Albert Einstein in Colombo and Negombo: October 1922 and January 1923
By Kirthi Tennakone
There is hardly anyone who hasn’t heard of Einstein – a synonym for extraordinary genius. Einstein popped up in the news recently. Three Americans won the 2017 Nobel Prize, for detecting gravitational waves – the only prediction of his theory which remained unverified. Einstein derived his famous theory of General Relativity as an imaginative idea. Yet, to the amazement of the whole world all his predictions have been precisely verified.
You will be astonished to hear this incredibly remarkable man and his wife passed Pettah in rickshaws to see a Buddhist Temple in October 1922. Again in January 1923 he was humbly waiting in the Negombo Railway Station, talking to a Sri Lankan woman, whom he later described as the one of the prettiest women he had ever seen.
Even in the early 1920’s, Einstein was no ordinary person; the world admired and watched him. What made Einstein and his wife Elsa visit Sri Lanka and roam in the streets of Colombo and Negombo like a tourist?
The year 1922 was a problematic time for Einstein. There were uncertainties in acceptance of his radical theory and safety of living in Germany.
According to Einstein’s theory, light bends due to attractive force of gravity. An effect which was measurable as a change in position of a star near the sun at the time of a total solar eclipse. In 1919, the English astronomer Arthur Eddington observed the eclipse of 29th May and declared that the result confirmed the theory. Overnight Einstein became a celebrity, Newspaper headlines highlighted the story – some stating the cherished disciple of physics Sir Isaac Newton had been dethroned. However, the scientific hard core did not accept the result at once. The much expected Nobel Prize of 1920 or 1921 was not awarded to Einstein.
The Nobel committee probably hinted Einstein that he would get the prize, if the observations of the eclipse of September 21, 1922, visible to Christmas Island and Southern Australia, reconfirmed the prediction. Astronomers being cautious of the intricacy of the experiment did not release results immediately, delaying the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physics. A bigger concern was the assassination of German Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau of Jewish origin June 1922 leading to the suspicion Einstein’s name may also be on the hit-list. Considering the prevailing circumstances, Einstein decided to be away from Germany for a while and accepted an offer to tour Japan. Many enthralling anecdotes related to this tour are found in Einstein Archives and in the recent book “Einstein on the Road” by Josef Eeisinger and other references including few reports in the Sri Lankan newspapers 1922.
Einstein and his wife Elsa embarked on the Japanese steamer, Kitano Maru, October 8, 1922 at Marseilles in France. The ship destined to stop at Port Said, Colombo, Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong and enroute to Japan, arrived in Colombo October 28th 1922. Although Einstein and Elsa were in Colombo less than a day, they roamed around the city. Next day, they boarded Kitano Maru continuing the journey. About a week later, the Captain of the ship met Einstein in his cabin to hand over a telegram from Stockholm saying that he had been awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize- a decision made in November 1922 after a long delay. In Japan, he received a tumultuous welcome. Einstein himself has said, “No living human being deserves this sort of reception”. Einstein and Elsa returning from Japan landed in Colombo again on 19th January 1923.This time they stayed longer in Sri Lanka ( then Ceylon) and leisurely travelled to Negombo by train.
On both occasions Einstein travelled in Sri Lanka, unescorted as a tourist, keenly observing surroundings and talking to ordinary people. The notes he scribbled in his diary reveal what he saw in Sri Lanka and his impressions.
Einstein’s first encounter with a Sri Lankan
Einstein’s diary says the ship arrived in Colombo late, around 9 p.m. on 27th October 1922 owing to a thunderstorm near the island. After it docked in the Colombo harbor he saw for the first time a Sri Lankan – an elderly man with a fine distinguished face and white beard, who handed over two telegrams and requested a tip. Einstein was probably unaware of the custom in East those days, the messengers being normally granted tips. A similar incident has happened, when he was in Japan, when he wrote a note of advice to a courier instead of a tip. The note found 90 odd years later, was auctioned in October 2017 for dollars 1.8 million.
Newspaper reporter questions
Einstein in Colombo
Times of Ceylon covered Einstein’s scheduled visit the previous day and hours after ship’s arrival, a reporter interviewed him, questioning eclipse experiments and political situation in Europe. Einstein responded, the weather in Christmas Island had not been favourable but clear skies in Southern Australia allowed the measurement. He had also pointed out the economic situation in Germany did not permit funding the German expedition to Christmas Island but the Dutch had supported them. When the interviewer questioned Einstein regarding Germany’s reaction to the resignation of the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George few months earlier, Einstein said, in his opinion Germany would regret very much his resignation and the mighty British Empire he managed, meant much to calm and quietness of the world.
