A Tribute to GC Mendis: Pioneering Tertiary Education in History for Lanka

Michael Roberts

 The teaching of history at a tertiary level began with University College in Colombo in the 1920s, where students were prepared for an external degree at the University of London. Professor SA Pakeham taught medieval and modern European history to those who enrolled for such courses. Pakeham’s place in the history of history-teaching yet awaits its researcher.[1] One contribution stands out: Pakeman seems to have discerned the talents of Garrett Champness Mendis, then a Lecturer at the Government Teacher Training College. An opening was secured for his postgraduate training under Professor Rhys-Davids at London University and GC Mendis proceeded to UK to work under that renowned Pali scholar.

GC MENDISThis period of study encompassed extended sojourns in Munchen (?) in Germany[2] under the tutelage of Wilhelm Geiger (1856-1943). This spell in England and Germany resulted in his command of Pali and his dissertation A Historical Criticism of the Mahavamsa (1930, unpubd). Amazing as it may seem, he could not be slotted into history teaching at University College when he returned and he was appointed initially as a Visiting Lecturer in Pali.[3]

The problem arose in part from the absence of suitable reading material in Ceylon history so Pakeman and Mendis concentrated on rectifying this absence. One step was to initiate an afternoon certificate course on Ceylon History at University College for graduate and trained teachers. Funds were eventually secured for a Lectureship in Indian History geared to degrees at London University via University College. Mendis was appointed to this post on 1 July 1937.

With his customary vigour, moreover, GC Mendis had proceeded to rectify the absence of quality historical works in English on the island’s history. The Early History of Ceylon (1932) and Our Heritage (1935) began the process. The latter work was followed up by two other volumes prepared in association with Pakeman. When Pakeman decided to retire, Mendis was the obvious choice as his successor in heading the Department of History, but he (Mendis) persuaded the authorities to invite a friend, Professor HC Ray, to take on this role (a fine gesture and a colossal error in the assessment of KM de Silva[4]). When University College was linked to the Ceylon Medical College and invested as the University of Ceylon on 1 July 1942, the founding Professorship lay with Ray, not Mendis.

college houase College House, where University College was centred

Garrett Mendis was a straightforward man. His directness within decency did not endear him to some contemporaries, especially the Sinhala Buddhist scholars who venerated the Mahāvamsa and were not ready to accept a critical re-reading of its historical value as source material. At subterranean levels the fact that Mendis was from a Christian background served as one of the inspirations for criticisms of his writings on the Pali chronicle.[5]

After the Second World War ended, Mendis returned to London on a troop ship in order to produce what can be called his second magnum opus — the two volume work The Colebrooke Cameron Papers. Documents on British Colonial Policy in Ceylon, 1796-1833 (1956). While the bulk of these volumes is documentary material, it had a scholarly introduction and demanded careful selection and editing. It was but fitting that the British scholars recognised GC Mendis’ calibre and his service to scholarship: he was awarded a D. Litt. by the University of London in 1957.

The Colebrooke Cameron Papers demanded careful gleaning of the British colonial archives and methodical work in preparation. As so often, behind the assiduous man is the assiduous wife. GC Mendis could not type. Neither could his wife. But, having taken a troop ship herself to join her husband, there she was at the Public Record Office assiduously copying out his selections as the second step in the process towards publication.

Once this set of books was available from 1956, the Department of History received an essential tool in the training of its students. One beneficiary in this chain was this author Michael Roberts, undergraduate at Peradeniya from 1956-1960. By then Professor GC Mendis had retired from teaching, but his younger colleague and friend WJF Labrooy had taken over the reins and turned The Colebrooke Cameron Papers into a fine training instrument for all the senior history students in their fourth year of a varied History Honours course. That I rejected a study of political history to focus on British agrarian policy and the wastelands issue in my dissertation research is due to the interests generated by the Colebrooke Cameron documents and the momentous changes initiated by their report to the Colonial Office. My essays on the grain taxes, those on British land policy[6] and Facets of Modern Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris (1975) would not have seen the light of day without this initial inspiration.


Historical Criticism of the Mahavamsa (1931)

The Early History of Ceylon (Colombo, YMCA Publishing House, 1932)

Our Heritage Part 1 (Colombo Apothecaries Co, 1935)

Our Heritage Part 2 with SA Pakeman (Colombo Apothecaries Co, 1938)

Our Heritage Part 3 with SA Pakeman (Colombo Apothecaries Co, 1944)

Ceylon Under the British Rule (Colombo Apothecaries Co, 1944)

An Addendum to the Mahavamsa (Information Department, Colombo, 1950 and 1959)

Ceylon Today and Yesterday: Main Currents of Ceylon History (Associated Newspapers of Ceylon, 1957)

The Colebrooke Cameron Papers: Documents on British Colonial Policy in Ceylon 1796-1933 edited by G. C. Mendis (1956)

Problems of Ceylon History (Colombo Apothecaries Co, 1966)


  • “Causes of Communal Conflict in Ceylon,” University of Ceylon Review, April 1943
  • “Adult Franchise and Educational Reform,” University of Ceylon Review, Nov/1944
  • “Pali Chronicles of Ceylon -An Examination of the opinions expressed about them since 1879,” University of Ceylon Review, October 1946
  • “Chronology of Early Pali Chronicles of Ceylon,” University of Ceylon Review, April 1947
  • “Commencement of the Buddhist Era–The Reply,” University of Ceylon Review, Oct 1947
  • “Ceylon – Parts I and II,” in A Comprehensive History of India,1956       
  • “The Vijaya Legend,” Paranavitana Felicitation Volume, 1965
  • “The Mahabharata Legends in the Mahawamsa,’ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch), 1956
  • “The Evolution of the Ceylonese Nation, the Attainment of Independence in 1948 and the Conflicts that arose from 1956,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch), 1967

We welcome further publication details re articles presented by Dr. GC Mendis to complete this listing.

