Remembering George Turnour: Scholar & Administrator Extraordinary

Hugh Karunanayake

Thirty seven years ago, on 13 April 1985, the British Prime Minister of the day  Mrs Margaret Thatcher during her visit to Sri Lanka to open the Victoria Dam, said  in an address to the Parliament of Sri Lanka  “The remains of an ancient civilization are visible in many parts of your island. Two thousand years ago, your irrigation system far exceeded in scale and sophistication anything existing in Europe. That great chronicle the Mahavamsa, has passed down to us the story of your island’s development.”

 The Mahavansa and the history it contained would probably  have been lost in the mists of antiquity if not for the  indefatigable efforts of a Civil Servant by the name George Turnour.

George Turnour was born in Ceylon in 1799. His father (the fourth son of the Earl of Winterton) also with the same name George Turnour, came over to Ceylon in 1789 with the 73rd  Regiment, and was appointed Fort Adjutant in Jaffna in 1795, after the capture of Jaffna from the Dutch. He died on 10 Aprial 1813 aged 45 and was buried in the Dutch Church of Jaffna(since destroyed during the civil war).  The headstone to the grave of his infant daughter would have suffered the same fate. However we are indebted to Leopold Ludovici who preserved for posterity images of some of the tablets and headstones in the country, in his magnificent work Lapidarium Zeylanicum (1877)  from which the image below was obtained.

His son George Turnour, born in Ceylon in 1799, was sent to England for his education, and on his return as an 18 year old was appointed to the Ceylon Civil Service. When he was appointed as Government Agent at Ratnapura, he made the acquaintance of the High Priest of Sabaragamuwa through whom he obtained a transcript of the commentary to the Mahawansa, written in Pali and preserved at the Mulkirigala Vihare. Since there were no Pali dictionaries available then, Turnour studied the Pali language, and together with some Buddhists  priests translated the text, and after many years of labour, produced the first thirty eight Chapters of the Mahawamsa into English. This was an epoch making event.The Mahavamsa” or “The Great Chronicle” is the documented history of the great dynasty of Sri Lanka kings in general and Sinhalese Buddhism in particular. This important work is believed to have been written by Bhikku Mahanama in the Pali language and describes the life and times of the people who forged the Sri Lankan nation, from the coming of Vijaya in 543 BCE to the reign of King Mahasena (334–361) (6th century BC to 4th Century AD).

Entrance to Mulkirigala Temple              

Historiographical sources were rare in much of South Asia before the publication of the Mahavamsa.. As a result of its publication,  more became known about the history of the island of Ceylon and neighbouring regions, more  than that of most of the subcontinent. Its contents have aided in the identification and corroboration of archaeological sites and inscriptions associated with early Buddhism, the empire of Asoka, and also  the Tamil kingdoms of southern India. The publication of the first 38 chapters of the Mahavamsa in 1837 by Turnour served as a trail blazer for ethnographic studies in South India and Ceylon. Major Jonathan Forbes of the 78th Highlanders who served in Ceylon for over a decade published his two volume memoir Eleven Years in Ceylon in 1840. In it he stated “I have the opportunity of stating  my admiration of the judgment and accuracy with which Mr Turnour has arranged and abridged the Cingalese history”.Much of the ancient history of both India and Sri Lanka would not have been available were it not for the Mahavamsa. Turnour however fell ill  before he completed his task and retired from service. He left Ceylon in 1842 and died in Naples at the age of 44 on April 10 1843. He was buried in the old Protestant Church in Naples

When the news of Turnour’s death reached Ceylon there was widespread grief in the island among colonial officialdom and local elites. It was decided to establish a suitable memorial to Turnour aand subscriptions were collected for the purpose. The subscription list was headed by the Chief Justice Sir Anthony Oliphant with a donation of £2-2sh. This was matched by similar donations from the following: Mr Justice Stark,  Donald Davidson, Capt  Kelson,  Dr Cameron, Joseph Read, Lt Col Fletcher , J Jumeaux,   JG Firth,   CR Buller, Francis Hudson, Lt Hawkins, Capt Lillee, William Morris, F de Livera, TC Power, FB Norris, JH Rabinel, R Jefferson, H De Alwis Mudyr, David de Silva Mudyr,  C Webster,  S Northway, Don Hendrick Mudyr   



The Turnour Memorial …….with the inscription


Since Kandy was going to be the epicentre of the emerging plantation economy, it was decided by the organisers of the Turnour Memorial Fund to mke a substantial donation towards the construction of St Paul’s Church, for which a plan was already in place for construction at a cost of £2371. A memorial to George Turnour was to occupy a prominent place in the church. The Church was opened in August 1846, four years after the death of Turnour.

