Charles Henry de Soysa: Sri Lanka’s greatest philanthropist | Sunday Observer

Charles Henry de Soysa: Sri Lanka’s greatest philanthropist

Charles Henry de Soysa
Charles Henry de Soysa

Almost every country has its own patriots and benefactors of whom it can really be proud of but no country will be able to lay claim to one man whose munificence was so large, widespread and multifaceted as that of Charles Henry de Soysa Dharmagoonewardene Vipula Jayasuriya Karunaratne Dissanayake to give his full name.

The de Soysas who hailed from Devinuwara first migrated to Panadura. They belonged to the Warushahannedige clan. One of Soysa’s ancestors Joseph de Soysa married Francisca, daughter of Hennedige Hendrick Peiris whose son Daniel was a business associate of Joseph de Soysa. Thereafter Joseph de Soysa settled down in Moratuwa. Joseph and Francisa had eleven children, one of whom was Jeronis de Soysa whose eldest and only surviving son was Charles Henry de Soysa.

Jeronis de Silva was a keen businessman and was engaged in transporting rice and provisions to the hill country in his fleet of bullock carts which on their return, carried plantation products to Colombo. In course of time he was able to compete with Europeans and purchase crown land and open up coffee plantations of his own in Hanguranketa. He would have been a public spirited person of repute because on the recommendation of the Govt.Agent of the Central Province he was appointed a Mudaliyar of the Governor’s Gate in 1853.

Charles Henry De Soysa was born on 3rd March 1836 at Idama, Moratuwa. At first he was taught by private tutors. Later he learned English at John Garth’s English School at Rawatawatte and Sinhala at the Palliyagodella temple. Subsequently he joined the College of St.Thomas’ at Mutwal as it was then called. Frequent illnesses prevented continuation of his studies there. However he became quite conversant with Oriental as well as English Literature. He was a patron of erudite Sinhala scholars like Ven. Weligama Sri Sumangala Thero and sponsored the publication of their works. He also created an endowment of Divinity Professorship and Science at St.Thomas’, Mutwal.

Export business

Charles Henry was given a thorough training in estate management and the export business by his father and his uncle Susew de Soysa. This enabled him successfully to run the vast family business with the help of his paternal uncle Susew, upon the death of his father in 1862.

On February 4th 1863, Charles Henry de Soysa married Catherine, daughter of Jusey de Silva, a rich Roman Catholic resident of Moratuwa whom the Pope had appointed as a Knight Chevalier of the Order of St.Gregory the Great. It has been recorded that Mrs de Soysa was also a very generous and gracious lady. They had fifteen children – Georgiana Catherine, J.W.C., Margaret Frances Mary, Jane Meraya Caroline, A.J.R., Anne Lydis Charlotte, E.L.F.A.C.A., who died in childhood, T.H.A., Crawford Mac Donald Margaret, Joslyn Emily Julie LWA and R.E.S. who was popularly known as Baby Soysa Mahaththaya. On the death of his uncle Gate Mudaliyar Susew de Soysa, Charles Henry inherited all his vast wealth. He also received a very substantial legacy from his father-in-law.

Charles Henry de Soysa managed his assets with business acumen and the highest integrity and created an economic empire. He did not use his fabulous wealth for his own and his family’s benefit but used it lavishly for the Glory of God and the succour of fellowmen. Although he was an Anglican, he did not confine his philanthropy to the Christian Church but extended his benevolence to Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic institutions as well.

Humility and magnanimity

He endowed Holy Emmanuel Church built by his father and himself built St.John’s Church, Panadura, churches in Marawila and Hanguranketha and St.Matthias’ Church, Lakshapathiya. This church was later extended and enlarged by his sons A.J.R., E.L.F., L.W.A.& R.E.S. In the Trust Deed of this church, C.H. de Soysa stated he built it “on my property chiefly with my own monies and partly with contributions given to me by Christian inhabitants of Lakshapathiya and Moratuwa. This reveals his humility and magnanimity. The Ven. F.H. Bevan in his “A History of the Diocese of Colombo” states as follows: “A secure place in our list should be reserved for Mr. Charles de Soysa, who stands in the very foremost rank of philanthropists. Churches, hospitals, schools seemed almost to mark the path he travelled in life, so that far and wide he created a tradition for generosity for which his name will always be cherished.”

