Charles Henry De Soysa – Philanthropist and patriot | Sunday Observer

Charles Henry De Soysa – Philanthropist and patriot

27 February, 2022
C. H. De Soysa
C. H. De Soysa

This essay was written in 1986 on behalf of the Moratuwa Mahajana Sabha by the above mentioned writer who is a former Deputy Principal of Prince of Wales College and Former Vice Chairman of the Urban Council, Moratuwa

Childhood and education

A hundred and eighty six years ago was born one of the greatest sons of Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as the country was then known). He was Charles Henry de Soysa a paragon of virtue, a peerless philanthropist, a prince of patriots and a noble human being around whom “time has only brightened a halo of reverence”. Charles Henry de Soysa lived a relatively short life and passed away on September 23, 1890.

Born on March 3, 1836 at Idama in Moratuwa, he was a scion of an ancient warrior clan – the Manikku Nilayitta Artha Deva – Nallur Adiarasa Warsha Wipula Sannaddha clan whose original home was in Devinuwara.

He was the only son of Gate Mudaliyar Warusahennedige Jeronis de Soysa and Mututantrige Francesca Cooray and though born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth he was brought up austerely by his father. Nevertheless, he showed from his boyhood those inherent instincts of charity which were to mark him out as a colossus of benevolence in later life.

Educated by private tutors, he learnt English at John Garth’s English School at Rawathawatte, Sinhalese at the Palliyagodella Temple and he rounded off his education at St Thomas’ College (then at Mutwal). Thereafter he scorned the easy life and lived a hard working life, learning in the hard school of experience to manage his father’s vast estates and business concerns, which he inherited as sole heir.

Inherited wealth

In 1863 he married Moratuwa’s richest heiress, Catherine, who was the only daughter of Chevaiier Lindamulage Jusey de Silva and Weerahennedige Ana Fernando. They were blessed with eight sons and seven daughters. One son died in infancy.

Several years later his uncle, Gate Mudaliyar Susew de Soysa who died childless, left him another large legacy.

With wisdom and enterprise, Charles developed immeasurably the three legacies he had received and built up a “veritable economic kingdom” that included coffee, coconut, citronella, cinnamon plantations, plumbago mines, internal transport and external trade, besides valuable urban property in Kandy, Colombo and Moratuwa.

One writer has estimated the extent of his lands at around 30,000 acres. Probably, never before or since had such wealth and property been concentrated in the hands of a single citizen of this country.

Used his wealth for others

But Charles de Soysa had inherited something nobler and greater than worldly riches, and that was the humane philanthropic tradition of service to his fellow men, irrespective of race, caste or creed.

Contemporary society often over-rates the mere skill of accumulating wealth. It is far more difficult to dispense wealth wisely and unselfishly than to amass it quickly. With the key of charity and compassion and in a spirit of pure patriotism Charles de Soysa unlocked his abundant treasury for the benefit of his less-privileged countrymen. “The test of purity of his motives” writes one historian, “is that he is reported to have distributed far more in private charity than he had spent on his public benefactions.

His charity was not a mechanical doling out of money from an inexhaustible store but a personal, loving and practical concern for his fellow-beings. He was indeed a Good Samaritan to countless persons in need and distress.

C. H. De Soysa was a pioneer in many fields of social and economic endeavour. He established a co-operative society for carpenters and craftsmen in Moratuwa long before the Co-operative Movement was launched in Ceylon, he introduced a system of free education and scholarships in the schools he founded in his home-town, nearly seven decades before the State sponsored it, he started a land settlement and housing scheme for 100 families on one of his own estates in Walapone more than half-a-century before the inauguration of such schemes during the State Council era, he established and handed over to the Government the Alfred Model Farm of over 160 acres at Narahenpita for developing animal husbandry – the first farm of its kind in the country, he was the first Ceylonese since the days of the Sinhala kings to build and equip a complete hospital viz. the De Soysa Lying-in-Home (now known as the De Soysa Hospital for Women); he was a pioneer agro-businessman who played the role of a path-finder to others who followed him; he gave employment to thousands and paid them just wages, and often pensions too; he promoted the economic, social and moral welfare of the community at large in a patriarchal manner in the nineteenth century, many decades before the concept of welfarism gained acceptance even in the West. In all these initiatives he was far ahead of his Victorian contemporaries.


The example he set in philanthropy is indeed unique. His manifold benefactions – their number was legion – won him such legendry fame, that the very name “De Soysa’ passed into popular parlance as a byword for generosity.

