Taprobane Island: Part 5 – Succeeding Owners of The Island Paradise


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Myself

By T. V. Antony Raj

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Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande died suddenly from a heart attack at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on November 27, 1941, while visiting a friend at the Chelvarayan Estate, Navatkuli, 3.73 miles (6 km) south of Jaffna in Ceylon.

John Lambert, an English solicitor at the Chelvarayan Estate, is registered as the person who buried the body of Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande at St Mary’s Burial Grounds in Jaffna, Ceylon, with none of his family members present.

The Ceylon Daily News, in its edition of Friday, November 28, 1941, printed the following in its obituary column:

“The death has occurred in Jaffna yesterday of the Count de Mauny, who had resided in Ceylon for over twenty years, making his island home, Taprobane, off Weligama, one of the most attractive show pieces of the kind. A French Catholic, the count became a naturalized Englishman.

He was married to a daughter of the 4th Earl of Strafford and had one son, Mr. V A de Mauny, who served with the British Navy in the last Great War and rejoined when the present hostilities broke out.

The late Count de Mauny’s principal hobbies, in which he was himself an adept, were the laying out of beautiful gardens and furniture craftmanship, which he turned into an art. Besides his own at Taprobane, many of Colombo’s most pleasing gardens owe their inspiration to him. His book The Gardens of Taprobane published in London some years ago, met with a good reception.

Count de Mauny who was nominated to the Weligama Urban Council, took a keen interest in public affairs and there was a time when he was a prolific writer to the newspapers. At one period he was even a member of the Labour Union.

The funeral takes place this morning.”

While the above obituary states that Maurice “… had one son, Mr. V A de Mauny, … “, it does not mention anywhere anything about his daughter Alexandra.

Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande’s son, Victor Alexander, passed away in 1978, and his daughter Alexandra died in 1989. They were both childless. Seweryn Chomet mentions a rumour that Victor Alexander had an illegitimate son in Ceylon who eventually emigrated to New Zealand.

Even after the Count died, Taprobane Island continued to draw new generations of romantics.

Taprobane Island remained in Victor Alexander’s ownership until it was sold by public auction in 1942 for Rupees 12,000.

In 1946, when Sir Philip Christopher Ondaatje (born February 22, 1933) was 12 years old his father had rented the island from the owners who had bought it at the auction.

The island changed hands to various people, and none of them lived there long as the Count did.

Paul Bowles (December 30, 1910 – November 18, 1999). An American expatriate composer, author, and translator.
Paul Bowles (December 30, 1910 – November 18, 1999). An American expatriate composer, author, and translator.

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Paul Bowles (December 30, 1910 – November 18, 1999), an American expatriate composer, author, and translator was a child prodigy. He could read by the time he was three, and within the year he was writing stories. Soon, he started writing surrealistic poetry and music. In 1922, at age seventeen one of his poems, “Spire Song“, was accepted for publication in the twelfth volume of Transition, a literary journal based in Paris that served as a forum for some of the greatest proponents of modernism – Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Paul Éluard, Gertrude Stein and others.

In 1947, Bowles settled in Tangier, Morocco, and his wife, Jane Bowles followed him in 1948.

Bowles visited Ceylon for the first time in 1949. He wrote:

Like most people, I have always been certain there was a place somewhere on this planet that could provide the necessary respite from all reminders of present-day chaos and noise, a place to which one could escape and, having escaped, shut the figurative door, there to breathe pure air and hear only the sounds provided by natural forces. So it was with tremulous excitement that I first saw the little island of Taprobane, in Weligama Bay off the south coast of Sri Lanka. Here was a site that seemed to have all the requisite qualities: It was scarcely more than a hummock of black basalt rising above the waves of the Indian Ocean, yet was heavily covered with high trees that left visible only a glimpse of the house at its summit. I had never seen a place that looked so obviously like what I was searching for. And I felt that it was aware of me, that it silently beckoned, sending forth a wordless message that meant: Come. You’ll like it here.

Three years later, I signed the necessary documents and became the owner of this tiny parcel of paradise. The erstwhile proprietor, a rubber planter named Mr Jinadasa, also bred racehorses and bet on them. When a horse in which he has great confidence failed to justify his hopes, he found himself in immediate need of cash. My informant in Sri Lanka wired me in Madrid, and as soon as the news arrived I rushed out to cable the money.

I inherited a couple who were resident gardener and maid, and who continued their work as if they were still in the employ of Mr Jinadasa. In aspects they had worked for several owners, scarcely knowing them apart, and were aware only that their employer must be addressed as Master. The island had belonged to various people in the recent past, and none of them had kept in very long. It was a pleasure dome, a place they used for weekend parties. The only person who had actually lived there was the Comte de Mauny Talvande, who had built the house and furnished it after reclaiming the island from its former status as the local cobra-dump. (All cobras found in the region were put into sacks, carried across to the island and left there since in Sri Lanka one doesn’t kill snakes). In order to settle in, I needed to buy only new mattresses for the beds, and lamps and kitchenware. The furniture, made of the heaviest kinds of tropical wood, was well-nigh immovable.

