ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 2, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 40

He was and still is an inspiration to one and all

Remembering Charles Henry de Soysa

By Ilica Malkanthi Karunaratne

Once again, the commemoration of Charles Henry de Soysa’s birth anniversary is being celebrated by his descendants and others who remember him for his unsurpassed record of philanthrophy. Living at a time, when both prejudice and bias were the order of the day, he thought far beyond the peripheries of race, caste and religion and helped each and everyone who needed his help.

Charles Henry de Soysa’s life reads like an incredible fairytale; yet he 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. He was reputed for incredibly high standards of punctuality, integrity and dedication. He insisted on these qualities in his staff too, who followed him, inspired by his example. Ten percent of his income was set aside for contributions to all religions; the rest went towards the development of his vast interests.

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. I recall sitting on his lap, listening wide-eyed to these tales. One was that, at the precise time that Great Grandpa Charles Henry was born, on the 3rd of March, 1836, at just before 10 p.m., a cock had crowed. We are all aware that this is not the 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.

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. 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 time 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 for this visit and the prince and his entourage were served on plates of pure gold with cutlery encrusted with precious stones. The other interesting legend about him is about his death. When 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. It 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.

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 philanthrophy 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 Street hospital, was 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 pathfinder 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 through his journey through life.

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