Founder of Dharmaraja scouting and the first native Chief Commissioner of Ceylon Scout Movement from 1930 to 1942.
I was the youngest of 4 children & only six years old when he passed away. Hence personal first-hand memories of my father are few and clouded by the mists of time.
Still a vivid picture of the man emerged over the years from conversations with my sister and also from the log-books and albums lovingly compiled by my mother. There was one each for the Jamborees and various study tours abroad and several for his published articles. The albums contained newspaper clippings, photographs and colourful picture-postcards as well as his jamboree diaries from the UK, Godollo in Hungary, Australia and so on. There was yet another book on his visit to the USA on a Rockefeller scholarship. Each was a most exciting geography lesson for this goggle-eyed child. Sadly none of these books are available to me now.
More was learnt about him from comments by both local and foreign visitors to our home in the months that followed his death. Often when they got up to leave they would patted me on the head and say, “John Henricus, your father was a great man.”
I can truly say he was the gentlest of men, without any trace of weakness in mind or body. No one could recall his ever raising his voice in anger or excitement, always remaining quietly in control of the situation however stressful. There were many who envied his rise to eminence in the world of scouting during those colonial times but he forgave them, telling my mother, “He can’t help himself “.
I believe Lord Baden-Powell held my father in the highest regard. He attended my parent’s wedding which was held at my mother’s latter-day ancestral home on Havelock Road in 1921 and invited him to his own country estate, ‘Gilwell’, on more than one occasion.
In scouting my father found his true vocation. An idealist & visionary he realized the importance of scout principles in the moulding of a boy’s character. And from this was born the idea of the Scout Colony which turned out to be a model for the entire scout world.
After his appointment to the Education Department he served in various parts of the island and realized the need for introducing scouting in rural areas. This led to scout troops being set up in many villages and estates. But it was only after he became Scout Commissioner that he embarked on one of the boldest educational adventures in the scouting world. He persuaded the government to give the association 20 acres of land off Kalutara to set up a school-cum-farm-cum-vocational training centre that would cater to the needs of youth from all walks of life. In no time, boys from every community were applying to join.
A few miles inland from the Kalutara Junction, a large area of jungle land was acquired and partially cleared. Soon roads were built & long log cabin–like dorms were put up for the pioneering community which began to grow in numbers. Boys from all walks of life were enrolled, the majority from less affluent families. Teachers were recruited and normal educational courses were conducted. In addition, what were perhaps the first vocational education training programs were started here – welding, mechanical engineering, carpentry, handicraft, art and so on.
But uniquely, the whole place was run on scout principles and every student was first and foremost a scout. This experiment was highly successful and produced young men able to face their future with optimism. In 1942 with the war getting ever closer to Ceylon it all came to an end. The Colony was taken over as the police training school. It was merciful my father died before he saw the gradual destruction of all he had carefully nurtured. The colony was moved to Mirigama but it was never the same.
I remember the day of his funeral in June, 1942. Our little world had been turned upside down. There were hordes of people swarming all over the house. Telegrams and cables from scouters all over the world were pouring in. Scouts stood vigil all through the night by the casket. The next day scouts from around the island lined the streets for miles from our home to the cemetery. Only one memory remains of the graveside ceremony – that of Sir Andrew Caldecott, colonial Governor of the Island and a personal friend of my father, saluting with a sad expression on his face as the coffin was lowered out of sight. My father treated all men alike, from Lord Baden-Powell who was his personal friend to Dias the old cook in the Colony cook-house.
John Henry de Saram was born in 1889 as the eldest son of Philip Peter de Saram of Uruwela Walauwwa. He was educated at Dharmaraja College and later took to teaching at the same school. It was here that the 1st Kandy Scout Troop was started in 1913. It is also here that his memory is kept alive when his achievements have been all but forgotten elsewhere. I marvel at the enthusiasm and drive of the Old Rajans Scout Association and am truly grateful for this.
This is not only a memorial but a thanksgiving for the life of a truly gentleman, that touched not only mine, but the lives of hundreds of children now growing old in many parts of the globe, who surely remember how their lives were transformed by the fact of knowing him.
May I thank the Principal, Mr. S. M. Keerthiratne for bestowing on me the honour and privilege of unveiling this magnificent statue today.
John Henricus de Saram
18th February 2013
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