Lloyd George was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1916-1922. He steered the country through World War I to victory and later made efforts towards reconciliation with Germany. Lloyd George tendered resignation, when opposition alleged he was involved in a scandal.
Einstein and wife rides in rickshaws via Pettish to see a Buddhist temple
The following morning, as Einstein and Elsa stepped out of the deck, betel chewing rickshaw pullers surrounded them, forcing him to sit on carts. Einstein reacted emotionally, protesting he didn’t wish to be hauled by another human being. When a ship’s official explained the acceptability of such mode of transport in the orient, both sat on rickshaws. Einstein said each was pulled by two men of Herculean strength along the native quarters to see a Buddhist temple. The drivers must have gone through York Street passing Pettah. The edited endnotes to the travel diary suggest that Kelaniya could have been the temple they saw. Einstein describe people he saw on roadside as pleasant looking with facial expressions indicative of an amalgamation of much pride and depressiveness as if they were nobles turned poor. They gave the impression that the climate prevented them from thinking ahead more than a quarter of an hour. Not fully dressed, they showed their bodies and pleasant faces. They were not brutal nor did they shout, but displayed little liveliness. “Once you take a proper look at this people, you can hardly appreciate Europeans anymore, because they are softened, more brutal and so much rougher and more covetous- and therein unfortunately lies their practical superiority, their ability take on big things and carry them out. In this climate wouldn’t we too become like these people?” Einstein also says that the Colombo harbour was lively and bustling with workers of Herculean strength lifting cargo. Having seen the divers who cleaned ship hulls, Einstein says that some mean people joyfully watch the performance of these men who exert themselves so much to earn a living.
Einstein’s humanitarian concern is evident. The records in the travel diary refer only to the conditions of impoverished in Colombo rather than affluent sector he must have definitely seen while going from Fort to Pettah. After leaving Colombo Einstein wrote in his diary “Ceylon is a plant’s paradise, yet a stage of pathetic human existence”.
Einstein meets one of the prettiest women he has ever seen in Negombo
Einstein and Elsa were returning to Europe from Japan in another steamer Haroon Maru. As the ship approached Ceylon, Einstein was on the deck gazing at the dazzling star-studded skies, chatting with a Sinhalese schoolteacher about conditions in Ceylon; the latter highly praised the British administration of the Island. The ship apparently anchored in Colombo on January 19,1923 late at night. The following day Einstein wished to host a party to the passengers of the ship, touring Colombo in automobiles. As the idea didn’t materialise, Einstein and Elsa got into a tramcar, proceeded to the Fort Railway station and took a train to Negombo. Stepping down from the train at Negombo, the couple hired two rickshaws, one of the drivers probably knew some German as he had worked as a mahout in Hagenbeck’s circus in Hamburg. Hagenbeck was a German zoo-keeper who lived in Sri Lanka for a long time. Einstein says, along the Negombo Main Street houses stood separated amidst coconut palms. When they were strolling, passersby inquisitively looked at them, a gesture not different, if a Sinhalese couple were to walk in the streets of Berlin. The rickshaw men took, Einstein and Elsa to the Negombo Fishing Port. Here Einstein had been curious to observe the speed with which trawlers sail, despite crudeness and saw how a flock of greedy crows following a boat approaching the shore. They have also seen a gigantic crocodile in a marshland, near a stream. Einstein says it spanned about 30-feet, when villagers threw stones,the animal quietly retracted to the stream. After lunch at the Negombo Guest House, Einstein and Elsa were driven to the Negombo Railway Station. Einstein gave five rupees each to the rickshaw men and they were so delighted the fellow who was in Hamburg, returned to the station in a while and presented a gift of bananas to Einstein. While waiting on the platform, Einstein says he met a young Sinhalese lady with her sister and mother and learnt that her grandfather was Dutch. Einstein says they were village aristocrats, and that she was one of prettiest women he had ever seen.
In summing-up his experience with people he encountered in Japan, China, Sri Lanka and Palestine, Einstein attributes a characteristic quality to the people of each country. He says he saw nobility among Sri Lankans. The word nobility has varying meanings “high inherited social status” or”pride of being possessed with righteous and virtuous qualities”. What Einstein meant here is left to the readers for their interpretation.
The writer, Prof. Kirthi Tennakone, can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org