period, but in the meantime I am trying to find that tricky balance between authenticity, interest and readability … just like writing historical fiction, now I come to think of it!


My father and I visited Sri Lanka in 2006, using BFH’s letters to plan our itinerary

2 Responses

  1. Cerise67 says:

    Bonjour Paméla,
    Je suis une lectrice française et je viens de terminer l’histoire d’Hawise. Formidable, une lecture qui m’a tenue en haleine jusqu’au bout ! Merci pour ce bon moment.

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