Sir Thomas Maitland was assigned to Ceylon ( Sri Lanka ) as the British Governor General during the period of 1805–1811. Governor Maitland was a 46 year old bachelor who decided to construct his country residence on a breathtaking beachfront property at “Galkissa” ( Mount Lavinia ). He was also known as “King Tom” and described in a biography as “a great human force, controlled by an iron will”.
During this time, Maitland fell in love with a native gypsy dancer named Lavinia (Lovinia) Aponsuwa who was an extraordinarily beautiful mestizo girl of mixed Portuguese and Sinhala Rodi ancestry.
He saw the local mestizo dancer Lovina for the first time at the welcoming party held in his honor on his arrival in the island. Lovinia’s father was the headman of the dance troupe. Sir Thomas was smitten by her smile and charms and soon found himself obsessed by her and took every measure possible to see more of her.Lavinia danced in her father’s dance troupe and performed for the Governor and his guests. The Governor’s parties were affairs of masked balls, top hats and flowing evening gowns. It is rumored that Maitland picked the scenic location on the beach-side hill about 10 km (6 miles) south of Colombo after spotting Lavinia bathing in the sea.
The natives of Ceylon nor the British officials in England were aware of the secret love story between the British Governor and the dancer, Lavinia. During the construction phase of the mansion, the governor gave instructions to the builder to construct a secret tunnel to Lavinia’s house which was located close to the governor’s residence. One end of the tunnel opening, was inside the drinking water well of Lovina’s housing compound (“Rodi Kuppayama” – Sinhala language) and the other end was in a wine cellar inside the Governor’s mansion.
As it was unconventional for an unmarried British Officer to be seen associating with a local dancing girl, therefore, Sir Thomas and his lover met in secret. Legend says that she was smuggled into his mansion through a secret tunnel that led from her father’s well into a wine cellar in the house.
After some time, the affair flew in the face of the stiff upper lip image of Britain ‘s colonial masters who ruled their fiefdoms with a firm grip and looked down sternly on any deviation from Crown and God. Later, the British Foreign Office sent Sir Thomas Maitland on a “routine” transfer as Governor General in 1811 to the Meditaranian island of Malta where hew he lived and died as a bachelor. He also served as governor of Corfu during the British administration of the island.
Around the year 1920, the tunnel was sealed up and the Sinhalese village that surrounded the Governor’s mansion developed into a modern city. Later, the “Gypsy village’ that surrounded the mansion was developed into a modern bustling city of “Galkissa” (originated from the Sinhala word “GalVissa” or ten boulders) was renamed ” Mount Lavinia ” in honor the of mestizo dancing girl named Lavinia or Lovinia. Little is known of Lavinia but Governor Maitland passed a law permitting lower-caste women in Ceylon such as his lover to cover the upper torso of their bodies.
Later, the mansion was made into to a hotel and aptly named “ Mount Lavinia ” (in memory of “Lavinia”). This enchanting British Colonial heritage hotel, located on a breathtaking beachfront, is a living legacy to the secret love story between the Sir Thomas Maitland, and the beautiful dancer, Lovina. At present, the old wine cellar is used as the main kitchen of the hotel. The railway line has cut the secret tunnel in two sections. The legendary romance has made this Colombo hotel one of the most popular venues in Sri Lanka for weddings. There are others who believe that the hotel was named after “Lavinia” – Titus’s daughter in the play “Titus Andronicus” a tragedy written by William Shakespeare.
During World War II, the hotel was used as a military hospital by the British Army. Following the war in 1947, the “Mount Lavinia Hotel” was re-established. Some scenes in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai were filmed at the hotel.
A blue plaque commemorates Sir Thomas Maitland, Sir Robert Brownrigg, Sir Edward Paget and Sir Edward Barnes who resided at the house when it was the Governors residence.