Philanthropy in the twentieth century


 ‘The Story of Selestina Rodrigo (Mrs Jeremias Dias): Pioneer in Buddhist Girls’ Education’ by Manel Tampoe. Published by the Social Scientists’ Association (2013) Rs 500/-

Reviewed by Leelananda de Silva

One of the good things that happened in the nineteenth century, when the British were ruling Ceylon, was the rise of an indigenous middle class. An important segment of that middle class were the entrepreneurs who invested their earnings from the alcohol trade in opening up large-scale plantations of tea, rubber and coconut in the low country. Many of these entrepreneurs, apart from making money, had a strong social conscience and were concerned with improving the lot of the common man. There was little engagement by the state at this time in the field of education. That was an area which was left either to Christian missionaries or to Buddhist philanthropists, big and small. There were large numbers of ordinary people who gave their time and small amounts of money to improving village education. These are the forgotten philanthropists. The better known are those whose munificence was on a large scale. It is interesting to note that two of these great names, and both women, came from Panadura. Lady Bennett Soysa was one of the founders of Mahamaya College in Kandy. (Her story was elegantly told in Indrani Meegama’s book ‘A Fistful of Rice’, published a few years back.) The other was Mrs Jeremias Dias, who founded Visakha Vidyalaya, whose story is told in this volume.

Manel Tampoe first published this volume nearly twenty years ago. This is a reprint, now published by the Social Scientists’ Association (SSA). The SSA has made an enormous contribution to the understanding of nineteenth and twentieth century history. Its work is an indication that history did not stop with the Mahavamsa, and there is much to be learned from later periods. Manel Tampoe passed away recently but her significant contribution to the understanding of the social history of the early twentieth century remains with us. The volume has two main themes. One of them is the commercial and social networks of the Karawa community in Pandadura. These Panadura networks offer a unique insight into the development of commerce and of local capitalism. The other theme is the founding of Visakha Vidyalaya by Mrs Jeremias Dias.

Before we discuss these two themes let us reflect for a moment on the politics of the cover page of this volume. When this book first appeared in 1997 its title was ‘The Story of Selestina Dias: Buddhist Female Philanthropy and Education’. Now its title is ‘The Story of Selestina Rodrigo (Mrs. Jeremias Dias): Pioneer in Buddhist Girls’ Education’. Why this change of name? She was known as Mrs. Jeremias Dias to all who associated with her in the founding of Visakha Vidyalaya. Sir Baron Jayatilaka, D. S. Senanayaka, the then-Governor of Ceylon, the newspapers in her lifetime and Visakha Vidyalaya knew her as Mrs. Jeremias Dias. The general public knew her as such. Her generosity was facilitated by the wealth accumulated by her husband Jeremias Dias, whose family had been philanthropists themselves. Whatever she was known as, in her private life, is of little importance to a volume dealing with her public life. Changing her name in this way in the title page is not satisfactory.

To go back to the theme of caste and commercial networks in Panadura. A few months back, I met a gentleman at a party in Colombo who told me that Panadura is full of PhDs. I was surprised that Panadura had such a surfeit of academic high-flyers. Of course, this gentleman was not referring to doctors of philosophy, but to the Ponna Hennedige Diases, who, a few decades ago, were thick on the ground in this suburban town! We come across in this volume, apart from the Diases, many other family networks - Pereras, Rodrigos, Salgados, De Soysas. In a fascinating chapter ‘The Karawa and Coconut’ the author describes the rise of the arrack distilling industry and the growing arrack trade. The family networks jointly organised syndicates to undertake these businesses and pool their capital. What is striking is the level of cooperation among these families, which contributed to their success and to their growing wealth.

The Panadura entrepreneurs later on gave up their interest in the arrack trade, and were key figures in the temperance movement after 1915. However, even when they were engaged in the alcohol trade, they were also active in the Buddhist revival in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Mr. Jeremias Dias actively supported the famous Panadura debate, providing funds for the event. They also supported the establishment of Buddhist schools and temples. What is important to note is that although their wealth originated in the arrack trade, they invested in plantations. At the time Visakha Vidyalaya was established, the funds for it came not from the arrack trade so much as from the profits of the plantations. Mrs Jeremias Dias allocated the income from her Good Hope Estate for the maintenance of Visakha Vidyalaya. Anyway, it is better to be philanthropic with your own money than utilise public money and wealth accumulated through chicanery and fraud, to indulge in political philanthropy.

