About-About: Clarifying the Work on Jeronis Pieris and His Times

Michael Roberts

This account is a clarification of the circumstances inspiring and surrounding the preparation of the book Facets of Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris (1975) in the light of Ian Goonetileke’s review article of 1976 (which I saw for the first time this October). The elucidation does not address Ian’s criticisms of the chapters on British waste lands policy or the role of buffaloes in up country paddy cultivation — for the simple reason that it would require a complex and lengthy exposition . The focus here is on the letters themselves and colonial politics.

1_Alfred House_exterior_Capper-500LR Alfred House during the heyday of the Warusahännädigē de Soysas in the mid-19th century

This book was drafted in 1969/70, but its appearance in print was delayed till 1975 because I took up a Fulbright Fellowship in USA in 1970/71 and we then had production problems with Hansa Publishers. The writing was informed by the British empiricist heritage in historical research that was integral to the Department of History, Peradeniya University where I was teaching in the Sinhala medium from March 1966 after returning from England following my doctoral dissertation. The book is in fact dedicated to Mr. WJF Labrooy who was Head of Department in my time.[1]

While teaching and exam-marking duties were heavy during the late 1960s, the semester-break system provided me with time to pursue my researches in agrarian history. This involved regular visits to the National Archives at Gangodawila where an old University pal Haris de Silva was Deputy Director and an asset in all my endeavours. At this stage these historical labours had been extended by the continuation of my oral history project interviewing and tape-recording Sri Lankan administrators as well as politicians on their life’s work.[2]

At times the oral history venture gave me access to documents of some significance and I mediated their transfer or loan to the Archives.[3] So, archival retrieval was another new interest. However, what brought a relatively unique little store of letters to my attention, namely, the Jeronis Pieris letters, was a third line of activity. From circa 1968 I had begun to explore the lineaments of nationalism in the British and post-colonial periods, thereby encompassing both the “Ceylonese” and the “Sinhalese” strands of collective identity. This, in its turn, meant a focus on the class foundations of such ideological strands – as understood by me then in non-Marxist terms encapsulated in the concept “elites.”[4]

This interest led me to the outstanding capitalist accumulation among the leading families of the Karāva caste. This empirical picture then led to the question “How Come.” That is, it pointed towards one means of discerning the critical factors in class and elite formation in the British period. My Ceylon Studies Seminar paper of the 4th March 1969, entitled “The Rise of the Karāvas,” marked my infant steps in this direction. That avenue of research also involved many interviews (usually unrecorded on tape, but with notes taken[5]). I was also assisted in many ways by the huge store of information residing in the memories of the late Sena Jayasuriya and Shanthi Sri Chandrasekera – both from the Karāva community. I here etch their names in my memorial to local historians of all sorts, not only praising their stores of knowledge, but thanking them for hospitality in providing bed and meal on so many occasions.[6]

The Jeronis Pieris letters and their presentation to the world, therefore, should be located within one of my abiding interests at that point of time in 1968-to-1970: namely, Sri Lanka’s archival storehouse. Another Ceylon Studies Seminar paper on 19th May 1970, in fact, addressed “The Sources pertaining to the History of British Ceylon.”[7]

The letters written by Hännädigē Jeronis Pieris in the period 1853-56 were not located in their original form, but as copies taken on wafer-thin paper by Jeronis himself through the use of a letter press. They were in the possession of Mrs. Lynette Peries, nee de Soysa, of de Fonseka Road Bambalapitiya. The 23 letters have been supplemented by a letter from Jeronis in Sinhala addressed to his mother on the 7th September 1877 and sent from England. This was in the hands of L. D. Asoka Pieris and secured for reproduction in translation through the good offices of Lankeswera Pieris.

In presenting this corpus of letters to the public I placed them in their context in two chapters on “Kith, Kin and Career” and “The Background of Social Change and Elite Formation in Nineteenth Century Ceylon.” I also deployed specific comments within the letters as a point of departure for the exploration of other dimensions of the socio-political changes in the 19th century in chapters entitled

  • Western Orientations
  • The Highland Scene: Coffee Plantations vs Village Land?
  • Buffaloes, Cattle and Paddy Cultivation in the Central Highlands.

Ian Goonetileke has done me the honour of providing an extended review of the book. As with good reviews, his commentary is a challenging one that presents critical interpretations on several issues. This approach is directed by a combination of Leftist and nativist anti-colonial sentiments. This is quite legitimate.

