Today is his 170th birth anniversary
Charles Henry de Soysa - embodiment of humanity
Extracted from "Cambrian Cricket Centenary Magazine 1896 - 1996"
published by the Prince of Wales College Old Boys' Association, 14th
September 1996, edited by N.T.B. Fernando and Wimalasiri Fernando
Charles Henry de Soysa
PERSONALITY: Well over a hundred years ago, Sri Lanka (then known as
Ceylon), lost one of her greatest sons. He was a paragon of humankind, a
peerless philanthropist and a prince of patriots.
He was such a high-souled being that "time has only brightened a halo
of reverence" around him. And that noble son of Lanka was Charles Henry
de Soysa Dharmagoonewardene Wipula Jayasuriya Karunaratne Dissanayake,
who passed away into history on 29th September 1890.
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,
the "City of the Gods". He was the only son of Gate Mudaliyar
Warusahennedige Jeronis de Soysa and Mututantrige Francesca Cooray.
Though born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, he was
brought up austerely by his father. Nevertheless, he evinced 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 and his Sinhalese at the Palliyagodella
Temple; he rounded off his education at St. Thomas' College (then at
Thereafter, he scorned delights and lived laborious days, learning in
the hard school of experience to manage his father's vast estates and
business concerns which he eventually inherited as the sole heir.
On 4th February 1863 he married Moratuwa's richest heiress,
Catherine, who was the only daughter of Chevalier Lindamulage Jusey de
Silva and Weerahennedige Weerabala Jayasuriya Patabendi Ana Fernando.
They were blessed with eight sons and seven daughters; one son died
Several years later his uncle Gate Mudaliyar Susew de Soysa who died
childless, left him another large legacy.
With wisdom and enterprise Charles de Soysa developed immeasurably
the three legacies he had received from his father, uncle and
He soon built up a "veritable economic kingdom" that included coffee,
citronella, coconut and cinnamon plantations, plumbago mines, internal
transport and external trade, besides valuable urban property in Kandy,
Colombo and Moratuwa.
One modern writer has estimated the extent of his lands at around
30,000 acres but, according to a family source, it was a figure closer
to 100,000. Probably, never before or since had such wealth and property
been concentrated in the hands of a single citizen of the country.
But Charles 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 is apt to over-rate the mere faculty of
accumulating wealth. But it is far more difficult for a person to
dispense wealth wisely for the benefit of society than to amass it
quickly for his own selfish ends.
With the key of Christian charity and in a spirit of patriotism,
Charles de Soysa unlocked his abundant treasury for the welfare 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.
Mr. 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 Lanka.
He introduced a system of free education and scholarships in the
schools he founded in his home-town, nearly seven decades before the
State began to sponsor it.
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 this country. He was the first person since the
days of the Sinhala kings to build and equip a maternity hospital, viz.,
the De Soysa Lying-in-Home, now known as the De Soysa Maternity
He was a pioneer agro-businessman who played the role of a pathfinder
to others who followed him. He started a land settlement and housing
scheme for 100 families on one of his own estates in Walapone more than
half-a-century ahead of the inauguration of such schemes during the
State Council era.
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 patriachal manner in the nineteenth century,
many decades before the concept of welfarism gained acceptance in the
Twentieth, even in the West. In all these he proved to be a man of
vision far ahead of his Victorian contemporaries.
The example he set in philanthropy in our annals is undoubtedly
His manifold benefactions - their number legion - acquired such
legendary fame in his own life-time, that the very name "De Soysa"
passed into popular parlance a by-word for generosity.
Schools, churches and libraries; roads, bridges and 'ambalamas',
wells, tanks and irrigation channels; scholarships to individuals and
endowments to schools and other institutions (these included St Thomas'
College, the Medical College and Jaffna College); St. Matthias' Church
in Lakshapathiya, a building to house the Anglican School at Koralawella;
subsidies for the publication of educational and literary works by such
erudite monks as the Ven. Weligama Sri Sumangala Maha Thera and the Ven.
Ratmalane Dhammarama Maha Thera; lands for the landless, cemeteries and
public buildings (including the site of the Lunawa Railway Station);
donations and lands to temples, charitable institutions and various
causes; books and clothing for poor schoolchildren; dowries for poor
brides etc., - All these benefactions which, another modern historian
has remarked, "defy credibility in their catholic sweep and diversified
orientation", covered almost all human needs from the womb to the tomb!
Of all the public benefactions of the great De Soysa, unquestionably
the greatest were the Prince and Princess of Wales' Colleges, which he
founded in his home-town almost under the very shade of the "Maha
Palliya" - the Church of Holy Emmanuel - built by his father in the
heart of Moratuwa.
Jeronis de Soysa had provided for the spiritual needs of a section of
the people when he created the majestic and sacred fame of Holy
But his son Charles went further, and established an institution no
less majestic and even sacred in its own way for, it was a Temple of
Learning ministering to the human mind and radiating its enlightening
influence far beyond the parochial pale, to all sections of the
This was to be his greatest gift as he felt it was "his duty to see
the people of this country enjoy the blessings of education". It has
long been an idea very close to his heart.
C. H. de Soysa had no political ambitions. But he was ever-conscious
of his duty to his less fortunate fellow citizens; He was sensitive to
their needs, and attentive to their grievances. On 11th November 1871,
Ceylon's first mass political meeting was held on the grounds of the De
Soysa Walauwe in Moratuwa to protest against certain provisions of the
Village Councils' Ordinance.
It was presided over by C. H. de Soysa. Subsequently, a petition
signed by 1,000 persons from "Morotoo 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 merits and demerits".
Mr. de Soysa was the founder-President of the Ceylon Agricultural
Association (1882) which transformed itself into the Ceylon National
Association in 1888. In later times it played a significant role in the
struggle for constitutional reforms in the early part of this century
with such celebrities as (Sir) James Peiris as President and D. R.
Wijewardene (the Founder of Lake House) as Secretary.
The Ceylon National Association eventually 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.