27 September, 2020
Royal College

In a glorious journey of 185 momentous years, Royal College has come a long way, producing some of the finest men to the country. The President and Commander-in-Chief, Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently elevated Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne to the helm of the Sri Lanka Navy as its 24th Commander. Thus, he becomes the newest Old Royalist, the name by which the alumni of Royal College are usually denoted, to be appointed a Service Commander.

Vice Admiral Nishantha UlugetenneThis portrayal is a reminiscence of some of the rich history and tradition that guide and inspire Royalists present and past to keep on breaking boundaries and moving forward, to hand down the College not less but greater, better and more beautiful than it was handed down. The core resolve of Royal College is being able to provide an upbringing to all walks of life. This purpose has been focal at Royal over its many decades of existence, promoting ethnic harmony and unity among all lifestyles.

The culture at Royal College instils in its students the understanding that you may enter the school from whatever society you belong to, but you will leave the school as a Royalist; equal to all the brothers that walked the path to man’s estate along with you. Royal boasts active student movements for Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus and Muslims, which conduct events within and outside the school to unify all ethnic groups and promote unity among all people, in turn making it a flourishing multi-ethnic institution.

Started as the Hill Street Academy in 1835, identified as Colombo Academy (1836-1842), Colombo Academy and Queens College (1859-1868), Colombo Academy (1869-1880), Governor William Manning opened the present Halls of Fame at Reid Avenue; a permanent abode for the Oldest Public School in the island on October 10, 1923.

New Commander of the Navy

Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne, born on September 18, 1965, had his entire education at the prestigious institution from 1971 to 1984, excelling in studies as well as in athletics. His passion for cadetting inculcated in him great leadership qualities and aptly groomed him for a military career. He joined the Sri Lanka Navy as an Officer Cadet in 1985 and rose to become a Vice Admiral in 2020 through a brilliant professional trail graced by excellence.

In his immaculate white uniform and careful speech, he touched the hearts and minds of the entire Naval Force. A battle hardened officer decorated for valour and gallantry, he enhanced his professionalism by pursuing double master degrees on defence studies and maritime policy as well as a Master’s in Philosophy. He held an array of key appointments and sustained injuries in battle when his craft was blown up at sea.

Right Royal felicitation

Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne was felicitated befittingly on his ascension to the pinnacle of the Navy by his alma mater on September 18, 2020. Upon his arrival, accompanied by his wife Chandima and daughter Samadinie, they were right royally welcomed and ushered in procession by the College Band. The Cadet Platoon accorded him a Guard of Honour before he paid floral tributes at the War Heroes’ Monument. Of the many traditions associated with Royal College that a Royalist has the privilege of experiencing during his life span, a Special General Assembly within the hallowed portals takes pride of place. It is possibly the biggest gathering and shows the sheer might and power that Royal College possesses. Anyone who is blessed to hear the College Song that reverberates within the majestic portals would be reminded of his school days.

All in all the Special General Assembly is an event that embodies the true spirit of the school. I have had the privilege of seeing many a wonderful site in my years in College and as an Old Royalist for 40 years but trust me when I say that the felicitation ceremony to Admiral Nishantha was dazzling. Above all, the sense of gratitude that overwhelms you for this wonderful family that you have been bestowed by this hallowed institution is unforgettable because you know that there will be Royalists alongside you in the darkest of moments.

The Principal, B. A. Abeyratna in his address presented greetings to Admiral Nishantha who was celebrating his birthday on that eventful day and said how jubilant they were to extend their sentiments of felicitation. He went on to emphasise that Admiral Nishantha is a good role model for the fledging Royalist to follow.

The distinguished gathering was also addressed by the former Commander of the Navy and Chairman of Old Royalist Cadet Association, Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe as well as a fellow cadet of his battalion, Janak Weerakkodi and the Head Prefect, Sawinda Dissanayake.

Admiral Nishantha thanked everyone and expressed his delight of returning to Royal. Recalling his college days, he said that Royal is a unique institution where he learnt good lessons, such as how to live in harmony, embrace equality and refined core values to lead a successful career. Urging the budding Royalists to inculcate qualities like discipline, patience, commitment and hard work that will be key elements for the successful progression of a personality, he called upon young Royalists not to become prey to the drug menace and to become slaves of technology. Admiral Nishantha made his remarks in the Visitor’s Book and took time to visit the Cadet Room to refresh his past memories. His Grade 1 teacher, Mrs. Sugathapala and Master in Charge of Cadet Contingent, Mr. M.N. Dharmarathna were present to make the event more dignified. Significantly, the presence of all living former Service Commanders produced by Royal College added glamour to the occasion.

