Sir James Peiris by L.J.M. Cooray

James Peiris had an outstanding career at the Colombo Academy, now called Royal College. He won the English University Scholarship in 1877 and proceeded to 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.

He was the first coloured person (Asian or African) to be elected President of the Cambridge Union (or for that matter of the Oxford Union). Another fifty years elapsed before the second coloured person was elected to the Presidency of either the Cambridge or the Oxford Unions. He too was a Sri Lankan. The fact that James Peiris was elected as far back as 1880 to such a prestigious position speaks volumes for his character and ability.

This was a time when the Empire on which it was said the sun would never set was at its zenith. Coloured people were thought to be intellectually and in many other ways inferior. For a coloured person to be elected to one of the most exclusive and aristocratic positions in England at that time, is a striking affirmation of the exceptional intellect, excellent command of the English language, impressive abilities, personality and character of James Peiris.

This achievement illustrates an aspect of James Peiris' outlook on life - hard work, talent and character can break all barriers by peaceful means. In this situation it was a near insurmountable barrier and hard work, exceptional talent and exceptional character were required.

There are many indications to anyone who examines the papers and the records available of James Peiris' Cambridge days, that his University contemporaries (students and teachers) were struck as much by his intellect as his integrity and character.

It bears emphasis that he achieved in the conditions of 1880 the unique treble of a double first and the presidency of the Cambridge Union.

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