Let me digress for a moment from the main themes of the volume. We are aware of the opening up of coffee and then tea plantations by the British in the up country. What we are not so familiar with is the opening up of land almost as large in extent by low country entrepreneurs in tea, rubber and coconut during that same period. The British in the up country went for a system of monoculture, planting tea, and they brought indentured labour from India to work on these plantations. In the low country the model was entirely different. The large owners depended on local labour, and there were opportunities for smallholder tea, rubber and coconut cultivation. The contrast between the two models of plantation development is striking. There is a need for further academic study of these two models of plantation development.

Visakha Vidyalaya was established in 1917 and at that time its name was Buddhist Girls’ College. The volume provides detailed information of the early days of the school. Learning English was an important part of a girl’s education in the school: "At Buddhist Girls’ College hostel regulations made the use of the English language compulsory even outside school hours – students were liable to a small fine if they were caught conversing in Sinhala amongst themselves. Other material aspects of an Europeanised lifestyle such as learning to eat with spoons and forks were included in the hostel routine. Further, there was close interaction with the resident European staff members who often played tennis and indoor games with the older students, all of which made the transition to a foreign lifestyle easier." The aim of the school was to provide an English medium education and social accomplishments while maintaining conventional middle class values and a Sinhala Buddhist identity as far as possible.

This approach to education raises a more important general issue. Schools like Visakha were aiming at establishing a harmonious relationship between Buddhist values and Western liberal ideas. This did not happen only at Visakha. It happened in other English-medium Buddhist schools. This model of education was greatly assisted by a unique and continuing stream of principals and teachers from Britain, who themselves imbibed Buddhist values, and who offered their services to these schools. We are fully conversant with the colonial administrators who served in Ceylon, and of the planting community who came from Britain. What we are less aware is of the immense contribution made by foreigners to education in this country, and who, in very practical terms, blended the best of Western and Buddhist values. We have fragmented information of principals like Woodward of Mahinda, but there is no coherent understanding of the overall picture of the enterprise to merge Buddhist and liberal Western values. It is apparent from the outcomes of education in places like Visakha that there is a lot in common between Buddhist and Western liberal values. There is much harmony in the principles of tolerance inculcated by Buddhism and the liberal philosophies of the West.

Now to go back to Visakha. Mrs. Jeremias Dias established a school and provided funds for its maintenance without interfering in its day-to-day management. She obtained the services of leading public figures of the day in the management of the school – Dr. W. A. De Silva, Baron Jayatilaka, D. S. Senanayaka, and others of that calibre. Mrs. Jeremias Dias and other managers of the school were greatly concerned with the recruitment of the best teachers possible, both from here and abroad. They knew that they were competing with other Colombo schools and were anxious to bring up Visakha to the same standards. There are many lessons to be drawn for the management of schools from the ways in which these early managers of Visakha gave their attention to issues such as recruitment of teachers, the organisation of the school curriculum, the overall personal, and not only the educational, development of children. Today’s systems of school management are a far cry from this kind of committed approaches to the development of a school. Not that it cannot be done any longer. What we need is another type of education management, delegating more authority to principals, teachers and school communities.

The volume is not confined to the two themes I have addressed in this review. It is studded with engaging vignettes of persons and events during this period, and they provide many insights into political, educational and family arrangements. The birth of the temperance movement and the role of Arthur V. Dias is described. The change in British attitudes after the riots is clearly visible. The many initiatives in the field of education are noted. The overall impression I have obtained in reading this volume is the impermanence of all things. Visakha Vidyalaya is still flourishing and should celebrate its one hundredth anniversary very soon. It is now a government school with thousands of children. Panadura, the town which claimed all these leading families, is not the place it was. Most families have moved away from the town and there has been a new migration into Panadura. The character of the town has changed. The families who owned the plantations no longer own them. The laudable aim of blending liberal democratic values with the tolerant ethics of Buddhism no longer appears to be a central theme in the public life of the country.


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