Tribute to Jeronis de Soysa

The commemoration of the 148th death anniversary of Gate Mudaliyar Jeronis de Soysa. falls on 28th May. A service of Thanksgiving to the revered founder of Holy Emmanuel Church Moratuwa will be held on Sunday 30th May at 7 a.m. in the presence of the parishioners and de Soysa descendants, when a wreath will be placed outside his grave inside the Church. It may be mentioned that his great grandson the late Harold de Soysa, who was an Incumbent of this parish in the late 1940s was the first Ceylonese Bishop of Colombo.

The name of Jeronis de Soysa stands under the shadow of that of his illustrious son; but in a sense, even than of Charles Henry de Soysa, the story of his father is more interesting and instructive. The information embodied in the following ‘Memoir’ is adapted from the National Monthly of Ceylon, February 1912, with a few words of elucidation clearing up the slightly confused story.

Jeronis de Soysa was a great philanthropist, but there is to his name this added lustre - that he himself made all the money he so liberally gave away. He started life with a fortune of less than Rs. 800. He lived to build a Church expending on it over Rs 80,000 and left his son a millionaire, and inculcated in him with the same spirit of patriotic generosity that was always his.

Jeronis was in childhood dedicated to the Buddhist priesthood by his parents Joseph de Soysa and Francisca Peiris. From his younger years he was educated at a Buddhist temple in Moratuwa. But the youth, while he showed his aptitude for study, had a decided disinclination for the life - work apportioned to him. Consequently he devoted his time mainly in the study of comparative religion, and while yet in his teens, becoming known to the public as one well versed in the 'healing art'. As a medical man of some ability, he practiced this 'profession' out of pure motives of philanthropy and with no object of personal gain or self aggrandisement.

The more distant past offers so rich a field for observation and a cursory glance over centuries of their history will confirm the description of old surroundings as presented in a familiar framework by E. L. F.de Soysa, an octogenarian of the clan. Says he: "It has to be admitted that Moratuwa had already been a place of social, political and commercial importance prior to those glorious days of the de Soysas. The encomiums passed on the character and institutions of the people indicated the existence of a patriarcally organized society in Moratuwa since the time of our Sinhalese monarchs."

What they have surrendered of their birthright given to them by history is something that would excite one's interest, but yet there is always a more exciting background to the making of great fortunes. The people were an ingenious lot. It was Jeronis de Soysa’s courage and public spirit, business acumen and astuteness in these matters that are portrayed in founding a dynasty of philanthropists. It would be a mistake to suppose that the people respect wealth. They respect men who employ wealth, in splendid acts of charity and munificence - wealth, which may acquire by honest enterprise and ability. Poverty and small beginnings have often proved blessings in reality rather than trials and hindrances to advancement. Indeed, their clan system linked the lowest in the economic scale with the highest.

Jeronis de Soysa’s grandfather, Bastian de Soysa, had made a journey to the Kandyan Territories on foot in Dutch times, when it was a perilous adventure, and the routes were beset with military posts. In this search for fresh pastures, he is said to have given his son Joseph an impulse to trade. And such were the small beginnings of a fabulous fortune, Judging according to the light of the times, sturdy independence and initiative were characteristics of one whose life served as an inspiration to those that came after him to forward the planting and commercial interests of the country. Joseph de Soysa was born at Nalluruwa in Panadura and started his business there in partnership with H. Daniel Peiris of Moratuwa. They soon built up an extensive, trade in tobacco and amassed considerable wealth by the hiring of bullock carts. The development of plantation, agriculture and cattle farming furnished their dependents with money incomes. He later migrated to Moratuwa and very shortly afterwards attracted the attention of "one of the most prominent and wealthy men of Moratuwa," Kurukulasuriya Sannaddhage, alias Hennedige Hendrick Peiris who embraced him into his family circle by giving in marriage his daughter Francisca (sister of Joseph’s co-partner, H. Daniel Peiris). This significant event in his life endeared Moratuwa to Joseph's affection, and to mark this event Joseph de Soysa erected an ambalama on Eppawatta not far from the ancient Sanmukha Devale in Moratumulla. The vicissitudes of fortune were such that about the close of his carrier he did not leave as much to his family. It will be readily understood that the upbringing of-so large a family as eleven, the third of which was Jeronis, did not permit of luxuries. Though Jeronis, took advantage of new opportunities and acquired wealth through individual effort as the result of application to business by dint of enterprise and determination, yet he had no occasion to "break away from tradition since he had launched on the enterprise of going Up-country along with the fleet of bullock carts owned by his father and uncle who in turn "had a considerable fortune to live comfortably and bring up Joseph's children, taking into consideration the simple life they led and the economic state of affairs obtaining at the time".

Before he started his business, Jeronis de Soysa. was lucky in that he had inherited a part of a fortune left to him and his brothers by a maternal uncle of his, H. Daniel Peiris, Founder of the old Anglican Church at Panadura. Daniel in his life time had gifted to Jeronis his share to enable him to carry on a lucrative business. While on a visit to Kandy Jeronis was so much struck with the prospects of trade in the Central Province, that he moved to Kandy in 1825 and settled down there as a tradesman. When he started in life he was a poor man, son of a poor man, who led a strenuous life. Even in those early days of his business He it was his custom to separate a fourth of his profits for charitable purposes. He was destined not only to acquire wealth but also to help and ameliorate the poor conditions of the less favoured in all communities irrespective of caste, creed or colour.

