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Charles Henry De Soysa
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Author:  Nimeshi [ Sun Mar 19, 2006 3:18 am ]
Post subject:  Charles Henry De Soysa

Charles Henry De Soysa
The Anepindu Sitano of Lanka

by Buddhika Kurukularatne
@ Sunday Island / 19MAR2006


They called him the ‘Rotheschild’ of Ceylon. I would like to akin him to the legendary ‘Anepindu Sitano’ of the Buddhist scriptures.

Charles Henry de Soysa was born on March 3rd 1836.

He was the only son of late Mudliyar Jeronis de Soysa and Mututantrige Francesca Cooray. The baby girl born to them died 11 months after her birth, Charles naturally was the apple of the eyes of his parents.

The names ‘Charles Henry’ were coined with the first names of the young boy’s godfathers, Advocate Charles Beling and Mudliyar Henry Alwis at the Baptism ceremony held at the Church then known as ‘Lansipalliya’ now St. Peter’s Church, Koralawella, Moratuwa, A photograph taken of the event was the first photograph to be taken at Moratuwa.

Charles Henry’s grandfather was Warusa Hennadige Joseph de Soysa whilst his grandmother was Hennadige Francisca Peiris.

The De Soysa’s were originally from the village of Devinuwara, the southern most tip of the island. ‘Men and Memories’ readers might recall that P. I. Peiris’ statement to that effect was carried in these columns.

As most inhabitants in Devinuwara, the De Soysas were also devout Buddhists. At that time, Panadura was a young and growing city — the City of the Pioneers.

Panadura attracted men with the ‘pioneering spirit’ in them from other parts of the Island. It was so with his grandparents and his grandfather Joseph de Soysa was born in Panadura but whilst yet a robust young man shifted his residence to the next township to the North - Moratuwa and established his matrimonial home having married the daughter of Hennadige Hendrick Peiris, the versatile Francesca.

Joseph de Soysa and Francesca Peiris, the grandparents of Charles Henry, were the first of the De Soysa’s to settle down in Moratuwa. They begot 11 children of whom Jeronis de Soysa, the father of the future Charles Henry was the second son. One of his brothers was Susew.

Charles’ father Jeronis was known at home by his ‘pet name’ Baba Singho’. Jeronis’s parents wanted to make him a Buddhist monk and sent him to the Palliyagodella Temple at Rawatawatta for studies in Sinhalese.

Young Jeronis excelled in learning the Sinhala Language and also Astrology and the Ayurvedic system of medicine. in which he excelled and was known as ‘Baba Singho Vedamahattaya’, a specialist in curing. cholera, smallpox, typhoid and rabies which were the ‘killer diseases’, then.

At that time, the only available mode of transport was bullock carts. The hackery drawn by a well-trained bull was the ‘sports vehicle’ of the elite, whilst the ox-drawn ‘buggy’ cart was the family vehicle. Transport of goods was done by the bullock carts drawn by a single bull or a brace.

Jeronis was an adventurous youth and wanted to visit the upcountry trading centres with the carters who got permission from his father to go with them.

The carters sold all their goods at a great profit and they attributed their good fortune to the presence of Jeronis.

Later the carters decided to extend the ‘down trip’ up to Galle and Jeronis, too joined them.

These trips to Kandy and Galle were the turning points in the young lad’s life.

He learnt the tricks of the trade and upon his return arranged for a ‘Cart Train’ to proceed to Kandy, with salt, chillies, tobacco etc. He was the first Moratuwite to engage in a trade mission to Kandy with a trading centre there and got two of his brothers to sell the goods whilst yet another remained in Colombo to supply the requirements to Kandy.

Meanwhile he became a very sought after‘Veda Rala’ in Kandy and high Kandyan officials and aristocrats were amongst his patients.

