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Charles Henry de Soysa’s 176th birth anniversary:

Philanthropist par excellence

Charles Henry de Soysa had a legendary reputation as the greatest philanthropist par excellence of Sri Lanka. One hundred and twenty two years after his untimely death and on his 176thbirth anniversary, his name is honoured and revered in the country through special events.

Among these are the garlanding of his statue at De Soysa Circus formerly known as Lipton's Circus which has been done unfailingly for the last 94 years and special tribute is paid to him like the solemn march past of his statue at Prince of Wales' College and his grave at the Holy Emmanuel cemetery on March 3, the combined students of Prince and Princess of Wales' Colleges and the memorial service in the Church.

This is a measure of his indelible impact on the nation. His philanthropy was in diverse fields and these philanthropic acts are almost inexhaustible. They were in keynote nation building areas such as education, health, social service, agriculture, public works, charity, religion, humanitarian relief, all of which amounted to a veritable tour de force in the development of the country and its people.


Charles Henry de Soysa

Health services

The mere enumeration of some of these acts will convey their wide ranging and far reaching character which were almost revolutionary.

In education he built several schools but his magnum opus was Prince and Princess of Wales' Colleges in Moratuwa which realized his dearest wish that his home town of Moratuwa should become one of the most educated in the land and today its levels of education, is a graphic demonstration of the fulfillment of this dream. In the field of health he built several hospitals such as the De Soysa Maternity Hospital formerly known as the Lying in Home which was the first of its kind in Asia and many more which are flourishing today and continue to serve their respective areas.

Scientific agriculture

Equally epoch making was his contribution to the study of medicine and medical practice in that he set up the first building of the Ceylon Medical College.

Equally significant and a measure of his broad outlook was his support for Ayurvedic medicine partly out of sentimental recognition that his father was an Ayurvedic physician. His liberality in the cause of health services went so far as to providing lavish donations to more than 20 well known hospitals in Britain such as the Brompton Hospital, the Ormonde Hospital for children etc.

It is perhaps not irrelevant to mention that the De Soysa's of three generations have generously gifted other hospitals at Moratuwa, Panaduraand Marawila including Medical Research Institute, Churches at Panadura, Marawila and Hanguranketa inclusive of numerous temples, several wards in hospitals, a Science Laboratory, a gymnasium, a bacteriological institute, a medical museum, a housing scheme in Walapane and innumerable other public works for the benefit of the community at large. A striking feature of his spirit of universality was his religious tolerance and support for all creeds.

Though a Christian himself, he was a lavish patron of other creeds and built several Buddhist temples, Hindu Kovils in Jaffna, donated land to mosques. This was apart from St. Matthias' Church, Lakshapathiya which he founded and a number of other churches he renovated. He was equally a patron of the arts and letters and financed the publication of several Buddhistic and educational works.

This combination of eclecticism, humanism and humanitarianism made him unique as a human being and this was the real source of his philanthropy. His roots however were in agriculture which he had acquired from his father who was a pioneer in the plantation industry and he also inherited fortunes which the latter had made and two other legacies he received from his uncle and his father-in-law.

This was the material source of his philanthropy. He made a significant contribution in this field in the Model Farm later called the ‘Alfred Model Farm’ which he opened at a cost of Sterling Pounds 10,000 in an extent of approx. 160 acre block of land in Colombo.

This marked his entry into the field of agriculture which led to his formation of the Ceylon Agricultural Association in 1884 that rendered yeoman service to pioneer planters by instructing them in scientific agriculture. That was later transformed into the Ceylon National Association.

He was equally interested in the promotion of industry and through his initiative the Moratuwa Cooperative Company was set up for the benefit of carpenters.

His interests in the economic sphere were thus many sided ranging from plantations to scientific agriculture and industries and he institutionally opened the way for them through the Associations which he promoted for their furtherance.

They were not all a success and some ran aground like the Alfred Model Farm and the Cooperative Company but they symbolized his entrepreneurial spirit which was transforming the economy of the country.

Nationalist movement

Such was the extraordinary character of his philanthropic activities which makes him one of the greatest benefactors not only of Sri Lanka but of all time. What was unique in his philanthropy is that it was not prompted by a desire for self aggrandizement or prestige but from a genuine love of his fellowmen. At the same time it transformed the nation by providing the amenities and services which enhanced the quality of life of the people. In terms of its historical impact it can be said that his philanthropy opened a new era in the evolution of the nation.