On February 28, 1833, Jeronis de Soysa married Francisca Cooray of Idama, in Moratuwa, who hailed from the Kodagoda, Walauwe Pataseela Sivurupakse Mutukuda Vadana Tantilage alias Mututantrige clan. The ceremony was performed by Samuel Perera, Proponent of Kalutara, on his visit to Moratuwa.

So successful as a business man was Jeronis de Soysa, who carried on his business pursuits with the assistance of his brothers Susew, Domingo and Johannes that, in the days of King Coffee, his prosperity gave rise to the myth that he had stumbled upon an immense buried treasure at Hanguranketa. He had turned his hand to planting. The Government putting up for sale land at Hanguranketa of 482 acres 30 perches, he bought for 141 Sterling Pounds and 1 Shilling.

After the purchase was made the owner found in it a most pleasant surprise. What he had purchased as forest land he found to be a coffee estate "Rajmal Uyana ."Those were the "Grand Days of Coffee", and Diyatalakanda proved as good as a silver mine. By careful investment, by the extension of his business, by the purchase of valuable buildings and property in Colombo, and lands and estates elsewhere, Jeronis de Soysa doubled his wealth, and then by careful supervision of what was his, he doubled it over again. He was an able and farsighted business man, and all he touched turned to gold, and all he attempted succeeded. The two brothers Jeronis and Susew opened the first local bank called the Bank of Kandy in 1839, though its operations were on a limited scale. It was in existence in 1841 when the Bank of Ceylon opened with the Royal Charter granted on the advice of Sir Charles Traveelvan of the British Treasury. In Moratuwa he founded a society for social reform called Sadarana Sarana. Samagama (l839 - "The Gamsabhawa, was the outcome" states John Ferguson. By his influence and with the aid of this society much good work was done.

Sir Emerson Tennent in his book on ‘Ceylon’ refers to the region of cultivated cinnamon at Morottoo, where it begins, and "thence to Colombo, for a distance of 8 to 10 miles, the road passes between almost continuous gardens of this renowned laurel, once guarded among the treasures of the Indies". Tennant adds "One eminent nature of the village, Jeronis de Soysa, has built, adjoining to it, as a dwelling house which may be regarded as the model of a Singhalese mansion, with its gardens and oriental grounds-The entire district has benefited by the generosity of this public spirited man, and in recognition of his patriotism in opening roads and promoting the welfare of the inhabitants, he was recently conferred upon him the rank of Modliyar of the Governor's Gate.

Jeronis de Soysa was a typical Sinhalese gentleman, both in his manners and conduct. Never ostentatious, never assuming, ever generous, ever hospitable, kindly and peaceful, he was liked by all who knew him. As his wealth increased his philanthropy sought wider channels of service. Wealth has not however taken away from him his homely humanity, nor had it robbed him of that generous disposition that was his from his youth. Now that he had great wealth in his hands, nothing seemed to please him more than in spending it for lasting and useful purposes. The ten mile road from Hapangama to Ma-Oya constructed under the supervision and with his money, is one instance of self-sacrificing devotion to high ideals and to motherland. He gave the larger portion of his large income to charity.

John Capper in his book entitled "The Duke of Edingburgh in Ceylon" (1871) refers to the de Soysa, as the Ceylon Rothschilds and gives a highly appreciative account of them, and in the course of which he states:- "Their charities are in keeping with their possessions: far and near the name of the de Soysa family is known but to be respected for unfailing liberality to all amongst their countrymen who need assistance. The elder de Soysa (Jeronis) had, by his integrity, intelligence and enterprise, gained for himself so high an opinion amongst Government officials, that in the year 1853 he was offered the honorary rank of the Governor’s Gate, a native rank which, in some respects, corresponds with that of equerry -in -waiting. The rank was conferred to the great satisfaction of the native community.

Shortly after this time Jeronis de Soysa, who was closely associated with the Rev. William Oakley, the C. M. S. Missionary, embraced the Christian Faith with all his household. It was partly in commemoration of this event and partly in thankfulness for Divine blessings, that he undertook the erection of an Anglican Church for Moratuwa, and great was his delight when the Church was ready for consecration.

Gate Mudaliyar Jeronis de Soysa by Deed No. 11956 dated December 1860 gave over to Dr. James Chapman, the Bishop of Colombo, the land and the Church built thereon. What may be called the brightest event in the history of the Church of Moratuwa took place on Thursday the 27th of December, 1860. It was the consecration of Holy Emmanuel Church the 150th anniversary of which we commemorate this year. A salient feature of the building is the tower, one hundred and twenty feet in height from which a splendid view of Moratuwa and its neighbourhood could be obtained.

For the 150th Anniversary, co commencing with the Festival Octave on 26th December, the Chief Guest will be The Most Revd. Roger Gerft, Archbishop of Perth, Australia, who was a former Incumbent of our parish.

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