C.H. de Soysa was the first Ceylonese to import agricultural seeds and products from tropical countries as well as the Southern parts of Europe and distributed them among agriculturists in different parts of the country. His attempt to grow cotton was not a success due to weather conditions and plant diseases for which remedies had not yet been found. He loved animals especially cattle. Between 1880 and 1890 he sent one of his managers, with some herdsmen, to South India to purchase Ongol and Nellore breeds. He had herds of Ongols on some of his estates and some even at Alfred House. He tried to increase the yield of milk by crossing Australian Ayrshires with Nellore cows. Apart from the Model Farm he opened at Narahenpita he gave special assistance to those engaged in Agriculture. Soysa was an efficient Tea Planter and Charles Valley and Salawa tea were highly regarded in England and fetched high prices at London and Colombo sales.

C.H. de Soysa diversified his holdings from concentration on coffee. Less profitable plantations were converted to coconut and investments

were made on urban properties. His properties extended from Bambalapitiya to Moratuwa. A notable investment was the Bagatalle Walawwa with a 120 acre garden-later called Alfred House.

C.H. de Soysa made endowments to the Ceylon Medical College and the Bacteriological Institute. The land for the Lunawa Railway Station was provided by him. His philanthropy was not confined to his own native Ceylon but extended beyond the seas. Some of the recipients of his bounty were Guy’s Hospital, Gordon Children’s Home, Victoria Childrens’ Home, Great Ormond Hospital, Charing Cross Hospital, the House of Charity in Soho, Queen Charlotte’s Lying in Home, Royal Ophthalmic Hospital, Brompton Hospital, Royal Free Hospital, Victoria Hospital for Children, Seamen’s Hospital, all in the United Kingdom. During the Irish Potato famine he gave the Irish substantial relief. St.Mary’s Hospital in India and the Colonial Exhibition Institution in England were among other beneficiaries of his largess.

C.H. de Soysa was a pioneer in many fields. In 1879 at a time when Cooperative Societies were unheard of in Ceylon, he formed the Carpenters’ Cooperative Company for the benefit of Moratuwa Carpenters and other craftsmen. It was meant to be a guild for the improvement and promotion of the craftsmanship which was at that time and even now well renowned. It did not make progress due to the apathy of those for whose benefit it was intended. In 1884 he established the Ceylon Agricultural Association which was intended to serve as a Planters’ Association. He was elected its President and he guided and directed its policy. Later its complexion changed and took the hue of a political organisation under the name of the Ceylon National Organisation. However C.H. de Soysa did not abandon his erstwhile interest in agriculture and following the failure of the Ceylon Agricultural Society, formed under the inspiration of Sir Henry Blake, he established the Alfred Model Farm in Narahenpita. This was a precursor of State Farms established by Govt in modern times. However, following the Founder’s untimely death, it lacked his personal guidance and attention and was abandoned. He was President of the Morattoo Liberal Association, the fore runner of the Morattoo Sangamaya.

It is rarely that a private individual gets an opportunity of entertaining Royalty but C.H. de Soysa got this unique honour when he hosted Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh when he visited Ceylon. This reflected the esteem in which the British Govt held the De Soysas. At this fabulous banquet the Prince dined on plates the cutlery of solid gold. On this occasion Susew de Soysa was made a Mudaliyar of the Governor’s Gate while C.H. de Soysa was made a Justice of the Peace for the Island. Thereafter the Prince and the Governor entertained C.H. de Soysa, Susew de Soysa and the entire De Soysa family at Dinner at Queen’s house.

“He combined his desire to achieve economic success with a deep personal concern for the well being and happiness of each person who participated in his productive activities.

Fair wages

Charles Henry de Soysa was a model employer who paid fair wages and helped his employees to purchase land and build their own houses. He also formulated a sick and death donation scheme.

He also paid pensions to loyal retired workers. He provided dowries to daughters of indigent parents. His acts of private charity were legion. Those payments were said to exceed public donations. He implicitly followed the Biblical injunction “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth”.

When the peasants of Walapane were evicted from their lands for non payment of the grain tax they were provided with land by C.H. de Soysa to enable them to restart their lives. This was long before Govt thought of village expansion. He also paid the fines imposed on those who failed to pay the poll tax to prevent them from imprisonment. He successfully campaigned for the abolition of the pernicious tax.

Maternity hospital

C.H. de Soysa would have been moved by the mounting rate of maternal and infant mortality in poor homes under insanitary conditions. They would have been too poor to afford the services of even a midwife. This situation would have led him to build the De Soysa Lying in Home in Colombo.

This was a boon to expectant mothers, especially the poor ones. This has become the foremost maternity hospital in Sri Lanka and bears the name De Soysa Maternity Hospital.

