Christopher Elliott (1809–1859)

Christopher Elliott, MD
Christopher Elliott

The Seventh Son

Rosalind McCutcheon, UK

When Christopher Elliott was born in Kilkenny in 1809, his material future did not look promising. He was the seventh and youngest son in the family and, although his brother John had died as a baby, he still had five large healthy older brothers. In addition, there were his two sisters, Mary and Isabella, who had to be provided for, all out of a very modest estate that could really only provide a comfortable living for one or two children.

However, in spite of the lack of money and prospects, he had some very significant advantages. His parents, both of whom lived to a good age, provided a very happy home life for their children, and the bonds between the whole family remained strong and affectionate throughout their lives. Christopher’s father had a great interest in scientific matters, as well as a deep love of the land. Even in his 80s, he was out and about, planting trees; his vigour at that age was no surprise, as his own father had lived to 100, and his grandmother to 104! Christopher’s mother had a sharp wit and a strong faith, allied with a distaste for the established church. She also had a burning sense of injustice, which she passed on to her son.

Like his brothers, Christopher applied himself to his studies, and managed to qualify as a doctor. There were no funds available to set him up in a practice in Ireland, but he heard of an opening abroad, – as a medical officer in Ceylon. He set sail in April 1834, and must have known he was unlikely to see all his family again. His mother, Catherine, was determined to keep him in touch with his family and friends, and set up a lively correspondence, – the first letter reached him soon after he arrived. One of his granddaughters was my grandmother and, through her, I am fortunate to have acquired a large collection of Catherine’s letters, as well as many from other members of the family, including from Christopher himself.

Once Christopher arrived in Ceylon, he threw himself not only into his work, but also into his new surroundings; his letters home are full of descriptions of exotic plants, strange customs and other excitements. His strong religious background directed him towards the local thriving Baptist church; he remained a committed member there, as well as a lay preacher, for the rest of his life.

Unlike his brothers, who seem, from his mother’s very amusing letters, to have been very bashful suitors, he had an easy manner, and soon had a large circle of friends. Nor was it long before he fell in love, – Jessie was the daughter of a local merchant, originally from Scotland. They went on to have eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood.

He proved to be a very competent medical officer; an assessment appeared in “The Tropical Agriculturist” in 1893, many years after his death:

“From 1836 to 1859 Dr Elliott’s career was widely identified with the social and material progress of the Colony. He achieved great popularity and esteem as a very capable physician and a bold as well as a skilful surgeon. He was the first to cut down to the liver for abscess on that organ, and he did so in spite of serious remonstrances from other medical men of the day in Ceylon, at a time when the anaesthetics and antiseptics, now so largely used, were unknown aids in surgery….. Dr Elliott acquired immense influence medically with the natives at a time when European medical aid was, as a rule, scorned by them. He was trusted and beloved by the European and Native community of Colombo beyond any other European who ever lived in Ceylon, and it was through his influence that the Ceylon Government in 1858 created a Civil Medical Department, of which he was appropriately named the first Chief, although he survived in the post for less than a year.”(Christopher died in 1859).

For the rest of her life, until she died in the summer of 1840, Catherine sent a steady flow of letters to Christopher. She also had a son working in London, and another serving in the army abroad, and I daresay they received just as many letters from her. Her last letter to Christopher broke off mid-sentence, with the nib sliding down the page:

“…….and my last words shall be: the almighty preserve you, all my good Children, in every quarter of the globe they may be…….”.

Christopher’s sister Mary finished the letter: :

“These are the last words that my ever dearest Mother wrote, about, I think, a month before her death. She retained her senses to the last, knew she was dying, but did not say so to me. She was not more than half an hour departing, evidently free from pain, and in perfect peace.”

The letter is beautiful and moving, but I can imagine how desolate Christopher must have felt, so far away.

His father, sisters and brothers continued a steady correspondence with him, which would have been a great comfort. His father, writing to him, shortly after Catherine’s death:

“I send you a ‘Waterford Chronicle’ in which you will see a short article of mine about obtaining a foot-path and widening the road from Mooncoin, for which I have been struggling with the authorities for in vain. I have now brought it before Parliament, and will not during my life relax in my exertions to obtain justice for the poor. I wish you would occasionally send me a number of each of your papers as, whilst you remain on that island, I must be interested in its prosperity. Give my Love to your Wife and Children, and accept the same from your father, as well as his blessing to each of you.”

