Kalasuri Wilfred Gunasekara, reprinted from Daily News, 28 October 1999, where the title is “Dr. G. C.Mendis – one of Sri Lanka’s pioneer scientific historians”
Twenty three years ago on October 26, 1976 passed away a great pioneer in Sri Lanka’s history. I was associated with Dr. Mendis for 43 years and more closer when he was a livewire of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (now Royal Asiatic Society (SL). There was a time when Dr. Colvin R de Silva wrote a book, Ceylon Under the British Occupation 1795-1833; its political, administrative and economic development. It was written when he was in prison. Reading its proofs was entrusted to Dr .G.C. Mendis. He sought my assistance to go through the proofs. It was an intellectual pleasure when we went through the proofs.
Before I talk about his life and times my memory goes back to the inauguration of the G.C Mendis Memorial Fund which was founded 21 years ago in 1978, by his old students and friends and associates on the initiative of Ronnie de Mel, MP, then Minister of Finance and Planning, in association with the late Colvin R de Silva, Nissanka Wijeyaratne, K L V Alagiyawanna, Prof K. M. de Silva and Dr A. J. Wilson. It was founded to honour his achievements and further the cause of his historical research in this country by encouraging research and sponsoring lectures and seminars on subjects pertaining to Sri Lankan history.
In addition to holding the annual memorial lectures, the Trustees of the Fund sponsored scholarships to deserving special history students at the Universities of Peradeniya and Ruhuna and also had commissioned Dr Sirima Kiribamuna and Prof C.R deSilva of the Peradeniya University to write concise histories of the ancient and medieval period of Sri Lanka’s history for the benefit of the general reader.
Dr Garett Champness Mendis, to give his full name, received his elementary and secondary education at Kingswood College Kandy which was founded by another pioneer in Sri Lankan History, L.E. Blaze. Dr Mendis was also a teacher in his old school and it was there that his love for history began.
Dr Mendis was born to a Methodist family of Moratuwa, his father being a priest of their church. This was during the second decade of the twentieth century when we were witnessing the birth of a nationalist movement in this country .His knowledge of the history of this country led him to take an active part in this movement. He, with the assistance of his elder brother Lione,l wrote and distributed pamphlets and newspaper articles in support of the Ceylon National Congress programmes. His first appointment in the public e service was as a lecturer in the Ceylon Government Training College which was then at Thurstan Road, Colombo 7 where Thurstan College now stands. He had the opportunity to go on study leave to England. He joined the School of Oriental Studies and obtained a Doctorate under Professor Rhys Davids. He was fortunate in getting the help of Dr Wilhelm Geiger and Sir Ralph Turner.
His first book The Early History of Ceylon was based on the Thesis he wrote for his Phd which he obtained in 1931.It was written at the request of Canon C Dewick, the then Literaray Secretary of the YMCAs of India and ,Burma and Sri Lanka. Subsequently he was awarded the higher degree of Doctor of Literature by the University of London. Dr Mendis next wrote “Our Heritage” in collaboration with Prof S.A.Pakeman. Ceylon and the oriental section of the book was written by Dr Mendis.This publication broke new ground. In other words a new approach to the study of Ceylon history. It secured a rightful place in the curriculum of Sri Lanka’s educational institutions.
On his return to Sri Lanka the then University College prepared students for the University of London external degrees in History. This was confined to Medieval and Modern European History. His aspiration towards establishing the study of Sri Lanka’s history in the higher classes of Secondary schools and a Post-graduate diploma course for teachers had the cordial support of Professor Pakeman, of the Faculty of History
The establishment of the University of Ceylon in 1942 helped him to crown his aspirations with success. He was appointed a lecturer on 1st July 1937.Prof Pakeman’s retirement from the University as its Professor of History gave an opportunity to Dr Mendis to apply for the vacant Chair. However his noble act of self sacrifice made him to induce a notable contemporary of his at the School of Oriental Studies, Dr H.C. Ray to apply for this post. He gave him loyal assistance after Ray’s appointment. Dr Mendis continued in the services of the University until his retirement in 1954.
It is needless to mention that he was a historian of universal fame who unravelled the labrynthine mass of Sri Lanka ‘s history for oriental and occidental scholars. In Oriental history he was an outstanding product of the Universities of London and Munich. Generations of school children understood his interpretations of Lanka’s history which was put forward in clear, precise and simple terms.
Dr Mendis lectured at the University College which later became the University of Ceylon for three decades. Among his outstanding works were The Early History of Ceylon(1940). An Historical Criticism of the Mahavamsa (1931). An Addendum to the Mahavamsa (1950 and 1959) Ceylon under the British Rule (1944) Ceylon Today and Yesterday : Main Currents of Ceylon History(1957) Problems of Ceylon History(1966) and The Colebrooke-Cameron Papers:documents on British Colonial Policy in Ceylon 1796-1933 edited by Dr Mendis(1956)
His articles to newspapers and to learned journals spread from 1912 to 1974.among the most interesting and thought- provoking contributions were to the Journals of the Sri Lanka Asiatic Society and the University of Ceylon Review. To name a few: “The evolution of a Ceylonese Nation”; ”The Mahabharata legend in the Mahavamsa”; ”Sinhala the island or the people?”- in this essay he suggests that “Sinhala” was a name applied to the island by the people of India and it was the Island that gave its name to the people and the language; The Vijaya Legend: Colonial expansion and British policy in Ceylon; The causes of communal conflict in Ceylon; Religious and racial conflicts in Ceylon today; and Foreign rule in Ceylon; Would the cessation of British rule lead to a radical change in Government and Society? Dr Mendis was a very active member of the Sri Lanka Asiatic Society (then Royal Asiatic Society-Ceylon branch). He was made a Life Member in 1944 and served in its council for five years. He was the President of the Society from 1965-1967. He was awarded the society’s Medal donated by Lady Hilda Pieris in memory of the uncle the late Sir S.C .Obeyesekera(1848-1927) in 1956.
On December 16, 1966 he delivered his Presidential address on “The Evolution of a Ceylonese Nation”. In brief it was “on the attainment of Independence in 1948 and the conflicts that arose from 1956; the Colebrooke Cameron Reforms, its results; the legislature up to the Donoughmore Reforms and the Soulbury Reforms.” In addition to the books mentioned above, he contributed learned articles, 26 in number, to leading journals here and abroad. This writer has compiled an annotated bibliography of these which I have refrained from mentioning here due to lack of space. Those who are interested may write to me 60/8, Edirisinghe Road, Mirihana, Nugegoda, phone 825600 for a list.
Enjoying the peace and quiet of a retired life ,Dr Mendis devoted a a good part of his time in pursuing scholarly interests with great dedication and gave the academic world the results of his mature wisdom and his abundant knowledge. Several years ago in 1978 in his G. C. Mendis Inaugural Memorial Lecture our learned Prof K M de Silva declared that from the mid 1950s history became established “as by far the most productive and creative of the social sciences in Sri Lanka”. We are reminded by our learned Professor C R de Silva of the present day historians who have kept the lamp burning by the “significant contributions to scholarly historical writing since independence has come from the professionals – some of the sociologists, political scientists and linguists but most of them members of the various departments of history in our Universities.”
Dr Mendis’ scholarly theories of the past such as the debate on the trustworthiness of the Mahavamsa have no end. The university, I must say, has installed him as a prophet in Sri Lanka’s history. Dr Mendis who passed away at the ripe old age of 82 years was one of Sri Lanka’s pioneer scientific historians and a Pali scholar who spent a life time researching Sri Lanka’s history from its beginnings to present times. May our budding historians follow his footpath.