The British accepted the differences among the Sinhalese and other communities living in the country, but established a judicial and administrative system which held all men equal before the law. Under this complex order, no one was discriminated against and everyone was given an equal opportunity to benefit from the fast expanding opportunities the country had to offer. Distinctions were, however made on an occupational basis, based on division of labour.
After unification of the country by the British in 1815, the Kandyan families who were holders of the ‘Nindagam’ (King’s land) found themselves reduced to poverty, while many of the low-country aristocracy maintained or enhanced their economic power through the cultivation of commercially productive land in Coconut, Rubber, Coffee and later tea.
The people of the low-country, it was felt, had been greatly influenced during the long years of colonial rule by Christian and commercial ideas. The low-country Sinhalese in the Maritime Provinces were considered more receptive and having acquired the trading skills of the foreign invaders, came to be regarded as giants in trade, commerce and industry, out of proportion to their share of the total population. The older families from Moratuwa and Panadura, such as the de Mels, the Peirises and the de Soysa’s were heavily involved in the plantation sector.
Warusahennedige Soysa’s from Moratuwa were the first on the scene and were the first and most powerful of the Sinhalese capitalists, he married Francesca Peiris and their second son Jeronis de Soysa was the first young man to leave Moratuwa to try the new field which the district of Kandy then presented. He was the founder of the de Soysa dynasty and had a very charming personality and the European officials were well disposed towards his arrack renting business in 1829 and by 1844 he had dominated the Central Province and had control of the Western Province. The Central Province rents for the year 1836 was 6,800 Pounds. Arrack was an important item of merchandise and found a ready market in the hill country and large quantities were also exported to India. The growth in demand meant that the coconut property holders in the coastal belt realized great profits from the distillation of arrack.
During his pioneering days, he was assisted by his brother Susew Soysa who was also an enterprising person. In his very early days he began trading in Kandy, taking up Government contracts and also won a contract to supply food to the troops stationed in Nuwara Eliya. On his regular visits to the interior he found scope for further gainful employment. With his transport network he was able to collect the produce of small producers in the interior and have them transported to Kandy where they were marketed. This no doubt was a difficult task, but he made good money out of transport.
When Jeronis Soysa faded out from the arrack business in the mid 1840’s, Susew Soysa and some trusted relatives acquired the Central Province rents which he was able to hold for some time. In 1846, he along with another person paid 19,700 Pounds Sterling for the Western Province rents.
Three years later, he paid 20,000 Pounds Sterling to retain these rents. These figures only reveal the state of the arrack business during that time. Jeronis is acclaimed as the first young man from Moratuwa to penetrate the hill country for business opportunities. Although trained as a native physician, he saw a world of opportunity up in the plantation sector and though his beginnings were small, he expanded from being a firewood contractor to becoming a large plantation owner.
Most of the profits accumulated from arrack renting were invested in the acquisition of land for cultivation. His first investment made in procuring agricultural land cost him 650 Pounds in 1837. For many, this transaction appeared a sharp deal. The property involved was an extent of 482 acres, which formed a part of the Royal Garden of Hanguranketta and there was a degree of sentimentality attached to this sale and some felt that he had been referred to the property by the Village Chiefs. They were determined to prevent it from falling into the hands of a European.
The tract of land in which there was a considerable quantity of coffee was known as Kings Garden, also included the adjoining forest land. After a trifling outlay on weeding and clearing he found himself in possession of an extensive and very valuable coffee plantation. It is said that the first crop gave him the whole purchase amount and something more.
Traditionally, under British rule, estates could only be sold to the British, but Jeronis Soysa made know that he was going to bid. Out of politeness, he was asked to attend an interview, although his bid was regarded as a bit of a joke. However, legend has it that, with his physician’s experience, he noticed that the Englishman who was interviewing him was sitting most uneasily in his chair and Jeronis realized that he was suffering from hemorrhoids. He asked the interpreter to offer the Englishman a cure for the complaint, in return for permission to buy the estate – and thus became the first native entrepreneur to own an estate in Ceylon.