In 1951, Bowles purchased the island from its owner, Mr Jinadasa, for English Pounds 5,000. He lived there for many years, alternating seasonally with his better-known home in Morocco.

In 1952, during a three-year self-internment on the island, Bowles wrote his most successful novel, “The Spider’s House.” He incorporated the villa as one of the principal settings in the book. In his diary, he wrote of early-morning tours of the garden:

“the sun, although scarcely risen above the headlands to the east, is already giving off an intimate, powerful heat, and the distant flotillas of fishing boats later slip past the white line of the reefs into the open sea, their furled sails like the dorsal fins of giant sharks”.

The American art collector, bohemian and socialite, Peggy Guggenheim, the Moroccan artist Ahmed Yakoubi, and British science fiction writer, science writer, and undersea explorer, Arthur C. Clarke were among those who visited Taprobane Island during Paul Bowles’ tenure.

In 1956, at his wife’s insistence, Bowles sold the island to the Irish writer Shaun Mandy and moved back to Morocco.

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Frederick Lorensz de Silva

Shaun Mandy sold the Island in the late 1950s to Sri Lankan lawyer and politician Edmund Frederick Lorensz de Silva, MBE, who was once the Mayor of Kandy, Member of Parliament and Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France and Switzerland, and a former Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya from 1990 to 1993.

Frederick de Silva was known to the residents of Kandy and outside as ‘Fred’, and his colleagues and litigants called him ‘Lion of the Kandy Bar’ as he dominated the Criminal Bar for 58 years with a lucrative practice like his father late Mr George E. de Silva who dominated the Criminal Bar for well over 30 years.

‘Fred’ was the second son of veteran politician and statesman late Mr George E. de Silva who fought to achieve Independence and Adult Franchise for his country along with national leaders like late D. S. Senanayake, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Sir Baron Jayatilleke, E. W. Perera, A. E. Goonesinghe and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike.

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Sir Desmond Lorenz de Silva, QC, KStJ

Sir Desmond de Silva and Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia.
Sir Desmond de Silva and Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia.

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Sir Desmond Lorenz de Silva, QC, KStJ (born December 31, 1939), a prominent British lawyer, and former United Nations Chief War Crimes Prosecutor in Sierra Leone inherited Taprobane Island from his father Frederick Lorensz de Silva.

Sir Desmond married Princess Katharina of Yugoslavia, cousin of Queen Elizabeth and one of Queen Victoria’s great-granddaughters. They divorced on May 6, 2010.

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Thasseus Klossowski de Rola and his wife Loulou de la Falaise at a holiday in 1977. (Copyright: Roger Viollet | Nisberg Jack, Keystone)
Thasseus Klossowski de Rola and his wife Loulou de la Falaise at a holiday in 1977. (Copyright: Roger Viollet | Nisberg Jack, Keystone)

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The island became neglected for many years until a brief period in the 1970s when writer Thadée Klossowski de Rola, the younger son of the Polish-French modern artist Balthus, held court there and captivated many a young visitor!

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Geoffrey Dobbs

Geoffrey Dobbs
Geoffrey Dobbs

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In the 1970s, the Hong Kong-based entrepreneur Geoffrey Dobbs, a very successful Anglo-Australian hotelier, first saw the Taprobane Island in an airline magazine. Struck by the beauty of the place he fell in love with it. He patiently negotiated with the de Silva family and obtained it on a long lease. Eventually, he bought the Island from them. In 1995, Geoffrey Dobbs moved in and restored the island to its heyday.

A resident of Sri Lanka for the last 18 years, Geoffrey Dobbs is one of the key players in the tourism renaissance of Sri Lanka. He opened the first boutique hotels in Sri Lanka’s south-west, restoring two colonial mansions in Galle: the Sun House and the Dutch House. He has another beach retreat at Tangalla and more recently restored Lunuganga, the jungle retreat near Bentota.

Dobbs was one of the key figures in raising money and awareness for the tsunami relief for Sri Lanka and founded the charity “Adopt Sri Lanka” in 2001 with the objective to assist rebuilding and rehabilitating local communities on the coastline of Sri Lanka and to get their lives back to normal as quickly as possible. Having originally worked with other NGOs, Adopt Sri Lanka is now principally operating in the Weligama and Tangalle areas on long-term projects, rebuilding the fishing industry, restoring small businesses for widows and helping with education and housing.

He runs a “twinning” program which connects Sri Lankan schools with schools around the world.

He is the founder and president of the Ceylon Elephant Polo Association, Hong Kong. Every February he plays host to the world’s only beach elephant polo tournament held in front of his idyllic island of Taprobane on Sri Lanka’s south coast.

In 2007, he set up the Galle Literary Festival, which has now become a well recognised annual event.

Dobbs has a natural love for water and spends as much time as he can in or near the sea. He is a keen enthusiast for traditional boats and said:

“I have had a Chinese Junk in Hong Kong for over 25 years and was a member of the 1995 expedition sailing a bamboo raft across the Pacific Ocean to prove the Chinese reached America before Columbus.”

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← Previous: Taprobane Island: Part 4                         Next → Taprobane Island: Part 6

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