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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 system.

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 of adventure”.

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 its Chairman.

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 Services Commission.

Dr. Richard Leslie Brohier commenced his prolific writing career in 1924.

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 cultural matters.

He broadcast on Radio Ceylon frequently giving talks and presenting feature documentaries.

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 Lanka.

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.

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