In memory of Major Thomas William Rogers: St. Marks Anglican Church at Badulla of Central Highlands.
At Badulla, the terminal city of the highland railway line of Sri Lanka, is an unpretentious Anglican Church that hides behind a lych gate at the foot of the hill below the fort. On a wall covered with memorial tablets is a dedication to Major Thomas William Rogers ( 1804 -1845).
“This church was erected to the honour of God in memory of Thomas William Rogers, Major, Ceylon Rifle Regiment, Assistant Government Agent and District Judge of Badulla, by all classes of his people, friends and admirers. He was killed by lightening at Haputale, June 7, 1845, aged 41. In the midst of life we are in death.”
Major Thomas William Rogers, a pioneer administrator in Badulla during the British colonial era, is now seldom remembered, in spite of his significant contribution towards laying the road network in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka Holidays. Illustrious Major Skinner lamented “after his death it required four men to perform with far less efficiency, promptitude and punctuality than when they were administered” Today, Major Rogers is most remembered as the man who killed 1400 elephants and lost count.
Most of the colonialist civil servants took up killing elephants as a sport and called themselves sportsmen. Then there were rare others who were driven onto the guns by necessity of their profession as well as in extending assistance to Sinhalese villagers so that their cultivation could be protected.
The arrival of demi-devil of the wild elephants at Uva province of Sri Lanka
In 1824, 20 year old Rogers arrived at Trincomalee, Ceylon and became a second lieutenant in the Ceylon Rifle Regiment. When stationed in Colombo, Rogers became a friend of no lees a person than illustrious Major Thomas Skinner, the builder of Colombo Kandy Road. In 1828, Rogers was appointed Commandant of Alupota, an important bastion. Alupota had been a British stronghold during the Uva Wellassa Rebellion in the year 1818. Rogers was to spend six years in the wild, roadless jungle military station overrun by herds of elephants, which devastated the crops of the Sinhalese villagers. Such was the regular encroachment in large herds, in night after night, in Ceylon, the elephants were likened to wolves in Europe by the British colonialists. Rogers spurred by the circumstances, following initial fumbling, in good time, became an elephant hunter of great skill and courage. Rogers soon became a legendary elephant hunter in his own lifetime.
Major Rogers, the demi-god of the Sinhalese villagers in Uva province of Sri Lanka.
Given the record of the Rogers, it is difficult to believe that there was ever a swifter pair of hands that held a rifle. His hunting exploits made such a deep impression on the Sinhalese villagers, it was said no elephant could ever get too close to him.
Killing 1400 elephants during an 11 year period (1834 to 1845) is astounding by any stretch of credulity. One would imagine Rogers was a day and night professional hunter hired to get rid of the elephants encroaching the villages to lay waste the paddy fields, chena (slash-and-burn) cultivation, topes of coconut trees and groves of banana. Occasionally, whole lands of cultivation were devastated in the course of a single night. Elephants having a great liking for the leaves of the coconut, when unable to reach them with their trunks, would throw their whole weight against the tree, and persist with great pressure till it is laid down.
Today herds of wild elephants are mostly seen at the grassland forests and irrigation reservoirs in the plains. Elephants are the star attraction in most of the Sri Lanka Holidays National Wild life Parks. However during the colonial era wild elephants roamed in large herds in the Central Highlands. The capability of the elephants in enduring extreme climatic change is especially significant: they are at home in valleys of the interior; on the elevated thickly-wooded forty five degree steep mountains which run upto six thousand feet above the sea-level.
Major Rogers, the highland road builder based in Badulla
Rogers, an engineer by profession, was the Assistant Government Agent and District Judge of Badulla. The modern map of Uva owes much to the planning of Major Rogers. Contributions of Rogers to the construction of highland roads under the leadership of Major Thomas Skinner was well recorded in the colonial history of Sri Lanka, then called, Ceylon. He was credited with connecting Nuwara Eliya with Badulla. Furthermore, he was instrumental in building roads, Badulla onwards to three directions: to Bibile and through Bibile to Batticaloa on the east coast, a distance of over 200 miles through difficult terrain; Badulla to Ratnapura, all the way through the hills to the west of the island; Badulla to Wellawaya and then continued this road to the south coast at Hambantota.
