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Life and times of Charles Henry de Soysa

by Surath Peiris

It was the time of Sir Robert Horton, Governor of the Island of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) when the recommendation of the two Royal Commissioners, Major W. M. C. Colebrooke and Mr. Charles H. Cameron, which, inter alia let to the promulgation of the total abolition of Rajakariya, were beginning to take effect, and plans were, therefore, being made to establish links with European markets, that Warusahennedige Dharma Gunawardene Vipula Jayasoorya Karunaratne Dissanayake Charles Henry de Soysa was born on 3rd March 1836 to Jeronis and Catherine de Soysa, and was to be their only child.

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em', so said that great English playwright William Shakespeare. But delving into the life story of Charles Henry de Soysa, one could safely conclude that he was a man who was not only born great and achieved greatness during his comparatively short span of life, but also had greatness thrust upon him, even posthumously.

The Warusahennedi families had their origins in Devinuwara and during the Portuguese regime, migrated to Panadura. Since the days of the Dutch and through the times of the British, the Warusahennedige de Soysas in association with the Hennediege Pieris' of Moratuwa were engaged in the transport business of hiring buillock carts for the transportation of food stuffs to the hill country and plantation products to the low country. They were also engaged in trading activities such as the trade of tobacco.

Charles Henry was still a toddler and had just begun to learn his Sinhala alphabet under the able guidance of the Nayake Thera of the Palliyagodella Temple in Moratuwa, when the Crown Lands of Encroachments Ordinance was enacted in 1840 resulting in the large scale sale of confiscated lands by the State. In the decade 1834 - 1843 as many as 247, 128 acres of crown land were sold at five shillings per acre, which was the price of a bushel of rice then.

It is of historical interest to note here that this sale of Crown land paved the way for the birth of a new land-owner class of Sri Lankan nationals, among whom was Charles Henry's father, Jeronis de Soysa, who invested his accumulated wealth from his earnings as a general merchant, timber contractor and arrack renter, in the purchase of coffee plantations and coconut estates.

The coffee mania was at its highest in 1845. The Governor, the public officials, the military, the judges, the clergy and members of the civil service, all became coffee planters. The mountain ranges on all sides of Kandy became rapidly covered with coffee plantations. The great valley of Dumbara, Ambagamuwa, Kotmale, and Pussellawa were occupied by prospective coffee planters.

They settled in the steep passes ascending to Nuwara Eliya; they penetrated to Badulla and Uva. Coffee trees began to bloom on the solitary hills around the very base of Sri Pada. Coffee was generally an enterprise of speculative investors while the coconut is one of the staples of Sri Lankan agriculture and the favourite investment of the national.

With the spread of coffee plantations came the establishment of banks and a chamber of commerce. Mail coaches began to run from Colombo to Kandy and proved so successful a venture that train services were established with Galle and Negombo too.

Charles Henry grew up in the company of Appu Singho, an orphan who had been adopted by his parents because they had no other children. This playmate of Charles Henry was later given employment as Superintendent of his Estates in Salpiti and Raigam Koralas.

For his education in English, Charles Henry joined the Colombo Academy (now Royal College) and thereafter St. Thomas' College in Mutwal. But repeated ill-health saw an abrupt end to his academic studies and receiving education under a private tutor de Alwis of Mt. Lavinia. This necessitated in his getting a training in estate management and export business in the years 1856 to 1861 under the direction of his father, a reputed entrepreneur.

Upon the death of his father on 28th May 1862, there devolved on Charles Henry the great legacy of material wealth which in the course of time was enhanced through his care, diligence, and wisdom, and a considerable portion of the proceeds accrued there from used for the welfare of humanity. In his pioneering days as a businessman and planter it is very likely that he sought the advice of his paternal uncle Gate Mudaliyar Susew de Soysa.

It was on 4th February 1863 that Charles Henry married Catherine, the only daughter of Chevalier Jusey de Silva, a wealthy businessman and arrack renter, increasing thereby his already amassed wealth.

