James Peiris

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Sir James Peiris

Sir James Peiris.JPG
Personal details
Born20 December 1856
Died5 May 1930
Alma materSt John's College, Cambridge, Royal College, Colombo

Sir James Peiris JP (20 December 1856 – 5 May 1930) was a prominent leader in the Sri Lankan independence movement, the first elected Vice-President of the Legislative Council of Ceylon and the first native Governor of Ceylon (Acting).[1][2][3]

Early life and education[edit]

The young James Peiris was educated at the Royal College, Colombo.
James Peiris obtained a double first at St John's College, University of Cambridge. He went on to become the first non-European President of the Cambridge Union Society in 1882.

Born on 20 December 1856 to T Martinus Pieris and Apolonia de Soysa,[4][5] a wealthy and a traditional ship-owning family, who faced comparative poverty 15 years later along with the death of his father.[6][7][8][9] Peiris was educated at Colombo Academy (now Royal College, Colombo) where he excelled in studies winning the Turnour Prize and the Shakespeare prize. He won the English University Scholarship in 1877 and proceeded to St John's College, Cambridge at the University of Cambridge. At Cambridge he had the rare distinction of obtaining a double first – a first class in the Law Tripos and a first class in the Moral Science Tripos.[10] There he was the first non-European to be elected President of the Cambridge Union in 1882. Peiris was called to Bar at Lincoln's Inn in England thus becoming a barrister. He refused to join the Ceylon Civil Service and instead started a law practice. In 1902 he accepted for a short time the office of District Judge of Galle. As a lawyer he played a pioneering role in constitutional reform.[11]

Peiris was elected Vice-President of the Legislative Council of Ceylon in 1924. The President was the Governor of Ceylon.

Political career[edit]

In 1892, as President of the Ceylon National Association (founded by Sir Charles Henry de Soysa), Peiris led the campaign to abolish the 'paddy (grain) tax', for which he was recognised by the Cobden Club.[12] It was the first instance that the tax was abolished in the recorded history of the island.[13] Peiris's entry into politics was as a Member of the Colombo Municipal Council from 1898 to 1908 representing the Slave Island ward, and served on the Public Works Council.[14] Though a reluctant politician at first, Peiris initiated constitutional reforms such as the abolition of the then system of racial representation and the introduction of the elective principle in place of nomination.[12][15][16]

In 1915 Peiris led the campaign for a Royal Commission of Inquiry and the vindication of the reputations of those who had been falsely accused during the riots of 1915.[17] Peiris was the chairman of the committee which was protesting the British Governor's handling of the riots and the unfair and discriminative treatment being meted out to Sinhala Buddhist leaders. As a Christian, although he was offered privileges and pressured by the ruling British, he fearlessly refused them and stuck to his principles.[16] Seeing the horror unleashed by the governor and his advisers, he initiated and drafted a memorandum in great secrecy supported by other prominent members of society to bring it to the attention of the King and His Majesty's Government. It was taken to England hidden in the sole of a shoe by E. W. Perera. As a result of this the governor Sir Robert Chalmers was recalled.[18]

In 1920 Peiris was elected President of the Ceylon National Congress staunchly supported by D.S. Senanayake and F.R. Senanayake.[19][20] Forming the Congress was a self-sacrificing effort by Peiris and the National Association, up until that time the most powerful lobby in Ceylon.[16] He continued the struggle for reforms and promoted greater representation of natives in the government bureaucracy and the judiciary.[15] He also campaigned to abolish the poll tax.[12]

There was wide support for Peiris' nomination to the Legislative Council of Ceylon. On two occasions when nominations had to be made for the position of "an educated Ceylonese" James Peiris was passed over, notwithstanding his ability and integrity. Peiris also was opposed to the principle of nomination.[6][16] Immediately the elective principle was introduced into the Legislative Council, Peiris was elected unopposed.[16] At the same election his brother-in-law Sir Henry De Mel was also elected unopposed, on behalf of the Low Country Products Association.[21] In 1922 Peiris led the fight against the Supply Bill which sought to increase taxation and led a walkout from the Legislative Council in protest.[12][16]

In 1924 the legislative council was reconstituted with a majority of elected representatives. Peiris was elected as Vice-President – a position he held until his death in 1930. The post of President was held nominally by the Governor and Peiris presided over the Council and acted as Officer Administering the Government.[1][16] Peiris accepted in 1925 a knighthood from the King and was a Justice of the Peace for the whole island. He was the first Ceylonese occupant of Queens House as Acting-Governor.[2][3]

Peiris was first to propose the creation of a University College in Colombo and the means of financing it. Following the establishment of the University College, Colombo (later to become the University of Ceylon), Peiris was a Member of the Advisory Council of the new University College.[12]

Family & personal life[edit]

In 1889, Peiris married Grace de Mel, daughter of Jacob De Mel (1839-1919) and Dona Helena née Ferdinando (1850-1906)[14][22] and had two sons and two daughters; Ethel, Louise, Leonard and Devar Suriya Sena.[23][24][25][26][27] His nephews were artist Harold Peiris and Bishop Lakdasa De Mel. He was a devoted Christian and a standing committee member of the Church of England synod. He was a Fellow of the Colonial Institute, a President of the Sinhalese Sports Club, founding Secretary of the Royal College Union, member of the Orient Club,[28] founder of the Ceylon Social Service League, the Ceylon Social Reform Association, the Cheshire Home and the Low-Country Products' Association.[7][12][29][30] He was also known for his ability and interest in horsemanship and farming.[12][30]


