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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > American Ambassadors in Eelam - W. Robert Holmes

Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

American Ambassadors in Eelam - W. Robert Holmes

3 January 2001

I first recognized the name of W. Robert Holmes (1916-1998), nearly twenty years ago, when I bumped into his book 'Jaffna 1980' in a Christian book shop located in front of the Colombo Fort railway station. As I was then preparing for my departure to the University of Illinois for postgraduate studies, this book on Jaffna by an American missionary-educator was a blessing for me. I felt that I had a good guide to introduce my native soil to Americans, as described by an American scholar.

Dr. Walter Robert Holmes, in the words of his eulogist Richards Victor Karunairajan, "was the last and certainly among the best of the American missionaries who went to Sri Lanka since 1816" [Tamil Times, October 1998]. Excerpts of an obituary carried by The Glen Falls (New York) Post Star of Sept.3, 1998, on Robert Holmes are as follows:

"Assembly Point Association Historian Dr. W.Robert Holmes (1916-1998)

Dr. Walter Robert Holmes, 82, Knox Road, Assembly Point, died Thursday, Sept.3, 1998, at Glens Falls Hospital one week after suffering a stroke in Lake George Village.

Bob was born on July 18, 1916, in Bowen, Illinois, the son of Albert Allen Holmes and Eunice Emily McGill and grew up in southern Illinois. He majored in history at Wheaton College where he was fullback on the soccer team and president of a literary society, and graduated in 1938. In 1946, he earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in history at the University of Illinois.

Bob taught history at North Park College in Chicago from 1943-47. As a missionary to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) from 1947-60, he taught history, coached basketball, and activated the Islands Evangelism Committee. While in the USA on leave in 1952-54, he was an administrator at Wheaton College. After his missionary services, he became Dean of the Junior College of Albany from 1960-62; taught history at Russell Sage College in Troy from 1962-64; directed the College Year in India Program for the University of Wisconsin 1964-67, and was appointed director of the Fulbright Foundation for India from 1967-71 during the ambassadorships of Chester Bowles and John Kenneth Galbraith.

Returning to the USA in 1971, Bob became the Assistant Director of Continuing Education at Schnectady County Community College until 1978. Upon his retirement, he went back to Sri Lanka until 1980 to write a book, Jaffna 1980 (Sri Lanka) about Tamil life in northern Ceylon......

Bob remained active on the boards of Lady Doak College in Madras, India and Jaffna College in Sri Lanka. He maintained a network of friends internationally especially in Sri Lanka and India, and cultivated lasting friendships from all eras of his life.....

Bob donated his body to the Albany Medical Center."

My Letter Correspondence with Bob Holmes

After I landed in Urbana, Illinois in August 1981, I corresponded with Dr.Holmes, for nearly an year. Since he had departed to meet his Maker, I wish to open the eleven letters we exchanged for public record. In these letters, we shared opinions on quite a few topics, including the 1977 General Election and the vote for Eelam received by the Tamil United Liberation Front. The letters follow in chronological sequence, and some personal comments have been omitted for obvious reasons.

Letter 1:

October 30, 1981

"Dear Dr. Robert Holmes,

I wish to introduced myself as a Sri Lankan Tamil youth from Jaffna. My native town is Point Pedro. I came to USA in last August, and presently pursuing my Ph.D. program in the University of Illinois. 

While at Sri Lanka, I had the good occasion to buy and read your fascinating book, Jaffna 1980. It was really stimulating and I have no doubt that it is the only available source book on Jaffna Tamils, written by a foreign scholar with critical mind. I congratulate you for your devotion and painstaking skill with which you had succeeded in imprinting Jaffna into bibliographical history.

I would very much like to know, whether you have any spare copies of your book here. I would very much like to receive an autographed copy. While I'm also collecting materials for a bibliography and book on Ceylon Tamils, I find that you had covered a lot of ground for me to build my work on it. Are you intending to publish some more on the Tamils of Jaffna? I would like to hear from you.

With kind regards and best wishes.

Yours sincerely,

S.Sri Kantha

Letter 2:

November 22, 1981

"Dear Sri Kantha:

My wife has turned over your letter to me; I got back from leading a tour group to India, Nepal and Ceylon for 3 weeks, just last night.