The consummation of this marriage saw eight sons, J. W. C., A. J. R., E. L. F., A. C. A., (who died in his childhood), T. H. A., J. S. W., L. W. A., and R. E. S. de Soysa and seven daughters, Georgiana Catherine, Margaret Frances mary, Jane Maria Caroline, Anne Lydia Charlotte, Crawford MacDonald Maguerita, Johelyn Emily Julie and Selina Louisa Elizabeth. With a bequest from his father's only brother Susew, the wealth of Charles Henry increased further.

The adventurous spirit of young Charles Henry which was still rampant in him prompted him to experiment in new techniques of planting. His attempt to grow cotton turned out to be a failure due to a plant disease. His keen interest in agricultural research and development led to his gifting Sterling Pound 10,000 in cash and 87 acres of land in Kanatte, Colombo for a model farm which was named Alfred Model Farm.

His interests were not to confirmed to agriculture only, but extended to livestock rearing as well. Cattle brought from Australia and India were reared, and while the cows supplied milk, the bulls were used for his bullock carts to transport the produce from his estates and plantations ranging from Negombo to Chilaw and from Kurunegala to Hanguranketha, The material progress of the Island in the 1870s was mainly due to the agricultural enterprise of many a planter who contributed largely to the revenue of the State. By 1872 the coffee industry had reached its zenith.

Prices, undreamt of before, were freely offered and paid for coffee estates. But there soon appeared a speck in the horizon. On the underside of the coffee leaf was noted a red blot, and this lead disease known as Hemileia Vastatrin spread far and wide.

Consequently, whilst the crops were diminishing in geometric progressing, the prices of coffee were soaring higher and higher. Then came the crash, and ruin overtook many a planter in the 1880s.

But Charles Henry de Soysa was able to weather it out because he had not put all his eggs in one basket. His investments were many and varied. In the early 1880s he was owning at least 69 plantations, coffee, coconut, cinnamon and citronella totalling 24,292 acres of which over 16,000 were under cultivation - 8220 acres coffee, 6368 acres coconut and 1720 acres cinnamon.

At the time of his death in 1890 he owned over 74 plantations totalling approximately 27,000 acres. His immovable assets also included valuable residential properties in Moratuwa, Kandy, the Colombo City and its suburbs; his capital investments lay distributed in plumbago mines, coir industries, coconut oil mills, and in the import-export business.

It was Horace Mawn who said "To pity distress is but human; to relieve it is godlike". Nurtured in godly discipline and brought up in the Christian faith, Charles Henry de Soysa came to think of Social Service purely in terms of human need.

There were no ulterior motives attached to his generous imperatives. He did just what the Love of God compelled him to do irrespective of caste, creed or colour of his beneficiaries, unmindful of whether he lost or was hurt in his giving, whether his service was appreciated, misunderstood or misinterpreted.

His generosity far exceeded taking his fair share of social responsibility in the building up of society. The role of enabler and comforter was invariably taken by Charles Henry for he knew that people who suffer need to be helped not only with materials but also with care and understanding so that they will have a new sense that their lives are being restored to order by the deep concern of their more fortunate brethren. To care for humanity and to minister to humanity is not limited to physical care but expanded to help individuals and the community move toward 'Shalom'.

The Bible quotation from the Book of Job, "I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame" surely must have been upper most in the mind of Charles Henry when he built the Eye Hospital, the Lying-in-Home and a section of the Medical College.

His generosity knew no bounds; his philanthropy knew no limitations. His benevolence extended even across the shores of our little Island to far off England - to Institutions such as the Victoria Chest Hospital, Brompton Hospital, Ormonde Street Hospital, Royal Free Hospital and the Hospital for Accidents to Dock workers.

Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Christian religious institutions throughout the length and breadth of Sri Lanka enjoyed the regular support of charles Henry for their maintenance and upkeep. He got roads, bridges, irrigation canals, tanks and culverts built and repaired at his own expense. He helped those affected in times of drought, famine, flood and pestilence through his assistance, both in cash and in kind.

