My Peradeniya Days: Labrooy, Pinto and Jennings as Touchstones –KM de Silva

Kingsley de Silva, being a section from Chapter V entitled “Academic Life” which is part of his Memoirs [in process]

The academic and intellectual life of the campus I have left as the last part of the collage, in reverse order of importance. At the end of my first year I had a choice of reading for a special degree in Economics or History. Given that choice most of my peer group would have chosen Economics because of the career prospects a degree in that discipline would offer. In my first two tutorials in Economics, F R jayasuriya, , a senior and controversial teacher, gave me an alpha; any pleasure 1 derived’ from that was completely lost when I discovered that every one in my group had also got an alpha. I decided that there was no intellectual challenge in getting an alpha on such easy terms and so the option of Economics was voluntarily closed, I had no doubt that it would be History, and 1 have had no regrets in making that choice.

L 6ah -Justin & Ford Popular 1952. WJF LabrooyPERA 33

The History Department of my day was clearly the most distinguished in the Arts Faculty. It had a depth of teaching talent that no other departmenthad. The head of the department H C Ray was an Indian with a high reputation for scholarship, but he had not done any publication at all after his appointment to the chair of History. A tall, ungainly figure, eccentric and ill-mannered, he was liked by some students, and disliked by others. I fell into the latter category. The department was enlivened—if that is the correct word—by Ray’s long dispute with Dr GC Mendis, the number two in the department. Mendis was the exact opposite of Ra admirers as he had detractors. He was in his last year as a teacher when I reached my third year His speciality was the History of Sri Lanka in which he had done some pioneering work in his day, specially on ancient Sri Lanka, but by the time he retired he had run out of steam, partly through his conflict with Ray, and we realised that there was nothing very new that he coutd offer in his lectures.


In later years I grew to like and admire him much more than I did when he taught me. Those of us who specialised in Modern History regarded it as our great good fortune that Ray did not continue with his attempt to teach British Colonial History, about which he knew absolutely nothing, but which he insisted on teaching because he felt he needed to keep in touch with the students in our division of the class. (He, of course, taught several courses in Ancient Indian History). The students who were then in their final year reported to us that his lectures were a long exercise in evading the main themes to be studied.

Fortunately we were spared that, why we did not know, and instead we had W J F LaBrooy as our teacher, and at his hands our introduction to the intricacies of the subject of British Colonial History, was as sound as any we could have had in a British university. His lectures were meticulously crafted, a synthesis of the current research in the standard British learned journals and of course based on a thorough familiarity with all the books on the subject, most of which were available to us in the library. His lectures on the development of Sri Lanka’;s constitution under British rule were a tour de force. Reflecting on these in the later years I marvelled at the skill with which he had introduaed" us to the essence of these constitutions. When I was a research student in London, and my teachers there put me through my paces I realised that there was little ! had to learn from them; !I had learned it all atPeradeniya from W j F LaBrooy. The lectures he gave us, fifty in all, would have earned him or anybody else a Ph.D. – indeed I had readPh.D. theses (awarded by London University) which surveyed only a section of the work covered ‘ by LaBrooy, and felt that there was nothing there to whichwe had not been introduced by him.

Along with LaBrooy, there was" Father Ignatious Pinto, who taught us about Medieval Europe and England. Educated at Oxford and a great believer in the Oxbridge tutorial system he taught us the importance of reading the original texts (if only in English translations) and not merely the commentaries on them by more recent scholars. Above all he taught us to rely on our intellectual resources and not only on lectures. His lectures on political theory and the history of political thought were memorable alike for his grasp of the philosophical basis of the theories he expounded—from Plato and Aristotle, to Fascism and Marxism—as for his insights and his wit. Above all, along with LaBrooy he taught us the art of writing historical essays.

LaBrooy introduced us to the structure of essays, the techniques of research and reliance on as wide a wide variety of sources as possible, and Pinto taught us to write clearly, logically, and in simple if not elegant language. The models they encouraged us to emulate were the best in the world at that time, and both consciously and unconsciously we absorbed what they had to teach us. Father Pinto’s tutorials would be a terrifying experience for the slacker, the verbose, and the incoherent rambler. Using his corrosive wit and Socratic style of questioning he eventually drilled into our heads that a short essay written in a clear style, and logically argued was far better than anything else. Neither LaBrooy and Pinto gave their alphas easily; you had to earn them. When I began to get them regularly for my essays I knew I had matured into a good student.

