Ian Goonetileke’s Critical Review of Facets of Modern Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris

H. A. I. Goonetileke, a “renaissance man” if ever there was one in Sri Lanka, serves up a critical review in 1976 of a study drafted in 1969/70 …. addressing Michael Roberts, Facets of Modern Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris, Colombo, Hansa Publishers Ltd., 1975, pp. ii, 108, 16 plates, 2 charts, map. See the brief Bibliographical NOTE at the end for further elaboration. Goonetileke’s review was presented in the Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, Vol II, No. 1, December 1976, pp. 170-73.

JERONIS P Hännädigē Jeronis Pieris

Traditional servitors of the Muse Clio have trod for the most part the straight and narrow path of documentary rectitude in their attempt to chart the changing tides of history. In recent times this time-honoured path has been criss-crossed by a new wave of techniques which use tools from sociology, economics, demography, political science, anthropology and law to fashion ever new forms of historical writing, as well as leaning increasingly on hitherto neglected documentary sources from various strata of the evolving socio-political frame. Since Dr. Michael Roberts, one of the most distinguished of the new generation of Sri Lankan historians, has shown already, both in his published and unpublished work, that he recognises the significance of this multidisciplinary and more expansive way in which the study of history should proceed, one takes up Facets of Modern Ceylon history through the letters of Jeronis Pieris with great expectations. But what emerges from the delayed entrance of the twenty- three paltry and light-weight letters of a God-fearing young Low-Country Sinhalese arrack renter in Kandyan territory in the middle of the nineteenth century sadly belies the scope and dimensions of what the stage-setting title promises.

Jeronis Pieris does not stand out as a particularly distinguished dummy, despite all Dr. Roberts’s strenuous and elaborate window-dressing, on which to drape the various ‘facets’ of the economic and social history of the period, and the earnestly debated, though sometimes controversial and speculative, theses which form the meat of the book have little, if any, rele­vance or substantial link to the meagre and fragmentary personal trivia which dominate the Moratuwa born trader and potential plantation owner’s epistles between 1853 and 1856. The author, however, places a very high value indeed on these “unique” letters to underpin his main arguments and to insure his more impetuous speculations, and the grand design is thus spelled out in his Preface: “The main object in reproducing these letters has been that of making them more widely available to scholars and of providing interested laymen with some insights into developments in mid-nineteenth century Ceylon. At the same time, I have used the information and the insights supplied by the letters to illumine certain facets of nineteenth century Ceylonese history by developing some of my own findings and theories. In brief, the letters have been variously used—at times as a point of departure for the investigation of various subjects on which they throw some light, and at other times as a convenient show­case in which to display conclusions fashioned for the most part of other evidence”. These letters merit some examination, therefore, for “the several insights they afford” in the editor’s words.

bridge-of-boats-over-kalani-ganga Bridge of Boats over the Kelnai Ganga near ColomboPic by Scowen –From http://lankapura.com/2009/03/bridge-of-boats-over-kalani-ganga-at-grand-pass-1880/ …. Since Colombo was the hub of the island dispensation in British times and the destination for goods being shipped (sometimes via Galle till the 1880s) abroad, most tracks led to this destination whether bearing goods or essential food. The Bridge of Boats was constructed over the Kelani Ganga in 1822 by Lieutenant General John Sheaffer: 21 boats were tied together, and the 499 feet long bridge was made entirely out of timber. It served passengers and goods crossing the Kelani River until the building of the Victoria Bridge in 1895. This picture also illustrates the importance of carts and carters. We do not know when this image of the bridge was captured. The pontoon bridge displaced a ferry business run by the Thakura Artadeva de Silva Wijeyeratne family of Grandpass (an image of the extended family can be seen in Arnold Wright’s Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, 1905)…. A Note by Roberts, in 2015.