He looked after his employees fairly and squarely, as a model employer paying them just wages, helping them in times of need and distress, consoling them in times of grief, advising them in times of stress and strain, making provisions for their children's education and providing them with old age pensions.

True to the lavish style of Sri Lankan hospitality, the Sterling Pound 10,000 banquet accorded to Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh on 22nd April 1870 at Alfred House, when the Prince was served on plates made of solid gold, and the Wedding Ceremony of Charles Henry's eldest daughter Georgina are outstanding expressions of his love and respect to Royalty and to his family alike.

Language fails to explain the irony of fate that befell such a man, who did so much to alleviate human suffering, by an untimely death on 29th September 1890 by the bite of a rabid dog.

The desolation and dejection that was cast on many a home in our land when the news of the death of Charles Henry de Soysa spread, was unimaginable yet understandable.

His mortal remains were laid to rest amidst a gathering described as the largest in the nineteenth century - on 1st October 1890 at the Cemetery of the Church of Holy Emmanuel in Moratuwa, the Church built by his revered father. Charles Henry is the first Knight Bachelor (posthumous) from Lanka when the rank title of Widow of Knight Bachelor was conferred on Lady Catherine.

At a time like this when a man's worth is computed in terms of rupees and cents, when noble virtues are but relics of bygone era, when greatness is more often than not evaluated in relation to political influence, here was a man in Charles Henry de Soysa whose greatest possession was his modesty, whose greatest gift was his philantrophy, whose greatest occupancy was his service - Service to God and Man.

Tribute to C. H. de Soysa (1836 - 1890)

by K. P. S. Dilruhan Fernando - Daily News, Tue Mar 4, 2002

This article is a dedication to the generosity of my Great - Great Grand Father Charles Henry de Soysa (1836-1890) to commemorate his 166th Birth Anniversary on 03rd March 2002. He was a gentleman and a great philanthropist who lived in 19th century Ceylon.

C. H. de Soysa was born in 1836, the only son of Gate Mudaliyar Jeronis de Soysa and Francisca de Soysa nee Cooray. He was educated at St. Thomas' College, Mutwal. He married Lady Catherine de Soysa in 1863 and they were blessed with fourteen children.

He was one of the wealthiest land owners during his time, and owned more than 28,000 acres of Paddy fields, Tea, Rubber, Coffee and Coconut estates mostly in Moratuwa, Colombo, Hanguranketha, Panadura, Marawila, Kandy and Galle. He also owned the Bagatalle Walauwa later named "Alfred House" and its 120 acres in Kollupitiya, Colombo. C. H. de Soysa's generosity towards the people of our country was a well known fact.

In order to grasp the magnitude of his generous charitable contribution and the impact made by him to the Society and Culture of our Country, one has to imagine the 19th century period of Ceylon under British colonial domination, where the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim population lived without proper means of Education, Healthcare or basic Infrastructure facilities. Even today our Society benefits from the contributions made by C. H. de Soysa.

C. H. de Soysa used only his own wealth for the construction and donation of Hospitals, Churches, Schools, Playgrounds, Roads, Bridges, and Irrigation tanks, Wells, Houses and Ambalamas. He donated Land and Paddy fields to Buddhist Temples and Money and Houses to poor families. It is also well known how he encouraged Sinhalese and Tamil poets and Authors by publishing their work.

The most noteworthy charitable contributions made by C. H. de Soysa were the construction and donation of the Hospital in Colombo namely The De Soysa Lying-in-Home now known as "De Soysa Maternity Hospital" to the public. He donated land and buildings to the Eye Hospital Colombo and to the Medical Research Institute (MRI) Colombo.

He also donated land and buildings and was the Founder of "Prince of Wales" College and "Princes of Wales" College in Moratuwa. He also built and donated St' Mathias Church to the people in Lakshapathiya and constructed Roads, Bridges and Ambalamas in Lunawa, Colombo, Marawila, Moratuwa and donated it to the government for public use.

