Colonel Henry Steel Olcott

Commemorate 107 Years of Death Anniversary


by Meghavarna Kumarasinghe

(Senior Old Anandian)

Henry Steel Olcott was born in 2nd August, 1832, into a pious Presbyterian household in Orange, New Jersey. In his teens he attended the College of the City of New York and Columbia University. At the age of twenty, he became a convert to spiritualism. Soon he was championing a host of other causes, including antislavery, agricultural reform, women’s rights, cremation, and temperance. At age of 28 (1860) he married Mary Epplee Morgan daughter of the rector of Trinity Parish and they had three sons. He was earning a reputation in the field of agricultural education by establishing a school farm and lecturing on agriculture at Yale University. Olcott was agricultural editor of the New York Tribune. When the Civil war began in 1863, he joined the Army, serving initially as a special commissioner investigating allegations of fraud in the New York Disbursement office. Having achieved the rank of Colonel, he was seconded to the U.S. war and Navy departments in Washington. He was commended for his work by the Secretary of the Navy. Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, he was a member of the team that investigated the President’s murder. In 1865, he resigned his Commission and returned to New York where he studied for, and became a member of the Bar, specializing in Customs and excise and insurance cases, he became a recognized expert in this area of law. In 1874 he had a chance to meet Russian occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and one year later he and Blavatsky co-founded the Theosophical Society, an organization that would soon play a major vote in introducing Americans to the ancient wisdom of the East. Olcott became President, Blavatsky its Corresponding Secretary in the Society.

In 1880 May 16th Olcott and Blavatsky arrived to Colombo. There was huge- crowd awaited to welcome. White cloths was spread for them from the Jetty Steps to the road where carriages were ready, and a thousand flags were frantically waved in welcome.

Few days later on May 25th, at the Wijananda. Temple in Galle, Olcott and Blavatsky took Pansil by, reciting in broken Pali the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts Theravada Buddhism and becoming the First European -Americans to publicity and formally become by Buddhists.

Olcott started to promote Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but also to work to, as he saw it, purify and reform Buddhism of practices that has crept into the popular tradition.

Olcott second visit to Ceylon in April 1881, together with Ven. Mohottivatte Gunananda Thero, who had spearheaded the first phase of the Sinhalese Buddhist revival, he crisscrossed the western province for eight months in a bullock cart of his own design. He sold merit cards and solicited subscriptions to support his National Education Fund, wrote and distributed anti-Christian and pro-Buddhist tracts and secured support for his educational reforms.

Olcott’s great achievement was to start a school for Buddhist children. Ananda College had its roots 128 years ago in that historic year 1886 at No. 61, Maliban Street, Pettah, when she started as a Buddhist High School and Mr. C.W. Leadbeater, a foreigner and convert to Buddhism became the First Principal, and there was thirty seven students enrolled to the school. Gradually Olcott founded Buddhist schools in main cities, such as in Kandy Dharmaraja College in Galle Mahinda College, in Mathara Rahula College and in Kurunegala Maliyadewa College. He also established the Young Men’s Buddhist Association and lobbied for recognition of the Buddha’s Birthday (Wesak Poya Day) as a national holiday and acted as adviser to a committee appointed to design a Buddhist Flag.

Olcott pioneered unity between different Buddhist Communities. He travelled to Burma and to Japan and he advocated the formation of a World Buddhist League. In 1950 when the world Buddhist Fellowship was established, it adopted Olcott’s flag as it’s emblem.

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott’s life was ended at age of 75 in India in 17th February 1907.

Senior Old Anandians took the initiative in organising the ceremony to Mark the "Olcott Day", which falls on 17th February, at College premises.

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