Tracing footprints of a great historian
The 117th Birth Anniversary of Dr. R.L. Brohier was yesterday. His
deep and abiding love for Sri Lanka is reflected in the incomparable
legacy he has bequeathed to future generations. His valuable and
unrivalled works on historical sites, ancient irrigation systems, Dutch
influences to name a few, reveal to aspects of our country and heritage
which if not for him we would never have known.
His younger daughter Deloraine inherits her father’s passion for this
country and follows in her illustrious parent’s footsteps.
Today, we remember and revere Dr. R.L. Brohier as a colossus among
contemporary Sri Lankan historians and antiquarians.
Dr. R.L. Brohier
The Order of the Oranje Nassau is the highest award given by the
Crown in The Netherlands. In a unique and rare event Dr. R.L. Brohier
and daughter Deloraine were made recipients of this honour. Dr. Brohier
was conferred this honour by Queen Juliana in 1978 and Deloraine was
bestowed this honour by Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands in 2002.
Dr. Richard Leslie Brohier was born on October 5, 1892 to Richard
Annesley Brohier (Jr.) and Marion de Boer. The Brohier’s are of French
(Huguenot) descent. The founder of the family, Captain Jean Brohier
arrived in this country in 1777 in the service of the Dutch East India
Company (VOC). The literary tradition was obviously in Dr. Brohier’s
genes - his great grandfather Peter Brohier was translator of Rev.
Baldeus’s book “The true and exact description of the Island of Ceylon”.
Not only was Dr. Brohier a great scholarly writer he was an
inspiration to many. He inspired study of ancient Lanka’s hydraulic
Others like his daughter Deloraine were inspired by him to seek out
Lanka’s historical heritage.
In her postscript titled Following the Pathfinder to Dr. Brohier’s
The Golden Plains (1923 Notes of the Topographic Survey of the ancient
coastal habitations between Puttalam and Mannar and related subsequent
observations) Deloraine Brohier says-: “I can still hear him say: “Take
a boat from Kalpitiya coast up through Dutch Bay and the chain of
islands in Portugal Bay, then beach at Kudiramalai Point; camp and trek
to see the ancient habitations along the Wilpattu coast. This is a trip
you must do - someday....”
In April 1982 Deloraine Brohier fulfilled his dream.
Deloraine further says: “Great was the delight in all who listened to
him for my father had the ability to give inspiration and stir a spirit
After completing his primary and secondary education at Royal
(Academy) College Richard Leslie Brohier joined the Ceylon Technical
College in 1909 for a course in surveying. He then joined the Survey
Department in 1910 as a supernumerary Surveyor. He rose to senior
positions in the Survey Department.
In 1923 he conducted the first Survey from Puttalam to Mannar
including present day Wilpattu Sanctuary and produced the first one inch
scale map of that area. It was during this survey that he made the
momentous discovery of the vast ruins at Kudiramalai Point (the horse
mountain). Details of these findings are recorded in The Golden Plains a
book that came out in 1992.
In 1933 Dr. Brohier was promoted as Superintendent of Surveys. It was
also 1933 that the then Agriculture Minister D.S. Senanayake
commissioned Dr. Brohier to write The Ancient Irrigation Works of
Ceylon. This monumental work has today become the “bible” of hydrology
in Sri Lanka. Dr. Brohier finished Part I in three months. In 1934 he
completed Part II and Part III and these were published in 1935. An
amazing scholarly and literary feat indeed when considering that he also
executed his normal official duties during this period.
1938/1946 saw Dr. Brohier becoming the first Sri Lankan to act as
Assistant Surveyor General. 1946/1950 saw him being confirmed in this
position - another first for a Sri Lankan. In 1947 and 1949 he acted for
the Deputy Surveyor General. He took early retirement from the Survey
Department in 1950 at request of the Hon. D.S. Senanayake to become a
member of the Galoya Development Board. He subsequently was appointed
Dr. Brohier also served as Secretary to the First Delimitation
Commission of 1946. He was the first Chairman of the Eastern Paper Mills
Corporation (1955 - 1958). In 1959 Dr. Brohier chaired the special
Committee on the Antiquities of Ceylon. He served as a member of the
Salaries Commission (1958 - 62). Dr. Brohier was a member of the Board
of Regents of the Vidyalankara University. He also served on several
Panels of Wages Boards, Industrial Courts and was a member of the Public
Dr. Richard Leslie Brohier commenced his prolific writing career in
He was the Editor of the Dutch Burgher Union Journal for 19 years.
His contributions to learned journals are far too numerous to be
detailed. There are also a number of reports of Commissions and
Committees on which he served and was associated with. His writings also
covered papers presented to numerous fora on scientific and technical
subjects. He also lectured on these subjects as well as on social and
He broadcast on Radio Ceylon frequently giving talks and presenting
He continued writing almost to the end of his life.
This illustrious son of Lanka held high office in several
institutions. The Royal Asiatic Society President, Ceylon Engineering
Association President (now Institution of Engineers), Ceylon
Geographical Association President, Ceylon Survey Institute President
and Dutch Burgher Union President.
Being one of the foremost authorities on the Dutch Period in Sri
Lanka Dr. Brohier was invited to be an Advisory Member on a Special
Committee appointed by the Tourist Board to set up a Dutch Period Museum
in Colombo. Dr. Brohier has the distinction of being the only person to
be made an Honourary Member of the Netherlands Alumni Association of Sri
Dr. R.L. Brohier received the OBE in 1947 and was awarded the degree
of D. Litt. Honoris Causa of the University of Ceylon in 1963.
In 1971 Dr. Brohier became the eighth recipient of the Royal Asiatic
Society’s Gold Medal. In 1931 he was elected a fellow of the Royal
Geographic society and 1947 saw him elected as a Fellow of the Institute
of Chartered Surveyors.
Dr. R.L. Brohier’s prolific writings are too numerous to enumerate
here. The three volume The Ancient Irrigation Works of Sri Lanka (1934 -
1938) remains the standard authority for hydrology even today.
Two other very popular books are Seeing Ceylon and Discovering Ceylon
: The Golden Plains which records his work on a 1923 Topographic Survey
of ancient coastal habitations between Puttalam and Manner and Changing
Face of Colombo were published posthumously by his daughter Deloraine.
His book on the Dutch Reformed Church on Wolvendhal Hill - (currently
of print) is being revised by Deloraine and a Dutchmen Christian von
Krimpen and will be published shortly.
On the February 14, 1980 Richard Leslie Brohier passed away at the
age of 87. He will be loved and remembered not only by his family and by
all who have benefitted so greatly from his work and writings. We, Sri
Lankans as a nation owe Dr. Brohier a tremendous debt for revealing so
much of Sri Lanka’s glorious past.
The writer is greatly indebted to Deloraine Brohier for all her
assistance in the compilation of this article.