In recognition of his charitable contribution and his generosity to the people of Ceylon, C. H. de Soysa was awarded the Rank and Title of Knight Bachelor by her Majesty Queen Victoria of England, but due to his untimely death in 1890, the Rank and Title of the Widow of a Knight Bachelor was Awarded to Lady Catherine de Soysa in 1891.

The Government of Sri Lanka in recognition of his charitable work honored C. H. de Soysa on 3rd March 1971 by issuing a Commemorative Postage Stamp. My Great Grand Mother Selina de Soysa Pieris who was the only surviving child of C. H. de Soysa at that time was able to attend the Ceremony in 1971 and had the pleasure of being given the first Stamp issued that day in honor of her father.

When I was young I was privileged to learn all these facts from my Grand Mother Mirian Fernando. The most interesting story she told me was how her Grand Father C. H. de Soysa hosted a Banquet at the Bagatalle Walauwa in honour of HRH Duke of Edinburgh in 1870 with such splendour.

The crockery and cutlery used for the Banquet was made of gold with exquisite local craftsmanship and even won the praise of the Duke. Incidentally the house was constructed in a short period of time, in time to commemorate the Prince's visit.

Finally I must mention that it was indeed a privilege to learn about the great generosity of my ancestor C. H. de Soysa, a gentleman with a great vision for the future and who loved his country and its people.

Daily News Mon Mar 8 2004

The cascade of the Soysa family

Cabbages, kings & things by PADMA EDIRISINGHE - DN Monday Mar 8 2004

Subsequent to the publication of the article on "Colombo's coconut grove" of the 19th Century (Sunday Observer 18.01.04) a few queries have been received on the present fortunes of this family and about details of the descendants of the owner of this vast coconut estate of 150 acres right in the heart of our capital that later turned into the springboard of many a stately mansion on partitioned land.

Actually there are books written on this remarkable family but many now are not disposed to read lengthy books on a subject and would like to get it as tersely as possible. Frankly I myself have done no research on the subject but an acquaintance, Vinodh Wickremaratne, who can be described as a colonial history researcher cum a student of genealogy has given me a welter of information.

He has traced this family down to its sixth generation beginning with the union of Charles Henry De Soysa (1836-1890) and Catherine De Silva (d 1914) and going by the ages of those of the sixth generation may be there are kids and infants of the seventh generation of this family too.

According to Vinodh's study the famous philanthropist who gifted parts of his sprawling estate at times running all the way from Moratuwa to Colombo to put up schools, hospitals and University buildings had begotten 15 children in all. In my earlier article I have left out the son who died young. All other children in turn have gone on to spawn very large families at a period when family planning was unheard of.

Eloquence

Famous names stud the cascade, not only famous grandsons, but famous sons-in-law and daughters-in-law. Right at the start is Dr. Solomon Fernando (1850-1915) who married the eldest daughter of CH de Soysa i.e. Fancy Georgina Catherine. One of the very few doctors of Western medicine at the time perhaps he has cut a niche in world history by becoming a martyr to the cause of another religion.

At the famous meeting held in Colombo in 1915 to help the Buddhist cause during the infamous Gampola riots, this doctor, Roman Catholic by faith got carried away by his own eloquence as he heaped a verbal tirade on the White rulers for imprisoning Buddhist leaders and died on the stage by developing a sudden heart attack. In these days when some plot and plan to ferment another feud to destabilize the country further this death is food for thought.

Another famous name peeps through, that of Dr. Marcus Fernando after whom a whole street runs in the capital today in gratitude for his services. He is the husband of the third daughter, Margaret Mary (1864-1936). The fourth son of CH Soysa, Thomas Henry who had been the Chilean Consul is very much alive today via College House or Regna Walavva. It is the administrative building of the Colombo University today. "Colombo heritage", a Stanford Lake publication inform that T.H.A. DE Soysa built it to commemorate his wife's name Regina.

"With its turrets, towers, conical roofs, hidden passage ways and balconies it was to be the perfect family home "for his lovely wife and children but tragedy struck and the wife died young. In 1920 the house was purchased for the University. A familiar name occurs in the group of 8 children born to the 7th son. He is E. L. F. Soysa, the famous racing magnate and also the first Sinhala owner of a motor car.