An impressive large marble tablet was installed  to the memory of George Turnour as the focal point of the Church. (Please see accompanying photo). The marble tablet is the oldest in the church. The writer acknowleges with grateful thanks the assistance provided by Mr Nihal Seneviratne of Colombo in procuring the images of the Turnour tablets from St Paul’s Church, Kandy)

“Sacred to the memory of  GEORGE TURNOUR Esq, the eldet son of the Hon”ble George Turnour and Emelie his wife.orn March 11 th AD 1799 and died at Naples April 10th AD 1843, aged 43 years.Appointed to the cEylon Civil Service in 1817 he served under government with distinguished ability for a period of 24 yearsand was enabled by his researches in Oriental literature and profound acquaintance with ancient history and chronology of this island, the scene of his literary and valuable public services.”

In erecting this tablet to the memory of one who united in himself the accomplishments of a gentlemen, the erudition of a scholar and the piety of a Christian, his family are anxious to record in an especial manner the deep constant and mutual affection which in no ordinary degree subsisted between him and younger sister Jane wife of CaptH.A.Atchinson, Ceylon Rifle Regiment, who died the year before her brother at Plymouth, April 20 th 1842 in the 36 th year of her age leaving behind her a bright example in which were blended the inestimable qualities of a devoutChristian, an affectionate wife, a devited mother, and a faithful friend.”


The organisers  of the testimonial to the memory of George Turnour presumably  in their belief that Turnour’s gift to global scholarship should also  be perpetuated by a live, ongoing  memorial to the scholar, could not have selected a better institution to serve their objective. Today’s Royal College  was in 1846 known as the Colombo Academy, and was barely eleven years in existence when the organisers decided to donate the balance funds from the donors to create an annual endowment to the most distinguished student of the Colombo Academy. The first winners of the Turnour Prize  were George F  Nell and Charles Ambrose Lorenz. The Turnour Prize now in its 175th year  is the oldest continuing Prize in the history of Sri Lanka.  It is in fact older than  most of the other prominent schools  of today like  S. Thomas, Trinity, St  Joseph’s and is now a revered institution by itself.  It has inspired scholarship of the highest order in the most prominent school in the country, and its pioneering nature has served as a shining example to   other educational institutions in no small manner.  Throughout  its 175 year existence the Turnour Scholarship has identified, nurtured, and held aloft some of the best scholars, administrators and national leaders that have influenced the development of Sri Lanka. A list of some of the names of  celebrities who kick-started their journey into life via the Turnour Prizr reads like a roll call of the nation’s  revered leadership. Names like. C. A. Lorenz that foremost Burgher of all time, Sir James Peiris, Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, Christopher Britto, Francis Beven, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam,, Sir Thomas de Sampayo, Sir Marcus Fernando, his brother C.M. Fernando, Dr CA Hewavitarne, HV Perera QC, VM Fernando, AE Keuneman, AE Christoffelz, BW Bawa, EW Jayewardene, and more recently of Gamini Iriyagolle, KS Gangadharan, and several others too many to mention,reflect the very high standard of scholarship inspired by the prize..

Special  mention must be made of one family whose members were Turnour scholars for four successive generations. Starting with Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam followed by his son Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva, then by  the latter’s son Balakumaran (Baku) Mahadeva, and then by his son Kumar Mahadeva. While Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s uncle Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy the first barrister ever from Asia  (father of Ananda Coomaraswamy, the savant) was an early Turnour Scholar, the equally brilliant brother of Arunachalam, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan one of the founders of modern Ceylon, could not make it to the Turnour Prize despite being a brilliant student of Royal College. Overall, however, the family’s  contribution to scholarship and national leadership remains unsurpassed.