Goonetileke also finds the Jeronis letters themselves to be “paltry and lightweight” and full of “trivia.” This is where Goonetileke’s renaissance background and immersion in high literature intrudes in heavy-handed fashion in his interpretation of the material. Familiar with the European minds of the 19th century and the manner in which their correspondence dwelt upon weighty political issues or pursued erudite literary discussions, Goonetileke seems to be guided by that comparative yardstick.

In consequence, and rather quaintly for a bibliographer, he does not attend to the rarity of personal letters in the bank of 19th century sources in Sri Lanka’s archival stock. A bibliographical list of letters in any of the island’s three languages during that century would probably not run to more than a few pages. When the Jeronis Pieris book and Goonetileke’s review appeared in 1975/76, both of us were unaware of the Charles Ambrose Lorenz letters in the Royal Asiatic Society Library. As it happens, these letters are also familial fare and replete with trivia – even though Lorenz himself indulged in weighty political commentary elsewhere in Young Ceylon (1850-52) and the Ceylon Examiner (from 1859)[8] and was probably the hand adopting the pseudonym “Henry Candidus,” author of the intriguing and politically meaningful pamphlet entitled “A Desultory Conversation between Two Young Aristocratic Ceylonese.”[9]

Goonetileke’s Marxist leanings are made clear by his description of the Hännädigē Pierises and Warusahännädigē de Soysas as members of the “comprador bourgeoisie.” This conceptual characterization is on the mark. James Peiris’s[10] comment at one of the Ceylon Social Reform Society’s meetings in 1908 (quoted by Goonetileke) is, indeed, one testimony supporting this contention. The indigenous entrepreneurs who accumulated wealth in the 19th century as traders, contractors and plantation owners had a shared interest with the British colonial bourgeoisie who ran the agency houses and plantations of that era. So, too, did the functionaries, whether Burgher, Tamil or Sinhalese, who entered the administrative services or those who became lawyers, doctors surveyors or engineers in private practice or government service. In my conceptualization today the indigenous capitalist class of property owners employing labour, that is, the “bourgeoisie,” should be seen as distinct and yet conjunct and conjoined with the formation termed “the middle class” – a term deployed locally to denote families of “status.” The point is that one could bear status and thereby benefit from its weight without necessarily employing labour in productive enterprises.[11]

45_Susew and Engeltina-400 Susew de Soysa & his wife Engeltina nee Peiris

  63_Louis Pieris-1x2cm-1400 Louis Pieris, younger brother of Jeronis  –to whom some letters are addressed

The overlapping categories of indigenous capitalists and middle class were also participants in the civilizing mission of the British … and were thus comprador. This was particularly true of those families who became Christian and participated in the missionary and educational activities of the various churches founded within the island. It is quite apposite for Goonetileke to mark this feature in critical vein for the benefit of readers.

Nevertheless, Goonetileke’s anti-colonial and nativist leanings lead him to one-sided excess. He neglects the White racist dimension of colonial rule and the manner in which this strand of British power alienated some, if not most, of the local middle class people. Many of the British men and women who resided in the colony believed in the superiority of the European dispensation and regarded the “natives’ and “blacks” as inferior in capacity. It was the comprador bourgeoisie and the conjoined middle class within the indigenous peoples who suffered the sharpest from the racial arrogance of such British personnel. These slights ranged from the disparagement encoded in the tone and manner in which the term “natives” was wielded to those occasions where British planters turfed well-to-do ‘natives” out of first class railway carriages they considered their White preserve.

It is for this reason that John Kotelawela Snr and Danister Perera Abeywardena (the one Goyigama rich and the other Karāva) became local heroes at different moments in the 1890s and 1900s because they thrashed a British colonial for a blatant racist remark.[12] Again, it was because the elite British clubs sustained a colour bar that the Orient Club formed by the indigenous comprador bourgeoisie in the year 1894  had a simple membership rule: no Whites (Roberts, 1974: 558).

oRIENT cLUB groupSome members of the Orient Club circa 1907, including Frederick Dornhorst, James Peiris, EJ Samerawickrame, FR SenanayakePic from Arnold Wright

Again, the remark from James Peiris must be placed within a whole range of pursuits pressed by the Ceylon Social Reform Society. With AK Coomaraswamy (Tamil), Donald Obeyesekere (Govigama Christian), Peter de Abrew (Salāgama Buddhist) and WA de Silva (Karāva Buddhist), Peiris was among its stalwart founding fathers. This association sought to combat the denationalization of the western-educated middle class, namely, their own class. Their prescription was “national education” and towards this end the CSRS pressed for the teaching of the vernacular languages in schools and the introduction of “Ceylon History” as a subject in school curricula. (Roberts 1979b: 228-29).

