A history of education in Sri Lanka

Uditha Devapriya
24 min readNov 19, 2019


A “Pansala school”, from “Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon”

In March 2016 Thisuri Wanniarachchi wrote what can only be described as a confrontational piece. Titled “What your schools didn’t teach you”, it was aimed at one institution: the elite public school in the towns. Half the tirade was against “the culture of fraternity” surrounding the Big Match culture (matches played between rival schools, the Royal-Thomian being the prime example); the other half was against the (alleged) racism of Buddhist schools which belong to that culture. It was by all means an opinionated piece, and it raised a number of hairs (the Facebook comments indicated that well), but still, despite the daring, radical tone, the writer was wrong on one count: she had compared the elite schoolboy (and schoolgirl) culture in Sri Lanka with the Ivy League culture of the US, where she was studying. To put it politely, that’s like comparing apples and oranges.

The Big Match, as Malinda Seneviratne observed 17 years ago, “is not just about cricket — it is about spectacle.” No one actually writes about it, except as an Old Boy or a bewildered admirer. Those who castigate it — and the rise of social media has seen an influx of those who do — tend to do so on the basis of it being an anachronism, a historical paradox indulged by infantalised adults (a point that even Ralph Pieris, writing about secondary schools in Ceylon, made). And yet, it is not. It is as much a part of Sri Lanka as Eton-Harrow is a part of England, and it is as much a part of modern history as monastic seats of learning were a part of ancient history. But then, on the other hand, there’s an entire story to relate before we get to Big Matches and Cycle Parades. We must begin at the beginning.

In the beginning

Sinhala society placed a high value on education. Vijaya, according to the Mahavamsa the first king, came with 700 followers, among whom was a chaplain or purohita called Upatissa. We don’t know much about prehistoric Sri Lanka, but we do know that following Vijaya’s colonisation an active Brahmanical tradition took root in the country.

Brahmins soon took to teaching locals. Pandukhabaya, on the run from his uncles, is said to have been taught by Pandula: for this he is said to have been paid a hundred pieces of gold. These teachers were, we can assume, rich: they were probably like the tuition teachers of today. To give one example, Pandula is said to have contributed a hundred times the fees paid to him by Pandukabaya, towards his wars. We do not know whether these Brahmins had a school under them, as the Greeks did.

After the third century BC, when Buddhism spread in the island, the role of teachers began to be shared by Brahmins and Buddhist monks. Since it was not the custom of the time to record incidents and events connected to the life of ordinary people, we have no evidence as to whether peasants and villagers were taught by these religious leaders. There was, however, a strong literary tradition, particularly after the coming of Buddhism; literary activities were limited to the nobility (even the Brahmi inscriptions were the work of the upper classes) and the teaching of their children, and of newly ordained monks, took precedence over everything else.

The construction of the Mahavihara at the time of Devanampiya-Tissa and the Abhayagiriya at the time of Vattagamini-Abhaya opened up a new chapter in the history of education in Sri Lanka. The Vimativinodani Vinayatika defines a pirivena as a dwelling place for monks who studied at these institutions. The pirivenas took education beyond the aristocracy. Monks took to the teaching of lay children; the first real schools in Sri Lanka were thus the monasteries.

John Davy

Widespread literacy in Sri Lanka was not unheard of, even by the British. Although Knox denigrated the education system of the time as useless and unworthy, other writers, from the Portuguese to the British, praised it. In 1807 James Cordiner wrote that the “greater part of the men can read and write”, in 1821 John Davy observed that “[r]eading and writing are far from uncommon acquirements”, and in 1845 William Knighton noted that “it is rare to see a Ceylonese, even of the poorest class, who cannot read and write his own language.” All three, British writers and products of elite schools, would have seen in the compulsory and universal nature of education a phenomenon far, far removed from their country.

We know from records that a child’s education in ancient Sinhala society began at the age of five; according to the Muhurttacintanani and the Saddharmalankaraya, it was supposed to. On the day of initiation the child would be taken to the village temple. The child was invariably male, since “education for boys was carried on by Buddhist priests at the village pansala… just as the village priest taught at the church door in medieval England.” The relationship between teacher and student was rigid; the teacher was offered “a cluster of betel leaves and camphor”, while lessons began with an exhortation: “svasti siddhan”, or “let prosperity attend.”