It established the foundations for the attainment of nationhood by its people.

This was through his schools which afforded the necessary education, the medical services, the entrepreneurship in agriculture and industry, the Associations which he set up in these fields all contributed to mould a new generation who became in fact the groundwork for the movement towards independence.

In his time the nationalist movement and its leadership were still a far cry but what made them possible at the appropriate time in the early 20th century was undoubtedly the groundwork which had been created through these acts. The early nationalist leaders were the products of entrepreneurship and of the system of English education in the country which reflected the roots of his upbringing and the impact of his philanthropic acts.

Charles Henry de Soysa was an acknowledged leader of the society of his time not as a professional politician but as a charismatic personality and a friend to everyone.

His social life combined moving with the rank and file of society and accessibility to everyone and holding court as an aristocratic leader of high society and moving in exalted circles. His ability to combine these roles was a measure of the breadth of his personality. He was at home with kings and commoners alike.

He was a friend of the common man and a champion of the oppressed and afflicted among them and a patron of humanistic elements such as priests, scholars, artists, writers, intellects who supported their aspirations.

Aristocratic families

At the same time as the head of one of the most aristocratic families in the country he had to hold court to the elite in the land in lavish receptions and hospitality.

His residence known as ‘Alfred House’ became the equivalent of the palace of royalty and it is significant that it was named after Alfred the heir presumptive of Britain following his visit to the island. That visit was a crowning event in his career as a host in that the visiting Prince was accorded a lavish dinner and entertainment by him at Alfred House a feature of which was the plate of gold specially made for the occasion on which the Prince had his meals. Such acts of ostentation and lavishness were a part of his life style of being host to other aristocratic peers, representatives of the British Crown such as the Governor and other officials. He and his household acquired a legendary reputation for the scale of their hospitality.

Part of this entertainment was for his own family circle that comprised up to seven sons and seven daughters and their families very affluent in their own right.

De Soysa and his wife were loving parents who greatly enjoyed the company of their family and thus their home became a centre of their activities of endless rounds of family parties, visits and festivities. Indeed such hospitality was not confined to the family circle as their Colombo mansion and Moratuwa Walauwa were equally an open house to the people at large who did not hesitate to call over in large numbers to pay their respects in traditional style and partake in turn of the open house accorded to them.

The house in turn and its spacious gardens were a veritable pleasure park abounding in domestic animals, plant life and other horticultural attractions.

The main attraction in this continuous whirl of social life was undoubtedly the charismatic personality of the host whose supreme charm and graciousness was a magnetic attraction. De Soysa had a partiality for animals and was interested in stock breeding resulting in his producing excellent strains of horses and elephants.

As is well known this saga of De Soysa ended on a tragic note with his death from a bite by a rabid dog at the house donated to the Medical Research Institute (MRI) at Borella for Medical Research purposes to benefit citizens of the country.

This was ironic because of his own passion for animals and his patronage of Ayurvedic medicine. His death at the time was mourned by the country as a national calamity. This sense of loss was conveyed by the Bishop of Colombo at the time in the words which he quoted in the Bible of King David "Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel."

To Sri Lanka it was an irreparable loss when one reflects in the light of his achievements what more he would have done in a normal life span. However in the hindsight of history one can conclude on a positive note that during his life brief though it was, he was able to plant the seeds of nationhood among the people which would at the appropriate moment blossom into independence. That is the true significance of his philanthropy in that it was the means by which the sense of nationhood was implanted among the people which in turn prepared them for the day when they could take over the reins of power.

Thus when we look back on him today it should be not only as one of the greatest philanthropists but one of our earliest patriots and nationalists and fathers of our freedom. This should add a new dimension to our homage to him and enable us to see him and his works in a new light when we do reverence to his memory and honour to his name on his 176th birth anniversary.

This article is an update of the article of late Deshamanya Dr. Vernon L.B. Mendis, former Secretary General of (Non Aliened Conference in Colombo in 1976) published in year 2001 on occasion of 125th anniversary of Prince & Princes of Wales Colleges of Moratuwa

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