Joseph told his elders of his interest in Francesca the daughter of Mututantrige Bastian Cooray of Moratuwa and Hennadige Justina Peiris of Uyana. The Coorays though members of the Karawa clan, were not as endowed as the de Soysas, and there was some hesitation on the part of Jeronis. However, Joseph was determined to marry the girl of his choice perhaps because he remembered the words of his ‘Guru Hamuduruwo’, Ven. Meddegama who having read the girl’s birth chart brought to him when she came of age told Joseph that since he had no intention of entering the priesthood, he should one day marry this girl who would bring him all the luck and happiness.

Ven. Meddagama was a famous astrologer and he taught his pupil all he knew of the subject.

The two married and on March 3, 1836, Francesca gave birth to a son.whose birth chart read by both the father who was no mean astrologer and his ‘Guru’ the Ven. Meddagama revealed the baby would bring prosperity not only to his family but also to the entire country.

As prophesied Jeronis’s business prospered with him earning several government supply contracts and the Governor of Central Province giving him all the assistance required.

This was the time the coffee plantations in the hill country were hit by a plague. This and other factors made the Government Agent put up for auction the Royal Coffee Garden at Hanguranketa comprising 482 acres and 38 perches. This land was also eyed by some Europeans and the people of Hanguranketa with the Forest Korale appointed by the Sinhala King appealed to Jeronis Soysa to prevent their land falling into the hands of the ‘Suddas’.

The Europeans at the auctions, decided to refrain from bidding so that when Jeronis secured the land, they could buy it off him at a much lower price than they would have had to dole out if they won the land at the auction.

The Ayurvedic Physician Babasingho from Moratuwa purchased the entire land for only £ 411.15 securing a small loan from the Kachcheri Mudliyar whom he settled promptly. The Europeans offered the Vedarala to buy the entire land for the same price of£411.15. The Vedarala flatly refused whereupon they offered him double the price he paid at the auction. But Jeronis was not moved and the Europeans were sorry they did not continue their bidding at the auctions.

Although Jeronis de Soysa later embraced Christianity, he continued to support the various Buddhist charities and leading Buddhist prelates of the day were his personal friends.

His agricultural properties in the up-country were mostly in the Hanguranketa, Haragama and Talatu-oya areas which were then elephant infested thick jungle with no roads whatsoever. Jeronis himself took the lead and with an improvised measuring stick demarcated the areas to be cleared for road and tank building.

He built a network of roads and supplemented the village infrastructure by building many tanks which were a boon to the villagers who suffered untold hardships for want of water for irrigating their paddy and chena cultivations.

On his land stood the ancient and famous Pothgul Viharaya of Hanguranketa which was in a state of collapse. After renovating the temple he nominated the Ven. Attadassi Thero as its Chief Incumbent.

With his background it was natural for Charles Henry, the sole heir to the vast property of his father who was bestowed the title of Mudliyar of the Gate for his social welfare activities to continue the unfinished services of his father. I state ‘unfinished’ both metaphorically and factually.

The Holy Emmanuel Church in Idama, Moratuwa was constructed by the father at the request of the pastor of the church and was completed by the son. His baby sister died in her infancy and Charles who became the owner of his father’s assets further enhanced his wealth by acquiring the massive wealth bequeathed to him by his paternal uncle Susew who died without issue.

He was taken to Hanguranketa by his father to acquaint him with agricultural activities. He rode on horseback supervising the work on the estates and was known for his numerous acts of charity and kindness which qualities endeared him to his employees. He was known as ‘Punchi Mahattaya’ in the estates and although his only income then was a small stipend his father gave him, more as ‘pocket money’ than an allowance, he spent even that money on the welfare of the needy.

There are many incidents relating to his generosity recorded in the ‘De Soysa Saga’ edited by the well known Civil Servant V. S. M. de Mel, such as how he helped Kirimenika of Hewaheta, a widow with 4 children to redeem her mortgaged land by giving her£10, the story of Kiriya, a resident of 4 gravets infected with foul smelling body sores whom he sent to hospital when others tried to chase him away and how he helped the widowed wife of the conductor of their estate in Talatuoya to set up a business are some of the incidents narrated in the chronicle.

