During a September 27, 2016 trip to celebrate the conclusion of the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) grant for the historic Galle Fort area, Embassy officials paid tribute to their own diplomatic history by locating the final resting place of John Black, the first American Commercial Agent and Consul to Ceylon. Though Black’s office and other locations associated with him remain well preserved and documented in the history of the Galle Fort, numerous Embassy officers had searched without success for Black’s gravesite. Since at least the late 1970s, several generations of officers and local staff have searched to find and memorialize his grave, with little success, relegating the location to the shadows of Embassy folklore and local rumor. The search has now ended.
We now know that John and Isabel Black are buried in the All Saints cemetery in Galle alongside members of the British civil service from India, China, and Ceylon and even a Consul from Prussia. Walking around the cemetery, Galle’s history as a diverse port city unfolds by reading the headstones of foreign scholars, sailors, merchants, and travelers (including one American) buried there. Galle, with its location on the historic sea route for shipping and trading, was an ideal stopping point for vessels from China, the Middle East, Europe, and even the United States, all of which called at Galle Harbor while traversing the Indian Ocean. Sailors from the United States came to Ceylon as early as 1789 and whalers would hunt off the coast of Ceylon. Leading up to the Civil War, ships exported ice from New England to Ceylon, which in turned supplied the United States with graphite used by the Union during the Civil War in foundry crucibles that manufactured steel and, later, in pencils for schoolchildren. As U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Atul Keshap noted in his remarks to the American Ceylon Mission, missionaries also began to come to Ceylon in the early 19th century to spread Christianity by building schools, instituting social reforms, and providing educational opportunities for girls. Even Mark Twain made his way to Sri Lanka in 1896, which he described as, “a radiant panorama, that wilderness of rich color, that incomparable dissolving view of harmonious tints,” while lamenting this “dream of fairyland and paradise” was being ruined by European and missionary influences. In 1870, the American Commercial Agency left Galle for Colombo and became the American Consulate in British Ceylon in 1875. Following Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, the United States transformed the consulate in Colombo into an embassy.
150 years after John Black’s appointment, Sri Lanka celebrated the sesquicentennial anniversary of diplomatic ties with the United States in 2001 by issuing a commemorative stamp and then-Ambassador E. Ashley Wills officially cancelled the stamp at a ceremony with Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, Nimal Siripala de Silva, and mentioned John Black in his speech. The stamp held a denomination of 10 Sri Lankan Rupees and depicted the two national flags crossed over a map of Sri Lanka. In 1998, the House of Representatives passed a resolution celebrating the golden jubilee of Sri Lankan independence and commemorating almost 150 years of friendship between the United States and Sri Lanka, directly mentioning John Black and his role in the diplomatic relationship.
John Black symbolizes the deep and historic ties that exist between Sri Lanka and the United States.