The Portuguese gained an advantage upon their arrival: they found in Sri Lanka a system of education based on memory. Even with the writing down of Buddhist tracts on palm leaves, this tradition of rote learning continued; “[t]he frequent repetitions in texts… were an aid to ancient students who had to memorise long texts together.” The Portuguese found the eidetic memory of the population to be an advantage. The bahusattas could recite Buddhist texts. They did the same with foreign texts. Thus the author of the Savul Sandeshaya, the Dahamsonda Kavya, the Kusa Jathakaya, and the Subasithaya, Alagiyawanna Mukaveti, is said to have memorised the Bible in six months, and was later honoured with a title and several lands for his assistance in compiling the land register (or tombo).

We do not know in what language Mukaveti committed the Bible to his memory. Since it was felt that interpretation of the Scripture must be left to the priests and not the inhabitants, it is not likely that a one-off translation was made, though records indicate that a Jesuit missionary in Malvana translated a catechism in 1610, two years before Mukaveti converted to Catholicism. The Kustintanu Satana (which begins with an exhortation to the Holy Trinity, a transmogrification of the exhortation to the Triple Gem) is usually attributed to Mukaveti (though C. E. Godakumbura disputed this); if he did write it, it indicates the lengths to which “local intellectuals” went to adapt to a changing social order.

But the legacy of education the Portuguese left behind was not limited to the study of holy texts. One of their greatest contributions was a curriculum that stressed on the mind and the body: as the aphorism ran, “mens corpora e mens sano.” They were influenced by Aristotle’s teachings which had laid an equal emphasis on the performing arts and on the three R’s (writing, reading, and arithmetic). Be it the Franciscans (1543), Jesuits (1602), Dominicans (1605), or Augustinians (1606), they privileged education extending beyond “learning to read and write and to sing.” Even in a rudimentary sense, these were more far-reaching than the British system.

Furthermore, from their inception the priests in charge of the colleges prioritised the need to learn the native languages: one official despatch noted that “without the knowledge of the[ir] language nothing or very little can be achieved.” We know that initially priests were unwilling to translate the Scripture to the vernaculars. However, they were also aware of the need to educate local priests. In 1564 Father Aviriggen became the first European to work on and publish a Tamil grammar: according to him the language seemed “better, shorter, and easier.” Later, with the establishment of Jesuit colleges in Mannar and Colombo, it was made compulsory for young priests to learn and speak in Sinhala and Tamil. On the other hand, they continued to preach in Portuguese; this meant that locals had to study it.

In fact, so pervasive did Portuguese become that it not only contributed words and idioms to Sinhala, it also became the established lingua franca of much of the population. Try as they might, even with a proclamation in 1659 the Dutch (whose contribution to the language was, by contrast, minimal) could not quite ban the use of Portuguese among locals. Interestingly enough it was being spoken widely even when the Colombo Academy commenced classes in 1836; indeed, one reason why the Academy was established in the first place was to promote the use of English among the Burgher elites.

Portugal and Holland

Like the monasteries before them, the Jesuit colleges were supported by temple lands which had been transferred to the churches. On October 22, 1605, for instance, on the orders of Jeronimo D’Azevedo the villages of Munneswaram, Moratuwa, and Kohilawatte were transferred to the Jesuit College at Colombo; later several villages in the Siyane Korale were added; a distinction was drawn between residences of priests, which could not retain funds from private donors, and colleges, which could. Father Vito Perniola, criticising Abeyasinghe’s view that missionary enclaves drained the treasury, argues that this modified form of viharagam and devalagam revived agriculture, though this is contested given the scorched earth policies of the military that would have reversed the gains of such a revival.

Certainly, the links between priests and locals were strong. This was vital to the missionary project, but at times it had the effect of distancing priests from the Lisbon administration even though Papal Bulls had tried to unify the goals of missionaries and officials. That is not to say their sympathies were with the Buddhists and Hindus. But after they converted a community to Catholicism, they found themselves at odds with administrators who treated the newly converted with contempt.