He was in the prime of his youth at 26 years when his father died and he was entrusted with the management of an estate worth millions of£ sterling.

Young Charles, a devout Anglican, sought the hand of Catherine, the daughter of Lindamulage Jusey de Silva and Weerahennadi Weerabala Jayasuriya Patabendige Ana Fernando who were staunch Catholics. There was yet another suitor— a most eligible Karawa Catholic from Kalutara who rivalled his claim to Catherine’s hand. However, a compromise was made to solemnise the marriage according to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church.


Catherine is said to be the first in Moratuwa to wear a gown as her bridal attire.

At the wedding ceremony held at the bride’s residence, the ‘Chevalier Walawwa’ at Moratumulla, his father-in-law gave the couple a dowry of 7,500 Australian pounds. The young couple handed over the entirety of the dowry, to the groom’s paternal uncle Susew, who soon increased it to 10,000 Aus. by judicious investment.

His bride encouraged him and joined him in his numerous philanthropic activities. It was said that his marriage to Catherine brought him more wealth as a result of her ‘luck’ that she was bestowed with from her birth.

Their union begot 14 children — 7 boys and 7 girls with one son dying in his infancy.

It fell upon Catherine to look after the education and well-being of their large brood of children whilst at the same time playing perfect host to the people of all walks of life who called at the ‘Walawwa’ as their Moratuwa residence was known and also to the ‘Bagatalle Walawwa’. The latter was named ‘Alfred House’ in honour of the Royal visit of 22-4-1870.

Alfred House was a massive mansion and its garden extended 120 acres. Later this mansion changed hands and a friend of mine lived in one portion of this palatial residence.

According to my friend Shantha Kanagasunderam, now Fernando, the large premises extended from the present Thurstan Road to Galle Road on the eastern side and Geethanjali Road and the land where the present Green Cabin is situated were part of the large garden. In the Northern side it encompassed Charles Circus where the stables were located and even the land where the present Durdan’s Hospital is situated, also belonged to the ‘Bagatalle Walawwa’.

Shantha, an avid reader of this column in spite of the fact that she accused me of writing rubbish gave me a very interesting piece of information. Harold Peiris, a great grandson of the de Soysas was the owner of Alfred House at one time. He occupied the upstairs whilst Shantha, then a young law student, lived down stairs with her parents. Harold Peiris had told Shantha that Alfred House was at one time called the ‘Whitby Cottage’. ‘Some Cottage that is’, I interjected and Shanta said, ‘yes men that was the first thing that crossed my mind when the ‘Old Man’ said this. He would have found the reference in some old deeds she added. However, I could find no reference to a ‘Whitby Cottage’ either in De Mel’s book or in the ‘Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon’.

When the coffee crash occurred even the European planters went back home. The wisdom of Charles in not depending on one crop enabled him not only to survive the coffee crisis, but also to increase his profits earned through coconut, cinnamon and real estate in other parts of the country.

It is said that he paid the Colombo Municipality a sum of Rs. 20,000 annually as taxes.

He started planting tea in the former coffee plantations of Hanguranketa and Maturata areas and soon his tea fetched record prices at the Colombo and London auctions. When he visited England in July 1886 he saw the produce from his estates filling most of the space in the warehouses of his agents Arbuthnot Lathan & Co. of London.

Being a great philanthropist he recruited young locals, mostly his relations as Superintendents giving preference to those who have worked under the British in their plantations. The British always had their own kith and kin to run and manage their properties and often looked down upon the locals. But Charles de Soysa was able to beat them hollow in their own game.

In 1875, to commemorate the visit of H.R.H. the Prince and Princess of Wales, Charles decided to name the two schools he was building in Moratuwa in 15 acres of land between the Galle Road and the Lunawa Lagoon, ‘Prince of Wales’ and ‘Princess of Wales’.

Not only did he build these two institutions which soon became leading educational institutes in the island, he also paid the salaries of the teachers and other employees.