The Jewel in the crown of C.H. de Soysa’s philanthropy was and still remains the founding of Prince and Princess of Wales College as it was then known. Under the same roof were the two vernacular schools for boys and girls. On September 14, 1876 after Divine Service conducted by the Bishop of Colombo Rt.Revd.Dr. R.S. Copleston assisted by several clergy at Holy Emmanuel Church, H.E. the Governor, Rt.Hon Sir William Gregory and Bishop R.S. Copleston, I the company of Charles Henry de Soysa and his uncle Gate Mudaliyar Susew De Soysa and the entire gathering including other distinguished visitors wended their way in procession to the site selected, to lay the foundation for the school. This was between the Galle Road and the Lagoon and directly opposite the Majestic edifice of Holy Emmanuel built by Gate Mudliyar Jeronis de Soysa his father. ‘There amidst scenes of unparalleled splendour and public rejoicing the Governor laid the foundation stone for Princes of Wales College.’

The foundation stone had the inscription ‘Founded by C.H. de Soysa 1876’. Along with the stone were laid two glass containers, one of which contemporary coins and newspapers and some paddy while the other contained a scroll bearing the following inscription. “For the Glory of God and His son Our Lord Jesus Christ, the corner stone of Price and Princess of Wales College founded by Charles Henry de Soysa was laid by Sir William Henry Gregory, Governor of Ceylon on 14th day of September 1876, in the 39th year of her Majesty Queen Victoria’s Reign, in the presence of Hon Arthur W Birch, the Rt Revd Dr. R.S. Copleston, Lord Bishop of Colombo A.Y.Adams, D.P.I., Revd Abraham Mendis, the Chaplain of Moratuwa, Susew de Soysa Dissanayake, Mudaliyar of the Governor’s Gate, Gate and Muhandiram Johannes Mendis’ Architect.

The cost of the building was nearly Rs. 300,000 and out of the original buildings the main Administration Block and the Main Hall are still in existence and in solid condition, a tribute to the quality of materials used and excellent workmanship. The original furniture was of solid satin wood. No school had, at its inception, such magnificent buildings and such a large playground.

The Founder managed, maintained and endowed the college during his life-time. In terms of his last will his eldest son J.W.C. Was empowered to have sole control of the institution. The will also provided for a grant of Rs. 3000 per annum for maintenance and support of the institution during the life time of his wife, Lady Catherine de Soysa.

C.H. de Soysa was conspicuously humane but his friendliness was not limited to men and women. All life interested him and claimed his sympathy. He was a lover of horses and owned some of the best then known in the Island. He had innumerable animal pets. He took a lively interest in stock breeding. He had a considerable number of elephants. He is reputed to have approached an infuriated and aggressive animal which the mahouts were too frightened to handle. With a bunch of plantains in one hand and his kindly touch he calmed the animal to the consternation of the mahouts.

It is ironic that such a kind person should have come by his death by the bite of a dog when descending the stairs at Alfred House. He was treated by the best known Ayurvedic Physicians of the day but when his condition grew worse he was brought to de Soysa Walauwa at Moratuwa. Their treatment was of no avail and gradually his condition grew worse. Usually the agony and suffering of a hydrophobia victim has to be seen to be believed. But C.H. De Soysa was calm and serene to the end. Perhaps God in his mercy had spared him the trauma.

As his end was drawing nigh, his wife and children, except the tree sons who were studying in England and his eldest daughter, who was expecting a bay, were called to his bedside and blessed. His domestic aides and their families were also called and blessed. A carriage was sent to fetch his childhood pal but by the time he came. C.H. De Soysa was not in a position to talk. He peacefully passed away on 29th September 1890. His last words were “I am going to God”.

Islandwide mourning

Four days later his funeral service was held at Holy Emmanuel Church of which he was a life warden. Bishop Copleston who preached on the occasion too for his text the 6th verse of Chapter six of St. Paul’s first Epistle to Timothy “But godliness with contentment is great gain.” IN the course of the sermon he declared “If we are asked why we mourn, we Answer in the words of King David, “Know ye not that there is a Prince and a Great man is fallen in Israel this day.”

There was islandwide mourning, especially in every home in Moratuwa for the great man with a greater heart.

On 22nd January 1982, Queen Victoria of Britain who had intended to confer a Knighthood on Charles Henry de Soysa, by Royal Warrant, granted to his wife the status of widow of a Knight and thereafter she was known as Lady Catherine de Soysa.

“We live in an age when acts of Charity and Munificence are, more often that not, prompted by base motives. Here was a signal instance of one who in his quiet and an assuming way used his talents for the benefit of his countrymen. We need patriots today but it is patriotism of this nature that we look to”

“His life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up

And say to all the world “This was a man!”

(With acknowledgements to Charles Henry de Soysa by Luxman Devasena. Glimpses of Charles Henry de Soysa by Richard Dias, centenary souvenir of Prince and Princes of Wales Colleges and past issues of ‘The Cambrian’.)