No doubt most priests shared the bigoted views of the officials; in a dispatch to Alfonso V of Portugal, for instance, Pope Nicholas V wrote, “the enemies of the Christian religion should be… subjugated to the Christian religion.” But once they achieved their aim of conversion, local priests privileged the education of parishioners over the need to maintain their subjugation by the administration, the reason being that since they were closer to the people than the officials or those higher up in the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Goa and Cochin, they were probably more sympathetic to locals; this often brought them into confrontation with administrators. The splits between Franciscans, Jesuits, and Augustinians which divided the country into missionary territories merely compounded this dilemma.

Map of Dutch Ceylon, 1686

If Portuguese educators or missionaries were divided along factional lines, their successors, the Dutch, were greatly helped by the absence of such splits. Upon the annexation of the country, barring the Kandyan kingdom by the Dutch East India Company in 1658, trade and commerce, particularly of cinnamon, took precedence over ecclesiastical matters.

All these more or less brought priests and officials to an understanding regarding the education of locals: officials wanted to eradicate Portuguese presence from the island, and priests wanted to convert Catholics to Calvinism. There would have been times when the evangelical fervour of the priests was a hindrance to the trade ambitions of the administrators. But these were few and far in between. That, more than anything else, explains the more rigid, disciplined school structure the Dutch were able to enforce throughout their rule, which impressed even Frederick North.

The Dutch instituted a Scholarchal Commission, “composed of the Dessave…; all the Clergy of Colombo…; and three or four other gentlemen Civil and Military.” They appointed as schoolmasters those who had been tasked with registering baptisms and marriages, the tombo-holders. Two officials, “a clergyman and a layman, who was called the Scholarch”, visited schools and drafted reports. “Their visit was previously announced to the villagers by Tomtom beating, when both adults and children were summoned by the vidhan and the School master to be present.”

The Dutch paid as much attention as, if not more attention than, their predecessors to the upkeep of public institutions. They came up with a clearly defined curriculum. Attendance was made compulsory through a system of fines which doubtless contributed to the deterioration of relations between Dutch administrators and locals later on. In this the schoolmaster had less power than the inspectors, the latter of whom were tasked with deciding on whether a student had the requisite levels of knowledge.

At the age of 15, students would be issued a certificate and then designated, at the inspector’s discretion, as “largadeen”, which meant they were literally “set at large.” They were required to attend school twice a week for a further three years to obtain religious instruction. After this they would be designated as “nieuwe largardeen” or “newly discharged.” Even then their school career was not over: after a further two years, they would be labelled as “oude largadeen” or “old discharged.” Some would remain for as much as another nine or 10 years, undergoing further religious training.

To counter the onslaught of Catholicism, seminaries were built everywhere. Regarding these, we are told that “the students trained… were few in number and were carefully selected.” However, he people were not conversant in the language of the conqueror: Van Imhoff recorded an instance of youths at the seminaries “talking in Latin or poring over Greek.” The more gifted students would, at the end of their scholarship, be sent to the Universities of Holland, though in 1700 this proposal was discontinued.

Along with native schools and seminaries, there were also schools for Dutch children. These were “of an elementary nature” and they were divided into three types: Orphan, Parish, and Private. Orphan and Parish schools were funded by the government. The teachers or masters in all three were men of the Church: “prelectors, catechists, and visitors of the sick, or schoolmasters in the Company’s service.” Among secular subjects taught at Dutch schools were spelling, reading, writing, singing, arithmetic, and geography; these were in addition to the two religious subjects, scripture and catechism.

According to official reports, in 1760 there were 12,708 children attending native government schools in the Colombo District; by 1786, towards the end of Dutch rule, the number had risen to 28,867. Paul Pieris writes that “no provision appears to have been made for the education of girls… [and] the sons of its European servants.” In this he was only half-correct: in 1760, there were 5,180 girls attending schools in Colombo; the number in 1772 stood at 8,478. In fact education of women, overlooked in the pre-colonial era because of cultural taboos, was looked into fairly well by the Dutch.

The tombo holders in played a dual role: they enforced attendance at schools and maintained civil records. The Scholarchal Commission was rooted in the tombo system: the State, in other words, maintained the tombos, and the tombos were connected to the schools. The Commission fulfilled three functions: the upkeep of education, the supervision of Christians, and the taking down of the history of locals, i.e. “… who and what his parents and family were; when he was baptised and married, what education he received, when he died and what family he left behind.”