Indeed, the enthusiasms of the CRSR cannot be comprehended without linking it to the demands for constitutional reform pressed in the early 1900s by a number of middle class personnel, the CSRS itself and the Ceylon National Association.[13] While the drive revealed by these two associations seems to have lapsed in the early 1910s, it was from within the same class ranks and with some of the same personnel that the major drive for constitutional reform was renewed in 1917-19 by the Ceylon Reform League and the Ceylon National Congress.

To treat the comprador bourgeoisie and its Karāva component as mere British lap-dogs is a mistake. This is doubly so when one brings the Buddhist revitalization movement into one’s purview. As Malalgoda has revealed, opposition to the denigration of the Buddha Sāsana (as the Sinhalese identified their religion) emerged as early as the 1840s, though the best known backlashes gathered momentum from the 1860s (Malalgoda 1973 and 1976).

Buddhist monks from the Karāva community, such as Weligama Sumangala, were among those who spearheaded this campaign of rejuvenation with its deep hostility to the conviction of God-given superiority assumed by some of the Christian priests and the proselytization programmes they pursued. Such bhikkhus invariably had rich sponsors from the same caste background. In any event, there was cross-caste cooperation in the Buddhist revitalisation movement of resistance to the colonial Christian denigration of their beliefs and life ways. Such Karāva rich as Arthur Dias from the Ponnahännädigē lineage, the Salgados and Sri Chandrasekeras participated in a series of multi-faceted efforts to strengthen their beloved religion and cultural order – efforts that involved leading Govigama, Salāgama and Durāva rich as well.

Again, as Neloufer de Mel has revealed (2001: 65-67), the “native professional and entrepreneurial bourgeoisie” provided the capital for the performance and publication of Sinhala plays that extolled the virtues of the Sinhala past and Sinhala society. Emphasis on the millennia-long roots of Sinhalese civilization and the greatness of the island peoples’ past was a retort directed at British notions of civilizational greatness. John de Silva and Charles Dias were among the playwrights whose works espoused the nationalist cause. Two of John de Silva’s plays centred upon the kings Srī Vikrama Rājasinha and Dutugämunu. They attracted large crowds from a wide spectrum when performed at the Tower Hall[14] and other locations in Colombo during the early 20th century. The plays were available as Sinhala booklets and it is said that 16,000 copies of Srī Vikrama Rājasinha were sold by 1925 (Amunugama 1978: 287; Jayawardena 1972: 171). De Silva’s diary indicates that a wide range of personnel, from Govigama aristocrats to professional men from a variety of castes, including quite a number of Christians, were his benefactors (de Mel 2001: 65-66).

That the Hännädigē Pierises and Warusahännädigē de Soysas were ardent Christians is crystal clear. They built churches in several localities, including Hanguranketa in the heartland of the Kandyan Province, a locality to which Christianity would have been quite foreign. In brief, as Goonetileke notes, they were eager beavers in the civilizing and Christianizing mission in the mid-nineteenth century. However, their outreach went beyond that to many acts of generalized philanthropy benefiting local communities. The de Soysas built sections of the road from Kandy to Hanguranketa: ten miles of roads from Haragama to Ma Oya ferry and two and a half miles of road from Mailapitiya to Hanguranketaa–helping their capitalist endeavor as well as the public in this one act. Their most wide-reaching public benefactions, however, were in Colombo: the De Soysa Medical Institute & Museum and De Soysa Lying-in-Home were their immeasurable gifts to the people of the island.