In spite of Christopher’s growing family, his church work, the purchase of a chocolate and cinnamon plantation and, of course, his medical career, he still found time to address the injustices around him, and took steps to counter these. The very year he arrived in Ceylon, he acquired a share of a newly-launched newspaper, “The Colombo Observer”, and soon afterwards became its co-editor. His editorials were the scourge of the British rule in Ceylon, and make very lively reading. He had a wide circle of friends and supporters, many from the native population.

In 1848, he bought a bungalow called “Malmaison” in Colombo. The family were very happy there, although they had to accept the sadness of parting with their children one by one, as they were sent to Ireland for their education once they reached the age of eight or nine, to escape the dangers of a tropical climate. The two eldest boys, were sent to Waterford early in 1848, to be brought up by Christopher’s brother and sister-in-law, who were childless.

Malmaison became the scene of many meetings and discussions, which contributed in no small way to the outbreak of what became known as the Great Kandyan Rebellion or the Matale Rebellion. Christopher, when talking to his native friends, said that as an Irishman he especially understood the injustices they were suffering. He cited the American Revolution mantra of “no taxation without representation!” He was also an open admirer of the 1848 Revolution in France.

‘The Tropical Agriculturist’, 1893, describes the events and Christopher’s part in them: :

“The news of a series of new taxes led to public meetings of protest in Kandy on 8th July, 1848, and the news of these taxes alarming the natives of the Colombo, Hanwella and Pandanure districts, they assembled in many thousands one day in Cotta to march into Colombo and lay their grievances before the supreme Raj, according to usual oriental practice. The Government got intimation, and chose to regard this movement as a beginning of “Rebellion” in the low country; the Fort guns were ordered to be loaded, double sentries posted at the gates, and the mass of natives were to be fired on if they dared to try and pass into the Fort! Indeed the military were ordered to march towards Bozella, and they got as far as Slave Island, ready to stop the Natives’ advance. (This was on 26th July 1848).

“Dr Elliott got news of all this only after the crowd of people had started from Cotta in the full belief that their great number would induce the Government to abolish the new taxes. He drove off to meet them – did so at the “Mango Tree”, Darley Road, close to where the Baptist Church now stands. He called a halt, only just in time to prevent a collision, got a table from an adjacent house, mounted it and addressed the people by interpretation, explaining to them the risk they ran of giving offence and getting into trouble, – he explained the English notion of “petitioning” against grievances, and having brought paper, pen and ink with him, he caused a short Petition to be drafted in Sinhalese on the spot, read it to the crowd, got their ready approval, and then called for signatures, electing three or four representatives to present it. All this was done, and the people, at the worthy doctor’s request, at once returned home, quite satisfied.”

I was very pleased to find, with the help of a Sri Lankan friend, that the road where the table speech took place is still named Elliott Road to this day!

Jessie, writing to her sister-in-law in Waterford later that year, commented:

“You would have full particulars of our little war by last mail. I am happy to say all is again quiet. The Governor has remitted three of the taxes which were the cause of the outbreak. It was a very exciting time to us, Christopher taking part with the people advocating their rights, the Government watching for an opportunity to entrap him. But he has achieved a great victory in that this Government has been obliged to remit the obnoxious taxes. The people have voted their Hero a piece of plate. The Governor is very unpopular here; all classes are wishing his recall.”

The fallout from the rebellion continued, however, and a Commission of Inquiry was appointed from Westminster to report back, and to apportion blame. Christopher was daily expecting to be sent to England to answer charges for his own part in the rebellion. In addition, he had received threats of violence and at least one attempt on his life – in particular from a police captain called Watson. The following is from a letter to one of his brothers in 1850. It is interesting to note that he feels sorry for Captain Watson!

