Padda Boats on the Negombo Canal, Ceylon

Padda Boats on the Negombo Canal Ceylon
Padda Boats on the Negombo Canal #002

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Old Dutch Canal.
The 100km long canal network running through the town is still used, and outrigger canoes and modern water-craft ply this route daily, for trade and tourist purposes.

Date: Early 1900’s
Photographer/Publisher: Unknown
Location: Negombo Canal, Sri Lanka (Ceylon)

2 thoughts on “Padda Boats on the Negombo Canal, Ceylon


    By Richard Boyle

    If the most significant event in the history of the English language was the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928, then second was the appearance in 1755 of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. The latter work represented a tremendous advance in lexicography, because earlier dictionaries had confined themselves to unusual words, whereas Johnson included common ones. He understood that the only way to compile a comprehensive dictionary was to read many books, and that the method of demonstrating the variations in the meaning of words was to provide illustrative quotations from literature.

    Johnson’s dictionary was a remarkable piece of scholarship but it had limitations. Although the most comprehensive English dictionary at the time, it was still selective. Johnson decided on 1586 as the starting point for his word search, and so his survey covers a mere 150-year chunk of English literature. Some of his quotes are of limited authority, his definitions are often inconsistent, and he allows his personality and opinions to intrude.

    In 1857, Johnson’s authority was questioned by Richard Chevenix Trench, who declared that all existing English dictionaries were deficient. The ideal dictionary, Trench asserted, should be a complete inventory of the language, and not a selection based on merit or taste. He suggested that every word should be accompanied by one quotation pinpointing first use, and later ones to illustrate shades of meaning and variations in spelling. Trench’s most radical proposal was that such a massive undertaking could only be achieved by recruiting an army of volunteer readers.

    A few months later, the Philological Society adopted Trench’s idea of compiling the “New English Dictionary”, but which later became the Oxford English Dictionary. A circular was issued calling for volunteer readers, books were distributed to those who stepped forward, and Herbert Coleridge, grandson of the poet, was appointed editor. Bad luck and mismanagement dogged the project from its inception. Coleridge died after only two years at work. He was replaced by the mercurial Frederick Furnivall, who was unable to sustain an initial enthusiasm and allowed the project to drift for a decade.

    To Furnivall’s credit, he did suggest a suitable successor, an erudite schoolmaster named James Murray. It proved to be a significant recommendation, for Murray masterminded the process of compilation and his commitment to the project ensured its eventual completion. Furnivall made another important contribution by suggesting that the Oxford University Press (OUP) would be the ideal publisher.

    One of Murray’s first steps was to write “An Appeal to the English-speaking and English-reading Public in Great Britain, America and the Colonies”. This was designed to drum up volunteers to trawl through literature for words and their illustrative quotations. The appeal, published in April 1879, was sent to newspapers and magazines, bookshops and libraries. So it found wide circulation throughout Great Britain and its dominions, including, no doubt, Ceylon. Copies probably arrived at Colombo in the packages of books ordered from bookshops in England by planters, administrators and the like. Perhaps others percolated to libraries.

    The appeal was accompanied by a “List of Books for which Readers are Wanted”. The list contained 227 titles, 37 from the 17th century. Surprisingly, Ceylon’s classic of the period, Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1682), which contains the earliest references to words that would eventually constitute Sri Lankan English, was not among them. The title does appear in an early manuscript register, but the assigned volunteer reader did not fulfill the task. The identity of the person who eventually did so is revealed as “D. Ferguson, Colombo”.

    It is entirely apt that Donald Ferguson, the scholar who wrote the best biography of Knox and discovered Knox’s Sinhalese Vocabulary, should be the first volunteer in the lexicographical documentation of Sri Lankan English (SLE). Ferguson was responsible for the inclusion in the first edition of the OED (published between 1884 and 1927) of such words used by Knox as betel-leaf, bo-tree, Buddha, dissava, kittul, musk-rat, poojah, rattan, rillow, talipot, tic-polonga, Vedda and wanderoo.

    A second edition of the OED was published in 1989, and a second appeal was launched in 1999 to coincide with the start of a revision programme to create a third edition. The appeal invited the general public “to make an important contribution to recording the history of the English language” by providing information about words and their usage. Apart from urging the public to search for previously unrecorded words, the appeal also requested volunteers to submit quotations necessary to illustrate the evolution of words.

    As I happened to possess some familiarity with the books on Sri Lanka in the English language, especially those published during the colonial period, I felt I could help to describe the history of SLE words and volunteered my services. Accepted, I began by compiling the full list of SLE words with the aid of the OED’s computers, and then read or re-read, many of books from Knox onwards.

    Revision of the OED2 (which is not being undertaken in alphabetical order) is currently at the letter P. There are over 20 core words from SLE within P such as pandal, pansala, parangi, patana, perahera, pol sambol, poojah/puja, poonac and poya, all of which have been revised. In addition, P contains many ‘Anglo-Indian’ words of disparate origin extant in SLE. However, they are not exclusive to this particular brand of English, being used in other variants spoken elsewhere on the Indian subcontinent. Such words include paddy, peon, pettah, and plantain.

    In the entry for paddy (“rough or unhusked rice”, etc.), there is a misapprehension that affects SLE. The compound paddy boat can be found in the entry, but instead of referring solely to paddy-carrying boats in various Asian countries, the lexicographers have included the SLE term padda boat. However, this craft, succinctly described by J. Vijayatunga as “a flat-bottomed, punt-shaped barge”, carried rice and dozens of other things, too.