Old Royalist Military Chiefs and IGPs

Among the Old Royalists, Lt. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga became the General Office Commanding Joint Operations Command; Four served as Chiefs of Defence Staff – Gen. Jagath Jayasooriya, Air Chief Marshal Kolitha Gunatillake, Gen. Crysantha de Silva and Adm. Ravindra Wijegunaratne; Six became Commanders of the Army - Major Gen. B. R. Heyn, Gen. Sepala Attygalle, Lt. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga, Lt. Gen. Nalin Seneviratne, Gen. Jagath Jayasooriya and Gen. Crysantha de Silva; Six became Commanders of the Navy - Rear Adm. Rajan Kadiragamar, Adm. Basil Goonasekera, Adm. Asoka de Silva, Adm. Thisara Samarasinghe and Adm. Ravindra Wijegunaratne; Three became Commanders of the Air Force - Air Vice Marshal Harry Goonetilake, Air Chief Marshal Harsha Abeywickrama and Air Chief Marshal Kolitha Gunathilake; Four were appointed as Inspectors General of Police - Messrs. S. A. Dissanayake, Ana Seneviratne and Cyril Herath.

College Motto, College Song and College Flag

An old Royalist writing his reminiscences in the Royal College Magazine of 1909 said, “the good old sailor king yet on the throne of his father when an eventful day dawned in the educational history of our island - that event which give it claim to be cherished by posterity was the founding of the old Academy - the installation of Rev. Joseph H. Marsh, Jnr as the Principal by Governor His Excellency Sir William Horton in 1835.”

The motto of Royal College gives the youth of the school motivation more than anything else. It generates the spirit of the school in the minds of students. A bronze plaque at the main entrance to the College reads thus;These stones have been preserved from the original building of the COLOMBO ACADEMY founded in 1835 which institution subsequently became the ROYAL COLLEGE.

The first mention of the Motto – Learn or Depart is during the regime of Principal George Todd (1871-1878) who constantly reminded the students that they must learn or get out. Reminiscences written by Royalists from 1893 do not make any mention of Royalists who have departed for not learning. Records only show that the vast majority have learnt and departed bringing credit to the College.

In 1927, Principal Major Harry Leslie Reed composed the College Song ‘School of our fathers,’ and it was found to be a ‘hit tune’ among the students. The credit for the brilliant performance behind this song goes to Mrs. H. L. Reed. The song made its public debut on July 13, 1928 and a shorter version was composed in Sinhala in 1968.

The song provides inspiration, a fervour and attachment to the hallowed institution. This College Song has come down the generations of Royalists and is cherished today for the values it represents.

The first verse; Thy spirit first to life awoke - In eighteen hundred and thirty five - Beneath the sway of Marsh and Boake - Thenceforth did Lanka’s learning thrive. The Refrain; School where our fathers learnt the way before us - Learnt of books and learnt of men, through thee we’ll do the same - True to our watchword Disce Aut Discede - We will learn of books and men, and learn to play the game. The second verse; Within thy shade our fathers trod - The path that leads to man’s estate - They have repaid the debt they owed - They kept thy fame inviolate. The final verse; And we their loyal sons now bear - The torch, with hearts as sound as oak - Our lusty throats now raise a cheer - For Hartley, Harward, Marsh and Boake. The Royal College Flag has, through the years, kept up the College spirit during celebrations. There is no record in any document of the College Flag prior to 1904.

The role of the flag can be summed up with the Prize Day speech of Principal Lionel Henry Wynn Sampson in 1924; “As a part of the same scheme I have had the College Flag embroidered with the college Crest. I hope that the Flag will serve as a symbol of devotion owed by every Royalist past and present to his School.

A school that is worth anything must impress on its boys a sense of loyalty and devotion and I hope that this Flag will help to produce in all Royal College Boys a sense of loyalty to their College, keep their flag flying as the proud symbol of the best school.”

College Houses, Athletics, Cadetting and Alumni

The Royal College Athletics Meet is a very significant event as it involves the participation of a great number of students and brings together a majority of the school together to celebrate true sporting spirit. It was during the golden era of Royal under Principal L. D. H. Peiris that we first met as athletes of Royal College in the late 1970s – a friendship that flourished at Royal and the Navy in the sports arena of athletics.

At Royal, the students are divided into five Houses, four established in 1918 by Principal C. Hartley and later renamed in 1921 by Principal Major H. L Reed and the fifth House established in memory of Principal Reed in 1970.