Hannadige Jeronis Pieris was stationed in Kandy at the age of 24 in a managerial capa­city by the two De Soysa brothers to plant their properties in Hanguranketa, ITaragama and Kadugannawa, and farm their arrack rents. The 23 extant letters exhibited date only from 30 October 1853 to 12 June 1856, as his scriptoral talents apparently faded three days before his 27th birthday, or were superseded by greater demands on his hard-pressed time when he married Caroline Francisca Soysa on 13 December 1856. This is a great pity as he went on before he died in his 66th year in 1894 to display considerable commercial panache and had become one of the most affluent Ceylonese entrepreneurs and property owners amassing over 6,500 acres in coffee, coconut, tea, rubber and cinnamon. His personal correspondence after the age of 27 in the perspective of his voracious capitalistic forays would, perhaps, have pro­vided more grist for Dr. Roberts’s mill and a greater justification for the pattern of his book. No explanation for this curious blank is offered, how’ever. Their absence or disappearance is all the more strange as during the brief period of his early letters he laid great store by personal correspondence and advised C. H. de Soysa in his second letter (Nov. 24, 1853): “I suppose you wall find a safe place for my letters in your box—preserve them—as I do take much care of yours—They might be of use to us some time after.” (p. 63). He w’as also in the habit of mak­ing rubbings of all the letters he wrote from Kandy on an indian ink press-copying machine, and it is not in fact the originals of the 23 letters “in a continuous series” that have survived, but the copies reproduced on “wafer-thin tissue paper” which Dr. Roberts edits for his pur­poses. Even in these extant versions portions are torn, omitted, obliterated or indecipherable, and repeated readings of them only reinforce the impression of an inconsequence and flatness which the humdrum and artificial style does nothing to relieve. Since the decision to edit and publish these letters was influenced by the hope that it would prod owners of similar docu­ments into revealing their existence, it is to be wished that this subsidiary aim will be achieved in significant fashion.

Of the mixed bag of 23 letters, 7 each are to two schoolboys, Charles Henry de Soysa (his 17-vear old nephew-in-law), and Louis Pieris (his 13-year old brother), and contain an amalgam of domestic trivia, and personal tittle-tattle, exhortations to Louis to strive to culti­vate his English and attend to his studies, confessions as to his own literary tastes which de­pended greatly on a diet of Samuel Johnson and Joseph Addison, and stray comments on the scene around him as he commuted between Hanguranketa and the Arrack Godown in Kandy. Flights of any sort of emotion are rare—on viewing “the odoriferous snow-like blossoms of the coffee-trees,” chastising the marital mores of the “barbarous” Kandyans, an unaccus­tomed sortie on foot in the mountainous jungle of a coffee estate when their guide “endea­voured to hurt” a frightened deer appropriately enough “with his bill hook” (sic), and in the final letter to a Mr. W. H. Wright where Jeronis’s Christian sentiments well over with some freedom. A brief letter to a Mr. George Pride, a wealthy British planter in Upper Hewaheta, reveals the correct Oriental obsequiousness which was a sure passport to fame and fotune, and the rest are commonplace notes to S. C. Perera, Simon Perera and Marcellus Perera in Colombo, and Johannes Salgado in Moratuwa. One cannot help remarking that despite the obvious pains he took to cultivate his own English and his constant admonitions to his brother to watch his grammar and “spell your words correctly” he was not the most exemplary of instructors (“middle” for medal being the worst faux pas in the spelling line) and on one oc­casion even spelled his brother’s name as “Lewis.” The odd man out in the collection is the last and unnumbered letter written in Sinhalese from London to his sister and mother over 21 years after his last letter in English, of which an English translation is also provided. The passage of time and good fortune certainly did nothing to improve either his powers of ob­servation or his style. As a facsimile of the first of his English letters is provided, one wishes that the only specimen of his Sinhala hand would have similarly been available for inspection. These then are the rare material (“a unique historical source”) which the editor exploits and builds upon to enhance his major contribution as the author in the first part of the book, con­sisting of 57 pages.

It is in the seven chapters of this section that Dr. Roberts sets out to furnish the reader with the results of his painstaking researches into certain ‘facets’ of the encounter between the colonial presence and the native upper class on the make. The foundations of social domi­nance within the indigenous society and the processes of social change and elite formation, the entrepreneurial spirit of the new merchant class, the spread of Western education and the ac­companying Anglicisation, the erosion of traditional customs, values and attitudes among the indigenous elites, and their role as props for the colonial power structure, the events leading to the Kandyan Marriage Ordinance of 1859, the conflict between the demands of the coffee plantations and the claims to village land, and the effects of the intrusion of a large-scale plantation economy on the traditional rural community and its cattle and buffalo population in the Kandyan highlands are the main strands in the story. These aspects are sandwiched between an opening assessment of the various kinds of source material available to the histor­ian of 19th century Sri Lanka, and a brief epilogue in which some views on the current state and future directions of historiography in the British period are advanced.

