Life and times of Charles Henry de Soysa

by Surath Peiris

It was the time of Sir Robert Horton, Governor of the Island of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) when the recommendation of the two Royal Commissioners, Major W. M. C. Colebrooke and Mr. Charles H. Cameron, which, inter alia let to the promulgation of the total abolition of Rajakariya, were beginning to take effect, and plans were, therefore, being made to establish links with European markets, that Warusahennedige Dharma Gunawardene Vipula Jayasoorya Karunaratne Dissanayake Charles Henry de Soysa was born on 3rd March 1836 to Jeronis and Catherine de Soysa, and was to be their only child.

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em', so said that great English playwright William Shakespeare. But delving into the life story of Charles Henry de Soysa, one could safely conclude that he was a man who was not only born great and achieved greatness during his comparatively short span of life, but also had greatness thrust upon him, even posthumously.

The Warusahennedi families had their origins in Devinuwara and during the Portuguese regime, migrated to Panadura. Since the days of the Dutch and through the times of the British, the Warusahennedige de Soysas in association with the Hennediege Pieris' of Moratuwa were engaged in the transport business of hiring buillock carts for the transportation of food stuffs to the hill country and plantation products to the low country. They were also engaged in trading activities such as the trade of tobacco.

Charles Henry was still a toddler and had just begun to learn his Sinhala alphabet under the able guidance of the Nayake Thera of the Palliyagodella Temple in Moratuwa, when the Crown Lands of Encroachments Ordinance was enacted in 1840 resulting in the large scale sale of confiscated lands by the State. In the decade 1834 - 1843 as many as 247, 128 acres of crown land were sold at five shillings per acre, which was the price of a bushel of rice then.

It is of historical interest to note here that this sale of Crown land paved the way for the birth of a new land-owner class of Sri Lankan nationals, among whom was Charles Henry's father, Jeronis de Soysa, who invested his accumulated wealth from his earnings as a general merchant, timber contractor and arrack renter, in the purchase of coffee plantations and coconut estates.

The coffee mania was at its highest in 1845. The Governor, the public officials, the military, the judges, the clergy and members of the civil service, all became coffee planters. The mountain ranges on all sides of Kandy became rapidly covered with coffee plantations. The great valley of Dumbara, Ambagamuwa, Kotmale, and Pussellawa were occupied by prospective coffee planters.

They settled in the steep passes ascending to Nuwara Eliya; they penetrated to Badulla and Uva. Coffee trees began to bloom on the solitary hills around the very base of Sri Pada. Coffee was generally an enterprise of speculative investors while the coconut is one of the staples of Sri Lankan agriculture and the favourite investment of the national.

With the spread of coffee plantations came the establishment of banks and a chamber of commerce. Mail coaches began to run from Colombo to Kandy and proved so successful a venture that train services were established with Galle and Negombo too.

Charles Henry grew up in the company of Appu Singho, an orphan who had been adopted by his parents because they had no other children. This playmate of Charles Henry was later given employment as Superintendent of his Estates in Salpiti and Raigam Koralas.

For his education in English, Charles Henry joined the Colombo Academy (now Royal College) and thereafter St. Thomas' College in Mutwal. But repeated ill-health saw an abrupt end to his academic studies and receiving education under a private tutor de Alwis of Mt. Lavinia. This necessitated in his getting a training in estate management and export business in the years 1856 to 1861 under the direction of his father, a reputed entrepreneur.

Upon the death of his father on 28th May 1862, there devolved on Charles Henry the great legacy of material wealth which in the course of time was enhanced through his care, diligence, and wisdom, and a considerable portion of the proceeds accrued there from used for the welfare of humanity. In his pioneering days as a businessman and planter it is very likely that he sought the advice of his paternal uncle Gate Mudaliyar Susew de Soysa.

It was on 4th February 1863 that Charles Henry married Catherine, the only daughter of Chevalier Jusey de Silva, a wealthy businessman and arrack renter, increasing thereby his already amassed wealth.

The consummation of this marriage saw eight sons, J. W. C., A. J. R., E. L. F., A. C. A., (who died in his childhood), T. H. A., J. S. W., L. W. A., and R. E. S. de Soysa and seven daughters, Georgiana Catherine, Margaret Frances mary, Jane Maria Caroline, Anne Lydia Charlotte, Crawford MacDonald Maguerita, Johelyn Emily Julie and Selina Louisa Elizabeth. With a bequest from his father's only brother Susew, the wealth of Charles Henry increased further.

The adventurous spirit of young Charles Henry which was still rampant in him prompted him to experiment in new techniques of planting. His attempt to grow cotton turned out to be a failure due to a plant disease. His keen interest in agricultural research and development led to his gifting Sterling Pound 10,000 in cash and 87 acres of land in Kanatte, Colombo for a model farm which was named Alfred Model Farm.

