Great Basses and Little Basses (1869 - 1870)

1869 Manuscript "Light Vessels" in Ceylon

Pre-Dates Construction of Lighthouses - Temporary Light Vessels at Ceylon with "Notice to Mariners"

Date: 1869 - 1870

Ceylon, 1869-1870. Two manuscript nautical documents, being memorandums pertaining to the temporary light vessels at Great Basses Reef and Little Basses Rocks off southern shores of the island, the light vessels being the predecessors of the two permanent lighthouses of Ceylon fame, situated some fourteen kilometers apart off the coast of Yala National Park. Two folio documents: April 1869 double leaf true copy of a memorandum on winds and currents at Little Basses; April 1870 single leaf notice to sea captains announcing the temporary lighthouse near the Great Basses, issued by Colonial Secretary Henry Turner Irving (later Governor) and penned in a secretarial hand; both on blindstamped stationery of the United States Commercial Agency of Ceylon measuring approximately 20 x 32 cm. Rare documents connected to two offshore lighthouses which are among the most famous in Asia. This fascinating and detailed manuscript lighthouse report, was made prior to the actual lighthouses having been constructed, by a sea captain who lived on the light ship anchored off the Ceylon southern shore for at least seven years, making important observations and providing light for navigators. The first document is an annual report by John Buchanan, master of the light vessel at Little Basses, describing seasonal wind and weather conditions, sea currents, tides, monsoons and storms, over the period of one year. The captain also describes steamships having difficulties making the passage to shore. This document being a true copy of the original made in April 1869 by Thomas Steele, Assistant Government Agent at Hambantota, who took a noteworthy interest in local antiquities and Sinhalese literature. [An admiralty notice based on Buchanan's memorandum, though slightly edited, was published in the London and China Telegraph, Vol. 12, May 16, 1870, and also in The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle for 1870]. Excerpts from Buchanan's lightship memorandum: ".... at Little Basses Rocks, Ceylon, during 13 months as observed from the Light Ship." "January [1869]... It would not be inaccurate to say that a strong current continues throughout January coming from the NNE from the Bay of Bengal setting S.S.W. Sea crossing very rough all the month.... both wind and tide against them...difficult for ships to get to the Northeast. It would be well not to attempt to do so." "February... towards the end of the month the wind becomes much lighter. The northerly current also slacken. Occasionally in the month the Light Vessel swings. In 1868, however, she did not swing until April, while in the current year (1869) she swings in February. During the seven years I have been here, the SW monsoon has not hitherto set in regularly until from the 4th to the 10th of May. This year it has been steady at SW since April 6th. The present year is accordingly an exception to the rule..." "I consider March one of our finest months at the Little Basses... 87º in the shade... Shipmasters going to any part of Burmah need have no cause for hesitation... " "May... the monsoon sets in strong and steady... much rain falls, and thunder and lightning... until about the 20th October..." "June, July, August and September... the S.W. monsoon blows strong and steady... Notwithstanding the extreme difficulty I have been enabled (occasionally at much risk of life and property) to keep up a monthly communication with Pottana Bay [Pothana Bay], and thence by land with Galle." "November... much thunder and lightning... Floating bodies invariably I have observed, set right out to sea, S.S.W. ..." "Summary... There are no regular tides... the N.E. monsoon... during five months without variation. Thus a steamer steering N.N.E., has not only to oppose a three-knot tide opposed to her, but the wind dead against her... some steamers barely make two miles an hour going to the north... When the sun goes to the northward of the Light Ship, there is no more N.E. monsoon... in the event of a vessel making Dondra Head when bound to Galle, which is not uncommon the Master should never attempt to beat to Galle, but recross the line." End Excerpts. "Notice to Mariners, Bay of Bengal. Temporary Lighthouse near the Great Basses" heads the second document, which was issued by Colonial Secretary Henry T. Irving at Colombo in April 1870. Irving became a colonial governor not long after. Here too, prior to construction of a permanent structure, the admiralty anchored a temporary light-vessel upon which was mounted a revolving signal. This announcement came approximately one year before placement of the first stone for the lighthouse, and four years before it would begin operation. Excerpt from Irving's notice to mariners: "... it is hereby notified... that a light-vessel, exhibiting at an elevation of 38 feet above the sea, a red revolving light at intervals of 45 seconds, has been placed... at a distance of 3/4 of a mile from the N.E. rock of the Great Basses Reef... The vessel carries two balls vertical at the Mast Head." End Excerpt. Sir Henry Turner Irving, GCMG (1833-1923) was a British Civil Servant and Colonial Administrator. He first served as acting Governor of British Ceylon. In 1873-1874, he served as Governor of the Leeward Islands. In 1874-1880, he served as Governor of Trinidad and Tobago. In 1882-1887, he served as Governor of British Guiana. He was the first Governor of Trinidad to occupy the Government House, now known as the President's House. Notes on the lighthouses that subsequently replaced the "light-ships" described above: Great Basses Reef Lighthouse is an offshore lighthouse in the south of Sri Lanka. Accessible only by boat, it is located on a reef 13 km off the coast of Yala National Park, near Little Basses Reef Lighthouse. The necessity of a lighthouse at this location was acknowledged in 1856, a design of an iron tower on a granite base was suggested and costs began to be incurred without fruition. A new design by Alexander Gordon and Sir James Nicholas Douglass was approved in 1867. The executive engineer in charge was James' brother William Douglass. Two steam vessels were used, each capable of carrying 120 tonnes of stone, and each equipped with the appropriate lifting gear. Each support block weighed 2 to 3 tons. The first stone was laid in December 1870, the last in late 1872 and the light was lit in March 1873. The cost had been £63,000, of which £40,000 had been expended to no effect before Trinity House and William Douglass were involved. Little Basses Reef Lighthouse is an active offshore lighthouse at the southern end of Sri Lanka. It is located on a reef called Kuda Ravana Kotuwa (Fort of Little Ravana), formerly called Little Basses by the British when they invaded Ceylon. It is fourteen km off the coast of Yala National Park and north east of the Great Basses Reef Lighthouse. It was completed in 1878, built by William Douglass using the same steam ships, crew and workers as the Great Basses Reef Lighthouse. Designed by Sir James Nicholas Douglass, Little Basses lighthouse was one of a limited number of lighthouses that were designed to house the large Hyperradiant Fresnel lenses that became available at the end of the 19th century. Four of these lenses were used in Sri Lankan lights, all made by Chance Brothers in England. The lighthouse is close to Daedalus Rock, site of the sinking of HMS Daedalus (1811). The two Basses lighthouses are among the most famous offshore lighthouses of Asia.

Slight age-toning, otherwise in very good condition.


Offered by Voyager Press Rare Books & Manuscripts