Philanthropist and Patriot
Charles Henry de Soysa

By Wimalasiri A. Fernando
(Retired Deputy Principal of Prince of Wales’ College)
A hundred and sixty four years ago was born one of Sri Lanka’s greatest sons - Charles Henry de Soysa. He was a paragon of humanity. A peerless philanthropist and prince of patriots - a high - souled being around whom "time has only brightened a halo of reverence". Born on 3rd March 1836 at Idama in Moratuwa, he was a scion of an ancient warrior clan - the Manikku Nilayitta Artha Deva-Nallur Adiarasa Warsha Wipula Sannaddha clan whose original home was in Devinuwara. He was the only son of Gate Mudaliyar Warusahennedige Jeronis de Soysa and Muttutantrige Francesa Cooray and though born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth he was brought up austerely by his father. Nevertheless, he showed from his boyhood those inherent instincts of charity, which were to mark him out as a colossus of benevolence in later life.

Educated by private tutors, he learnt his English at John Garth’s English School at Rawatawatte; his Sinhalese at the Palliyagodella Temple; and he rounded off his education at St. Thomas’ (then at Mutwal). Thereafter he scorned delight and lived laborious days, learning in the hard school of experience to manage his father’s vast estates and business concerns, which he inherited as sole heir.

In 1863 he married Moratuwa’s richest heiress, Catherine, who was the only daughter of Chevalier Lindamudalige Jusey de Silva and Weerhennedige Ana Fernando. They were blessed with eight sons and seven daughters; one son died in infancy.

Several years later his uncle, Gate Mudaliyar Susew de Soysa who died childless, left him another large legacy.

With wisdom and enterprise, Charles developed immeasurably the three legacies he had received and built up a "veritable economic kingdom" that included coffee, coconut, citronella, and cinnamon plantations. Plumbago mines, internal transport and external trade. Besides valuable urban property in Kandy, Colombo and Moratuwa. Although one writer has estimated the extent of his lands at around 30,000 acres, a family source has indicated a figure of about 100,000 acres. Probably, never before or since had such wealth and property been concentrated in the hands of a single citizen of this country.

But Charles de Soysa had inherited something nobler and greater than remarkable riches, and that was the humane philanthropic tradition of service to his fellow men, irrespective of race, caste or creed.

Contemporary society often over-rates the mere facility of accumulating wealth. But it is far more difficult to dispense wealth wisely and unselfishly than to amass it quickly. With the key of charity and compassion and in a spirit of pure patriotism. Charles de Soysa unlocked his abundant treasury for the benefit of his less-privileged countrymen. "The test of the purity of his motives". writes one historian, "is that he is reported to have distributed far more in private charity than he had spent on his public benefactions His charity was not a mechanical doling out of money from an inexhaustible store but a personal, loving and practical concern for his fellow-beings. He was indeed a Good Samaritan to countless persons in need and distress."

C. H. de Soysa was a pioneer in many fields of endeavour. He established a Co-operative Society for carpenters and craftsmen in Moratuwa long before the co-operative movement was launched in the country; he introduced a system of free education and scholarships in the schools he founded in his home-town, nearly seven decades before the State sponsored it; he started a land settlement and housing scheme for 100 families on one of his estates in Walapane more than half-a-century before the inauguration of such schemes during the State Council era; he established and handed over to the Government the Alfred Model farm of over 160 acres at Narahenpita for developing animal husbandry - the first of its kind in the country; he was the first Ceylonese since the days of the Sinhalese kings to build and equip a complete hospital viz. The De Soysa Lying-in-home (now known as the De Soysa Maternity Hospital); he was a pioneer agro-businessman who played the role of a path-finder to others who followed him; he gave employment to thousands and paid them just wages, and often pensions too; He promoted the economic, social and moral welfare of the community at large in a patriarchal manner in the nineteenth century, many decades before the concept of welfarism gained acceptance even in the west. In all these he was far head of his nineteenth century contemporaries.