The author lays bare with his customary deftness and versatility the origins and evolution of the comprador bourgeois class during this period through the accumulation of capital from government perquisites and salaries, and through primary trading ventures and the farming of arrack and toddy rents. In imitation, later, of their British masters, they opened coconut and rubber plantations and began profitable enterprises as merchants. The new class and urban life developed together, and surplus wealth and the new plantation technology be­gan to assault and corrode the traditional feudal structure and its agrarian economy, while the rising spirit of commerce and the concomitant aggrandisement, infected by an aggressive Christianity, gradually infiltrated extensive regions of social life, and metamorphosed deeply personal ties, and Eastern values and perceptions into commercial bonds. Throughout his analysis of this process which began well before the middle of the nineteenth century and con­tinued strongly into the twentieth, Dr. Roberts weaves the family saga of the Hannadige Pierises and the Warusahannadige de Soysa, stalwarts of this early Low Country phase of Sinhalese capitalism, the ideology of the movement being succinctly expressed in James Pierises paean before The Ceylon Social Reform Society General Meeting on 11 January 1908: “Most of us are planters. Our interests are in many respects identical with those of the planters. It is true that many of them have shown us the way and they deserve the credit for having brought capital into the country and shown us the path along which we may all win prosperity. We have followed in their footsteps and our interests are now the same. The interests of the Ceylonese planters are identical with those of the European planters.” (Ceylon National Review, No. 5, Feb. 1908, p. 169).

Dr. Roberts’s most controversial chapters are five and six in which he tries to suggest res­pectively that the expansion of the coffee plantations was not at the expense of forest, chena and pasture land essential to the Kandyan village ecology, and that the development of plant­ation properties and the Crown Lands Encroachment legislation were not specially injurious

to traditional agricultural practices and the cattle and buffalo population. In both lines of inquiry highly selective data and peripheral evidence are used to buttress tentative arguments, and in the latter “veritable gems of information” from one single letter of Jeronis to his by then 14-year old brother (No. 12) are relied upon to shed doubt on the status of the draught animal in the highland village economy before the middle of the 19th century. These are mined from a random observation: “The agriculture of these mountain-like paddy fields, if I may so call them, is not conducted by the bullock, nor the muddy parts by the buffalo, but are tilled all over by the hoe—differently shaped from that in use among us; execpt in a few instances when the fields are situated between hills or two ranges of hills and consequently sufficiently level to be worked on by the buffalo, I have never seen them use bullocks in ploughing.” These chance remarks on a mode of Upcountry paddy cultivation following on the usual pleas to Louis to better his English style are seized upon by Dr. Roberts to lend wings to his particular hobby horse that the buffalo was not an integral part of the Kandyan village economy before the thirst for coffee and the Crown lands ‘enclosure’ movement began to make inroads into the warp and woof of rural society. Jeronis was writing about “the paddy lands round about Kandy,” and he was naturally familiar with these in the mountainous Hanguranketa district in which the most intricate tracery and terraced fields, perhaps anywhere in the hill country, is to be found, and where neither the buffalo nor the bullock can be put to much use. In this, as in other places, the author tends to ignore more basic facts of regional peculiarities in the vast extent of land comprising the highlands of Sri Lanka, and also fails to appreciate or even recognise the existence of many variables in the technological, socio-cultural and economic spheres. His knowledge of traditional agricultural practices is also open to question. Simi­larly the scorched earth policy in Uva-Weilassa and murrain are not sufficiently tenable hypo­theses for the diminution of the cattle population. He confines his attention in the main to the restricted period of the coffee boom, and tends to advance and apply these to a much broader period. He will have to produce more trenchant and consistent evidence if he is to sustain his line that traditional land use and village community structures were little affected by the encroachments of coffee, tea, rubber and coconut over a long period of time as well as to dispute the view that, although expropriation under the Waste Lands Ordinance may not have been done en masse, a great deal of village land changed hands in various ways in the climate of uncertainty, and even panic, provoked by official land policy, as well as the prevail­ing land rush. It is not possible in the space of a brief review to take up all the slack in the author’s presentation, but his claim for the acceptability of other sorts of historical source material is far from convincingly enough asserted in the course of the present investigation.