Rogers, traversing from Badulla to Kandy, avoiding the arduous climb via Ramboda to Nuwara Eliya, traced the Lower Badulla Road via Walapone and to Kandy. However, since the tea plantations never penetrated the wilds of lower Hewaheta and Walapone during the colonial era, the path had fallen into disuse. It took no less than another 140 years for the path to be converted into a broad highway. That was by late Gamini Dissanayaka while the Mahaweli Development Project was at its busiest days in the 1980s. Today it is one of the most picturesque roads in Sri Lanka Holidays.
Rogers misses a shot at Hambantota
In his endless close encounters with herds of wild elephants Major Rogers was caught napping, caught by the trunk of an elephant only once; that was on the 29th of December, 1841, when he was exploring a new forest track in the Hambantota district.
Following is an extraction from Ceylon and Cingalese written by Henry Charles Sirr, 1850, London
The major had shot at an elephant, but the ball glanced off, merely inflicting a flesh-wound; the creature, infuriated with pain, raised its trunk, uttering the terrific trumpet-like squeal, which they always make preparatory to a charge. The elephant seized Rogers with the proboscis, and carried him a short distance, then dashed him on the ground, into a deep hole, and trampled upon him, breaking his right arm in two places, and several of his ribs; and it was only the small size of the hole into which he had been thrown that saved his life, as the elephant had not sufficient room to use his full strength.
When his brother sportsmen came up to the Major, they found him lying senseless, and, so soon as he recovered his speech he stated, that he was perfectly conscious when the elephant both seized and trampled upon him, but that he knew attempting to escape, or struggling was worse than futile, and that he was entirely passive upon principal, as he had often reflected upon such an event occurring, and had resolved to remain perfectly motionless. We believe no greater mastery of mind over matter, or resolution, was ever recorded than this.
Lightening kills Rogers at Haputale of Central Highlands.
The death of the most fearless elephant hunter ever was melancholy as well as extraordinary. No mortal elephant could kill him in spite of more than 1400 death or life encounters. An elephant wouldn’t be shot dead unless the ball of a rifle is sunk right into the brain. In all those encounters, Rogers was swift and dead on the target and prevailed except the one narrated above. He had much more than fabled cat’s nine lives. Whom, the elephants couldn’t kill, it took no less than a bolt of lightening.
Following is an extraction from Ceylon, Beaten Track written by W. T. Keble, 1940, Colombo
It was when he went up to Haputale to meet the Government Agent, C. R. Buller, that Major Rogers met his tragic death on the 7th of June, 1845. Mr. and Mrs. Buller had arrived in Haputale, and Rogers went up from Badulla to meet his chief. They had probably been doing some outdoor inspection work, when a sudden thunder-storm blackened the sky and the mountains, and compelled them to take shelter in the Haputale Resthouse. The rain beat down upon the roof as they sat in the inner roof as they sat in the inner room of Haputale Resthouse. After a time the pattering of the rain drops grew less violent, and major Rogers stepped out onto the verandah to see if the storm had abated. He turned round and called out to Mrs. Buller: “it is all over now”, when suddenly there was a blinding flash of lightening, followed by shattering thunder-clap. The central pole of the pandal before the house was split down the middle, the coolies and horses in the back verandah and outhouses were all struck down, though not seriously injured; but Rogers fell forward with his face to the floor, dead. It was evident that the lightening had been attracted by his military spurs, for one heel was discolored.
Tomb of Major Rogers at Nuwara Eliya,
Right behind the golf course at Nuwara Eliya of Central Highlands is an old colonial cemetery. All around the wall of the cemetery is a ditch, which was once a moat wide and deep enough to stop the elephants crossing onto the cemetery. Thus cemetery was well protected from the wild elephants then abounded at Nuwara Eliya. Therein at the cemetery lies the remains of Major Rogers. The tombstone that elephants couldn’t reach was visited by a bolt of lightening. The tombstone of Major Thomas William Rogers is cracked with lightening.