Working on Coconut Plantation
It was George Bird, who applied to the Governor to have the old Palace at Hanguranketa and its land put up for sale, but his limit of price was 600 Pounds and Mr de Soysa stepped in with his offer of 650 Pounds, and thereby became the owner.
It was a sale by public auction and although there was some adverse gossip about the process, the fact remained that Jeronis Soysa in partnership with Mudaliyar Henry purchased the land for a trifling amount of just over One Pound an acre. This initial purchase was the turning point in his career. There was a complete social transformation that he gradually faded away from his arrack business and established himself as an owner of a plantation, thereby improving his social status from an arrack trader to an estate owner.
Many acquisitions followed and according to data collected at that time he spent 1,200 Pounds Sterling during the period 1837 to 1842 in securing further extensive land holdings. Like the European planters, Jeronis paid a great deal of attention to the welfare of his workers and it is reported that in one instance, he closed one of his own tavern situated close to an estate to encourage abstinence from alcohol among his labour force.
He was a philanthropist in the true sense of the word. He was conscious of the communities where his properties were situated. He built out of his own resources, roads between villages in the vicinity of his plantations and Churches and Buddhist temples. He was so kind in his dealings with his society that the British Government was forced to take notice of these acts of benevolence. The Government honoured him with the highest honour of “Mudaliyar of the Governor’s Gate” in 1873.
After having reached the topmost of his career, Jeronis de Soysa withdrew from his business and settled down in the low country, leaving his brother Susew de Soysa the management of the properties.
By the 1860’s they had transferred their activities to plantation capitalism, both in the high and low lands. The low country holdings were mostly devoted to the cultivation of coconut and rubber. A random survey in 1862 revealed that Jeronis de Soysa had acquired land that was mostly in coffee. Further, he started expanding his possessions at Hanguranketa by acquiring his partners share in 1849 and his estimated revenue from this year was 1,000 Pounds.
His only son was Charles Henry de Soysa. In addition to obtaining his father’s estates in 1862, he inherited all the properties of Susew de Soysa who died without an issue. He then switched over from coconut and rubber to concentrate on coffee and later to tea.
Much has been said about the part played by British planters in developing a great plantation industry in Ceylon, but very little in known of their local counterparts who worked alongside them to establish it. Charles Henry de Soysa was so successful with tea that within a short period he was able to ship his own tea to London, which was held to be the exclusive domain of the British. He was a true and honest pioneer who married Catherine De Silva and with his six sons, Jeronis William Charles, Alfred Joseph Richard, Edwin Lionel Fredrick, Thomas Henry Arthur, Walter and Lambert Wilfred Alexander, established a plantation empire of super-eminence that even the British would find hard to match.
Jeronis de Soysa
Richard Rowlands and Charles Henry de Soysa met in 1859, through their common friendship with Lt-Col Henry Byrde and their interest in coffee and the transport of the produce to Colombo. They became such good friends, that in 1861 when Richard married Mary Bracken, Charles Henry de Soysa was one of his Groomsmen and witness to the marriage.After the death of his first wife in 1870, Richard Rowlands married Charlotte Caroline Don on 21st July 1872 at Holy Trinity Church, Nuwara Eliya and Charles Henry de Soysa and his wife were there on that day. At this time, Richard was working for Lt-Col Byrde at the company store in Nuwara Eliya in the capacity of “Trader” and most of their trading business would have been conducted through the de Soysa’s.
Charles Henry de Soysa and his wife were also God Parents to their son William Oswald Rowlands in 1875 when he was baptized at Holy Trinity Church, Nuwara Eliya.A seasoned planter he was, he saw he doom of coffee and the boom of tea and started to reduce the extent of coffee and introduce tea as a new plantation crop. He encouraged land to lay idle, but in this instance it was his conception regarding tea that made him
enlarge his holdings. With his new obsession for tea, he needed land that was freely available.
The family owned the largest acreage in Cinnamon, amounting to about 3,500 acres in Moratuwa, Salawa and Kuruwita. The produce from their coconut estate was converted to desiccated coconut at their mills in Slave Island. The vast array of export produce included copra, desiccated coconut, fresh coconuts, coir fibre, mattress fibre, tea, cocoa, betel leaves and plumbago. They found their way to several parts of the globe. To the bewilderment and pride of the local de Soysa’s; they considered no item of agricultural produce, manufacturing trade or industry inaccessible to the locals, though it was a time when Britannia ruled the waves.