In the Government Gazette of April 1, 1881, the Lt. Gen. Sir John Douglas, granted permission for the formation of the Volunteer Corps.

On April 12, John Armitage who held a Commission in the Volunteers in England was appointed the Commanding Officer and Captain Curone, the Acting Adjutant.

The Royal College Cadet Battalion formed in 1881 was the first in the schools. The first parade by the Cadet Battalion was on July 2, 1881 at the College Prize Giving.

The Alumni of Royal College goes far back, stronger and established as an organisation as the, ‘Royal College Union’ (RCU). Founded in 1891 as a society for alumni of the College, it is the oldest such alumni society in Sri Lanka. The RCU was set up to further the interests of the College and its past and present members, and to keep former students in touch with each other and with the school.

World Wars I and II

The First World War (1914-1918) saw 88 present and past Royalist Volunteers serve in the British Army in France and the Near East (Iraq and Persia) and some made the supreme sacrifice.

The first was a young Royalist W. E. Speldewinde who drowned when the Troopship Villa de la Ciotat torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean Sea while proceeding to England. This ship carried mostly student volunteers from Royal and Trinity Colleges.

As per records,five others sacrificed their lives - Bombardier J. Loos, Rifleman W. E. Edema, Private G. J. C. Van Rooyen, Sergeant H. A. E. de Vos, Sergeant R. H. G. Orloff and Flying Officer D. Bleakley. The first student to win a military decoration while on active service was a Royalist, Captain O. J. Robertson of the 23rd Battalion of the London Regiment.

He was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in June 1916. Other recipients of the Military Cross during World War I were 2/Lt. Henry E. Speldewinde de Boer, Lt. Cyril W. Nicholas and 2/Lt. J. Robertson.

Many Royalists served in World War II from 1939 to 1945 as well. Among the Royalists decorated on overseas service was Capt. Dr. A. Thenuwara of the Royal Army Medical Corps who served in the Middle East and Malta under the British Army and was awarded the ‘Africa Star.’ Major A. N. Weinman and Wing Commander W. G. L. Wambeck had the distinction of serving in both wars. Major L. V. Gooneratne broke a long link with the Cadet Battalion having taken over in 1923 and given his heart and soul to the College Battalion. A big built man, his stirring, stentorian commands still ring in the years of those who knew him.

Royal College Monument

Of Sri Lanka’s 30-year battle against terrorism, 47 Old Royalists have made the supreme sacrifice, in keeping with the imperishable truths ingrained in the College Song, “....They have repaid the debt they owed, they kept thy fame inviolate....” It was against that background that a Special General Assembly was held on May 20, 1998, graced by the next of kin of the Fallen Heroes and the foundation stone for the Monument was laid.

The RCU’s War Heroes Committee constructed the Monument in honour of the patriotic Old Royalists mainly from the funds raised exclusively from the Royalists, young and old.

The unveiling ceremony took place on June 2, 1999 and the youngest among the Old Royalists ‘Wounded-in-Action’, Captain Rohan Perera of the Sinha Regiment was bestowed the rare honour, thereby giving pride of place to the gallant men who have sacrificed their soul and body for the Motherland.

Among the Old Royalists who have made the supreme sacrifice, the first to be ‘Killed-in-Action’ was Major Milroy Fernando of the Army in Omanthai on January 6, 1986. Lieutenant-Commander (S) Sandun Gunasekera and Flight Lieutenant R. B. Kulatunga were the first Navy and Air Force officers to make the supreme sacrifice.

In the Roll of Honour, Major General Vijaya Wimalaratne remains the most senior, while two patriotic heroes, Lieutenant A. W. M. N. M. de Silva of the Army and Flying Officer Rohan Fernando Jnr of the Air Force have been decorated with the Weera Wickrama Vibhushanaya for their acts of gallantry and conspicuous bravery of a military nature of a high order in the face of the enemy.

The military personnel are a brave breed who are used to take success and failure as they come. They take it in their stride, advancing and retreating, and winning and losing battle and they are ‘officers and gentlemen’ who treat “success and failure” as impostors. When a courageous officer with the finest military traditions and training risks his life, he does so without question.

Even though he may fear for his personal safety, he is always prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good. His overriding concern is for the country he has to protect, the survival of his comrades in arms or the success of a particular manoeuvre.

(The writer, an Old Royalist, served the Sri Lanka Navy 1979 through 2018; he holds a PhD, MPhil and double MSc; he has been a livewire of the RCU since 1980 and served as Chairman, Royal College War Heroes Committee)