Mention must also be made of MJR Paul later known as P.M. Jeyarajan who together with AH Macan Markar were the joint winners of the Turnour Prize in 1928. PM Jeyarajan, later a member of the Indian Civil Service, was for many years the Honorary Director of the Royal College Orchestra, underscoring a line from the school song “they have repaid the debt they owed; they kept thy fame inviolate.” All  the winners of the Turnour Prize have their names inscribed on a marble panel displayed  in the College Hall.                                                                                                                                                                                                  An image of the panel is shown below, and  through the kind courtesy of  old Royalist Lam Seneviratne to whom I am thankful for making  a special visit to his old school to take the photograph.. Over 150 Turnour Scholars have left their alma mater Royal College, to carve out a career in the big wide world before them. Not only have their achievements done George Turnour proud, but are remembered through posterity for their association with that great scholar whose contribution to history is indelibly  inscribed into the nation’s psyche.

 Image  of the TURNOUR PRIZE panel in the ROYAL COLLEGE Hall.Photo courtesy of Lam Seneviratne


Filed under accountability, ancient civilisations, architects & architecture, British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, education, ethnicity, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, performance, politIcal discourse, Royal College, sri lankan society, teaching profession, unusual people

9 responses to “Remembering George Turnour: Scholar & Administrator Extraordinary

  1. Senaka Weeraratna

    The dark side of George Turnout. The architect of the Waste Lands Ordinance 1841 that made the Kandyan Peasantry destitute.

    1823 – 1841

    • Hugh Karunanayake

      The so called “dark side” of Turnour is based upon specualation not supported by any facts. KM de Silva suggests that Turnour MAY have been behind the legislation to enact the Waste Lands Ordinance. He has not provided a single reliable source in support of his malicious accusation. It must be rembered that there was a substantial anti Mahavansa looby denying the history and the lineage of past Sinhalese kings. Many of the propenents of the theory were non Buddhist pseudo historians.

  2. Hugh Karunanayake

    Senaka, there was another Waste Lands Ordinance in 1896? Who was the author you quoted in your response above?

  3. Logan Thurairatnam

    Hugh, where are the original documents/ola leaves that Turnour translated? Some time ago I visited the Colombo Museum archives in search of this, no one there could point me in the right direction.

    I also made a trip to the Mulkirigala Temple. There too the chief priest had no idea.

    Also where are Turnour’s papers? I sincerely hope the originals are in Sri Lanka.

    • Rupert Simmington

      It is my understanding that the original ola leaf manuscript that Turnour translated, which had been stored at the Peradeniya University Library, was declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Document in 2021. That being the case, it is probably in a vault somewhere.

  4. Ananda

    There is a “George Turnour Collection” at the British Library…? At least the DN and MN manuscript pages mention “George Turnour Coll.” –
    – Not the Mahavamsa manuscripts, there, tho, as far as I could make out.
    I would love to know about Sri Lankan manuscripts too…is there a book which lists the discovery/location of the various Sri Lankan (Buddhist) manuscripts?

  5. Hugh Karunanayake

    Logan I really do not have information on what became of the original ola manuscripts which Turnour translated. In that age of colonial rule much of the artefacts and other products of medieval Sinhala craftmanship were either purchased legitimately or looted by British administrators. The Hugh Neville Collection now in the British MUseum is a library of ola manuscripts taken from Ceylon. I believe that if Neville had not so assiduously collected the ola manuscripts they would most likely have been sold to tourists or to to other predators seeking memorabilia of their visit to an exquisite land.

    • Logan Thurairatnam

      Hugh, I have The Mahavamsa by Wilhelm Geiger reprint 1934. The first edition was in 1912. The editors preface written by T.W.Rhys Davids states that Turnour’s translation in 1837 followed by L.C.Wijesinha’s publication in 1889 was to undergo further work. To quote ” Early in 1908 the Government of Ceylon were contemplating a new and revised edition of Turnour’s translation of the Mahavamsa published in 1889, ” unquote. This task was then assigned to Prof. Geiger. Geiger’s book was published by the Pali Text Society, London.
      It is possible that the original Ola leaves is in some German Institution? …….. the mystery continues.

  6. diirakria

    This is such an uncritical celebration of a colonial officer and his translation of the text.

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