Schools, churches and libraries, ambalamas, roads and bridges, wells, tanks and irrigation channels, scholarships to individuals and endowments to schools and other institutions (these included St Thomas’ College, the Medical College and even schools in Jaffna), a hall for the Anglican school at Koralawella, subsidies for the publication of educational and literary works by such erudite bhikkhus as the Ven. Weligama Sri Sumangala Thera and the Ven. Ratmalane Dhammarama Thera, lands for cemeteries and public buildings (including the site of the Lunawa Railway Station and its approach road, donations to temples, charitable institutions and various causes, books and clothing for poor school children, dowries for poor brides and so on. –

All these benefactions, “which defy credibility in their Catholic sweep and diversified orientation,” covered almost all human needs ‘from the womb to the tomb’.

During the economic depression of 1868, when the country began to be overcome by famine, he not only contributed a large sum in cash for famine relief but also organised and dispatched round the island at his sole expense a fleet of double – bullock carts laden with rice, coconuts and other provisions for free distribution to the distressed masses.

His philanthropy even extended to foreign lands. On a visit to Great Britain in 1885 he made handsome donations to 20 major hospitals and two charitable homes in Britain and also to the Irish Famine Fund.

There in London, in that citadel of Western civilisation, he advertised Sri Lankan arts and crafts by presenting objects of art and archaeological antiquities purchased at the colonial and Indian exhibitions, to the British Museum, the Royal Institute and even to Windsor Castle in order to draw the attention of the West to the glories of the ancient civilization of Ceylon.

Prince and Princess of Wales Colleges which he founded

But unquestionably, the greatest of all his benefactions were the Prince and Princess of Wales’ Colleges founded in 1876 – almost under the very shade of the ‘Great Church’ his father had built in the heart of Moratuwa.

Jeronis, who founded a dynasty of philanthropists unparalleled in our recent history had provided for the spiritual needs of a section of the people when he built the majestic and church of the Holy Emmanuel. His son Charles, went further, and established an institution not less majestic in its own way – a temple of learning, ministering to the human mind, and radiating its influence far beyond the parochial pale, to all sections of the community.

Though himself a Christian he decreed that the schools he founded will be open to all children irrespective of caste, religion and ethnicity. He also decreed that no shrines of symbols of any one religion should be allowed within the school premises.

On a beautiful site of 15 acres bordering the Lunawa Lagoon, he lavished the then princely sum of Rs.300,000 on the buildings alone! He had resolved to found “a superior educational establishment” as he thought it to be “his duty to see the people of this country enjoy the blessings of education”.

The magnitude of his vision and liberality may be seen from the fact that he set up an educational complex – two English Schools and two Sinhala Schools, for boys and girls. The four schools have been amalgamated into two schools since their take-over by the State.

They stand unique, perhaps in the whole world in that they were founded, built, equipped, maintained, managed and endowed by one generous family for 85 years until the State took over the responsibility. And it is a tribute to the foresight of their founder that these schools continue to function to a considerable extent in the original buildings built over 114 years ago.

Tens of thousands of Cambrians of both sexes who passed through the portals and colonnaded halls of these twin institutions and served the country truly and well in diverse walks of life, have borne, and still do bear testimony to the excellence of their Alma Mater.

Royal patronage

In his choice of Royal patronage, a Royal name, and a Royal crest motto for the two Colleges, one can discern not merely de Soysa’s loyalty to the British throne, which was in harmony with the sentiments of that time, but also his fervent desire to maintain the honour of the Sinhalese, mindful as he would have been of the royal links between the ancestors of the Moratuwa people and the royal houses of Lanka and the royal dynasties of ancient India of Mahabharatha fame.

By general consent the then “leader of the Ceylonese,” C. H. de Soysa had the unique privilege of according a reception on behalf of the people of Ceylon to Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh who was the first member of British Royalty to ever visit the Island. And this he did in royal style at his palatial mansion in Colombo Bagatelle Walauwa which had been specially constructed for the occasion in a sprawling park of 120 acres.

The fabulous banquet and entertainment, he and his uncle Susew provided the royal guest was the most brilliant and glittering one of its kind in our history – like a scene from the ‘Arabian Nights’.

It was an event which has found a permanent place in the people’s gallery of historical memory, an event that the people considered a fitting gesture to “uphold the honour of the ancient Sinhala kings; an event which has become a part of later-day legends and folk lore, an event which was in line with the 2500 year old royal traditions of Sri Lanka.

However, what is generally forgotten about this famous episode is that over 3000 guests attended the function and that even after the banquet De Soysa kept open house and entertained thousands of uninvited guests for another whole week thereafter. So, while he entertained royalty in right royal manner, he did not forget to also entertain the common people.