Until 1703, we are told, the Commission did not meet regularly. The native schools and their buildings were thus neglected. In the Colombo District the earliest notice regarding the native schools comes to us from 1712, when the number stood at 30: 24 Sinhala and six Tamil. There seems to have been the usual complaints about poor maintenance: in 1721 a complaint was made of “ignorant Masters”, while in 1750, added complaints of students turning to “heathenism” and “popish insinuations” stacked up.

In fact the Dutch education system had to put up with not one, but two, obstacles: the pagan and the Catholic. (Catholic priests distinguished between Protestants “heretics” and Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Vedda “heathens.”) It remains one of that era’s peculiarities, but second generation Catholics, whose fathers had embraced their faith at the point of the sword, stuck to “popishness” despite every effort by Dutch officials, priests, and educators to convert them; it may have been because the second generation, unlike the first, believed in their faith: an irony given that the administration was now fast issuing proclamations or plakaats forbidding Catholicism. The first such plakaat, issued by Van Goens on September 16, 1658, made conversions illegal. But these measures were not successful:

“… in 1699 on Van Rheede’s orders, all Roman Catholic Churches and secret conventicles were closed, but it was a shock to the Company’s officers when they discovered eight years later, that most of the thirty five churches in Jaffna were well stocked with heathen literature. It was impossible to blink the fact that the natives were at heart heathen. The Vannias who had all been baptised, were more than suspected of being ‘devil-worshippers’, which probably meant Hindus, and their resolute refusal to admit Hollanders within their houses aggravated the suspicion.”

A proclamation made on June 6, 1711 forbidding heathen worship among the Hindus, an order that followed soon after forbidding Christians to marry Buddhists, and an Ordinance in 1760 criminalising the marriage of Christian women and pagan men (a crime punishable by vigorous flogging, hard labour for life, confiscation of property, and enslavement of children) were all, not surprisingly then, as ineffective as previous anti-Catholic measures. Simply put, “the Hollander lacked the zeal of the Portuguese.”

From Dutch Ceylon to British Ceylon

The Dutch clergyman was seen as a state official, with the result that Dutch schools, in spite of their emphasis on religious instruction and training, became secular enclaves: in 1760 at the Dutch Seminary, for instance, preparing youths for the Ministry was discouraged. Attempts to impose Protestantism on locals gradually failed: Jacob Haafner, a German in the pay of the Dutch Company in Galle, wrote in 1780 that inhabitants knew little of Christianity “save to make the sign of the Cross and to mutter a prayer.” Paul E. Pieris, writing on the state of Christianity under the Portuguese, made roughly the same observation: knowledge of Christianity “consisted of little more than the capacity to say a few prayers, and to make the sign of the Cross.” The emphasis on committing to memory had clearly drained both Catholic and Protestant churches of a faithful flock.

On the other hand, Roman Catholics prospered over Protestants in the Dutch era: the former expended their efforts through “volunteer enthusiasm”, their preachers could converse in Sinhala and Tamil (while only a few Dutch predikants, tasked with converting and educating the population, could), and the administration, being a commercial concern, was not willing to spend huge sums of money for the sake of missionaries. In fact unlike the Catholic Church, which as Tikiri Abeyasinghe notes drained the coffers of the Portuguese administration, the Protestant Church was more often than not “lorded over” by Dutch officials : an ironic reversal of fortune that only added to the woes of the Protestants.

The Catholics resorted to whatever means to maintain their flock. Records have been made of priests going as far as exorcising locusts and beetles “that damaged coconut trees in Puttalam and Kalpitiya.” Such practices were rampant elsewhere too, when priests sought to legitimise their faith by resorting to pagan customs like speaking in tongues and miracle healing. In the early 17th century, for instance, we hear of Father Robert de Nobili, who in Madurai presented “Christianity in terms of Brahmanic Hinduism”, and in later years we hear of Jesuits in China “who tried to combat Buddhism by adapting Christianity to Confucianism.”

In the meantime, while the Dutch oversaw education in their territories, the education of locals in the rest of the country continued to be overseen by Buddhist monks and, in the early period of Dutch occupation, from the time of Rajasinghe II to that of the Nayakkars, Catholic priests (especially the Oratorians, led by Joseph Vaz and Jacome Gonsalves).