He and his wife always supported poor children in their educational activities by providing them with school fees, books and even clothes.

The magnanimity of this duo knew no bounds and nobody who approached them for assistance went away empty handed. His wife ran open house for visitors who called on them either at the Moratuwa or Begatalle Walawwas or the bungalows the De Soysas had in seven of the nine provinces in Ceylon whenever they were in residence.

The banquet he gave his Royal visitors is still talked of by old timers. The Royals were served in crockery and cutlery made of pure gold! Even in Buckingham Palace Royalty did not eat from gold plates!

The Royal reception was not only extravagant but also a great extravaganza where local craftsmen from the puppeteers of my home town Ambalangoda, to the kolam and mask dancers entertained the Royals. There were short dramas mostly hilarious in nature the texts of which in English had been distributed prior to the staging. The prince and the party thoroughly enjoyed the local theatrics.

The invitees to the Royal reception included not only the elite but also commoners. My senior, the late Mr. Eardley Perera PC, a Moratuwite of repute was a great spinner of yarns. He told me this one about the Royal reception. The Prince shook hands with the host and walking down the elegantly decorated and illuminated pathways of the Bagatalle compound made a courtesy bow at a man who was one in the milling crowd. This man, according to Eardley was a relative of the de Soysas who was expecting an invitation, but had been ignored. He was quite upset about this lapse on the part of Charles.

Charles, it is said had a letter-head printed with the legend ‘Rajuta Atha Dun’ Charles Henry de Soysa. (Charles Henry de Soysa who shook hands with the King). Not to be outdone, his relative who did not get an invitation promptly printed his letterhead with the legend! Rajun hisa nemu. (the one to whom the king bowed!).

Eardley swore this was a true story.

To commemorate the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh he renamed the Model Farm of 160 acres for agriculture and animal husbandry, as the Alfred Model Farm. Charles was a lover of animals; he had cattle imported from India and Ayrshire cattle from Australia. Each year he sent a team to India to purchase from Nellor cows for the model farm, his estates in Hanguranketa, Negombo and Puttalam areas.

He also had cattle, imported horses, Indian and Chinese gees, Turkeys, guinea fowls and ducks. A great lover of pets he had many a deer, ornamental birds — local and foreign and even elephants at his ‘Bagatalle Walawwa’. However, he did not have any dogs and it is indeed tragic that it was a stray dog infected with rabies that caused his death at the untimely age of 54.

He conducted research and experiments in the model farms to improve agricultural productivity. To convince his farmers he had residential facilities at Model Farm where the modern techniques in agriculture and animal husbandry were explained and demonstrated.

He was the first Ceylonese to get down agricultural seeds from tropical countries and certain European countries.

Charles also extended his patronage to literary projects as well. When his friend the Ven. Weligama Sri Sumangala Thero, High Priest of Pulinathalaramaya, Kalutara wrote the 3rd standard reader, he met the entire cost of printing and insisted that a copy should be sold only at the cost price of 39 1/2 cents per copy. Another noteworthy literary contribution of de Soysa was the printing and publication of the Sanskrit poem, ‘Janaki Haranaya’ — compiled by poet Kumaradasa. In spite of being a Christian de Soysa arranged these educational charities through the Ven. Ratmalane Sri Dharmarama Nayake Thero, the Chief Incumbent of the Vidyalankara Pirivena.

When he visited England in 1886 he saw the famous artefacts, including the ‘Yapahuwa Gate’ and other historical monuments on display at the Colonial and Indian exhibition. These he purchased and presented to the Royal institute.

Although Charles moved with kings he lived amongst the common people. Long before the Co-operative Movement officially got under way he sponsored the Moratuwa Carpenters’ Guild on co-operative lines. He also founded the Low Country Products Association. He along with other like minded leading citizens formed the ‘Moratuwa Association’ to spearhead the various social welfare activities of the town.

