Some Comments About Sir James Peiris by his Contemporaries
Sir James Peiris by L.J.M. Cooray

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam described him as follows:

"A man of ripe culture, trained and sober judgement, high character and public spirit. His opinions are formed with deliberation, they are based on reason and principle, and guided by zeal for the public welfare and loyal attachment to the Throne. Everybody feels that he has nothing up his sleeve; he is proof against Official blandishments and knows not how to trim his sails to every wind. No wonder that he enjoys the confidence of the people of Ceylon without difference of race or creed. " Minutes of a Special Meeting of the Ceylon National Congress, 1st November 1920.

Mr W T Keble a British Educationist saw him in the following terms:

"Mr. Peiris was, as ever, in these years a healer of wounds and a peace maker in the middle of the Sinhalese-Tamil British triangle. Reading the debates, it is impossible not to be struck by the strength of his character. He saw clearly what he wanted, and went readily to the battle, but he had trained himself to see both sides of a question. He was free from the pleader's tendency to try to force all matters to reflect his own point of view. In a word he was just. And so he did not feel personal dislike for his opponents, even when they exasperated him most." W T Keble and Devar Surya Sena, The Life of Sir James Peiris, (1950) p 67.

The following words of Mr E W Perera were spoken in the context of the 1915 riots. Sir James Peiris was the Chairman of a Committee who was protesting against the British Governor's handling of the aftermath of the riots and the unfair and discriminatory treatment of Sinhala Buddhist leaders. James Peiris, a Christian, led the protest movement to plead the innocence of Sinhala Buddhist leaders some of whom were jailed and treated with suspicion as rebels against the British Raj. Mr E W Perera said:

"When the Government of Sri Robert Chalmers offered him the bait, offered him the bribe, to dissociate from his Buddhist Sinhalese countrymen and, when Sir Robert assured him that Christians would not be under the ban but would be exempted from the repercussions of Government he spurned the offer with disdain. That was the index of Sir James Peiris character. He was a man of peace, but he never compromised with principles. He was a man of compromise but he never sacrificed the interests of his country. He was a nationalist before the present nationalism was born. Now there are nationalists on every bush. It pays to be a nationalist. He died in harness and passed to the vale of Avalon, and at once into the history of the nation." Ceylon Independent, 27.9.1930.

After his death a newspaper editorial said:

"His end has come in the fullness of time, and he passes away full of honour, full of dignity, leaving to his countrymen a priceless heritage, the memory of a life nobly spent in the country's service.The people of Ceylon will long remember with gratitude his splendid labours in the cause of political reform, his invaluable contribution towards the social uplift of the poor classes, his services in the field of education, they will remember with pride his culture, his scholarship, his rhetorical gifts, and above all his high sense of honour and uprightness of life.

He was a Christian knight standing for purity of thought, integrity, and selfless service to his country and his Church. Such men do not die with their deaths." Quoted without source in Keble and Surya Sena, op cit, p 108.

Mr D B Jayatilaka had this to say about his record in public life:

"I would only say that during the past 20 or 30 years no public movement having for its object the progress of the country either politically or socially, or educationally was started in this country with which Sir James Peiris was not closely and prominently associated. It is, however, not only his achievement in these various directions that entitled him to the esteem, admiration and gratitude of his countrymen. Much more important even than what he did in his many-sided activities is the spirit of service with which he always acted in public life. Those of us who have had the privilege of associating with him in public matters can bear testimony to the simplicity of his life, to his liberal-mindedness, his broad-mindedness, and above all the purity of his life and conduct as a public man. To do honour to a man of that type, and to perpetuate his memory in a worthy manner is a debt that we owe not only to Sir James Peiris, but to posterity and to future generations of the country." Ceylon Independent, 27.9.1930

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan said of his contribution to the reform movement:

"In fact I may say that as regards the reform of the Legislative Council there is preserved in our records in a volume of the sessional papers a grand document which he wrote out and despatched to the Secretary of State for the first time before many of us thought about it..." Ceylon Daily News, 30.10.1922

Mr A Mahadeva referred to a characteristic of the late Sir James Peiris that appealed to him;

"...his single-minded devotion to duty. He never beat the big drum, but there was about him that quiet courage which never compromised with principles.

Nor did he pose as the only man who did his duty. Like all truly great men, he was indifferent to praise or blame, but he moved along the line which he had chalked out for himself, and did his duty with the satisfaction that came from doing it fearlessly. In the closing years of his life he commanded greater influence than almost any other public man in the Island." Ceylon Independent, 27.9.1930

His biographer, Mr W T Keble saw him as the true liberal:

"We have failed if we have not shown James Peiris' main characteristic which made him a leader in his own day and still leaves him ahead of the times. He was able to see both sides even when he ardently favoured one side. Men trusted him because they knew he would not favour himself, or his own, or his party at the unjust expense of others. An age was well on its way when rulers would attempt to shut out the point of view of the other side by penal laws and iron curtains and newspapers in the hands of deeply prejudiced persons. James Peiris took pains to know, and to point out both sides of a question even when such action was not popular." Keble and Surya Sena, op cit p 112.

His daughter Mrs Louse Cooray amplifies on this:

"When people criticised him and his family and friends were indignant, he would say: `I am a public man, they have every right to criticise me'. He would say this however hard, vituperative, unfair or untrue the criticisms were." Unpublished comment made to me.

Mr. George Moore-Smith, a contemporary of the University of Cambridge has written in his personal diary (unpublished):

"I liked Peiris very much. He seemed unusually intelligent. This was the universal opinion... I describe him as very nice... Peiris' manners seemed to us quaint, though in every way he was a complete gentleman"

Mr. Moore-Smith wrote in his dairy on the day James Peiris left Cambridge after completing his studies:

"Peiris' work for which he had come to England, was done. It had been achieved with a brilliance and completeness probably never equalled."

Mr E W Perera at a public meeting convened shortly after his death said:

"It was the greatest tribute to him that they saw on that platform men who worked conscientiously it might be against some of his most cherished ideals. But who without a tinge of personal bitterness had come there to pay a tribute to his great work and the personal character of Sir James Peiris.

One of the greatest traits of his character was that he was above all pettiness, he was great in the truest sense of the word". Ceylon Independent, 27.9.1930

Mr Francis de Zoysa, K C said:

"He was selfless to a fault. He was almost self-effacing. He was not a fair weather patriot. His honesty of purpose was never doubted by anyone, even by his worst enemy. He was the first Vice-President of the Council and he died the greatest Ceylonese of the day." Ceylon Independent, 27.9.1930

The Bible says "God is Spirit and those who worship Him must Worship Him in Spirit and in Truth". Sir James Peiris' foremost principle in life was "Truth Conquers". The Bible in "Revelations" refers repeatedly to "he who overcomes" or "him who overcomes". St Paul refers to the "victorious Christian life" and to "fighting the good fight". He who overcomes, leads the victorious Christian life and fights the good fight is the person who is obedient to God and Truth. Obedience to God and Truth was ultimately all that mattered to James Peiris. That is what he believed God measured his life by — and whether he had succeeded or failed in material terms was irrelevant.

Truth conquers. Truth may or may not conquer in a person's life in the world. But the person who stands for truth is victorious at the spiritual level. That is James Peiris' great contribution to the nation and to his family. An example of a life lived for truth - all his achievements flowed from that.

It is my intention to sketch some of the main events in the public life of James Peiris.

« NEXT » « Sir Peiris » « Australian Topics » « A Study Of Our Decline » « Home »