The third of March is the birth anniversary of the late Charles Henry de Soysa, commemorated annually by his descendants, others connected in one way or another with the schools he built, Prince and Princess of Wales Colleges, Moratuwa, the De Soysa Hospital for Women, the hospitals of Lunawa, Marawilla and Panadura, and by the thousands who have benefitted in a myriad ways through a visionary who was far ahead of his time. It has been said of him that he had a golden touch and that everything he began became a goldmine. But what is most admirable about his success was that he shared what he had with others. This was as rare then, as it is now.
He did all this, not as a surefire passport to popularity, but by showing amazing vision in the fields he chose; education, health and land, for his largesse to one and all, which showed that he thought far beyond the time and age he lived in.
In the era in which he lived, prejudice and bias were blatantly believed in and widely-practised. But, although he donated generously to the development of his hometown Moratuwa, in education, religion and health, his generosity to other is totally unconnected with him, either by ties of blood or business interests; are a living testament to his thinking, which was far beyond the peripheries of those existing divisions, strictly adhered to in every sphere of work or activity at that time. Again, this was an era of gracious living, gentility, peace and contentment, in which he could have lived a life of ease, in an ivory tower, far removed from reality, with the wealth he inherited. But he worked hard to increase his wealth, not for his family only, but shared it with the less fortunate, improved their lifestyles and gave them opportunities, opening doors and windows to them which enhanced and gave them a better deal in life. He strove hard all his life to release people from poverty, which is another kind of enclosure. He was among the Founders of the Ceylon National Congress, from which emerged the United National Party and was the first Ceylonese to start a bank.
Today, we live in a world of much publicised philanthropy where corruption reigns supreme. We live in constant fear of violence, danger, plunder and rape. We seem to thrive on conquest and it is only now that we see some hope in achieving conflict resolution. Efforts towards permanent peace are only being set in place now, after years of nothing being done to get this. This turbulent atmosphere we lived in until recently was ruled by greed and cruelty to man by man, while the Rule of Law was blown away, out of sight.
As a man, the late Charles Henry was one who set incredibly high standards of integrity, punctuality and dedication, and expected his family and those who worked for him to follow his example in these virtues. Many legends about him are related time and time again, within the family, among past and present students of Prince and Princess of Wales Colleges, doctors and patients who have been at the various hospitals and institutions donated by him to the nation. Among them are, that at the precise time he was born, a cock had crowed which was rare and said to denote that it was a singularly fortunate person who was born at this time. His donation of The De Soysa Hospital for Women is said to have been inspired by his seeing a woman in labour, crying out for help on the roadside, while he was out riding his horse. He organised swift medical help for her and the idea of this hospital and the many others he donated later in various parts of the country stemmed from this episode.
The ‘Alfred House’ which he built specially for the banquet in honour of the visit to Ceylon by Prince Alfred, the then Prince of Wales, is yet another fascinating legend, almost akin to a fairytale. It is sad that neither the Alfred House or the special cutlery and crockery of gold and precious stones made for the banquet no longer belong to the family.
Apart from the hospitals, schools, churches, temples and kovils, he donated 10,000 sterling pounds and 87 acres in Kanatte to the State for a model farm. A hundred poverty-stricken farmers in Walapane were gifted paddy fields and houses. His generosity was not confined to our shores but reached far beyond.
The Great Ormond street hospital for children in London where a plaque mentions his contribution, The Brompton Hospital, Royal Free Hospital, the Victoria Chest Hospital, the hospital for accidents to dock labourers, all benefitted from his largesse, which has had no equal up to date. It was just recently that I heard another tale about him. The late Isaac de Silva who was a relative of Lady Catherine de Soysa, wife of the late Charles Henry, had been a close advisor and friend of his. When the late Charles Henry built Prince and Princess of Wales Colleges, the late Isaac who was a devout Methodist got the Methodist schools in the area closed down and saw that the pupils there went to Prince and Princess of Wales Colleges. The late Isaac was a scholar and wrote the first Sinhala novel in 1888, which was published by the Wesley Press. It was later translated into English by him titled ‘The Happy and Miserable Families.’ A copy of this is in the British Museum and in our museum here in Colombo.
As the great granddaughter of the late Charles Henry, I am filled with a great sense of pride, combined with deep humility, that the blood of a man such as this flows in my veins and in those of my children. It is no wonder that some who are not his descendants, but only connected to him through his wife claim that they are his descendants. An awareness that our family history is prized and beyond value has made me a repository from the past. The late CH’s life is an inspiration and an example, not only to us as his descendants, but to each and every citizen of our country.
‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’
-- Karl Marx