Sir Charles Henry De Soysa (1836-1890)
Charles Henry de Soysa was born in Moratuwa on the 3rd of March 1836. He was the only son of Mudliyar Jeronis de Soysa Dissanayake and Francesca de Soysa Lamaethani (née Cooray). Jeronis de Soysa, an Ayurveda physician, was one of the most successful merchants in Ceylon and established the largest native commercial enterprise of the era. Charles was educated at the leading institutions of his day and then joined the family enterprise.
In 1863 he married Catherine (1845-1914), the daughter of Chevaliar Jusey de Silva Deva Aditya (1816-1889) and Weerahennadige Weerabala Jayasuriya Patabendi Anna Fernando (1825-1877).
The island of Sri Lanka has a written history of over 2500 years and the legend of Charles Henry de Soysa is unique in that saga. It is the first recorded instance (or perhaps the second after his illustrious father), of a citizen becoming wealthy as a king through private enterprise in an unofficial capacity. Yet it is his magnanimous and humane foresight, that led many to refer to him as being generous to a fault, is his lasting legacy. The country's infant and maternal healthcare record that has been one of accomplishment in the region and in the wider world began with the establishment of the De Soysa Maternity Home in 1879. Likewise, the impetus he gave to free education, the education of girls and retirement schemes for employees is legion. But not all such endeavors were immediately successful, for instance in the sphere of native baking, improvements in agriculture and the economic independence and empowerment of the natives of Sri Lanka.
De Soysa was a pioneering tea planter which was usually the preserve of Europeans. When the coffee crash occurred in 1869 many European planters went back home. However, de Soysas' investments were not only in coffee, which enabled him to survive the coffee crisis and expand his plantations further. He planted tea in the former coffee estates and it fetched record prices at the Colombo and London auctions. Guru Oya, Marigold, Hapugasmulle and others, established in 1870, were among the earliest tea plantations of the country. He also cultivated coffee, citronella, coconut, cinnamon, cocoa, cotton rice and rubber in seven of the nine provinces of the Island. His other investments were in transportation, graphite mining, coir and oil mills, tea factories and the import-export trade.
C. H. de Soysa Exports was the first company registered by a Ceylon national. Built in 1870, the Wolfendhal and Diyatalawa mills were some of the earliest steam mills of Ceylon and his fibre mill was the largest in the world. He constructed commercial buildings at Galle Face, Colpetty, Fort and Pettah. Built in 1871, the De Soysa building (above left) in Slave Island Colombo is the oldest commercial premises in Sri Lanka to have been built by a native entrepreneur and was with the family till the recent sequestration by the state. The office complex in Fort (above right) which was his headquarters is no longer with the family. De Soysa was also the first Ceylonese banker and was instrumental in establishing the Bank of Kandy at Dalada veediya and Pettah, Colombo in 1860. He was the first Ceylonese member of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.
In 1870 Charles Henry de Soysa entertained Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh at his home. The sailor prince of the Royal Navy was the second son of queen Victoria. He did this in royal style at his palatial mansion, the Bagatelle walauwa Colombo (later renamed Alfred House) situated in a sprawling park of 120 acres. De Soysa entertained the Prince where the crockery and cutlery was made of gold and studded with gems and pearls.
De Soysa introduced a system of free education in the schools he founded; the Prince and Princes of Wales Colleges. The secular school catered to both genders of all walks of life as the medium of instruction was English, which was the language of the elite as well as the vernacular Sinhala. Whilst the vernacular education had been largely free during the British era and was exclusive during the
Charles Henry de Soysa initiated measures to reduce the infant mortality rate by creating a supply of trained midwives. He later became the first person in Asia to gift a maternity hospital; the De Soysa Lying-In-Home at Borella, of which the oldest building was once Charles' childhood residence (top left) and the other four were purpose built. His vision of treating the natives and Europeans together was relised later. The original buildings of the Ceylon Medical College gifted by him and his uncle Mudliyar Susew de Soysa were also declared open on the same day by the Governor Sir James Robert Longden on 09 December 1879. They also constructed the Panadura and Marawila hospitals and had facilitated the transfer of a part of the land for the National Hospital. His children later went on to build more hospitals and fund half the cost of the Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital. On a visit to Great Britain in 1886, C H De Soysa donated funds to 20 major hospitals including the Guys Hospital London, Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, Seamen’s Hospital and the Royal Free Hospital. He also maintained a convalescent home at the Alfred House estate for the Buddhist clergy.
former colonial eras and in the Sinhala kingdoms, it was the English education that was expensive and exclusive. In addition to plantations and finances for its maintenance, the free text books and material for study and the free education for the children of his employees, scholarships were granted, totaling about a quarter of the students in English medium. The ceremonial opening of what was the largest school by far, catering to over a thousand pupils from inception, was performed by Sir William Gregory, the Governor of Ceylon, on 14 September 1876 along with the ceremonial opening of the St. John's Church and St. John's College Panadura built by Mudliyar Susew De Soysa. With a third (over 350 students) of the total student population being girls, Princess of Wales' College was the first major attempt at imparting a secular education for girls in the country.
