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Sri Lanka’s greatest philanthropist of all times

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Charles Henry de Soysa’s 185th Birth Anniversary – March 3

 

  • 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
  • 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

 

The 185th anniversary of the birth of Warusahennedige Charles Henry De Soysa (1836-1890) takes place on March 3, 2021. He goes down in history as the greatest Sri Lankan philanthropist of all times. “A grateful public” erected his statue, which stands at the center 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 103 years, without a break even during the WW II, his birth has been commemorated at this statue on March 3.
 
His Services
 
This year it is appropriate that the Minister of Education Prof. GL Pieris will be the chief guest at the commemoration ceremony organized at the foot of the statue at 3.30 pm on Wednesday March 3. For, no single person in Sri Lankan history has spent so much of his own personal wealth for developing the Health Sector 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 as well. His decision to build a hospital for women 143 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 Sir Hercules Robinson, Governor of Ceylon, 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 much he was ahead of his times 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 Panadura area, and the Government District Hospital in Marawila, which still remain the main hospital serving the population between Chilaw and Negombo.
 
His doctor sons-in-law
 
Three of Charles Henry de Soysa’s sons-in-law were famous doctors who had qualified in England.  His eldest son-in-law, Dr. Solomon Fernando, a well-known national hero of the early 20th century, was one of the first two Sinhala persons to qualify as doctors – the other being Dr. John Attygala. He later became the first Sinhala person to become the Director of Health Services before retiring to take to national politics where he died as a martyr in 1915 fighting for a public inquiry into the British mishandling of the Muslim Riots of 1915.
 
Charles Henry’s second son-in-law, Dr. Marcus Fernando, later Sir Marcus, was one of the first Sinhala surgeons. He too later took to politics and fought a bitter election against Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan for the seat reserved for Educated Ceylonese, in the then Legislative Council.
 
Yet another son-in-law Dr. W. H. De Silva an esteemed Eye Surgeon played a lead role in establishing the Queen Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital by leading the public fund raising campaign and by collecting the largest public subscription ever for a charitable project in the country. The foundation stone was laid in 1903 and the beautiful building at De Soysa Circus completed in 1905. Dr. De Silva functioned as the senior surgeon in charge of the hospital.
 
Charles Henry de Soysa who used so much of his own wealth to do so much for the Health Services of our country was, significantly, the only child of an Ayurvedic Physician, Jeronis de Soysa, who had mastered indigenous medicine from the Nayaka Thera of the Palliyagodella Temple in Moratuwa. It is also significant that while he was ever ready to build hospitals where the western system of medicine was followed; where his own health and that of his family was concerned he depended heavily on our time-honoured system of Ayurvedic Medicine.
Even in his last illness, it is recorded that doctors from the many hospitals which he himself had founded fought side by side with Ayurvedic Physicians from many parts of the country to save the life of Sri Lanka’s greatest philanthropist of all times.
 
But it was in vain. For Charles Henry de Soysa, he died at the early age of 53 of an unfortunate accident, unavoidable in terms of his karma. Had he lived another 20 years which should otherwise have been his normal life-span, there is no doubt that he would have built several more hospitals and  medical institutions in many parts of the country to serve the health needs of the Sri Lankan people.
 
His untimely death
 
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 criticizing the British rulers for neglecting our health needs, Charles Henry showed the British by his own practice what the Buddhist values of Compassion (Karuna) and Loving Kindness (Metta) are 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 therefore 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 145 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, 145 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.
He was also a pioneer in the modernizing of Sri Lankan Agriculture. Towards this end he donated 10,000 sterling pounds and 87 acres of land in Kanatta, Colombo, for a Model Farm, which was called Alfred Model Farm.
 
Religious outlook
 
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.
The several temples he built in Moratuwa, Ratmalana, Hanguranketha and Marawila, the numerous churches he built in Moratuwa, Panadura and Marawila, the Hindu Kovils he is known to have built in Jaffna and the land he is known to have donated to Mosque in Colombo bear testimony to the breadth of his religious outlook and the respect he had for pluralism. 
All this philanthropy he was able to do with the wealth he earned as the Father of Sri Lankan Private Enterprise in the mid 19th century. He planted nearly 34,000 acres of cash crops in diverse parts of the country, managing his vast plantations with skill and acumen.
He not only was the first Sri Lankan planter and exporter of plantations products but he was also the first Sri Lankan banker for he was instrumental in establishing the Bank of Kandy in 1860 with De Soysa Capital.
 
His origins
 
Sri Lanka’s greatest philanthropist of all times, Charles Henry de Soysa is a direct descendant of the Warusahannedige family which, according to tradition, held the administration of the Devinuwara  Maha Vishnu as its Basnayaka Nilame when it was sacked by the Portuguese in the early 17th century, Charles Henry’s great grandfather migrated from Devinuwara in the Matara district to Moratuwa in the early 17th century, bringing with him the entrepreneurial skills and vision of Ruhana to mesh them with the new economic opportunities that had emerged in the newly developing western province around the capital city of Colombo.
Charles Henry, unlike so many other private sector entrepreneurs who followed him practiced a private sector ideology that responds with sensitivity to the needs of the wider community. He was a great crusader who skillfully combined private enterprise with social concern. He is the role model for a humanistic private sector, which we hope, will emerge in our country in the years to come. As a national role model for the future, Charles Henry de Soysa who was born 185 years ago is not a man of the past but very much a man of the present and the future.
As such he belongs not to his family of descendants, not to Moratuwa, not to Matara district where he had his roots, but to the whole nation of Sri Lankans transcending the narrow barriers of class, creed, caste, religion and ethnicity.
 
(The writer and the great-grand father of Sir Charles Henry de Soysa come from the same home town, Devinuwara. The great grandfather of Sir Charles Henry de Soysa was the first Administrator of the Devinuwara Maha Vishnu Devale as its Basnayake Nilame until the Devalaya was sacked by the Portuguese in the early 17th century).
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