    In order to demonstrate this, I have to find the illustrative quotations so the editorial team can decide how to amend the entry, or indeed create a new one for padda boat. The first references seem to appear in the Diary of Mr John D’Oyly 1810 – 1815, a special publication issued by the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. XXV, No. 69, in 1917, and reprinted in New Delhi in 1995.
    The very first reference, from a diary entry for 1810, reads: “The next Day they saw him pass the River on his way to Saffragam in a Pade,” while the last reference, from a diary entry for 1815, reads: “Embarked in a Pade & reached Hanweylle at 11 ½ PM.”
    1870, William Skeen provided a fairly detailed description in Adam’s Peak: “We accordingly engaged a pada-boat,* and as the rest-house is very near the river, this was brought for our accommodation to a landing place close by. Sending our horse home by road, for he would not enter the boat, we dismounted our carriage from its wheels and stowing it with pour boxes in the centre of the boat, took up our quarters in the fore part, while our servants and a portion of the crew occupied the hinder end. The crew consisted of a tindal or steersman, and six rowers; a complement which allowed four to be always working the sweeps on the over-hanging prow, while two rested, spell and spell about. A good supply of fresh rice straw, covered with empty coffee bags, over which we spread our rugs, made excellent couches; while a clay hearth near the stern, with a few bricks and earthenware pans, served all the purposes of a kitchen.”
    (* Footnote: A large flat-bottomed barge, about fifty feet long, with a roofing of cadjans, raised sufficiently high in the centre to allow a man to stand upright; the ends of this are separately made so as to slide backwards and forwards over the central portion.)
    I have not found any other 19th-century quotations – that doesn’t mean they don’t exist of course – although there are plenty from the 20th century. In 1914, for instance, Bella Sidney Woolf wrote in How to See Ceylon: “The line crosses the Kelaniya River and there may be seen the slow going pada boats, which ply up and down the river with rice, and other foodstuffs or goods. They are double canoes, roofed-in and have a lazy barge-like air.”
    In 1929, Claire Rettie wrote in Things Seen in Ceylon: “In the limpid water “padda” boats with brown sails . . . move slowly.”

    In 1949, J. Vijayatunga wrote in Island Story: “. . . a flat-bottomed, punt-shaped barge called a padda-boat, more capacious and also more comfortable to sleep in and sit up in. The ridged roof of the padda-boat just allows one to stand up inside. This type of barge is pushed along like a punt with a long bamboo; sometimes by two men working at opposite ends of the stern. They are used for such freight as bales of rubber, cans of tea and, on their return journeys, for bags of Rangoon rice and kerosene tins.”
    In 1965, R.L. Brohier wrote in Seeing Ceylon: “On these waterways built by their hydraulic engineers, arrack from these distilleries, coir fibre and all agricultural produce from the district, which found purchase in markets abroad, were carried in padda boats to the warehouses in Colombo for shipment.”
    Brohier provided further references: “Padda-boats – large flat bottomed boats or barges, square at both ends and with a steer both at bow and stern, so that the vessel’s passage through the water may be facilitated. Padda-boats are generally poled like a punt and are fitted at the stern with an outside oar serving as a rudder. They are often fitted with a removable cadjan roof sloping toward either side. Padda-boats are used both for passenger traffic and cargo.”
    In the good old days of the Dutch, padda boats plied up and down these canals taking cargoes of rubber, coffee, pepper, cinnamon and bringing back salt, rice and other food commodities.
    In 1973, Brohier, in Discovering Ceylon, referred to the Dutch: “Hence the flat-bottomed catteponels or ‘Padda-boats’ they introduced to Ceylon,” and also commented, “The Hamilton Canal however continued to afford a ‘padda boat pace’ of travel for several decades.”
    In 1974, Handbook for the Ceylon Traveller commented: “A little further up, the road kisses briefly a broad expanse of the river on which you could see padda boats, large scows each anchored by four poles and divers loading them with baskets of sand collected from the bed of the river,” and, “There is nothing significantly older than the 19th century but the Dutch Canal which stretches through the middle of the town on which punt-shaped scows, called padda boats, ply carrying goods.”
    In 1995, Carl Muller wrote in Colombo: “. . . ‘Grand Pass’ was the rendezvous for all traffic, mostly large, flat-bottomed boats which were known as padda boats or paddi boats. Many of these boats, introduced by the Dutch, had removable roofing and they carried heavy loads of salt, fibre, cinnamon, dried fish, areca-nuts, coconuts, timber. Crews lived along the canals and even in the 1950s it was possible to see these ungainly and grandmotherly looking vessels being towed or punted along the canals.”
    Finally, in the 21st century, Michelle de Kretser wrote in The Hamilton Case (2003): “Padda boats with thatched roofs slipped along the river.”
    Now here’s how you can become a volunteer in the revision of the OED entries concerning SLE words, and perhaps even in the creation of new entries. If you know of any references to padda boat not cited above, especially any from the 18th century, please forward them to me, providing publication details. Sri Lankan English beckons you.
    Richard Boyle, Sri Lanka English consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary.

  2. The Padda boat named for the Noice it made was an early steam driven small boat. Boiling water created steam pressure released underwater that propelled the boat forward creating its Distinct Noice.
    It ferried 6 or so passengers or goods across or along the Kelani River upto the mid 1950. The boats were said to Predate the arrival of Portuguese in Sri-Lanka. Risk of fire and insufficient thrust for anything bigger.
    The flat bottom barges were Probably introduced by the Dutch for commercial transport that evolved after their arrival.

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