No doubt my book will do you some good at Illinois - my alma mater for M.A.(1939) and Ph.D.(1946) in history. I suppost you are in science but if you are in social science, then my book could help you more. This book's cost is $7.00 which I return eventually to Jaffna College which published it. You have my permission to use my book freely, mentioning your source when appropriate.



Letter 3:

December 4, 1981

" Dear Dr.Holmes:

Received with thanks your letter as well as the autographed copy of your book Jaffna 1980. Herewith I'm annexing a cheque for $7.00 as the cost of the book.

I am interested in presenting this valuable book, to my friends in Illinois, as I find it as the useful source book for them to be acquainted with my native land. At the moment, I am willing to purchase three more copies; but presently I can't afford to purchase it at the price of $7.00 per copy. I would be very much pleased, if you could provide three copies, at the reduced price of $3.50 per copy. Hope you will understand my position. If you are willing, kindly let me know at the earliest.

Though primarily I am working in the natural science discipline, I have had an abiding interest in the social science as well. I hope to follow some courses in social sciences as well. While I was in Peradeniya University, I did some studies on sociology of undergraduates. And I compiled and edited my three research communications, into a book titled, Sociological Studies on the Students of a Residential University in Sri Lanka, which was published in Sri Lanka, in July 1981. Unfortunately I haven't brought with me enough copies of this book. After I get down a few copies of this work, I will forward one to you. With regards.

Yours sincerely,

S.Sri Kantha

Letter 4:

December 9, 1981

"Dear Sri Kantha:

Thank you for your letter and your check for $7.00. I am glad that you need 3 more copies and I shall be glad to agree to your bargaining more rapidly than a Jaffna man should! I'll send you 3 copies soon and when you receive them you can send me $10.50. Whenever you get a copy of your book on students in Sri Lanka, please send me a copy and I will be glad to pay you the cost. I would be glad to have it.

Sincerely yours,

W.Robert Holmes

Letter 5:

December17, 1981

"Dear Dr. Robert Holmes:

Received your letter dated Dec.9th and many thanks for your kind consideration of my request. At the moment I am in need of three copies of Jaffna 1980; and I feel that I may be able to purchase some more copies of your book in the near future.

I consider that your book is the ideal gift which I can give to my new American friends, as well as friends from other countries, in Illinois, when they curiously inquire about our background in Sri Lanka - particularly the ethnic, cultural, educational, religious and political facets of the contemporary Tamil society.

Herewith I'm sending you a complimentary copy of my publication, Sociological Studies on the Students of a Residential University in Sri Lanka. This small book was published by me, and only 100 copies were printed, mainly to be distributed to the libraries and for closed circulation among friends and academics. Therefore, I'm not expecting any payment, especially from you. I've put the price tag of Rs. 15.00 for two reasons. One, for the libraries - those in need of additional copies to purchase at this rate, though I had sent a complimentary copy to every major library in Sri Lanka. Two, in this world, anything distributed free is not taken seriously by individuals - this is my humble philosophy.

I also enclose another cyclostyled dossier, which was compiled by me, regarding the voting behavior of the Tamil speaking population in the 1977 General Election of Sri Lanka. This has a story behind it, and I would like to mention it to you, since you also had touched on this topic superficially in your book. 

If I'm not elating myself, I started the controversy of 'votes cast for the cause of Eelam' in Tribune [weekly], during the height of August 1977 racial disturbances; and had a dialogue with Fr. Tissa Balasuriya (of the Centre for Society and Religion) who was the Rector of Aquinas University College, while I was a student there in 1970. 

While he seems to champion the cause of social justice, I had to cross swords with him, because he certainly had a 'Sinhala-bias'. When the issues of Logos [journal publication of Centre for Society and Religion] were printed covering the race relations in Sri Lanka, Fr. Tissa Balasuriya conveniently omitted my version of the interpretation of the 1977 Election results. 

At that time I also didn't have enough financial resources to print the entire version, and as you are aware, typically Jaffna man is scrupulously stingy to offer any kind of support for a cause like this. He doesn't contribute his share, after casting his vote and leave everything to the political leaders to decide on this future. I had to wait for four years to get the help of a Tamil well-wisher in Colombo, who assisted me in compiling this dossier, at least in this fashion. Hope this will be of some interest to you.

