‘The last irreconcilable’ as he was known, Henry Engelbrecht, the first game warden of Sri Lanka’s most famous national park was a Boer Prisoner of War who tended the sanctuary for 21 long years with great devotion. He was on one of the 5500 Boer prisoners of war who was brought from South Africa by the British Government. When the war ended in 1902 all the prisoners who took the oath of alliance to the British sovereign were sent back and 5 prisoners including Henry Engelbrecht who refused to take the oath were kept in Sri Lanka.
Engelbrecht ended up in Hambathota and later become the first game warden in Yala National Park. Later he was suspected of treason of helping a German battleship called Emden and was imprisoned in Kandy. He was released due to lack of evidence but was cleared of treason only 9 years after his death.
The tomb of Henry Engelbrecht now lies in the Catholic churchyard in Hambanthota close to the town. The tomb reads
“In memory of H.E. Engelbrecht, Died 25th March 1928 For 21 years the guardian of the Yala Game Sanctuary
This stone is erected by members of the Ceylon Game Protection Society in appreciation on of his work and great knowledge of the jungle”
The Boer Prisoner Who Was Yala’s First Game Warden
National Parks : In the Hambantota cemetery by the sea is a simply engraved stone marking the spot where Engelbrecht, a Boer prisoner of war and this country’s first gamewarden was buried. Thereby hangs a tale!
Along with 5,000 other Boer prisoners of war, Engelbrecht was kept in Sri Lanka by the British until the war in South Africa ended in 1902.
These prisoners were then allowed to go back provided they took an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. All of them complied except Engelbrecht and four others who were not allowed to return.
Engelbrecht was sent to Hambantota and the other four to Jaffna and Batticaloa, where they were maintained on a government allowance of Rs. 1.25 per day, paid on a monthly basis from the respective kachcheries.
After the four Boers in Jaffna and Batticaloa died, Engelbrecht remained to eke out an existence on his measly dole. When he was turned out of the house he was living in because he could not pay the rent, he received a great deal of public sympathy.
His case was accordingly looked on favourably by the Governor, who appointed Engelbrecht gamewarden of the maritime area between the Kumbukkan oya and Menik ganga (the present Ruhuna National Park) which had been declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1899.
Engelbrecht turned out to be a capable gamewarden. Government reports indicated that under his stewardship “a decided increase in all kinds of game and animals”, had been observed.
Engelbrecht was also an excellent marksman, a prowess that he used in a humane way to protect pilgrims using the old trail from the Kumbukkan oya to Kataragama from the threat of leopards.
D. J. Hennessy, a British administrator in Sri Lanka, reported in his book ‘Green Ailes’ that leopards were known to attack and devour pilgrims who fell by the wayside from sickness and exhaustion.
One instance he relates was when Engelbrecht noticed the pug marks of a leopard around a woman who had so collapsed and died.
Only the wailing of an infant clinging to the dead mother’s breast had so far kept the feline from its gruesome meal.
Lying facedown like a fallen pilgrim, cradling the rifle in his hands, Engelbrecht bided his time until the leopard returned and shot it dead.
The gamewarden was quite a flamboyant figure, especially when he left his jungle domain once a month to go into Hambantota to collect his salary and stock-up provisions.
He did it in real Boer style, driving a tented wagon drawn by a team of oxen with staccato cries and a cracking whip.
All went well for this Boer soldier turned gamewarden until war broke out between Britain and Germany. When the German battleship Emden was causing havoc amongst allied shipping in the Indian ocean, Engelbrecht was suspected of treason because he had refused allegiance to the British Crown. Rumor had it that he was surreptitiously supplying fresh meat from the sanctuary to the crew of the Emden off the coast at Potthana.
Potthana is a recognised campsite in block 2 of the Ruhuna National Park today after you cross the Menik ganga from block 1.
It has a fresh water well, cool shady trees and a good view. Pilgrims use it as a stop-over on their way to Kataragama. The height of the pilgrim season is July/August.
Engelbrecht was consequently imprisoned in Kandy. But he was released after three months when the charges leveled against him could not be sustained.
Cleared of Treason
He returned to his old job as gamewarden. A claim for compensation made by Engelbrecht’s attorney Lucien Poulier was disallowed under the Defence of the Realm Act. Engelbrecht died in 1922.
It was only a decade or so later that his attorney was able to clear him of the stigma of treason. This was made possible when the new Emden docked in Colombo in 1931.
The captain of the ship, who had been second-in-command on the old Emden, was able to give the attorney a signed clearance that at no time had the old Emden received a supply of meat or anything else from the island during the war.
So ended the Engelbrecht saga. But the cattle that pulled his tented waggon have multiplied and lived on as a wild herd in the Ruhuna National Park.
I once caught a glimpse of them – 25 to 30 animals – in the Yalawela-Pillinawa plains near Potthana. These plains teem with buffalo, deer and pig.
Like the domesticated buffalo that have slunk away from neighboring villages to join their wild relatives, Engelbrecht’s small herd has done the same thing and is no doubt continuing to enjoy its wild freedom even now.
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Map of Tomb of Henry Engelbrecht in Hambanthota
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