A most opulent and eloquent facet in the book is the series of sixteen plates interspersed at intervals through the text which afford a fascinating glimpse into the splendidly upholstered milieu of the new commercial elite spawned by British modes of mercantile activity. This album of family photographs is a veritable portrait gallery of bourgeois Anglophilic prototypes of a vanished era in which the congealing arts of the studio photographer froze for all time, in the proper Victorian attitudes of arch primness and starched pomposity, the strictly tailored lineaments of an ‘aristocracy’ envisaged in Thomas Babington Maucalay’s historic “Minute” of 2 February 1835; “a class of people who can act as intermediaries between us and the mi- lions we govern: English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and intellect.” Hannadige Jeronis Pieris and his kinsmen appear studious exponents of the life-style of that alienated native bourgeoisie which the British created, nourished and later exploited for their own survival even up to the present day. As a late twentieth century “show-case” for nineteenth century ancestral blooms Dr. Roberts does both families proud in his book.

Further valuable components are two genealogical charts of the Pieris and de Soysa clans, a map of the Hanguranketa-Kandy-Kadugannawa localities, a list of Jeronis Pieris’s cash crop plantation properties, and a translation of a petition presented by some Kandyan chiefs calling for reform of their marriage customs in late 1858. There are also a bibliography of works cited and a very full and helpful index. A major and prominent feature of the text is the impressive cavalcade of footnotes which march across substantial areas of each page and literally dazzle the reader with the meticulous pageantry of the researcher’s art, besides offering a rich perahara of elitist Ceylonese names, and what another reviewer has described as “Sen­ior Common Room personalities.” The main Preface dated “June 1970” has two subsidiary postscripts dated “January 1973” and “October 1974” explaining delays in publication, and there is a note on “Spelling.” The book is well printed and bound in cloth boards with a fetching dust jacket from which the venerable, though kindly visage of the biographee con­fronts us in blown-up sepia-to’ne, and is exceedingly good value at 25 rupees.

Despite its shortcomings, Dr. Roberts’s work is an important contribution to continuing studies on the historiography of the colonial relationship in nineteenth century Sri Lanka, and serves as an impressive case-study of the British ‘civilising mission.’ He throws out stimulating clues and supplies provocative leads into reassessing and evaluating the cultural factors in Victorian imperialism and the land policies of the British rai as they affected the Kandyan rural structure. But it is doubtful whether the life and letters of Jeronis Pieris on view in the book, despite his environment being appraised synoptically and with much adroitness and resource, were really worth focussing upon in the context of his time. In the hope that Dr. Roberts has cut his teeth in an absorbing new historical vein with this spirited exercise, one awaits his further ventures into elite formation processes and the ideology and politics of nationalism in the British period with a greatly sharpened interest.



The late Ian Goonetileke (1922-2003) was the distinguished and widely read Deputy Librarian and thereafter Librarian at Peradeniya University in the 1950s to 1970s. He is best known as the muse who produced the monumental annotated listing of Ceyloniana known as A Bibliography of Ceylon in five volumes (Inter Documentation Company, AG, Zug, 1970 … 1973… ISBN 3 8550 015 8). For a beautiful appreciation when he passed away, see Ajith Samaranayake, “The Passing of a Generation,” Sunday Island, 8 June 2003, http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2003/06/08/fea04.html.