His interests were not to confirmed to agriculture only, but extended to livestock rearing as well. Cattle brought from Australia and India were reared, and while the cows supplied milk, the bulls were used for his bullock carts to transport the produce from his estates and plantations ranging from Negombo to Chilaw and from Kurunegala to Hanguranketha, The material progress of the Island in the 1870s was mainly due to the agricultural enterprise of many a planter who contributed largely to the revenue of the State. By 1872 the coffee industry had reached its zenith.

Prices, undreamt of before, were freely offered and paid for coffee estates. But there soon appeared a speck in the horizon. On the underside of the coffee leaf was noted a red blot, and this lead disease known as Hemileia Vastatrin spread far and wide.

Consequently, whilst the crops were diminishing in geometric progressing, the prices of coffee were soaring higher and higher. Then came the crash, and ruin overtook many a planter in the 1880s.

But Charles Henry de Soysa was able to weather it out because he had not put all his eggs in one basket. His investments were many and varied. In the early 1880s he was owning at least 69 plantations, coffee, coconut, cinnamon and citronella totalling 24,292 acres of which over 16,000 were under cultivation - 8220 acres coffee, 6368 acres coconut and 1720 acres cinnamon.

At the time of his death in 1890 he owned over 74 plantations totalling approximately 27,000 acres. His immovable assets also included valuable residential properties in Moratuwa, Kandy, the Colombo City and its suburbs; his capital investments lay distributed in plumbago mines, coir industries, coconut oil mills, and in the import-export business.

It was Horace Mawn who said "To pity distress is but human; to relieve it is godlike". Nurtured in godly discipline and brought up in the Christian faith, Charles Henry de Soysa came to think of Social Service purely in terms of human need.

There were no ulterior motives attached to his generous imperatives. He did just what the Love of God compelled him to do irrespective of caste, creed or colour of his beneficiaries, unmindful of whether he lost or was hurt in his giving, whether his service was appreciated, misunderstood or misinterpreted.

His generosity far exceeded taking his fair share of social responsibility in the building up of society. The role of enabler and comforter was invariably taken by Charles Henry for he knew that people who suffer need to be helped not only with materials but also with care and understanding so that they will have a new sense that their lives are being restored to order by the deep concern of their more fortunate brethren. To care for humanity and to minister to humanity is not limited to physical care but expanded to help individuals and the community move toward 'Shalom'.

The Bible quotation from the Book of Job, "I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame" surely must have been upper most in the mind of Charles Henry when he built the Eye Hospital, the Lying-in-Home and a section of the Medical College.

His generosity knew no bounds; his philanthropy knew no limitations. His benevolence extended even across the shores of our little Island to far off England - to Institutions such as the Victoria Chest Hospital, Brompton Hospital, Ormonde Street Hospital, Royal Free Hospital and the Hospital for Accidents to Dock workers.

Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Christian religious institutions throughout the length and breadth of Sri Lanka enjoyed the regular support of charles Henry for their maintenance and upkeep. He got roads, bridges, irrigation canals, tanks and culverts built and repaired at his own expense. He helped those affected in times of drought, famine, flood and pestilence through his assistance, both in cash and in kind.

He looked after his employees fairly and squarely, as a model employer paying them just wages, helping them in times of need and distress, consoling them in times of grief, advising them in times of stress and strain, making provisions for their children's education and providing them with old age pensions.

True to the lavish style of Sri Lankan hospitality, the Sterling Pound 10,000 banquet accorded to Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh on 22nd April 1870 at Alfred House, when the Prince was served on plates made of solid gold, and the Wedding Ceremony of Charles Henry's eldest daughter Georgina are outstanding expressions of his love and respect to Royalty and to his family alike.

Language fails to explain the irony of fate that befell such a man, who did so much to alleviate human suffering, by an untimely death on 29th September 1890 by the bite of a rabid dog.

The desolation and dejection that was cast on many a home in our land when the news of the death of Charles Henry de Soysa spread, was unimaginable yet understandable.

His mortal remains were laid to rest amidst a gathering described as the largest in the nineteenth century - on 1st October 1890 at the Cemetery of the Church of Holy Emmanuel in Moratuwa, the Church built by his revered father. Charles Henry is the first Knight Bachelor (posthumous) from Lanka when the rank title of Widow of Knight Bachelor was conferred on Lady Catherine.

At a time like this when a man's worth is computed in terms of rupees and cents, when noble virtues are but relics of bygone era, when greatness is more often than not evaluated in relation to political influence, here was a man in Charles Henry de Soysa whose greatest possession was his modesty, whose greatest gift was his philantrophy, whose greatest occupancy was his service - Service to God and Man.

@ WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka -