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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 measure.

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 France.

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, 1974".

Recent development

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 fuel shortage.

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 unifying force.




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Produced by Lake House Copyright 2006 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.

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