At this famous banquet, Prince Alfred “supped off a plate with a knife and fork, all of pure gold” and studded with gems; the champagne and wine goblets were also of gold.

As J. R. Weinman wrote, “Never was such an entertainment given before and rightly so, for this was the first instance in the history of the Island whether during the reign of its own monarchs or later when it was under foreign rule, that royalty accepted the hospitality of a private citizen.”

It was at this banquet that C. H. de Soysa was made a Justice of the Peace for the whole island and his uncle Susew de Soysa was ceremonially appointed as a Mudaliyar of the Governor’s Gate. It was on this occasion that the royal guest gave his assent to the renaming of the great mansion as “Alfred House.” Two days later, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson hosted a reception to the two De Soysas (CH and Susew) and their families at Queen’s House.

Ever conscious of the needs of the less fortunate citizens

C.H. De Soysa had no political ambitions. But he was ever conscious of his duty to his less fortunate fellow citizens, sensitive to their needs and attentive to their grievances. On November 11, 1871, Ceylon’s first mass political meeting was held on the grounds of the De Soysa Walauwa to protest against certain provisions of the Village Council’s Ordinance.

It was presided over by C. H. De Soysa. Following the meeting a petition signed by 1000 persons from “Moratuwa and Galkissa” with C.H. De Soysa’s name heading the list was handed over to the Governor.

Among other things the petitioners asked that “the Ordinance might be printed in the native language and circulated among the people and that evidence be taken as to its merits and demerits”.

C.H. De Soysa was the founder-president of the Ceylon Agricultural Association (1882) 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 this century with such celebrities as (Sir) James Peiris as its President and D. R. Wijewardene as its Secretary.

The Ceylon National Association paved the way for the rise of the Ceylon National Congress which in turn played a decisive role in the penultimate lap on the road to independence.

In 1949, when the first Prime Minister of Independent Lanka, D. S. Senanayake paid his first official visit to Moratuwa, while paying a glowing a tribute to the national heroes produced by the town including C. H. De Soysa, he conceded that “the sons of Moratuwa had contributed largely to winning freedom for Ceylon.”

Moved with royalty but never lost the common touch

Charles de Soysa was a man who had moved with royalty but had never lost the common touch. He was always accessible to all categories of people. Mild-mannered and shy, he shunned publicity while his tastes were simple and refined. Humility was his hall mark and he was modest to a fault despite his immense wealth.

Above all he was a humanist and a self-effacing gentleman. With a deep sense of spirituality he looked upon the vast wealth with which he was endowed as something he was holding in trust to be well managed no doubt and used in the service of his fellow men. He was known to treat all men as his brothers and to move happily with all classes of people whom he treated as his equals.

Untimely death

C.H. De Soysa was a great lover of animals. So it was an irony of fate that he met his end as a result of being bitten by a dog. It is on record however, that his senses remained clear and unimpaired to the end. “The peaceful manner of his death was considered by thinking people as an indication of the inner strength of his noble nature.

On September 29, 1890 he passed away peacefully at his Moratuwa Walauwa, after giving paternal advice to his loved ones. One of his last requests was to see his childhood friend and playmate Appusinghno whose friendship obviously meant so much to the country’s richest man who was deep down a simple, humble, modest and loving man unspoilt by the trappings of wealth and power.

His untimely death in the prime of his life cast a pall of gloom over the whole island. But nowhere was the grief more poignant as it was in his home-town. Unprecedented crowds of all religions and ethnicities turned up for his funeral on October 1 1890 at the Holy Emmanuel Church, Moratuwa.

The European-owned Times of Ceylon made this significant comment on Charles de Soysa in its issue of October 1, 1890; “He was a man of whom the Sinhalese may justly de proud of for the possessed that most excellent gift of modesty – so rare in the East, among those especially who have risen above their fellows – and this should be always remembered to his honour. He never pushed himself forward or advertised himself in any way and this was one of his greatest virtues in our eyes, R.I.P.”

A life of service

If one were to describe the life of Charles Henry De Soysa in just one short phrase one could best do so by saying he was – “the gem of all the nation.” Yes, indeed, he was the gem that illuminated the pages of Sri Lanka’s history in the nineteenth century.

He was himself the symbol and embodiment of the motto of the two schools, Prince and Princess of Wales Colleges, which he founded, nurtured, loved, and protected like his own two eyes, viz. “ich Dien – I Serve.” And his name must surely be written in the ‘book of gold” as one who loved and served his fellowmen. In Shakespeare’s words:

“A sweeter and lovelier gentleman
Framed in the prodigality of nature
radiant, wise and no doubt, right royal The spacious world cannot again afford.”