De Soysa Lying-in-home De Soysa Medical Institute & Museum

Prince of Wales’ College, Moratuwa

16_DSC0502 Holy Emmanuel Church in Moratuwa

The civilizing instruments that the British introduced into their colonies included schools, newspapers, magazines and clubs of all sorts. As such, the literary and political currents coursing through Europe entered the island through those able to read and write, namely, the newly emergent indigenous middle class and its adjunct bourgeoisie. These intellectual currents included the ideas we identify as “liberalism” and “nationalism.” Such an institutional organisation as the Ceylon Social Reform Society was both a product and engine of liberalism. Likewise, the Western institution one identifies as a “club” carried broader implications for society than its principal recreational purposes as drinking hole, card players’ gathering and sports forum. The middle class gentlemen who met at some clubs ‘strayed’ into anti-colonial political chats and hatched their ‘plots’ in the comradeship of the bar or lounge. Even the cricket pitch was liberating: in those decades where the British kept a tight lid upon any nationalist thinking as “sedition,” the Ceylonese found that they could challenge the notion of “white superiority” on the cricket field. The cricketing contest initiated on the 29th & 30th June 1887 between “the best eleven European cricketers and the picked representatives of the Ceylonese” was a test of strength. In the imperial milieu of that era there was a political edge to this game. As significantly, it became an annual encounter.[15]

The island history, then, is complex and many-sided. One must beware of sweeping generalizations.



Amunugama, Sarath 1979 “Ideology and class interest in one of Piyadasa Siris­ena’s novels: the new image of the “Sinhala Buddhist” nationalist,” in M Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 314-36.

De Mel, Neloufer 2001 Women and the nation’s narrative, Rowman & Littlefield.

Foenander, S. P. 1924 Fifty years of Ceylon cricket, Colombo: The Ceylon Advertising Co.

Henry Candidus [1853?] “A desultory conversation between two young aristocratic Ceylonese,” in M. Roberts (ed.) Sri Lanka. Collective identities revisited. Volume II,, Colombo: Marga, 1998, p. 1-28.

Jayawardena, V. K. 1972. The rise of the labor movement in Ceylon, Durham: Duke University Press.

Malalgoda, Kitsiri 1973 “The Buddhist-Christian confrontation in Ceylon, 1800- 1880,” Social Compass, 20:2, pp. 171-200.

Malalgoda, Kitsiri 1976 Buddhism in Sinhalese society, 1730-1900, University of California Press.

Roberts, Michael 1973 “Elites and elite formation in Ceylon, c. 1830-1930. in K. M. D. Silva (ed.), History of Ceylon, Vol. III Colombo Apothecaries’ Ltd, pp. pp. 263-284.

Roberts, Michael 1974 Problems of social stratification and the demarcation of national and local elites in British Ceylon,” Journal of Asian Studies, August 1974, 23: 549-77.

Roberts, Michael 1977 “Elites, nationalisms and the nationalist movement in British Ceylon,” in M. Roberts (ed.), Documents of the Ceylon National Congress and nationalist politics in Ceylon, 1929-1950, vol. 1, Colombo: Department of National Archives, pp. xxv-ccxxii.

Roberts, Michael 1979a “Elite formation and elites, 1832-1931,” in M Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 153-213.

Roberts, Michael 1979b “Stimulants and ingredients in the awakening of latter-day nationalisms,” in M. Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, 214-242.

Roberts, Michael 1982 Caste conflict and elite formation. The rise of a Karava elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, Michael 1991 ‘Mentalities: ideologues, activists and historians in the 1915 “riots” in Sri Lanka’,” Mss. paper presented at the International Association of Historians of Asia [IAHA] Conference, Hong Kong, June 1991. [See Exploring Confrontation, 1994 for final version]

Roberts, Michael 1994 Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Roberts, Michael 2009 “For Humanity. For the Sinhalese. Dharmapala as crusading bosat,” in Roberts, Confrontations in Sri Lanka, Colombo: Vijtha Yapa Publications, pp. 237-74 (originally published in 1997).

Roberts, Michael 2015 “People Inbetween: ethnic and class prejudices in British Ceylon,” 3 August 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/08/03/people-inbetween-ethnic-and-class-prejudices-in-british-ceylon/#more-17244

Roberts, Michael, Ismeth Raheem and Percy Colin-Thomè 1989 People inbetween, Vol. I, The Burghers and the middle class in the transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s 1960s, Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services.

Wright, Arnold (comp.) 1907 Twentieth century impressions of Ceylon, London: Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Company.