The dim recess when his great grand uncle Jeronis De Soysa ran behind bullock carts to end up the most successful Lankan entrepreneur now was almost obliterated by the long shadow of Time. The ebullient ELF rode pell-mell in his motor car thanking the champagne that flowed into his "Foetus" during the royal visit and extravagant reception at Bagatalle walavva.

Heir

Loranee Senaratne, our first woman ambassador and author of "Heirs to history' also figures in the cascade as the daughter of the 12th daughter of C. H. De Soysa. Charles Harold the 14th son has fathered 9 children out of whom the eldest, Charles Harold rose to be the second Sinhala Bishop of the island.

Another familiar name that I came across in Vinodh's genealogy chart is that of Ismeth Raheem, the famous and indefatigable collector of drawings and photographs of Old Colombo. He has married a grand-daughter of the 11th child of C. H. De Soysa. Incidentally it seems to be the only racially mixed marriage in the family. Vinodh hastens to add that his genealogy chart of the Soysa family is still "in the making' and has yet to be checked for accuracy and chronology. But certainly it is an earnest attempt and very rich in sociological and historical value.

According to 'Colombo Heritage' as time ran on the Soysa ran into financial difficulties and various properties were sold off. One of the most magnificent houses to be lost in mortgage was Laksmigiri that was acquired by the Lukmanjee family. The mansion yet looms today in majestic grandeur in the vicinity of Thunmulla junction replete with it Buckingham Palace style gates. But the statement in the book that the famous reception was held at Lakshmigiri and not at Bagatalle Walavva seems questionable since the fact that Bagtalle walavva was the venue is almost an accepted matter.

In fact the Stanford essay on Laksmigiri begins by stating that it was built in the early part of this century (the 20th C) and in the second passage it states "For here in 1870 ... Duke of Edinburgh was entertained at a banquet" where cutlery hewn of gold and set with rubies, emeralds and pearls were used! Such was the ultimate height in affluence of the C. H. De Soysa family that seems to have dwindled to a marked extent as time took its toll. The very maintenance of the gigantic abodes put up seem to have drained the Soysa treasury.

"Impermanence and change are the ways of all worldly things" intoned the Buddha, voicing the ultimate truth. Incidentally the whole CH Soysa clan was majority Anglican by faith and almost all carried Anglicised names.

A birthday tribute to Charles Henry de Soysa

by Ilica Malkanthi Karunaratne - DN Wed Mar 2 2005

As the commemoration of Charles Henry de Soysa's birth anniversary comes along, each year, our thoughts go back to him and all he did, as a philanthropist. Even as far back as in his lifetime, he thought far beyond the peripheries of race, caste and religion and helped each and everyone who needed his help, irrespective of these divisions.

The time he lived in was a different world to ours. A time of gracious living, peace and contentment. In spite of his great wealth, he did not live in an ivory tower, serene, inviolable and far removed from less fortunate beings and reality. I wonder what he would have thought of the world as it is today. We live today in a world where corruption reigns supreme, amidst constant danger from violence, plunder, rape and fire; a desire for conquest, an urge for conflict, often resulting in the desolation of loss. Peace to us is a flimsy, tenuous thing, clinging to a crumbling fabric. To us, death and destruction is an everyday experience, living as we do, in such a turbulent scenario.

Charles Henry de Soysa, whose life reads like an incredible fairytale, was not one who gave as he did, to gain fame or publicity. He inspired those who worked for him, to contribute meaningfully to their role in his enterprises, and insisted on punctuality, integrity and dedication. It has been said that he kept ten percent of his income for contributions to various religions, and used most of the rest for the development of his vast interest.

There are many legends related time and time again, both within the family and outside it; associated with him. Many of them were told to me by my father, his grandson. My father, being an extremely busy doctor, had only rare moments of leisure. But when he did, I used to sit on his lap, listening wide-eyed with rapt attention to these tales. One was that, at the precise time that Greatgrandpa Charles Henry was born, on the 3rd of March, 1836, at just before 10 p.m. a cock had crowd. We are all aware that this is not be normal time for the crowing of cocks. It was later translated to mean that a very fortunate person must have been born at that time.