De Soysa's earliest contribution to education was the establishment of the Alfred Model Farm Agriculture School in 1871 and grants to S. Thomas' College. The land his uncle gave to the church would be later utilized for relocating S. Thomas' to Mount Lavania. He also facilitated both his alma maters, S. Thomas' and Royal (Colombo Academy) with the impetus for the teaching of science along with the impetus he gave to the Ceylon Medical College. He gave liberally to the National Museum of Colombo and other institutions throughout the island, including Jaffna, scholarships to individuals and also endowed several rural schools. De Soysa is considered a grandfather of free education. Lady De Soysa also patronized St. Sebastian's College founded by her father.
De Soysa also extended his patronage to literary projects. He initiated and sponsored the translation, printing and publication of the Hitopadesha, works by the poet Kumaradasa and the Ven. Weligama Sri Sumangala Mahanayake Thero, including the publication of the 3rd standard reader and assisted the Ven. Ratmalane Sri Dharmarama Thero, the Chief Incumbent of the Vidyalankara Pirivena.
Charles Henry de Soysa built and endowed several Churches such as the St. Mathias Church in Lakshapathiya (above center), Saint Stephen's Church Marawila (above left) and the Holy Emmanuel Church Hanguranketha (above right) in addition to the support he extended to many a Church and Temple. The land for the Bambalapitiya Mosque was given by him to his builder Wapachi Marrikar.
In 1871 CH de Soysa inaugurated the Alfred Model Farm Experimental Station and Agricultural School at Borella and Narahenpita to conduct research into farming methods and to promote agricultural innovations. He also introduced new species of crops and livestock and provided teaching and residential facilities. The sum of 10,000 Pound Sterling and 160 acres (0.65 km2) of land was set apart for this project. The Board of Directors included George Henry Kendrick Thwaites, the Superintendent of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. However, as the project was less than successful most of the land was later utilized for the Royal Colombo Golf Course and the remainder for extending the Colombo General Cemetery and the Castle Street Hospital.
De Soysa established a Co-operative Society for carpenters and craftsmen in Moratuwa and gave land for resettlement to over a hundred displaced families of Walapane evicted for non-payment of the grain tax and was one of the largest contributors to the Indian and Irish famine funds When the colonial authorities introduced the Poll Tax (which could not be paid by the many thousands of poor people in Moratuwa, at the time consisting the third largest population in Ceylon), de Soysa paid the sums involved on behalf of the town-folk. De Soysa is reputed to have given far more in private benefactions than his known public benefactions.
On 11 November 1871, Ceylon’s first mass political meeting was held on the grounds of the De Soysa Walawwa in Moratuwa (left), to protest against certain discriminatory provisions of the Village Councils Ordinance 1871, to uphold the dignity of minority groups and to oppose the colonial policy of divide and rule.
The petition signed by eminent residents of Moratuwa and Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia with Charles Henry de Soysa’s name heading the list was handed over to the Governor. The resolution demanded the election of Presidents to the Village Tribunals instead of nominations by the colonial government and that the Ordinance be printed in the native language and circulated among the people and evidence be taken as to its merits and demerits.
On the 24th of June 1881 the Ceylon Agricultural Association was formed to safeguard the interests of the native enterprises facing stiff competition from the Europeans and to limit their control of the economic activities of the country. It also inaugurated a movement to abolish the paddy tax. De Soysa was the Founder-President of the Ceylon Agricultural Association which transformed itself into the Ceylon National Association in 1888 and later played a significant role in the struggles for constitutional reforms in the early part of the twentieth century with such celebrities as Sir James Peiris. The Ceylon National Association paved the way for the rise of the Ceylon National Congress, which in turn played a decisive role along with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party in the penultimate lap on the road to independence. The Ceylon Standard and the Morning Leader newspapers, owned by the de Soysa family powerfully molded public opinion.
Charles was bitten by a rabid dog that strayed into Alfred House on 2 August 1890 and passed away on 29th September 1890. Though it was originally decided to go for treatment in Paris, he had opted for native treatment. As per his wishes, he was buried outside the Holy Emmanuel Church in the graveyard next to his son who had died in his infancy. His mortal remains were laid to rest amidst a gathering described as the largest in the nineteenth century.
He was made a Knight Bachelor posthumously, a first in Ceylon; the rank title of Widow of Knight Bachelor was conferred by Royal Warrant on Catherine, Lady de Soysa by Empress Victoria on 22nd January 1892.