As much as they amassed wealth with their stupendous industry and razor-sharp acumen, they turned a substantial slice of it for the succor of the needy and for the benefit of the society in which they lived.
The construction of the Medical School in Colombo and associated hospitals was mostly due to the magnanimity of the philanthropic Charles Henry de Soysa. The advent of the de Soysa Lying-in-home, Medical Museum, Bacteriological Institute, St Emmanuel’s Church and Prince and Princess of Wales College in Moratuwa and other schools and hospitals in Panadura, Marawila and Hanguranketta where the de Soysa family giving to their community had no bounds, are a silent testimony to their unfailing hospitality and grand generosity.
During the visit of the H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh to Ceylon in 1870, Sir Charles Henry de Soysa gave a banquet for the Royal Party and Government Dignitaries and also invited his friends to attend the event at his mansion “Alfred House”. Sir Charles and Lady de Soysa had ordered special gold crockery and cutlery to mark the occasion. Richard would have been invited but would have sent his apologies because of the recent death of his wife.
V.S.M De Mel in his book “The De Soysa Charitaya (Saga)” states that quote “ In anticipation of the visit to Ceylon of H.R.H the Duke of Edinburgh K.G., G.C.M.G., G.C.S.I.., P.C., the second son of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Charles Henry De Soysa, having conferred with his uncle Susew de Soysa and other members of the family decided to extend a special invitation to him to a banquet to be hosted by him in honour of His Royal Highness at his residence Bagatalle Walauwa at Bambalapitiya. This invitation was conveyed to His Royal Highness by the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson and on its acceptance, he started making the necessary arrangements for it, allocating a sum of Rupees 100,000 for the purpose. As the date of the reception approached, he engaged a large number of talented artists to see to the layout of the gardens. They were detailed to prepare prints and drawings required to embellish the decorations and illuminations to be installed in the spacious gardens and the Walauwa (Mansion) extending to 120 acres.
They were also directed to decorate either side of the road leading from Gall Face to the Walauwa. The Government also extended the necessary facilities for this purpose. He also engaged goldsmiths to prepare goblets, plate and cutlery out of solid gold and enlarged the staff at the Walauwa to attend to all needs of the occasion. The whole place was a beehive of activity with carpenters, masons and craftsmen of every type skilled in erection of Pandals and fixing illuminations, painters, plumbers and fitters all intent on their work and sparing no pains to make the function the grand success it was.
On the day of the banquet, viz, 22nd April 1870, people from all over gathered along the route of the Royal Procession. It was only after sunset that evening tat the majesty of the occasion and the grandeur of the preparations came into real focus. Multi-coloured lamps by their thousands illuminated the road, the trees and Pandals and the apartments and halls of Bagatelle Walauwa converting the whole area into a veritable fairyland.
When the state carriage carrying the Royal visitor and the Governor after passing through the illuminated streets, arrived at the gate of the Walauwa, they were received by C.H.de Soysa, Catherine de Soysa and Susew de Soysa. The Duke of Edinburgh who was dressed in the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet and the Royal Party were escorted to the upper floor. The Royal Party consisted of Sir Hercules Robinson, Lady Robinson, Miss Robinson, Private Secretary Stewart and Captain St John.
The music played in the hall was by the Ceylon Rifles Band. The Duke was very pleased at the dances performed by the local troupes and the music which accompanied them. A musical entertainment by the Davy Carson Group followed. The Royal Party was escorted to the hall where champagne was served to the distinguished guests. It was also available on tap from casks along with a variety of other liquors for the benefit of other guests.
In another hall, there was a drama performed in Sinhala which was greatly appreciated. An English translation of the play was distributed among the audience. A Tamil play was also performed by females whose contortions in various forms to the accompaniment of weird music, gave much amusement to the spectators. A bevy of girls spinning their “Rabanas” of their delft fingers whilst singing and dancing to music, was a spectacular feature of special interest to His Royal Highness.