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Wednesday, 26 May 2010

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Keyt meets Wendt

In the 1930s, when the young painter George Keyt met the equally young Lionel Wendt, photographer and musician, it was a true meeting of minds that revolutionised the development of art in Colonial Ceylon. But the brief tale I relate is not about this seminal meeting but about another Keyt meeting another Wendt in 1870.

This Thomas Keyt was the son of H.Keyt,J.P and retired assistant to the Colonial Secretary, a leading figure in Colombo society. Young Thomas was educated in Queen's College, Colombo and was later apprenticed as a student of law. He obviously had some of the Keyt-sian artistic facility which led him to the crime of forgery! In one of his eloquent pleas , couched in the Queen's [College] English, he wrote that "at an ill moment, in the company of bad associates, the evils arising from which his youthful indiscretion could not then perceive [ for he was only twenty years of age] he thoughtlessly committed the crime." On his conviction by the Supreme Court he was sentenced to transportation to Penang Jail in Malaya in 1865.

Thomas found an extraordinarily appropriate 'culture' for the exercise of his nefarious talents. The prison's English officers were working a most lucrative racket in collusion with the prisoners. They tendered for PWD contracts with the prisoners as labourers and sharing a proportion of the profits. Keyt was employed as a clerk and became an important cog in the racket. He wrote that "he was allowed to have money, tobacco, to correspond with his friends and in fact do just as he pleased". Unfortunately for him this boastful letter fell into the hands of the authorities and became evidence in the inquiry that uncovered the whole racket. He was punished by being transferred to the Singapore Prison.

Here, in 1870, Thomas Keyt met a kindred spirit, George Wendt , convicted for forgery while employed in a bank in Ceylon. Singapore Prison too proved to be equally congenial for the exercise of the nefarious talents of Keyt and Wendt. The prisoners were engaged in building the Governor's Palace and the necessary ironmongery, keys, locks, bolts, hinges etc, were stored in the jail. Wendt and Keyt were in charge of the inventory. To quote a pithy Sinhalese saying ,this was " offering ladders to climbing monkeys"!

But their luck was not to last - in spite of an attempt by the ring leaders, the Blaze brothers, to set the Prison on fire to destroy the incriminating documents [ a time-honoured ploy]. Keyt and Wendt seem to have been punished - but the missing hinges etc were never found. The inquiring officer described Thomas Keyt as "very troublesome, often punished, and would have been much oftener so, but for his cunning and lawyer's quibbles". Both Keyt and Wendt disappear from the records after that - and one cannot but wonder into what exotic exploits the extraordinary talents of these two 'gentlemen' led them to in later life.

(With acknowledgements to Anomi Pieris Ceylankan May 2003)

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