The example he set in philanthropy is unique in our annals. His manifold benefactions - their number was legion - required such legendary fame, that the very name "De Soysa" passed into popular parlance as a byword for generosity.

Schools, churches, and libraries, ‘ambalamas’, roads and bridges, wells, tanks and irrigation channels, scholarships to individuals and endowments to schools and other institutions (these included St. Thomas’, the Medical College and even schools in Jaffna); a hall for the Anglican School at Koralawella; subsidies for the publication of educational and literary works by such erudite monks as the Ven. Weligama Sri Sumangala Thera and the Ven. Ratmalane Dhammarama Thera; lands for cemeteries and public buildings (including the site of the Lunawa Railway Station and its approach road); donations to temples, charitable institutions and various causes; books and clothing for poor school children; dowries for poor brides etc. etc. etc. - All these benefactions; "which defy credibility in their Catholic sweep and diversified orientation"’ covered almost all human needs from the womb to the tomb!

During the economic depression in 1868, when famine stalked the land, he not only contributed a large sum in cash but also organised and dispatched round the island at his sole expense a fleet of double — bullock carts laden with rice, coconuts and other provisions for free distribution to the distressed masses.

His philanthropy even extended to foreign lands. On a visit to Great Britain in 1886 this ‘Ceylon Rothschild’ made handsome donations to 20 major hospitals and two charitable homes in Britain, and also to the Irish Famine Fund.

There in London, that citadel of western civilization, he advertised Sri Lankan arts and crafts by presenting objects d’art and archaeological antiquities purchased at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, to the British Museum, the Royal Institute and even to Windsor Castle. He thus focussed the attention of the west on the glories of the ancient civilization of Sri Lanka.

But unquestionably, the greatest of all his benefactions were the Prince and Princess of Wales’ Colleges founded in 1876. He established an institution - a ‘Temple of Learning’, ministering to the human mind, and radiating its influence far beyond the parochial pale, to all sections of the community. On a beautiful site of 15 acres bordering the Lunawa Lagoon, he lavished the then princely sum of Rs. 300,000 on the buildings alone! He had resolved to found "a superior educational establishment" as he thought it to be "his duty to see the people of this country enjoy the blessings of education".

The magnitude of his vision and liberality may be judged by the fact that he set up an educational complex - two English Schools and two Sinhala Schools, for boys and girls. The four schools have been amalgamated into two schools since their take-over by the State. They stand unique, perhaps in the whole world in that they were founded, built, equipped, maintained managed and endowed by one generous family for 85 years until the State took over the responsibility. And it is a tribute to the foresight of their founder that these schools continue to function to a considerable extent in the original buildings built over 114 years ago. "Si monumentum requiris circumspice" - if you seek his monument, look around.

Tens of thousands of Cambrians of both sexes who passed through the portals and colonnaded halls of these twin institutions and served the country truly and well in diverse walks of life, have borne, and still do bear testimony to the excellence of their Alma Mater.

"By general consent the leader of Ceylonese," Mr. C. H. de Soysa had the unique privilege of according a reception on behalf of the people of Ceylon to Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh who was the first member of British Royalty to visit the island. And this he did in royal style at his palatial mansion in Colombo Bagatelle Walauwa, which had been specially constructed for the occasion in a sprawling park of 120 acres.

The fabulous banquet and entertainment, he and his uncle Susew provided the royal guest was the most brilliant and glittering one of its kind in our history - like a scene from the Arabian Nights,! It was an event which has found a permanent place in the people’s gallery of historical memory; an event that the people considered a fitting gesture to "uphold the honour of the ancient Sinhala kings; an event which has become a part of the later-day legends and folk lore; an event which was in line with the royal traditions of Sri Lanka of 2500 years. However what is generally forgotten about this famous episode is that over 3000 guests attended this function and that subsequently Mr. De Soysa kept open house and entertained thousands of uninvited guests for one whole week thereafter! So, while he entertained royalty, he did not forget the common people.