The other great influence on me, if not on others, was Sir Ivor Jennings, the Vice-Chancellor. The influence was indirect not direct, but not the less significant for that. Every batch of new students was introduced to university life with a brief lecture by him. More important was the circular letter which new students received before they entered the University. I recall one of them for two reasons. First, was his extolling the virtues of residential life for a university student, and the importance of a room of one’s own.

Indeed he used the title of Virginia Woolf s book to expand on this theme. But the second reason was even more important – these were his comments onhow to take notes at lectures. The gist of what he had to say was that the briefer the, note the better, because you were expected to read on your own.The lectures were merely a guide to your reading. That lesson I learned very early, and during my whole career as an undergraduate I never took lengthy notes. On most occasions, even with W J F LaBrooy, I generally concentrated on the bibliography he gave with every lecture, and I read every item there.

jennings-22-sunday-observer Jennings PERA 22 Pic from

We had learned of Jennings’s reputation before we entered the University. Two of his books, his brief introduction to the British constitution, and his short survey of the economy of Sri Lanka, were standard reading in our pre-university classes. I admired his style of writing, terse, uncomplicated and elegant in its simplicity. In time we were introduced to his treatise on Cabinet Government, and to other writings by him.

He was a re-assuring presence on the campus, a familiar figure because of his long walks through the campus, sometimes with a walking stick, sometimes without it, greeting students with a nod and a smile. We knew that it was largely through his energetic commitment to the University, that so much of it had been built by the time we came in as students. Over the three years of our life there we watched^ the unfolding of the architect’s plans, the landscape artist’s work, and the curator’;s hard work, as the campus emerged like a beautiful butterfly from its chrysalis. Even the philistines among us—and there were a great many—were enthralled by the magnificence of the campus, nature’s handiwork improved upon by men. What other campus had the bounty we had at Peradeniya, a forest-covered mountain (or a foothill to be more accurate) and a terrain that sloped, sometimes precipitously, often gently, till the streams that flowed down from the mountain, met the river under the bridges that man had built, some before the campus had been thought of, the more elegant ones after the University architects began their work?

Many of us regarded Jennings as the real architect of the campus not Patrick Abercrombie and his associates. As we looked around us, we regarded" the magnificent environment in which we studied as the legacy left to us by Jennings. Sometime late in 1954 we learnt that Jennings had decided to leave Peradeniya. He was going back to Cambridge as the Master of Trinity Hall. We knew that he would go back some day, but were surprised that it had come so soon after his election by the University Court to a third term. There were, as was to be expected, many farewells to him, culminating in an official farewell from the staff. But by far the most touching farewell was one organised by a few students (including some of my friends). They gave him a motor cycle escort out of the campus, a group of nine riders in formation escorting his modest Ford car from the lodge to the Kandy road. They had seen the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh being driven in and out of the campus with such an escort when they visited it in 1953 for the official opening of thecampus, and decided that Sir Ivor Jennings deserved similar treatment.

No other Vice-Chancellor has left office with anything like a similar demonstration  of the students’ affection and respect. As Jennings’s car was driven out of the campus one felt that an era was over. For the University of Ceylon, the foundation years were over. We were privileged to be part of the student body of those years.

k-m-de-silvaProfessor KM de Silva taught for many years at Peradeniya University and helped found the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. His published work is too numerous to reproduce here, but see Note especially


  • History of Ceylon: Volume III From the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century to 1948 (1973, University of Ceylon, editor)
  • A History of Sri Lanka (1981, University of California Press)
  • Reaping the Whirlwind: Ethnic Conflict, Ethnic Politics in Sri Lanka (1998, Penguin)

ALSO SEE “Peradeniya in Full Bloom” —



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Filed under cultural transmission, education, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, modernity & modernization, patriotism, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, world affairs

One response to “My Peradeniya Days: Labrooy, Pinto and Jennings as Touchstones –KM de Silva

  1. Pingback: Sustaining Research at Peradeniya Arts Faculty: Pathways | Thuppahi's Blog

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