St John Ambulance Sri Lanka:
A centenary of service
Symbolizing the qualities of good First Aiders
ANNIVERSARY: In strict compliance to its motto "Pro Utilitate Hominum"
(for the service of the humankind), St. John Ambulance completes the
first centenary of its services in Sri Lanka. The organization is easily
identifiable with its eight pointed cross (Maltese cross) with lions and
unicorns in the four angles. The eight points symbolize the qualities of
a good First Aider; i.e., observation, tact, resource, dexterity,
explicitness, discernment, perseverance and sympathy.
Though its name may reflect a religious inclination, this is a
completely bias free organization caring for any individual in need of
First Aid to ensure safety to life in an emergency. One fact that could
be cited is, even in countries like Malaysia, Pakistan, etc., where
Islam is the predominant religion, eight pointed Maltese cross is
accepted as the logo without any modification.
During the early part of the last century, the British rulers
encouraged the introduction of several of their social welfare
organizations to Sri Lanka; then Ceylon. In fact, some organizations
such as St. John Ambulance, Boy Scouts Movement, etc., were established
within the first decade itself. St. John Ambulance Association, as the
organization was then called had its inauguration on 13th August, 1906
(Ceylon Observer Weekly Edition 14th August, 1906).
The history of St. John Ambulance can be traced back to 600 AD. With
the Christian religion spreading across, Holy Land became a place of
pilgrimage. Travel to the Holy Land was very slow, and hazardous. By the
time the pilgrims reached there, they were sick and exhausted beyond
Pope Gregory the Great instructed the founding of a hospice with
resident monks to attend to the needy pilgrims. With the Moslem
occupation of Jerusalem in 638/AD even, the hospice was allowed to
continue and almost two centuries later, Emperor Charlemagne repaired.
However, in 1010AD this was destroyed by Caliph El-Hakim.
In 1023, after the death of El-Hakim, citizens of Amalfi, a southern
Italian town restored the hospice and was dedicated to St. John the
Almonor. This was managed by the monks of the Benedictine Order.
The first Crusade captured Jerusalem in 1099 from Moslems a Christian
hospital providing succour to the crusaders who were sick and wounded.
The hospital was governed by one Brother Gerard, a monk from Provence in
By a papal Bull or edict issued in the year 1113, Pope Pascal II took
the hospital under his protection, formally recognizing the Order of
Hospitallers dedicated to St. John the Baptist. That year, therefore,
marked the official foundation of the Order of St. John.
In British Isles
While the credit of introduction of St. John Ambulance to our country
goes to England, the introduction to the British isles was in 1140 at
Clerkenwell, London. The Order was given land in England (around 1140 at
Clerkenwell, London), Scotland (by 1153) and Ireland (1174).
The properties were organized into the priories of England and
Ireland. Later King Henry VIII suppressed these three Priories in 1540
and the Order properties were confiscated by the Crown. Queen Mary I
restored the Order, but it fell into abeyance again under Queen
Elizabeth I. The Grand Master Jean de Valette from Malta sent a mission
to England in 1561 to negotiate with Queen Elizabeth regarding the
restoration of the Order, but in the political atmosphere of the time
there was a hindrance to success.
In the early 19th century, a revival was there. There were observers
from Geneva Convention Conference on Humane Care of Battlefield
Casualties held in Switzerland (which led to the formation of
International Red Cross). Following this experience, St. John Ambulance
Association was founded in 1877 because they observed and realized the
need for attending accident victims in civil life. St. John Ambulance
Brigade was formed in 1887.
In 1882, the Head of the Ottoman Turkish Empire authorized the Order
to establish the St. John Ophthalmic Hospital in Jerusalem since he was
holding Jerusalem then. This Hospital is active to-date, and maintained
almost entirely with donor support. The St. John Ophthalmic Hospital
runs a training school for post-graduate doctors and for Arab nurses. It
also runs a Research Institute.
Almost immediately as the organization began, training activities
were started. It adopted the manuals "First Aid on the Battlefield" and
First Aid to the Injured" by Esmarch (1823-1908) who was born in
Schleswig Holstein, a Surgeon General in the German Army. He is
identified as the originator of First Aid. The triangular bandage was
invented in 1831 by Dr. Mayor of Lausanne, Switzerland.
Initially the organization comprised of two separate bodies as St.
John Ambulance Association and St. John Ambulance Brigade where former
was attending to training and association activities and the latter
handling services. In 1971, two bodies were merged and came to be known
as St. John Ambulance (Association and Brigade).
St. John Ambulance Movement in Sri Lanka
As mentioned in the beginning, history of the St. John Ambulance
movement in Sri Lanka commences when the Colombo Centre of the St. John
Ambulance Association in England was established by the then Governor
Sir Henry Arthur Blake (Governor from 1903-1907). In fact this was three
years prior to the establishment of the movement in India in 1909
(Harrison CDN 07.11.1977).
Later, similar Centres of the Association in England were set up in
Jaffna, Galle and Salpiti Korale. At first, the activities of these
Association Centres were confined to the Police, Prisons and the Railway
Department. The Association Centre in Colombo gained prominence over
other Centres mainly due to the patronage received from the then
Governors and other Government authorities at that time.
As a result, as time passed by, the Jaffna, Galle and Salpiti Korale
centres got submerged into the Association Centre in Colombo. The
Colombo Centre referred to as the "Ceylon Centre" outstretched its
activities and came to the forefront. At a Council meeting held on
September 5, 1970, Council's rules and regulations were amended to form
the merged body.
The Association, Ceylon Centre and the Brigade continued as two
branches under the Council, as was suggested by London Headquarters.
In 1974, the Order in terms of its Statutes, announced that "It is
hereby declared that St. John Councils set up prior to the appointed day
with executive powers in independent countries overseas shall be deemed
National St. John Councils, appointed day being the 1st day of June,
While various developments continued, SJASL played a strong role
during the disasters in the country. During the years of civil strife in
the country, SJASL was operative in all parts of the country
unobstructed by any party. Jaffna Branch worked using an ambulance
devised using two bicycles during the difficult times where there was a
After 1995, there have been several steps taken to escalate the
operation of the organization. In 2002, during the month of June, there
was an international training programme held through the participation
of trainers from UK. Over 20 trainers passed out with skills on latest
techniques in first aid.
In turn, these trainers used their newly gained skills to improve the
quality of the trainees. In 2004, SJASL developed a strategic plan for
2004-2008 and at the end of the year, the country was stricken by the
worst disaster known during the past two millennia-the tsunami.
The involvement of the organization proved its capacity. During this
period, organizations of the St. John family of Hong Kong, Canada, UK,
etc., came forward to assist the efforts of SJASL. The Johanniter of
Germany, the German equivalent of St. John came forward to train new
trainers, provided equipment and improved infrastructure.
They assisted enhancing the skills of service providers such as
ambulance drivers where all drivers of the organization were trained to
be Emergency Medical Technicians. Similarly, organizations like Action
Aid, an INGO, assisted with ambulances and training equipment.
This assistance enabled the organization to increase the number of
trainers and the other staff. Today, SJASL operates a fee levied
ambulance service for assisting sick people seeking home-to-hospital,
hospital-to-home, hospital-to-another and home-to-another transfers.
According to the 2004-2005 Strategic Plan, SJASL is now penetrating
into much remote areas in the country with the assistance of new
trainers. In Sri Lanka, all the social groupings, that encompass
religiously the denominations of Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems, and
Christians and ethnically, the denominations of Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors
and Malays work together collectively as members of the association and
brigade to achieve the objects of the Order of Chivalry. It is a