  • Wright, Arnold. Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, Its History, People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources, London: Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Co., 1907.
  • Michael Roberts: “The Rise of the Karavas”, Ceylon Studies Seminar, Series: no. 5, 4 March 1969
  • Michael Roberts: “The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite in the MEP Coalition of 1956”, Ceylon Studies Seminar, 1969/70 Series no. 11, 30 August 1970, pp. 1-37.
  • Michael Roberts: “Elites and Elite Formation in Ceylon, c. 1830-1930” in KM De Silva (ed.) History of Ceylon, Vol. III, pp. 263-84.
  • Michael Roberts: “Problems of Social Stratification and the Demarcation of National and Local Elites in British Ceylon,” Journal of Asian Studies, August 1974, 23: 549-77.
  • Michael Roberts: “A New Marriage, An Old Dichotomy: The ‘Middle Class’ in British Ceylon” in The James T. Rutnam Felicitation Volume, Jaffna, 1975 pp. 32-63.
  • Michael Roberts: Documents of the Ceylon National Congress, 4 vols., Colombo: Department of National Archives, 1977
  • Michael Roberts: “Reformism, Nationalism and Protest in British Ceylon: The Roots and Ingredients of Leadership”, in Rule, Protest, Identity, Aspects of Modern South Asia, ed. by Peter Robb and David Taylor, Centre of South Asian Studies, SOAS, Collected Papers on South Asia No. 1, London, pp. 259-80.
  • Michael Roberts: Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karava Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931, Cambridge University Press, 1982
  • Roberts, Raheem & Colin-Thome: People Inbetween, Nineteenth Century Photography of Sri Lanka, Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Book Publishers, 1989
  • Ismeth Raheem & Percy ColinThome: Images of British Ceylon, Singapore: Times Edition, 2000.
  • Falconer, John and Ismeth Raheem, Regeneration: A Reappraisal of Photography in Ceylon 1850-1900, London: The British Council, 2000.
  • Michael Roberts: Potency, Power & People in Groups, Colombo: Marga Institute, 2011, ISBN 978-955-582-129-2
  • Michael Roberts: “Engeltine Cottage in Kandy: The Intertwining of Three Families — Pieris, Sangakkara and Krishnapillai,” 4 April 2012, http://thuppahis.com/2012/04/04/engeltine-cottage-in-kandy-the-intertwining-of-three-families-pierissangakkaraand-krishnapillai/
  • Stambler, Benita: Maintaining the Photographic Legacy of Ceylon,” Archives, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall 2013, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tap/7977573.0004.105/–maintaining-the-photographic-legacy-of-ceylon?rgn=main;view=fulltext
  • Michael Roberts:People Inbetween: Ethnic and Class Prejudices in British Ceylon,” 3 August 2015, https://thuppahis.com/2015/08/03/people-inbetween-ethnic-and-class-prejudices-in-british-ceylon/#more-17244 h

HANGURANKETAWALAUWA Hanguranketa Walauwwa in the mid-19th century– the manorial domain of the Warusahannadige de Soysas … H'KETA MISSION SCHOOL Hanguranketa Mission School a philanthropic outreach by the de Soysas

H'KETA CHURCH Hanguranketa Church, another de Soysa donation for God, country & people

37a=Hard yardsHard yards on rough tracks–Anonymous source — http://www.imagesofceylon.com/transport/t11-full.jpg

34=ships Colombo harbour Ships in Colombo harbour, 1866–A photo taken by S. Slinn & Co in 1866 – reproduced here courtesy of Ismeth Raheem 

56b=KANDY Street SceneA street scene in Kandy –from http://www.imagesofceylon.com/landscape/L160-full.jpg


Filed under British colonialism, commoditification, cultural transmission, economic processes, education, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, nationalism, patriotism, sri lankan society, transport and communications, unusual people, world events & processes

2 responses to “Ian Goonetileke’s Critical Review of Facets of Modern Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris

  1. AN EMAIL NOTE from EARDLEY LIEVERSZ in Sydney after he received a copy of the GONNETILEKE Review: “I read the book on Jeronis Pieris when it first came out and I marvelled at the unique blend of travelogue and social analysis. Sometimes, a simple message can reveal so much. …. In 2000 I discovered WG Sebald who integrates so many different types of information that his books defy description and I thought of your book on Jeronis Pieris.”

  2. Canon Taylor

    Those driven to serve the masters are jealous of those who preceded them in evolving with the modern world.
    They conveniently overlook a similar process which occurred 2500 years ago and even within the past 5 decades.

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