S. Thomas’ College, then at Mutwal was his alma mater although as the custom then with the elite, his early education was at the hands of resident teachers who were lavishly paid and well looked after even in their retirement with generous land grants etc. Even after their demise, their families were looked after. He donated a sum of Rs. 30,000 to S. Thomas’ College.

During that time, there were various forms of taxes that the people had to pay. One such tax was the ‘Poll Tax’ which could not be paid by the thousands of poor people in Moratuwa and they ran the risk of their properties being seized. Charles came to their rescue by paying the huge sums involved on behalf of all the townfolk.

He constructed roads and bridges in various parts of the country and the road from Galle Road to Lunawa and the bridge across the lagoon which serves the people to this day are mere drops in the ocean of the social welfare activities of Charles Henry De Soysa. Charles also constructed the Katubedda Road at Moratuwa and donated land to build the Lunawa Railway Station.

Even expatriates who were stranded in Ceylon for want of funds for their passage home were helped by him

Perhaps his most noteworthy gift was the De Soysa Lying-in-Home — the maternity hospital at Borella which he also equipped with the modern machinery of the day. Whilst Charles de Soysa built and donated the De Soysa Lying-In-Home, his uncle late Mudliyar Susew de Soysa built and donated the ‘Medical Museum’ attached to the Medical College. These two institutions were declared open by the Governor Sir Robert Longdon on December 9, 1879.

His generosity was not confined to the Ceylonese. During his visit to England he donated large sums of money to British Medical Institutes such as Children’s hospitals, Women’s hospitals and Dock workers’ hospitals etc. Most of these charitable activities in England were channelled through his agents Arbuthnot Latham and Co. of London.

When Charles was in Kandy at his Harambe House in 1878 the Burmese envoy with his entourage paid a courtesy call on him. He arranged for valuable gifts to be sent to Burma and the Burmese envoy was full of praise for the Christian philanthropist who lavishly supported Buddhist causes.

The respect for De Soysa sprang not only from the townfolk — it was said that the ‘Robin Hood of Ceylon’ — Saradiel too had instructed his band of highway robbers not to rob goods belonging to the De Soysas as they did a great service to the poor people of the country. The cart-trains carrying goods to and from Colombo used to be waylaid by Saradiel and his men at Uthuwankanda in Mawanella.

It was indeed strange that a man who had done so much to improve the lot of his countrymen was not bestowed any honours except a JPship.

This was due to the pettiness of the Governor at the time — Sir Arthur Gordon — who according to a London datelined report of ‘the Ceylon Examiner’ was ‘probably the best hated man in the colony’ — (Ceylon).

The Ceylon Examiner’s estimation of the Governor was proved correct when, ‘Moratuwa flocked in from all parts of the island, entered the Colombo library hall and broke up the meeting held there under the shadow of Queen’s House" by P. Ramanathan and a few others obviously with the blessings from Queen’s House to felicitate the retiring Governor Sir Arthur Gordon.

Charles Henry de Soysa was bitten by a rabid dog that strayed into the Bagatalle Walawwa on August 2, 1890. It was originally decided to remove him to Paris for treatment. This decision was reversed due to various reasons and Charles himself opted to remain in Ceylon and obtain native treatment. He wanted to be taken to ‘Moratuwa Walawwa’ where he remained until he breathed his last.

Unlike most other people bitten by rabid dogs, Charles was fully rational until his last.

He called his children who were in the island at the time to his bedside and gave them his final word of advice.

‘There is nothing that you are in want of now. Respect all people and live humbly and virtuously. Do not have vehicles and houses more than you need. Transfer the office at Fort to the Walawwa at Moratuwa. Death is what everyone has to face. That eventually I too have to face now. None of you need to worry over it. What I said to you all, convey to my three sons who are in England. When I die bury my body at Holy Emmanuel Church cemetery, next to where my deceased son has been buried. I have nothing more to tell you!’.

He died peacefully in his sleep around 9.00 p.m. on 29th September 1890.

I conclude this essay, quoting from the epitaph to Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

‘Si Monumentum requiris, circumspice!’

‘If you seek his monument — look around’.


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