5th March 2000
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A wealthy benefactor, he reached out to all

Ilika Karunaratne reflects on the life of her illustrious great-grandfather Charles Henry de Soysa

March 3 marked the birth anniversary of one of Sri Lanka's greatest sons, Charles Henry de Soysa. In the year 2000, it seems more important than ever, to pay homage to one who placed his family's name in the annals of our history. His life, as we peep back into it, reads like an incredibly fabulous fairy tale; both an inspiration and an example, though rather difficult to live up to.

Charles Henry's father Jeromis, was abstemious in his lifestyle, yet sensitive and generous to the needs of both people and institutions. C.H. went to S. Thomas' College, Mutwal, where he was one of its first batch of pupils in 1857. He was in his early twenties when his father died. His father had invested in land and property in Colombo, Moratuwa and Kandy including the famous Hanguranketa estate. A family legend has it that a horde of coins found here was the base of Jeromis's success as a man of wealth and substance.

When I was a child, my favourite story about great-grandpa Charles was how he had entertained the then Prince of Wales at a banquet, with cutlery and crockery of gold embellished with gems.

But, now that I am much older and have suffered the pain of irreparable loss, I would like to know more about the various institutions he founded and the people who have benefited from them.

Charles Henry's largesse to the country took many forms, but was mainly in education, health and religion. His amazing foresight is seen in them all - still living monuments of his abundant generosity. 

The crown of his benefactions for health is the De Soysa Lying-in-Home for women, which has served millions of mothers over the past 100 years or more. It is interesting to note that he built this at a time when not many women went to hospitals for delivery. His other benefaction through which thousands have benefited over the years is the vast acreage, buildings and playing fields for the Prince and Princess of Wales' Colleges in Moratuwa, his hometown. The alumni of these institutions have contributed immensely to various areas in our country's development. He also inaugurated a Model Farm at Narahenpitiya, on 160 acres, at a time when agricultural research was the need of the hour. Here again, he displayed that amazing foresight for which he was famed.

His services to humanity were legion; and his generosity spread far beyond his hometown. I learned just the other day that he built many other hospitals and roads in various parts of the country. Even in far- off Walapane, he gave one acre each for cultivation to one hundred families who had fallen into the depths of poverty. These families have got on in life because of his generosity.

Charles Henry's father, born a Buddhist, came under the influence of Anglican missionaries, which led to his conversion. But, although C.H. was a Christian, proof of his liberal thinking is seen in his generous contributions to Buddhist temples. This must be an inspiration to us all. He was obviously a man who thought beyond his time and did not restrict his generosity to the peripheries of race, caste or creed. I recall my father telling me, that when he worked in the London Hospital and the Hospital for Sick Children in London, he was amazed to find his grandfather's name on boards listing the names of substantial donors in 1886. 

He was greatly respected in Britain, and was one of the few Asians to be elected as an honorary member of The Athenium, the oldest and most prestigious club in London.

Charles Henry de Soysa was reputed to be a kind, pleasant, well-informed gentleman who rarely got into conflict with others. 

He developed his agricultural holdings on scientific lines and pursued his commercial activities on sound principles, thereby increasing his wealth by leaps and bounds. His palatial home, "Bagatelle Walauwa" later re-furbished, renovated and renamed "Alfred House" was on a 120 acre property in the heart of Colombo, complete with orchards, lawns, a farm and stables. The house included a vast library, with valuable books on a variety of subjects.

His last words to his children on his deathbed were that they should respect one and all, live humbly and virtuously and never own more possessions than necessary for their needs. We have many lessons to learn from him. Undoubtedly, after the Land Reform Act and the Ceiling on Houses Act, none of us have the vast wealth and resources that were his. But, each of us, in our own way, should not allow the restrictions of race, caste or creed to stop us from reaching out to those in need. We should not live ostentatious lives which only breed hatred and envy. 

Great-grandpa Charles was loved by all and unenvied, in spite of his great wealth. Why? Because he was unselfish, simple, reached out to people and helped them without patronizing them. He was gifted with the sense of recognizing a need and knowing exactly how to solve it. His home, we are told, was always open to those seeking solace and help.

Today he may have been described as 'bourgeois' or capitalist, but he used his wealth to help thousands of others, not even connected to him. Moreover, he did this wisely and didn't lose his fortune in doing so.

As his descendants we owe it to him to help, nurture and contribute to the progress and development of the institutions he founded.

These immortal words from Hamlet are apt to describe him.

'What a piece of work is man!
How noble is reason! How infinite in faculty!
In form and moving how expert and admirable!
In action how like an angel!
In apprehension how like a God!

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