Sincerely yours,

S.Sri Kantha

Letter 6:

January 4, 1982

"Dear Dr. Holmes:

Received with thanks the book parcel, containing three books of Jaffna 1980. You are very kind enough to autograph these copies and I very much appreciate your goodwill.

Since you had spent nearly $ 2.00 for posting this parcel to me, I will be failing in my part if I don't add this to my share. Hence, I'm sending a check for $ 12.50 [$ 10.50 plus $ 2.00 for postal charge]. Hope you would have received my earlier letter and my annexures (book and a cyclostyled dossier). I would very much like to hear your comments on these.

Wishing you all the best for the New Year.

Yours sincerely,

S.Sri Kantha

Letter 7:

January 8, 1982

"Dear Sri Kantha:

I had just about got to your name on my list of letters to write when your brief letter arrived, today, with the check. Thank you for the sandosham you added to your check.

Yes, I got your earlier letter, interesting as it was and was pleased to receive your two enclosures which I promptly read. It is true that interesting material like that is pretty rare in Ceylon and non-existent in Jaffna. If I had had your items, I would have included you in my bibliography and probably alluded to your studies in my Education chapter and certainly in my Politics chapter.

I agree with you that the election of 1977 was a referendum on Eelam but I felt that some voters voted as a protest AGAINST rather than in favor of something. Anyhow, they voted, apparently, for Eelam. My own view of Eelam is that nobody who was in favor of it was prepared to look at it realistically.....It is better, in public controversies where you are trying to persuade unpersuaded people to your opinion, to be utterly neutral in your language and as non-polemical as possible. If you are, then maybe even Fr. Balasuriya may join your side!

But your article is convincing and well done. I was most interested in your paper on courting behavior, having been warden of Jaffna College's undergraduate hostel for several years! It was hard to imagine any Ceylonese young persons being as romantically free as Peradeniya, because in Jaffna I think they are still pretty conservative. At least I never heard of getting hitched in Jaffna but I do not know the Univ[ersity] campus so well, of course. In Delhi I used to read articles about 'eve teasing' which I thought was a beautiful phrase. There is some of that in Jaffna.....

Since I know how rare such determined efforts to get some information about the society are, I particularly appreciate the effort you have made, Sri Kantha, in doing these studies. I hope your work on ragging has a negative effect on it. It is a disgusting operation. I can hardly believe that campus authorities who have the power of dismissal can fail to abolish ragging, but I am sure campus politics vitiates the power of those authorities. And many faculty persons are very timid, even irresponsible.

While you can quote freely from my book, you may not quite from this letter, without specific permission from me!.....

Thank you very much for sending me your articles.

Sincerely yours,

W.Robert Holmes

Letter 8:

August 25, 1982

"Dear Dr. Holmes:

Hope you are keeping fine; since some months had passed after my last correspondence with you, I thought of writing to you, to share some of my information. I find the Library of University of Illinois is really a treasure for a bibliophile like me. Now, it's like a temple for me. Everyday I spent an average of at least 1-2 hours in one of the libraries here. And, I bumped into some pretty good, old books (some of the 19th century vintage), which provide excellent description about Jaffna's agriculture, and especially about the palmyra palms. Have you had the opportunity of studying the books in University of Illinois library, while you were collecting the raw data for your book on Jaffna? For your interest, herewith I list below some of the books, which have some interesting information.

1. Henderson's Handbook of Plants and General Horticulture, by Peter Henderson, New York, Peter Henderson & Co, 1910.

About palmyra, he says, 'This plant is believed to yield one-fourth of the food of about 250,000 inhabitants of the northern provinces of Ceylon, while it forms the chief support of six or seven millions of the people of India and other parts of Asia.' Furthermore, he refers to the 'poem in the Tamil language extoling the palmyra for 800 purposes to which it can be applied, without exhausting the catalogue...'

2. Tropical Agriculture: A Treatise, by P.L.Simmonds, New York, Spon, 1889.

This book, published almost 100 years ago, provides much information about coffee, palmyra and rice, and with statistical data too. The paragraphs on palmyra have been contributed by W.Ferguson. It is mentioned that,

'In Ceylon there are nearly 40,000 acres covered with this palm, and there are 8,000,000 trees owned by people in Jaffna peninsula. There are about 70,000,000 nuts produced and 20,000 cwts. of jaggery made from the sap...'

