Serendib: Scenes from Colonial Ceylon


Since antiquity Ceylon — long known as Serendib, now Sri Lanka — has been renowned for its beauty and its wealth. Shipwrecked on its shores, Sindbad the Sailor found it a land of “unrivalled splendor and magnificence,” the air filled with the fragrance of spices and rare gems glittering in the streams of a lofty mountain. He returned home loaded with riches, as many were to do after him: Portuguese, Dutch, and finally, in the nineteenth century, the British. Serendib tells the stories in the voices and through the eyes of those who ultimately made and lost fortunes not in the cinnamon and pearls that first lured them but in coffee and tea; it tells the stories, too, of those who came to govern, to convert, to hunt, to unearth the island’s antiquities, and simply to delight in its natural wonders.

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“To describe Serendib simply as Sri Lanka seen chiefly through the lens of the colonial British would be to do its author a great injustice. Eugenia Herbert has a sure touch and has woven her material together into the richest of tapestries, every page shot through with unexpected delights and insights that make it a joy to read. Serendib is surely set to become a classic.”

Charles Allen, author of Ashoka, Coromandel and many other works on South Asia


“Eugenia Herbert’s latest book is a well-researched history of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with particular emphasis on the period under British rule.  Within and around the country’s big events and major players Herbert has woven into her text fascinating, little-known details about Ceylon’s exports (cinnamon, tea, coffee, pearls), religion, food, architecture, domestic and wild animals, flowers and the landscape before and after colonial interventions. In her exploration of these various topics, Herbert’s eye for the unusual and downright bizarre makes this book not only informative, but an animated and often amusing read. By including characters from British art and literature, like Julia Margaret Cameron and Leonard Woolf who spent time in Ceylon, Herbert vividly brings to life the expatriate experience and deftly illustrates some of the absurdities of Imperial rule. The well-chosen color and black and white illustrations are an added pleasure.”

Mary Ann Prior, author of An Indian Portfolio: The Life and Work of Emily Eden and An Artist in the Garden (forthcoming)

Weight 1.75 lbs
Dimensions 8.25 × 6.375 × 1.25 in
Levellers Press