- Sri Lanka’s greatest philanthropist of all time
By K. Balapatabendi
The 186th anniversary of the birth of Warusahennedige Charles Henry de Soysa (1836-1890) falls on 3 March 2022. He goes down in history as the greatest Sri Lankan philanthropist of all time. A grateful public erected his statue, which stands at the centre of the De Soysa Circus opposite the old Eye Hospital in Colombo, in 1917. It is the first statue of any Sri Lankan erected in the city of Colombo. For the past 104 years, without a break even during the Second World War, his birth has been commemorated at this statue on 3 March.
This year it is appropriate that Ministry of Education Secretary Prof. Kapila Perera will be the Chief Guest at the commemoration ceremony organised at the foot of the statue at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, 3 March. No other single person in Sri Lankan history has spent so much of his own personal wealth for developing the health and education sectors of the country.
He built at his own expense the De Soysa Hospital for Women in 1877. This is recorded in history as the oldest hospital for women in Asia and the third oldest in the world. This hospital was built at a time when there was no focus on women’s health and maternity in any part of Asia, or for that matter in most parts of Europe and America. His decision to build a hospital for women 144 years ago shows how far-sighted and progressive he was.
The Medical College
It is recorded that John Ferguson’s Ceylon in the Jubilee Year published in 1887 that Charles Henry de Soysa also put up at his expense the first building of the Ceylon Medical College on land donated by Mudliyar Samson Rajapakse. The Ceylon Medical College, now known as the Faculty of Medicine, was founded by Governor of Ceylon Sir Hercules Robinson in 1870. De Soysa also built at his own expense the Bacteriological Institute, now known as the Medical Research Institute (MRI). This was the first bacteriological institute in the whole of Asia. Charles Henry’s support for medical research so long ago shows how ahead of his times he was where the health sector is concerned.
De Soysa also built at his own expense the De Soysa Hospital in Lunawa, which still remains the main hospital for the densely populated Moratuwa area. He also built the Government Hospital in Panadura, which still remains the main hospital for the Panadura area, and the Government District Hospital in Marawila, which still remains the main hospital serving the population between Chilaw and Negombo.
Services to the health sector
Charles Henry was very critical of the British for neglecting the health needs of our country, which was then a British colony. Since he could not get the British rulers of the time to focus adequately on the health sector, he spent his own wealth to build hospitals and medical institutions for the Sri Lankan people.
While criticising the British rulers for neglecting our health needs, Charles Henry showed the British through his own practice what the Buddhist values of compassion (karuna) and loving kindness (metta) were all about. His answer to the British for neglecting the health of his own people was not only to build hospitals in Sri Lanka at his own expense but to also show compassion to the health needs of the British working class, which was equally neglected by the elitist British governments of that time. He gave lavish donations to hospitals in England that served the British working class, such as the Ormonde Hospital for Children, the Brompton Hospital, the Royal Free Hospital, the Hospital for Accidents to Dock Labourers, and the Victoria Chest Hospital.
Service to education
Charles Henry’s philanthropy was by no means confined to the health sector. He also built several schools, the most outstanding of which are the Prince and Princess of Wales’ Colleges in Moratuwa gifted by him 146 years ago in 1876 on a 16-acre block of land also gifted by him in the heart of the town of Moratuwa.
From the very start he ensured that both schools had Sinhala and English streams. His ambition for his hometown was a farsighted one. His dream was that Moratuwa should one day be the most educated town in the country. Today, 146 years later, Moratuwa is able to boast of being the town with the highest educational levels not merely in Sri Lanka but in the whole of South Asia.
Towards the modernisation of agriculture
He was also a pioneer in the modernising of Sri Lankan agriculture. Towards this end he donated £ 10,000 and 87 acres of land in Kanatte, Colombo, for a model farm, which was called Alfred Model Farm.
He was also a patron of Sinhala literature and funded the publication of several books written by leading Buddhist scholars of his time.
His modern worldview finds expression in his attitude to religion. Though he was a Christian, he readily supported Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim religious institutions. In the two big schools he founded in 1876, Prince and Princess of Wales’ Colleges, Moratuwa, he ensured that they were open to children of all religions and ethnicities and declared that no one religion or ethnicity should ever enjoy a pride of place within the schools.
(The writer – a President’s Counsel and former Secretary to the President – and the great-grandfather of Sir Charles Henry de Soysa come from the same home town, Devinuwara. A direct ancestor of Charles Henry de Soysa was the lay administrator of the Devinuwara Maha Vishnu Devale as its Basnayake Nilame until the Devalaya was sacked by the Portuguese in the early 17th Century.)