3. Madras versus America: A Handbook to Cotton Cultivation, J.Talboys Wheeler, New York, Virtue & Yorston, 1866.

This is the oldest book, which I've come across so far. This is a compilation of the contents of Public Records in a condensed form. It is recorded that in one Mr. Finnie's diary of 21st Oct. 1846 [he was supposed to be the officer in charge], he had proposed (1) for erecting a gin-house, and (2) cattle-driving machinery in Tinnevely, India. And he had recorded about his intentions of purchasing a set of new driving machinery which was for sale at Jaffna in Ceylon at the price of 155 pounds. Even at the present rate of Rs. 35.00 equivalent [for a pound] 155 pounds seems such a lot of money. Imagine, 135 years back, how worth this machine would have been! I dare to think!

There is another entry in the book, which mentions about Mr. Finnie's letter of 7th Nov. 1848, informing that,

'early in 1849, the new gin-house, which had been commenced at Sevacausey [probably Sivakasi] for the reception of the driving machinery purchased at Jaffna, was fast approaching completion.'

I am sure that in the 19th century, cotton would have been one of the major crops in Jaffna peninsula, as revealed by the Tamil name 'Cotton Port' for Point Pedro, which also happens to be my native town. I'm keen in delving into this cotton history and flourishing trade of ancient Jaffna. May I know your opinions? So much for this.

With regards. Yours sincerely,

S.Sri Kantha

Letter 9:

October 7, 1982

"Dear Sri Kantha

I was quite interested in your comments on the books on Ceylon (in full or in part) by Henderson, Simmonds and Wheeler. I spent years of study in that great library of the university, in the history section, and I'm glad you're enjoying the botany section. If you go where the theses are filed away, you'll find my M.A. and Ph.D. theses.

You know from my bibliography that I am acquainted with the W.Ferguson (and his book, The Palmyra Palm, publ. in 1888) whom Simmonds quotes. Simmonds was 'up to date'; his book came out the next year after Ferguson. Yes, Ferguson's is a good book. The books you found, however, I was unable to lay my hands on. I wonder, if they are in librarian Goonetilleke's vast bibliographies.

Is my book in the University of Illinois library? If not, please present them with a copy and if the botany or agricultural departments have a large departmental library, see if they want a copy. I'll be glad to replace them for you. I was quite interested in your remarks about Point Pedro being 'Cotton Port' in Tamil. I never got any inkling of cotton in Jaffna in my investigations, which is surprising in view of Mr. Wheeler's information.


W.Robert Holmes

Letter 10:

November10, 1982

"Dear Dr. Holmes:

I received your letter dated Oct.7th on the 13th. Extremely sorry for not communicating to you at the earliest;...This fall semester, I'm offering 4 courses which keeps me occupied right around and in addition I'm working in the lab as research assistant. The other reason why I had delayed in writing to you was that I was making a decision to have a trip to New York and Connecticut, during the Christmas week and first week of January. So I thought that I would be able to meet you in person at your home to discuss the books for sale. Is it acceptable for you? I'm interested in knowing whether you will be at your place during the last week of December, if so I can spend a day or two with you and your wife....

I also appreciated your views and comments regarding my earlier comments on Jaffna peninsula. With kind regards to you and your wife.

Yours sincerely,

S.Sri Kantha

Letter 11:

November14, 1982

" Dear Sri Kantha:

It sounds like you will be busy for the rest of this semester, particularly. Well, Tamils are good at hard work!

My 3 children and their spouses and 2 grandchildren will be here part or all of the time between Christmas and New Year, so that is not the best time for you to come here. However, plans do change so I suggest that when you get to Long Island [New York], you telephone me and we can see what prospect, if any, there is for us to meet...


Bob Holmes"

With this letter, our correspondence came to an end. Though I visited New York in December 1982, it is a pity that our intended meeting did not come through. Though I never got an opportunity to meet Dr. Robert Holmes in person, via his memorable book Jaffna 1980, I feel that he is always near to me.

During the past 20 years, the Jaffna described by Dr. Holmes for posterity has changed drastically and irreversibly. It will never be the same. But to provide some continuity to the pain-staking efforts of Bob Holmes, I'm currently in the process of compiling the descriptions of other foreign observers who had visited Jaffna since 1980, for an anthology.


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