Why they call cunning people ‘Emden’


By Janaka Perera

Nearly 10 decades ago this month saw the climax of events that caused a new word of European origin to enter Sinhala and some South Indian languages.  Today when anyone says in colloquial Sinhala, "so-and-so is a real ‘Emden’ "(the E pronounced as A in ‘and’) it means a crafty person as cunning as a fox.  Some years back Sri Lankan mothers used to scare their unruly children with stories about ‘Emden billa’.

It all began when the German light cruiser Emden sneaked into the Bay of Bengal on August 30, 1914 to terrorize British and Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean, including the crowded shipping lanes between Sri Lanka and India - less than a month after the out break of World War I which commenced with Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on August 4.

Long, lean and graceful, the 3,650 ton Emden was the pride of the Imperial German Navy’s Asiatic squadron. She was called the "Swan of the East" but was more like an eagle with razor sharp talons. Commanded by Karl Von Muller, the Emden was as deadly as she was beautiful. She mounted ten 4.1-inch rapid-fire guns, and with a top speed of 25-knots she could out run any merchant ship on the sea. This combination of firepower and speed made her the perfect commerce raider

Captain Muller employed a simple yet cunning plan to get close to his victims. Like most German light cruisers she could be distinguished by her three funnels, British cruisers had four. But Muller added a fake funnel made of wood and canvas to give the false impression she was a British ship. This allowed her to slip in close to her prey without arousing suspicion.

The Emden became a lone marauder on September 9, 1914 when Capt. Muller boarded a 3,400 ton British freighter - setting off scuttling charges and sending it to the bottom. Within six days from September 9 to 14, the Emden captured two ships and sank six others. A month later the toll was 11 vessels, totaling some 50,000 tons. Insurance laims for merchant ships skyrocketed and no captains could afford to leave harbour.

By putting a dummy fourth smokestack on the ship, Von Müller made Emden closely resemble the popular British cruiser HMS Yarmouth. Some captains of British merchant ships, seeing Emden approaching, would salute Emden thinking it was the friendly Yarmouthpassing by. Instead, Emden would fire a shot over the bow, hoist the German naval ensign, and signal "Stop at Once".

Muller however was a compassionate man and before any ship was sunk evacuated its crew.

Late on the night of September 22 the Emden - while 14 British warships were desperately searching for it – quietly approached Madras  (now Chennai). Its target was not ships but giant oil storage tanks there.  She fired 125 rounds at them ripping open two huge tanks owned by Anglo-Persian Gulf. The exploding shells set the tanks ablaze and damaged at least three others.   The attacker then sailed away before the shore batteries of Fort William could go into action. 

The bombardment and explosions terrified the Madras population and thousands of civilians fled the area. It caused a panic such as had never before been witnessed in the city. It was a severe blow to British morale that a single German cruiser was effectively putting the entire Indian Ocean into a hopeless gridlock.

The Emden then sailed southwards down Sri Lanka’s East coast and the news of it caused panic and caused the authorities here to enforce a blackout along the coastal areas at night  The cruiser continued to attack merchant shipping off the island more than a month after her daring raid on Madras.   In fact the warship would have turned her attention to this country had her luck not finally run out on November 9, 1914 when she unexpectedly encountered the Australian Cruiser Sydney.  In a memorable encounter the Sydney set the German vessel ablaze off the Cocos Islands. German losses in the battle were 131 dead and 65 wounded. Captain Von Müller and the rest of his surviving crew were captured by the British.

As a signal mark of honour, the Imperial German Government allowed all of the surviving officers and men to suffix the word ‘Emden’ to their names; the honour is remembered to this day in the form of the numerous ‘ X-Emdens’ amongst German citizens still extant.   

It was the Emden crew’s legendary dare devilry and their devious strategy that added the new word to Sinhala. In Malayalam too the word `Emadan’ (Emden) - meaning "a big and powerful thing" or "as big as Emden" – is derived from the same source.

An innocent victim of Emden’s exploits off the Sri Lankan coast was Henry H. Engelbrecht, the first Game Ranger of the Yala National Park. He was a Boer Prisoner of War - one of many interned in Sri Lanka after the British victory in the South African War of 1899-1902.    He was later released and was living in Hambantota looking after Yala. (He had refused to swear alleigance to the British Crown – which was a prerequisite for permission to return to South Africa after the Boer war ended).

At this time the Emden was operating off our coast and rumours began to float that the Emden’s crew had secretly visted Ruhuna to collect provisions. There was even a story that a secret organization based here was working with the Emden. Soon intimation came that empty champagne bottles were found strewn in the jungles around Kirinda. Suspicion fell on Engelbrecht - who like all Boers - was of Dutch-German descent.   He was accused of conniving with the German Navy and supplying cattle to the Emden.

Though Engelbrecht protested insisting that he was innocent, he was held in the Kandy Detention Barracks.   He refused to wear prison clothes and pushed the warden into a quandry as the latter could not return Engelbrecht’s clothes for fear of violating prison rules. So Engelbrecht spent three months stark naked in the darkness of his cell demanding a trial.   At the end of three months owing to lack of substantial evidence to maintain any allegation, he was released. All his belongings which he had left behind when he was whisked off to Kandy were lost or stolen. Heartbroken, still declaring his innocence, he died not long after his release.

For 17 years the stigma that he had helped the Emden lingered. Then in 1931 Captain   Withoeft,  formerly second in command of the Emden sailed into Colombo on board another German Navy ship.  His response to an inquiry by a lawyer of Tangalle, L. G. Poulier, cleared Englebrecht’s name. Withoeft in his letter to Poulier said that the Emden never received a supply of cattle "never had the least connection with Ceylon," which he called "the beautiful island."

But the war that caused Emden to enter the Indian Ocean affected the lives of some people here.  In the battles of World War I over 300 young Sri Lankans participated and 49 of them died in action. Among the others killed was the son of Ceylon’s Governor Robert Chalmers  Sixty five of the volunteers were from Trinity College Kandy. Thirteen of them were killed, 18 wounded and two taken prisoner.   In Trinity’s Cadet Room stands a World War I German machine gun, which the British had captured when they were winning the war.   King George V (1865-1936) had gifted the weapon to the school as a mark of gratitude. Trinity became the first school outside England – on the other side of the Empire - to be thus honoured.

Sri Lanka’s only major tragedy in WW I was when 14 student volunteers from here perished when the Germans topedoed the French troopship Ville de la Ciodat in the Medierranean in December 1915.

the Sri Lankans who were in action on the Western Front were Richard Aluvihare (who later became independent Sri Lanka’s first Inspector General of Police), T.Halangoda, Peter Pelpola and D.B. Seneviratne.  Major Pelpola who served in both World Wars was the only Sri Lankan who had the honour of being elected a member of the Legion of Frontiersmen.  D.B. Seneviratne was the most decorated WW I Sri Lankan volunteer and hero of the French theatre of the war. He was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry and served as a sergeant with the British Army of occupation in Germany from 1918 to 1919.   Later he was promoted to Major.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...