The relationship between the kanda uda pas rata and the Dutch administration was at best ambivalent and at worst strenuous: whenever the cinnamon peelers (the chalias) went on strike, for example, they would seek refuge in the king’s territories, while for their part the Dutch, scheming to annex those territories, went as far as to offer the use of their vessels for religious missions, including one that paved the way for the formation of the Siyam Nikaya under Welivita Saranankara Thera. It was through Saranankara that the education system described reached its peak, because of the Buddhist revival. It would meet its worst nadir, conversely, at the end of the Kandyan kingdom in the British era — the era we must now turn to.

In his essay “The Bugbear of Literacy” Ananda Coomaraswamy makes a distinction between literacy and culture. In countries where industrialisation had not been allowed to proceed (owing to colonial economic policies that destroyed local industry), “to impose our literacy… upon a cultured but illiterate people is to destroy their culture in the name of our own.” Colonial filtration theory, taken to its conclusion along the lines of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission, thus ended up creating a rift between the literate few and the illiterate many: one British official in India, at the height of colonial expansion, lamented the way “English education has destroyed their [the Indians’] love of their own literature… and worst of all, their repose in their own traditional and national religion.”

The Cotta Institution

I have previously written on the history of education in the British era. To sum up, Frederick North the first Governor was sufficiently impressed with the way the Dutch had maintained parish schools to attempt at reviving them and rehiring parish teachers. When expenditures rose beyond £5,000, the administration cut funding by more than half. The added woes of insurrection in the Kandy and the threat of rebellion deterred North and his successor, Brownrigg, from concentrating on education.

However, the arrival of missionary bodies, starting with the Baptists in 1812, was followed by the setting up of private schools which, while not patronised by the State, were allowed to grow by it; by 1833 15 Baptist, 90 Wesleyan, 78 American Mission, and 53 Missionary Society schools had been set up. These controlled more than 46% of schools, while a mere 6% was held by Roman Catholics and 39% by private schools, the latter having “an average of 13 students” and “an attendance of five or six children.”

In November 1827, three years after the first girls’ boarding school in Asia was established in Uduvil, Jaffna, Governor Edward Barnes laid the foundation stone for a Christian Institution in Cotta. Its purpose, very obviously, was to train locals for missionary work. The school was officially opened a year later with 15 students. Among the subjects taught were Latin, Greek, mathematics, history, and Hebrew, with the Bible. In 1831, Reverend Joseph Marsh arrived from Madras, proceeding to head that institution until 1834. Reverend Marsh left the Cotta Institution in January 1835 and was made Chaplain of St Paul’s Church in Colombo; taking from his experiences at Cotta, he opened a school in Pettah, bordering on Hill Street. The first batch comprised of children from Burgher families in the vicinity, including Richard Morgan.

The government, in the aftermath of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission, felt the need to establish public schools, since education had been in the hands of missionaries and private individuals. Less than a year after its founding, Marsh’s school was turned into a public school (the Colombo Academy), and Marsh was employed as its first principal on an annual salary of around £200 (the equivalent of £22,200 or Rs. 5 million today).

Before its establishment, education was split between three layers: the State, comprising the Academy, three preparatory schools, and 97 parish schools (the latter of which shut down in 1832); the missionary, headed by the Baptists, Wesleyans, Americans, and Anglicans; and the private, “controlled mainly by individual entrepreneurs”, whose schools, “despite their large number [640 in 1830], attracted small enrolments.” In addition to these were two other types: Roman Catholic schools, which also attracted small enrolments, and indigenous schools, which were largely ignored.

The fortunes of government and private schools largely depended on State policy. From 1857 to 1862, the number of government schools rose from 99 to 5,518, that of free schools from 315 to 12,087, and that of aided schools (State funded missionary enclaves) from 15 to 1,424; by contrast the number of private schools grew from 873 to 5,508.

The recommendations of the Morgan Commission, tabled in the same year the British working class won the right to primary schooling (1870), swung the pendulum back to vernacular education, prioritising elementary education in Sinhala and Tamil and freedom of religion for students of other faiths in missionary schools. In reality, however, the latter was a cosmetic: missionary bodies frequently made use of distance clauses to prevent and pre-empt the establishment of government and, later, Buddhist schools.