“…….The Commission remained at home one day to arrange their documents, and that day I spent in bed. Next morning, it was as I was creeping up to the Court House that my friend Watson fell upon me. One comfort is that if he now felt inclined to try his hand again, he would not be so successful; so that you need be under no anxiety at present for the state of my health.

“It will doubtless surprise you that I have sought no legal redress; but this course I considered most advisable under all the circumstances. The Police Magistrate of Kandy, before whom I must have brought the case criminally, was a tool of Lord Torrington’s, employed in getting up false affidavits for the Governor’s defence…… Civil action might have been brought if we had had an honest judge to appeal to; but the Civil Judge in Kandy was Captain Watson’s Father-in-Law, – and a precious rogue too. And tho’ I might, on application to the Supreme Court, have had a case moved from the Kandy to the Colombo Court, I should have here appeared before a corrupt, timeserving Judge, from whom I could expect no justice, especially as Lord Torrington had let it be known that he felt personally interested in the matter……. I also foresaw the retribution that was coming upon the whole tribe, from the Governor downwards; and I could perceive that Captain Watson’s ruin was inevitable – and he, poor fellow, has a large family. And as the result has proved so disastrous to them all, I do not now regret that I acted in the manner I have done…”

An article in the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka: Sept 2012, sums it up succinctly:

“Questions were raised in the British Parliament, with serious implications that Prime Minister Lord John Russell had appointed his close relative, Lord Torrington, as Governor. This being construed as an act of nepotism, not only were Torrington and other high officials recalled from Ceylon but the British Cabinet was also dissolved.”

Edward Elliott, Christopher’s father, gave his absolute support. Here he is, aged 85, writing in September 1850:

“I congratulate not only yourself, but the Inhabitants of Ceylon generally, in your success in your struggle on their behalf with Lord Torrington and his local Government. What a strange kind of man he must be. I hope his successor – as I understand he has been recalled – will have a better head and heart to govern your Island.”

After all this excitement, life settled down to its usual busy round at Malmaison. Christopher continued with all his activities, although Jessie worried that he was driving himself too hard in such a warm climate. However, having sent the two boys to Ireland some years before, they were now facing the prospect of losing their two oldest daughters. Kitty, the elder, was finally sent to Ireland in Feb 1853, aged just 9. Christopher, writes to his sister-in-law in Ireland: “My heart is following poor Kitty on the Ship. Now that she is away from her Mother, who is to hear her say her little prayer morning and evening? …The Piano too is now mute or, instead of the pretty motley played to Mamma, there is Mary thumbing the keys everywhere, quite delighted with the noise she makes….”

The journey was a long one; it must have been agonizing for the parents. Here is Jessie, writing to Kitty in April 1853:

“…..My dearest Child, we are all hoping to hear of your safe arrival at the Cape……We miss you much. Mary Jane feels dull and lonely without you. Tommy and Chris cried when they found you had sailed away in a ship, until their little hearts were like to break.” (Tommy and Chris were Kitty’s baby twin brothers, aged 3.)

Mary was sent the following year, to join her brothers and sister. Soon afterwards, in March 1855, Jessie died suddenly of fever, having never seen her four eldest children again. So affected was Christopher by her sudden death that he fled from “Malmaison” and went to live with her brother, Robert, and his family. Within a month of Jessie’s death, the house was put up for sale. The following year, it was sold, and renamed “Temple Trees” – because of the exuberant Frangipani blossoms in its grounds. Recently, I tried to track the house on a modern map of Colombo, and found that it is now the official residence of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka!

Temple Trees
Temple Trees, Colombo, Siri Lanka
home of Christopher and Jessie Elliott in 18040s
now official residence of the Sri Lankan Prime Minister

The year following her death, Christopher came back to Ireland on extended leave, combined with official business in England. During his visit to England, he paid a visit to Lord Torrington. Knowing Christopher, I would imagine that reconciliation would have been part of his agenda. While home in Waterford, he met and married Bessie Scott, of Waterford. On their return to Ceylon, a daughter was born, but when Bessie was pregnant with their second child, Richard, Christopher fell victim to dysentery, and died on 22nd May 1859, aged just 49. He is buried at the Baptist Church at Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo, next to his beloved first wife, Jessie.

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