At this famous banquet, Prince Alfred "supped off a plate with a knife and fork, all of pure gold" and studded with gems; the champagne and wine goblets were also of gold. As J.R. Weinman wrote; "never was such an entertainment given before and rightly so, this was the first instance in the history of the island whether during the reign of the monarchs of Lanka or later in British times, when royalty accepted the hospitality of a private citizen."

It was at this banquet that C. H. de Soysa was made a Justice of the Peace for the Whole Island and his uncle Susew de Soysa was ceremonially appointed as a Mudaliyar of the Governor’s Gate. Further, it was on this occasion that the royal guest gave his assent to the renaming of the great mansion as "Alfred House". Two days later, H.R.H the Duke of Edinburgh and H.E. the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson hosted a reception to the two de Soysas and members of their families at Queen’s House.




Charles henry...



Charles Henry de Soysa had no political ambitions. But he was ever conscious of his duty to his less fortunate fellow citizens, sensitive to their needs and attentive of their grievances. On 11th November 1871, Ceylon’s first mass political meeting was held on the grounds of the de Soysa Walauwa in Moratuwa to protest against certain provisions of the Village Council’s Ordinance. It was presided over by C. H. de Soysa. Subsequently a petition signed by 1000 persons from "Morottoo and Galkissa" with Mr. De Soysa’s name heading the list was handed over to the Governor. Among other things the petitioners asked that "the Ordinance might be printed in the native language and circulated among the people and that evidence be taken as to its demerits".

C. H. de Soysa was the Founder-President of the Ceylon Agricultural Association (1882) which transformed itself into the Ceylon National Association in 1888 and later played a significant role in the struggles for constitutional reforms in the early part of the twentieth century with such celebrities as Sir James Peiris as President and D. R. Wijewardene as Secretary. The Ceylon National Association paved the way for the rise of the Ceylon National Congress, which in turn played a decisive role in the penultimate lap on the road to independence.

In 1949, when the first Prime Minister of Independent Lanka, Mr. D. S. Senanayake paid his first official visit to Moratuwa, paying a glowing tribute to the national heroes produced by the town including C. H. de Soysa, he said that "the sons of Moratuwa had contributed largely to winning freedom for Ceylon."

Charles de Soysa had moved with royalty but he never lost the common touch. He was always accessible to all types of men. Mild-mannered and shy, he shunned publicity and his tastes were simple and refined. Humanity was his hallmark and he was modest to a fault despite his immense wealth. Above all he was a gentleman who bore the grand name of "gentleman" in a noble manner.

C. H. de Soysa was a great lover of animals. So, it was an irony of fate that he met his end as a result of being bitten by a rabid dog. It is on record however, that his senses remained clear and unimpaired to the end. "The peaceful manner of his death was considered by thinking people as an indication of the inward strength of a noble nature."

On 29th September 1890 at the age of only 54 he passed away peacefully at his Moratuwa Walauwa, after giving paternal advice to his loved ones, and cheerfully saying, "I am going to God."

His untimely death in the prime of his life cast a pall of gloom over the whole island. But nowhere was the grief more poignant as it was in his home-town. Unprecedented crowds of all nationalities turned up for his funeral on the 1st October at Holy Emmanuel Church. Prince and Princess of Wales’ Colleges remained closed for two weeks to mourn the untimely death of their founder.

The European-owned "Times of Ceylon" made this significant comment on Charles de Soysa in its issue of 1st October 1890; "He was a man of whom the Sinhalese may justly be proud of, for he possessed that most excellent gift of modesty - so rare in the East, amongst those especially who have risen above their fellows - and this should be always remembered to his honour. He never pushed himself forward or advertised himself in any way and this was one of his greatest virtues in our eyes. May he rest in Peace."

Charles Henry de Soysa was a symbol and embodiment of the motto of the schools he founded, nurtured and loved, and which is considered to be the greatest legacy "Ich Dien - I Serve." And his name must surely be written in the "Book of Gold" as one who loved and serve his fellowmen.