The main determining factor, typical for a colonial administration, continued to be economic: at times of depression, fees were raised and vernacular schools closed, and at times of boom the reverse became true; thus in 1840, fees at the Colombo Academy were reduced to around six shillings in response to a spurt in the plantation sector; eight years later, at the height of an economic downturn, they were raised to £1; following the coffee crash of the 1870s they were raised again. The effect was dramatic — attendance nearly halved — but then this was the Colombo Academy. The less privileged schools suffered a worse fate: in 1880, following the coffee crash, the education vote for the island was frozen at Rs. 500,000, and five years later, expenditure dropped from Rs. 14 million to Rs. 12 million.

The Colombo Academy at the turn of the 20th century

Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of Sinhala and Tamil schools led to the monopolisation of English education by missionary bodies, which is why so many high end missionary schools came to be built after, and not before, the Morgan Committee reforms: Wesley College in 1874, Bishops College in 1875, Richmond College in 1877, and St Patrick’s College in 1881. Church and State, however, were not their sole patrons; philanthropy played its part too, as with Prince of Wales College. Paradoxically, it was the opening up of Sinhala and Tamil education that led to the establishment of private and semi-private schools; they were entrenched by the grant-in-aid system, discontinued in 1961 by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government.

Education, “English in many senses”

The extent of State involvement in private schools in the British era cannot be understated: in the late 1860s, the government was contributing as much as 35% of the income of these schools in the form of grants.

The Education Ordinance of 1947 (which abolished fees in government and government-aided schools) and Act No 5 of 1951 (which made it mandatory for unaided schools to register with the State) absorbed leading private schools, including those run by the Theosophical Society; P. de S. Kularatne’s (Ananda) misgivings about the Free Education Scheme thus show that it wasn’t just the Church which dithered over the takeovers.

In any case the privileges enjoyed by these schools were exorbitant: shielded from State policies, they benefitted from State funding. Collette’s unflattering depictions of students from lowly backgrounds as apes or deformed human beings hence underscored the very point which served as a justification for nationalisation: that without it, the gulf, between the 5% who operated in English and the 95% who could not, would have thrived.

Between 1946 and 1959, the number of private fee levying schools rose from 33 to 99. The number peaked at 185 in 1951, unprecedented considering that in 1950 it had been 62 and in 1952 it would drastically fall to 39; the reason, in part at least, was that schools waiting for the deadline to enter the Scheme had grouped together. Disregarding this abnormal hike, what we see in the period is a gradual decline in the importance of private fee levying schools; while attendance figures did not fall, mushroom schools built “to cater to a temporary need” were shut down. In other words, the license with which they had operated in the colonial era was being slowly checked and revoked; in 1961, an outright ban on private education stunted and preempted private sector involvement in education until the setting up of international schools a cool two decades later during the J. R. Jayewardene years.

In terms of curriculum, syllabus, exam content, textbooks, customs and traditions, and hours of commencement and closure, the education imparted was “‘English’ in many senses of the word.” The day began at 10 and continued until 3 in the evening, with “five hours for lessons, including half-an-hour for recreation and play.” The leading schools borrowed from Britain: “… the system of classification and mutual instruction on which English national schools are conducted should be introduced so far as circumstances allow”, read a set of “Rules and Suggestions” drafted by the first headmaster of the Colombo Academy, Joseph Marsh.

Much of the traditions and customs adopted by these institutions were copied from afar. The emerging middle class clamoured to send their children to these schools: Martin Wickramasinghe, sensing the prestige these schools had accorded to this milieu, had Alan, the son of the protagonists of Gamperaliya Nanda and Piyal, sent to Royal College in Kaliyugaya, where he befriends the son of an enterprising trader; the son, Simon Kabilana, becomes the industrialist-antagonist in the sequel, Yuganthaya, where his own son, Malin, who returns from England schooled as a radical, is also a student there.

It wouldn’t be nitpicking to note that the first radicals were also bred in these institutions, which, to be fair, did not take kindly to them: students wearing sooriya flowers in the midst of the Sooriya Mal movement, for instance, were called to the principal’s office and suspended, while not even his excellent record in academics and sports and “emigration” to Cambridge could stop A. E. Buultjens’s school from erasing his name from its roll of honour, for the crime of renouncing Christianity and embracing atheism.