ALSO NOTE http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=148356


CR de Silva 1984 Ethnic Prejudice and the Writing of History Colombo: GC Mendis Memorial Lecture.

KM de Silva 1978 History and Historians in Twentieth Century Sri Lanka, Colombo: GC Mendis Memorial Lecture.

KM de Silva 2016 Memoir from the Periphery, draft mss.

Wilfred Gunasekara 2013 “GC Mendis: A Sound Historian of the Old School,” 12 November 2013 https://thuppahis.com/2013/11/12/g-c-mendis-a-sound-historian-of-the-old-school/

WJF Labrooy 1976 “G. C. Mendis 1893-1976,” Daily News, 26 November 1976

Michael Roberts 1967 “The Paddy Lands Irrigation Ordinances and the Revival of Traditional Irrigation Customs, 1856-1871”, Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, 10:114-30.

Michael Roberts 1968 “Grain Taxes in British Ceylon, 1832-1878: Problems in the Field”, Journal of Asian Studies, 27: 810-34.

Michael Roberts 1969 “The Rise of the Karavas”, Ceylon Studies Seminar, Series: no. 5, 4 March 1969, 36 pages.

Michael Roberts 1970 “Grain Taxes in British Ceylon, 1832-1878: Theories, Prejudices and Controversies”, Modern Ceylon Studies, 1: 115-40.

Michael Roberts 1970 “The Impact of the Waste Lands Legislation and the Growth of Plantations on the Techniques of Paddy Cultivation in British Ceylon: A Critique”, Modern Ceylon Studies, 2: 157-96.

Michael Roberts 1972 “Some Comments on Ameer Ali’s Paper”, Ceylon Studies Seminar, 1970/72 Series no. 31, February 1972.

Michael Roberts 1972 “Irrigation Policy in British Ceylon During the Nineteenth Century”, South Asia, 2: 49-63.

Michael Roberts 1973 “Export Agriculture in the Nineteenth Century” in The History of Ceylon, Vol. III, Colombo: Colombo Apothecaries’ Ltd., pp. 89-106 and 117-18.

Michael Roberts 1973 “Land Problems and Policies c. 1832 to c. 1900” in History of Ceylon, Vol. III, pp. 119-45.

Michael Roberts 1973 “Aspects of Ceylon’s Agrarian Economy in the Nineteenth Century” in History of Ceylon, Vol. III, pp. 146-54.

Michael Roberts 1973 “Elites and Elite Formation in Ceylon, c. 1830-1930” in History of Ceylon, Vol. III, pp. 263-84.

Michael Roberts 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.

Michael Roberts 1975 Facets of Modern Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris, Colombo: Hansa Press, 108 pages.

***   ***

Wilhelm Geiger: some of his publications

  • The Dīpavaṃsa and Mahāvaṃsa and their historical development in Ceylon, translated into English by Ethel M. Coomaraswamy, Colombo 1908.
  • The Mahavāmsa or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon, English translation assisted by Bode, Mabel Haynes, Pali Text Society, London 1912.
  • Maldivian Linguistic Studies, Colombo 1919.
  • The Language of the Väddās, Calcutta 1935.
  • A Grammar of the Sinhala language, Colombo 1938.
  • Pali Literature and Language, translated by Batakrishna Ghosh from the German original, Calcutta 1943. Revised by K. R. Norman under the title A Pali Grammar, Oxford 1994.
  • Cūlavamsa : being the more recent part of the Mahāvamsa, English translation assisted by Christian Mabel Duff Rickmers, Colombo 1953.
  • Culture of Ceylon in mediaeval times, edited by Heinz Bechert, Wiesbaden 1960.


[1] I interviewed Professor SA Pakeman in England in February 1966. This audio is now available on internet via the University of Adelaide Special Collections, but I have not had the time to check it out. Try http://www.adelaide.edu.au/library/special/mss/roberts/tapes-list.pdf

[2] Family lore indicates that he heard Hitler address a rally and that Munchen was the city in which he worked under Geiger. But Geiger seems to have been holding a chair at Erlangen and could well have been at Gottingen or some other Oriental Institute, so this piece of information requires cross-checking.

[3] See Labrooy, “G. C. Mendis 1893-1976,” Daily News, 26 November 1976.

[4] Personal Communication from Professor KM de Silva –supported by draft memoirs about his Peradeniya days.

[5] Personal Communication from Professor KM de Silva.

[6] See the seven articles written between 1970 and 1973 that are listed in the Select Bibliography.


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