Roberts, Michael   Engeltine Cottage in Kandy: The Intertwining of Three Families — Pieris, Sangakkara and Krishnapillai,” 4 August 2012, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/engeltine-cottage-in-kandy-the-intertwining-of-three-families-pieris-sangakkara-and-krishnapillai/

engletine in kandy Engeltine Pieris adorns the wall at the Kshema & Kumari Sangakkara residence in Kandy


[1] Karl W Goonewardena had succeeded Mr Labrooy as Departmental head of History by the mid-1960s. He had been one of my undergraduate teachers in the late 1950s and his support was a vital pillar in the decision taken by the Asia Foundation to support my Oral History Project in UK and thereafter in Ceylon.

[2] In UK 31 former British administrators (including 1 Barbadian) in Ceylon had been interviewed in 1965/66; while in Sri Lanka 122 personnel were interviewed. See http://www.adelaide.edu.au/ library/special/mss/roberts/. All the audiotaped interviews are available in digitized form on web courtesy of the Barr Smith Library University of Adelaide. Also see https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/ 2013/10/15/leonard-woolf-speaks-and-recollects/

[3] Perhaps the most significant stock discovered in this manner were (a) The Minutes of the Ceylon Reform League, 1917-19 and (B) the documents of the Ceylon National Congress. The most important items in the latter stock (discovered in the hands of JR Jayewardena and generously given to the Archives) have been reproduced in Roberts, Documents of the Ceylon National Congress, 4 vols, Colombo, 1977.

[4] I was critical THEN of the undervaluation of the cultural dimension integral to any socio-political order within the Marxist emphasis on materialism and thus on economics. The concept “elite” was adopted by me — THEN—as a way of attaching weight to “status dimensions” in the socio-political hierarchies. I have since altered my conceptualization to fuse the concepts “middle class” and “capitalist class” as two entities that do not have the same boundaries, but overlap in some measure. See Roberts 2009: 244.

[5] These notes on 5 by 8 inch cards are now stored in the Special Collections, Barr Smith Library.

[6] Indrani Sri Chandrasekera, Shanthis wife, was integral to the hospitality I received and participated in the intellectual conversations we had. Looking back I regret losing touch with her after Shanthi passed away.

[7] If memory serves me right, Nirmala Dissanayake from the History Department told me that this paper was of benefit to her when she commenced her postgraduate degree. Some aspects of this classificatory seminar paper have, in fact, been incorporated in the book Facets.

[8] See Roberts, Raheem & Colin-Thome 1989: 49, 52, 59-67, 70-79, 81, 109-10, 152-65, 169, & 178-79 for information on the Young Ceylon circle and the pursuits of The Ceylon Examiner.

[9] This pamphlet of 23 pages was printed after 1851 and is probably the work of Lorenz. It is reproduced in complete form in M. Roberts (ed.) Sri Lanka. Collective identities revisited. Volume II,, Colombo, Marga, 1998, p. 1-28.

[10] James Peiris was a Telgē Peiris and not related to the Jeronis Pieirs clan, though hailing from the Moratuwa Panadura locality. Note the different English rendering of “Peiris.” Both James and Charles Peiris married into the Vidānalāgē de Mel family of Moratuwa – a wealthy lineage whose status rivalry with the de Soysas has legendary oral resonances.

[11] For a clarification of this overlapping conceptual scheme, see Roberts 2009: 244. Also see Roberts, et al, People Inbetween, 1989: 27, 86 and Roberts 2015.

[12] See Roberts, et al, People Inbetween, 1989: 120 and Jayawardena 1972: 126.

[13] The Jayewardena brothers (Govigama) H Marcus Fernando (Karava) and such Burghers as Frederick Dornhorst were among the personnel who agitated for reform in the Legislative Council in the 1900s. Their efforts extracted a modest reform from the Colonial Office, resulting in a expansion of the number of “unofficial Councillors” and the creation of an “Educated Ceylonese seat in 1910/12.

[14] The Tower Hall was inaugurated in December 1911 with Anagārika Dharmapāla as principal speaker and a pirit ceremony to bless the place (de Mel 2001: 66).

[15] SP Foenander 1924: 158 & 167 and Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989: 122.

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Filed under British colonialism, caste issues, cultural transmission, disparagement, economic processes, historical interpretation, island economy, life stories, literary achievements, modernity & modernization, politIcal discourse, sri lankan society, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes

One response to “About-About: Clarifying the Work on Jeronis Pieris and His Times

  1. Pingback: Kumar Sangakkara’s Many Steps towards Reconciliation and Sensible Institutional Governance | Thuppahi's Blog

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