In 1862, confirming the preeminent position of these schools, the Central School Commission instituted an eighth grade scholarship exam which children could write and through it gain admission to the Colombo Academy; its differentiated nature, a far cry from the scholarship exam today, can be gleaned from the fact that only English medium students could qualify for it. Thus entry to elite schools was rigidly supervised, and the sons of headmen and planters could easily gain admission. However, at the same time, there were occasional intrusions by less privileged families.

In that regard the story of James de Alwis offers a study in contrast. Though his proficiency in English made him a preeminent scholar, it wasn’t attained easily: he and his friends were compelled “to resort to means other than those usually employed by the Englishmen or English-speaking Burghers.” At 15 he was studying, at the Academy, “English grammar, Arithmetic, Algebra, and Drawing”, having “just begun to learn Latin and Geometry.” A certificate from the headmaster in 1840 shows that the means he had resorted to had paid off: “Master de Alwis has a very good acquaintance with the English language… He writes a very good hand.”

James de Alwis

Among the shortcuts frequently made use of by “the Sinhalese boy” were making combined speeches (with two boys, in this case Alwis and his classmate James Dunuwille, alternatively reciting sentence after sentence from the same speech), reading up every possible book to make up for “the lack of a wide vocabulary”, and going “to all public meetings… hearing eminent advocates speak at the bar or learned divines in the pulpit.”

Ironically, while Alwis grew out of his obsession with English later on, Dunuwille stoked it: like Jeronis Peiris before him, he would correct the English in the letters of his son, whom he had sent to a private school in Cheltenham, England “to imbibe in situ the culture he [James] so admired” and who had to return due to James’s death, only to “be satisfied with a job as a journalist, having no affluent relatives, nor a scholarship, to enable him to continue his studies abroad.” The line of tension between aspiration and reality was, as can be seen here, strongest with the Sinhalese.

Hard yards were thus made, and these, as Alwis and, later, Devar Surya Sena (Jacob Peiris) learnt, were made at the cost of alienation from the world around them: referred to as “black Englishmen” by Piyadasa Sirisena and M. C. F. Perera, they found that when they engaged in the vernacular their “tongue was tied” and their “head was in a whirl” — Alwis was the first to achieve self-realisation. The means by which they sought to overcome this deficiency was unique: Alwis studied Sinhala, Pali, and Sanskrit, while Devar Surya Sena, giving up “a brilliant career in law”, led a cultural movement the mantle of which passed over, decades later, to Sunil Shantha and Amaradeva. Naturally, they did not have their schools to thank for it.

To say that these schools were divorced from the current of ordinary life and centred on the newly emerging bourgeoisie would be to understate the reality. Indeed, in Sri Lanka, unlike in England, education was administered from the centre because missionary bodies did not like local bodies managing schools, since that would have deprived them of a monopoly. This served to strengthen their hold over them for many, many decades.

Interestingly enough not until the enactment of the 13th Amendment was education devolved at the regional level. Until then most if not all schools were patterned on leading elite public colleges, a trend which continued into and survived Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s two terms. Not that this was ignored: in the early 1970s, calls were made by leftist politicians for a restructuring of education. In 1970 alone, five or six proposals were made in the State Council for, inter alia, the nationalisation of private Anglican schools, the “renaming” of Royal College as the “People’s College”, and reforms in commencement and closure hours, the reason for the latter being that those hours benefited the urban middle class at the expense of families engaged in agriculture.

If such calls are conspicuous by their absence today, it is not because the issues underlying them have disappeared, but because of the experience of the 1980s that shifted national policy from the equalisation of schools to the enrichment of “jathika pasal” by such “harmless” means such as the setting up of School Development Societies. By now, of course, the bourgeoisie had begun to leave the elite institutions: they either had grown abroad or were in the new English medium schools: the international schools. But then that is for an entirely new book.

The writings of M. P. Tillakaratne, C. E. Godakumbura, Tikiri Abeyasinghe, Vito Perniola, Paul E. Pieris, Ralph Pieris, Kamalika Pieris, Kumari Jayawardena, K. M. de Silva, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Goolbai Gunasekara, Sydney Wanasinghe, Swarna Jayaweera, Sarathchandra Wickramasuriya, and the “boys in school” at Royal College were used for this article.

Special thanks to Vimuth Dewmina, Hiran Jayawardhana, Yohan Chanaka, and Chanuka Dhananjaya for doing the needful at the National Archives.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com