Peiris is considered as one of the few distinguished Sri Lankan statesmen prior to its independence and is often referred to as the Father of Constitutional Reforms.[11] Those vindicated due to his efforts became the subsequent leaders of the nation. When his portrait was unveiled in Parliament, the then Prime Minister, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike stated: "Like Moses, James Peiris brought his people within sight of the promised land, but did not live to see its fulfilment".[16][30] In his honour one of the major streets in Colombo is named Sir James Peiris Mawatha and so is Sir James Peiris Hall a Hall of Residence at the University of Peradeniya. The Sir James Peiris Memorial Prize is one of the prizes awarded annually at Royal College, Colombo.

See also[edit]

Sources & External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b PEACE AT LAST IN PARADISE, Ananda Guruge p.213 (AuthorHouse Publishing) ISBN 9781463418373
  2. ^ a b Chapter 5: SRI LANKA: THE UNTOLD STORY, K.T.Rajasingham Asia Times Retrieved 7 November 2015
  3. ^ a b Seventy five years of Rotary, The Sunday Leader, Retrieved 8 January 2016
  4. ^ Yasodara in black Archived 4 January 2015 at the Wayback Machine, Ceylon Today, Retrieved 23 December 2014
  5. ^ Keyt's classics at Gothami Vihara Archived 24 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine, Sunday Observer (Sri Lanka), Retrieved 23 December 2014
  6. ^ a b Life of Sir James Peiris, W. T. Keble and Devar Surya Sena, p.24,62 (University of California)
  7. ^ a b Ceylonese Participation in Tea Cultivation: Coastal Trade & LCPA, by Maxwell Fernando: History of Ceylon Tea Website, Retrieved 5 December 2014
  8. ^ The pre Plantation Economy Archived 23 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine De Fonseka.com Retrieved 5 January 2015
  9. ^ Lanka’s rich maritime heritage By Ravi Ladduwahetty The Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) (LANKALIBRARY) Retrieved 5 January 2015
  10. ^ "Peiris, James (PRS878J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  11. ^ a b Encyclopedia of Sri Lanka, by Charles A. Gunawardena, p.278 (Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd.)
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Sir James Peiris (Public Life), by L.J.M. Cooray (Ourcivilisation Web), Retrieved on 28 November 2014
  13. ^ From Coffee to Tea Cultivation in Ceylon, 1880-1900: An Economic and Social History by Roland Wenzlhuemer, p. 151 (Brill Academic Pub) ISBN 9789004163614
  14. ^ a b Wright, Arnold. Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon. Lloyd's Greater Britain Publishing Company. p. 563. ISBN 978-8120613355.
  15. ^ a b Working towards reform, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) Retrieved 23 April 2015
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h Sir James Peiris – Sri Lanka’s champion of the elective principle, The Island (Sri Lanka) Retrieved 23 December 2015
  17. ^ The architects of independence in Sri Lanka By Shimazie Adjumain (The Ceylon Independent) Retrieved 01 March 2015
  18. ^ Sri Lanka's Independence movement The Sunday Times. Retrieved 01 March 2015
  19. ^ The Ceylon National Congress and its intrigues By K T Rajasingham, Asia Times Online,Retrieved 23 April 2015
  20. ^ Chapter 18, Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle by T. Sabaratnam (Ilankai Tamil Sangam) Retrieved 01 March 2015
  21. ^ Allister MacMillan (Ed) (1928). Seaports of India and Ceylon. Asian Educational Services. pp. 439–40. ISBN 978-8120619951.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  22. ^ Edith M. G. Fernando (1989). Journey of a family (The Mahavidanelagē De Mels). Colombo: R.F.S. De Mel. p. 16.
  23. ^ Who’s Who of Sri Lanka: The lives and times of forty eight personalities, Gamini Akmeemana (Daily Mirror) Retrieved 8 January 2016
  24. ^ Of Sri Lanka I sing The Sunday Leader Retrieved 23 December 2014
  25. ^ Of Danno Budunge, Hymn for Sri Lanka & Opera, Nayomini Weerasooriya (Weerasooriya Web) Retrieved 23 February 2016
  26. ^ Devar Surya Sena, De Fonseka Web Retrieved 23 February 2016
  27. ^ A milestone for Gemunu By Lenard R Mahaarachchi The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) Retrieved 23 December 2014
  28. ^ SOME PILLARS FOR LANKA’S FUTURE by Michael Roberts, FRONTLINE VOL. 26, No 12, 6–19 June 2009, Retrieved 31 May 2015
  29. ^ OUR REVERED BENEFACTORS - SIR JAMES AND LADY PEIRIS (cheshirelanka.org) Retrieved 23 December 2014
  30. ^ a b c Tales of a lifetime: A perfect gentle knight, The Island (Sri Lanka), Retrieved 23 December 2014