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Christian College, Kotte presently known as Sri Jayawardhanapura Maha Vidyalaya has now completed 189 years of very useful service (1822 –2011 ) in the field of education. It is a fitting occasion to trace the history of the College detailing its development from earliest days. The early history of Christian College is closely knit with the work of the Church Missionary Society at Kotte. When the Society turned its attention to Ceylon it felt that it was desirable to occupy villages near large town than those towns themselves.
It is well nigh impossible to trace when the Church Schools were registered. Many of them were started at a time when neither the government nor the people were in a position to organize or arrange to carry out the education, which the Christian church was ready to carry out and accomplish often at great expense and sacrifice on the part of Ceylonese and European missionaries. These pioneers had in the early days to traverse vast and lonely tracts in the most primitive modes of transport and live in villages fraternizing with the poor simple village folk who naturally were attracted to them by their simplicity and sincerity of Christian witness. In early days the spread of education was achieved because greater emphasis was attached to the moulding of character than to mere book-learning and places of public responsibility were won by men of sterling worth and character regardless of class, colour or creed.
Education in the pre-Portuguese period was mainly through ‘Pansala’ schools. The Dutch had established a wide-spread system of education which the British in turn continued and re-constructed in later years. The missionaries not only gave religious but also secular instruction. Health and agricultural education was also provided. The village as well was the centre of social, cultural and educational life. The early missionaries had not only opened schools in villages but also found teachers and further provided suitable text books for pupils both in English and Vernacular schools. In these and many ways, church schools have made a definite and lasting contribution to the life of the country.
It is to the Rev. Samuel Lambrick, one of the first pioneer missionaries that we are indebted for the choice of Cotta (Kotte) as a missionary centre. A high waste land on the border of the Cotta lake, appeared singularly acceptable and advantageous to Mr. Lambrick for a mission station. Mr. Lambrick was nearly 50 years of age at the time when he began this pioneer work, but he toiled hard and while operation began for building a house, he himself lived in a hut close by, to enable him to superintend the work. As soon as the house was fit for living in, he moved in and began a school in the verandah for twenty English and Sinhalese students. That little verandah school was the acorn that grew into the giant known as the Cotta Institution, later the Cotta High School, C.M.S Boys’ School and Christian College and in more recent years the Sri Jayawardhanapura Maha Vidyalaya.
Sir Edward Barnes, Governor of Ceylon at that time laid the foundation stone on November 8, 1827 of the Cotta Institution for the training of students for theological studies and Christian work among their own people. 15 students were enrolled at the beginning and they received a good education in English, Science, Mathematics, Latin, Greek, Pali and Philology. The first student admitted was Abraham Gunasekera who was afterwards ordained a priest in 1843 by Bishop Spencer of Madras. In his recollections of Ceylon, the Rev. James Selkirk (1844) has this to say of the Cotta Institution: “In February 1828 one of the students at the Cotta School was an English soldier married to a Sinhalese girl living in Kotte with his family.” Two additions to the staff of the Cotta Institution were Mr. William Lambrick, a nephew of Mr. Samuel Lambrick in 1828 and the Rev. Joseph Marsh in 1831.
Attention was also paid to the education of girls in the Cotta village. At the commencement, parents were unwilling and showed reluctance, particularly the mothers who disliked their daughters ‘learning letters’ as they called it. Fortunately Mr. Lambrick had married and Mrs. Lambrick who had arrived in Ceylon in 1827 was able in October 1828 to establish a school for girls under her superintendence in the mission premises. Mrs. Lambrick it is reported went to nearly all the houses in the village and with persuasion was able to register 33 girls at the end of the year.
In May 1834 the Government instituted a School Commission and the first Govt. Educational Institution called the Colombo Academy, now known as the Royal College was started on October 26, 1836. The first principal was Mr. Joseph Marsh who came to the Cotta Institution in 1831 from Madras.
The first public examination of the Cotta Institution was held in 1831. It was a big occasion the Governor of the Colony, Sir Wilmot Horton himself being present for nearly 2 ½ hours. He listened to the examination of the pupils in English Reading, Latin, Greek, Geography, Geometry and Arithmetic. He expressed his pleasure and gratification at the talent shown by those who received tuition. In 1834, the Bishop of Calcutta, Dr. Wilson visited the Cotta Institution and examined the students in Latin, Greek and the Hebrew Bible. He was accompanied by Dr. and Mrs. Mills, Mr. Bateman, his Chaplain, the Archdeacon of Colombo and some clergy of Colombo.
In the meantime, Mr. Lambrick on account of his age left the Mission so that the duty of superintending the school and teaching fell to the Rev. J. Selkirk. In December 1938, the Rev. J. Selkerk left, and the Rev. J.F. Haslam was sent out from England to act as Principal and took charge of the Institution. He was unremitting in his endeavors to improve his pupils. There were an increasing number of boys joining the Colombo Academy, as parents were considering an English education for their sons as being more lucrative from the point of view of employment. Mr. A. Haslam viewed the drain with grave concern as the efforts at training boys for missionary work was fraught with difficulties. Despite this, Mr. Haslam pressed on and it speaks much for his efforts that the numbers grew and its fame spread throughout the island. Two of Mr. Haslam’s pupils deserve to be mentioned as those who devoted their time to mission work. One was Mr. Robert Williams (died 1866) mission schoolmaster of Jaffna, and Head Master of the Chundikuli Seminary, the other Rev. James Andradi Livera. The Rev. J.A. de Livera was ordained deacon by Bishop Chapman in 1861, and sent to Kurunagala. As the climate proved inhospitable he was transferred as Pastor of the Nugegoda Sinhalese congregation. He died in 1868. Mr. Haslam was principal for 11 ½ years and died in Colombo in 1850. One of his pupil’s writes of him thus: ‘As tutor, Mr. Haslam was much loved and respected by all his scholars and he has left behind in the hearts of everyone a living monument of his exemplary life and conduct; the saintly principal of the institution in its past days.’
In 1851, the Rev. C.C. Fenn took over as Superintendent Missionary and Manager of the school. Just before he took over, there was considerable anxiety as it was felt that the character of the education imparted though excellent in itself was not commensurate with the labour and expense of conducting the institution. Only 22 students were actually employed under the missionaries out of 129 persons admitted during the past 20 years. Mr. Fenn was therefore directed by the Parent Committee to visit important educational institutions both in Europe and India with a view to alter the system obtaining in the Cotta institution. Mr. Fenn after his arrival in Cotta, introduced by degrees the altered system which it had been agreed upon to accept.
Mr. Fenn’s plan had been to make this institution as much as possible an establishment for the training of School Masters, while at the same time to make the Cotta Institution a place of superior general education. Mr. Fenn was equally concerned about those who had left. He arranged for some of the old pupils to meet him at the house of a brother missionary in Colombo. Mr. Fenn was away from the Institution in 1858 and 1859 on a visit to England. After his return, he had to contend with several factors, some of which brought about a decline both in numbers in the school and its popularity as a centre of learning. Frequent changes of tutors, and an increase in the months fees were possible reasons for this malaise which was creeping into the institution.
In 1861 the Rev. C.C. Fenn went to reside in Colombo, and visited the Institution once a week, on the appointment of Rev. R.B. Tonge as Head-Master in 1863, Mr. Tonge though a brilliant student appeared to have been a poor administrator. Disaffection gradually set in and the numbers in the hostel declined very appreciably, culminating finally in the closing down of the hostel. Consequently Mr. Tonge resigned his post and left the island. In 1867, the Rev. S. Coles looked after the remnants of the original institution till it was finally closed down after an existence of 40 years.
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