Another legend is that when his father, Jeronis de Soysa, purchased his first estate in Hanguranketha, which he later proceeded to plant with coffee, he had found some buried treasure, which led to the beginning of his wealth. This is said to be only partly true, as apparently, he did find a large receptacle of gold under a massive stone slab there. But Jeronis had insisted on putting it back, and went on to put more soil on the slab, and to erect a pillar to support a building which he built above it. He had firmly told the labourers working on it that it was inappropriate to take this treasure which did not belong to him and that bad luck would befall him if he did take it.

Other legends include one which says that C.H. de Soysa, while out riding on his horse one day, had come across a woman in labour, crying out in pain on the road side. He immediately saw to it that she had swift medical aid, and it was this that inspired him to build The De Soysa Maternity Hospital, which has proved a boon to so many women through the years. Still another says that all of us, his descendants, have been blessed with easy childbirth, due to this generous gesture.

My favourite story about my revered ancestor, is one I used to plead with my father to repeat time and again. This was about the banquet he held in honour of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, when he visited. Ceylon in April, 1870. 'Alfred House' was specially built just before this visit and the prince and his entourage were served on plates of pure gold with cutlery encrusted with precious stones. It is sad for all of us that what remains of this palatial and historic mansion no longer belongs to the family, and that there are just a few pieces of the crockery and cutlery.

The other interesting legend about him is about his death. When he was ailing with his fatal illness, he had shifted from 'Alfred House' back to De Soysa Walauwa, Moratuwa. One night, he had dreamt that some of the animals he loved, who were at' Alfred House' were dying. He asked his wife to send someone to Colombo to check on his pets. The story was confirmed that they were indeed very ill and dying. His sorrow knew no bounds and he had told his wife that his end too was near. He died shortly after; his wife and children, except for three sons who were at Cambridge at the time and his eldest daughter, who was expecting a bady, were at his bedside. The story goes that he spoke to them all. It is interesting to note that although he sent all his sons to Cambridge, they lived their lives like Victorian gentlemen. Perhaps if he had lived longer, this would not have been so. He saw to it though, that his daughters all married professionals, and most of his sons-in-law achieved fame, and reached great heights in their respective professions.

Charles Henry de Soysa, developed what he inherited from his father, and soon owned land in the Central, North Western, Western and Southern Provinces, cultivated with coffee, coconut, cinnamon and citronella. He gave ten thousand sterling pounds and 87 acres in Kanatte, to the State for a model farm. His largesse to one and all was wide and varied and reached out to all parts of the country. This includes gifting paddy fields and houses to 100 poverty stricken farmers in Walapane, building several churches and temples, Hindu kovils and Tamil schools in Jaffna, The De Soysa Hospital for Women, hospitals in Lunawa, Marawila and Panadura the Medical Research Institute, Prince and Princess of Wales Colleges in Moratuwa; all these were built and endowed by him. He did not build the Eye Hospital, but gave a sizable donation to it. One of his 14 children was my grandmother, Julie, who married my grandfather, Dr. W.H. de Silva, who was the first doctor at the Eye Hospital, Colombo. His philanthropy reached outside Sri Lanka too. The Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, Brompton Hospital, Royal Free Hospital, Victoria Chest Hospital, the hospital for accidents to dock labourers all benefited through his generosity. My father, while doing an internship at The Great Ormond Stret hospital, was most pleasantly surprised to see his grandfather's name on a plaque, stating his generosity.

We live today, in another age, another time. But his example is an inspiration to one and all. He was a path finder with a vision far beyond his time, who blended economic progress with human welfare.

He combined the desire for economic success with deep personal concern for everyone he met on his journey through life. Land reform has robbed us of most of the lands he planted with such love and passed on to our parents and grandparents. The fact that he is still spoken of and revered today, as one of our country greatest philanthropists, shows that his spirit does linger on despite this materialistic and violent age we live in.