Disce aut Discede

Disce aut discede

The RoyalCollege motto, Disce aut discede (learn or depart), engraved in large letters at the entrance to the RoyalCollege building, is unique, unlike any other, in its imperious command. It is traced back to 1871 and the Principal at the time, George Todd. One could develop many talents and skills in the school but if you did not study you had no place here. And RoyalCollege has a unique and honourable position in the history of education in Ceylon/Sri Lanka.

The history of RoyalCollege reflects the developing government policies on education from its inception in colonial times. After British occupation of Kandy in 1815, the Christian Missionary Society was at the forefront of proselytizing through English education in Sri Lanka from 1818, setting up its first major schools in Baddagama, Jaffna, Kandy and Cotta (Kotte). Then the reforms recommended  by the Colebrooke-Cameron Royal Commission of 1833 saw the first steps towards liberalising the economy, encouraging private sector business and bringing local leaders into the Legislative Council. These and the development of a modern colonial administration required educated natives with a proper all-round education, not merely religious education. The implementation of these reforms initially fell on the British Governor, Sir Robert I. Wilmot Horton.

Governor Wilmot Horton had a special interest in education and personally attended the awards of the missionary society’s premier Christian Institution of Kotte in 1831. He was impressed by the students’ proficiency in Greek and Latin and declared: Nullum munus reipublicae afferre majus meliusve possumus, quam si dociamus et erudiamus juventutem (We can confer no greater benefit to the country than by educating youth.) From 1931 to 1934 the Christian Institution of Kotte was headed by Rev. Joseph Marsh. He left in 1834 and the following year he set up his own school in Colombo as the HillStreetPrivateAcademy. In 1836 Governor Horton made this a government school under the name of the ColomboAcademy with Rev. Marsh as the headmaster. Later, in recognition of its status as the premier government school, the colonial government in 1881 obtained the royal assent of the British Empress, Queen Victoria, to have it re-named as the Royal College of Colombo. Through the years, the school lived up to its expectations, producing the largest number of outstanding national leaders of any school in politics, the professions and the public services.

As could be expected, the school evolved with the political evolution of the country. Christian missionaries were replaced by laymen as Principals. In 1946, the year of my class, a Ceylonese, J.C.A. Corea, became the first non-British Principal of the school and since then, with independent Ceylon, it has always been so. But the dedication to the highest standards of all-round education and its privileged position in the government educational hierarchy remained. The Principal of Royal College had the substantive rank of Deputy Director of Education (now a Director, in the expanded education service) and it is also a magnet school to which the brightest from other government schools are sent on scholarship. Customarily, in former times, the Governor-General of Ceylon presided at the annual school prize-giving and made an oration. In 1953, the year I finished, it was Lord Soulbury, who had drafted the constitution for independent Ceylon. A short dapper man wearing a monocle in the aristocratic fashion, he was happy to exchange a few words when I came up to receive the Shakespeare Prize and English Literature prizes.

Principal John Corea was a stern no-nonsense administrator. Dedication to study was a demand. At the Senior School Certificate level, teachers evaluated all students and chose those who were regarded as potential for higher education for promotion to the higher class. Others were allowed to sit for the exam and were transferred to a “Remove Form” to do lighter subjects and leave school. No wonder academic results from RoyalCollege at the University Entrance examinations were always outstanding. The school was selected as “one of best innovative colleges” in the world by Microsoft Corporation 2009.

As a strict disciplinarian, Corea forbade loitering in the corridors during school hours. Any student found outside the classroom during school sessions needed a written authorisation by the teacher. Otherwise, no explanation was accepted and the student was taken to the office to receive “six of the best” from the cane visibly kept to deter truants. Later, when I was in the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya campus, John Corea came as the Warden of Ramanathan Hall. I was Student President of the Hall and President of the Peradeniya Campus Students’ Union. Since the students’ unions were in the habit organising protests and demonstrations to make campus life more lively, John Corea would invite me to his quarters to share a beer and discuss students’ issues. Yet, even then, I could not help feeling like a schoolboy in his presence.

The school had many excellent teachers who dedicated their lives to the institution. Invariably, it was the older teachers, too numerous to mention here, who were the ablest. Since teacher salaries are modest, it became more difficult to recruit the best in a growing economy but RoyalCollege attracted some as its teachers are on a higher service grade in the education department.

Our class of students also, typically, produced a variety of talents. C.V. Gunaratne who did not enter the university but took to politics became Minister of Industries, only to be brutally killed with his wife by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber. Jayantha Jayaratne, joined the Army, became a General officer, but died prematurely of ill health. Two entered the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service, Olcott Goonesekera and Gamini Irriagolle, but left the service after a while. Numerous others became medical doctors, engineers, architects, university professors, naval officers, public servants, school teachers, businessmen, corporate managers, etc., all too numerous to mention by name. One, Nimal Mendis, ignored studies and played music and later became a famous musician and song writer. I became a senior manager in the local Unilever company and later became chairman of State Timber Corporation before migrating to become an international business consultant.

The belief that higher education was a path to success was not always true. RoyalCollege excelled in several sports but the stars were the rugby players and cricketers. Many, though not all, of these star athletes tended to neglect studies. At the time, the majority of the tea plantation and commercial companies were owned by the British and the top managers were British. The British company managers sent to the colonies were less educated but considered tough enough to work in harsh tropical regions. Whenever they recruited local officers, they selected less educated boys with sporting achievements from leading schools to whom they could better relate as persons. It was only Ceylon Tobacco Company and Unilever that recruited university graduates as senior managers. Gradually, after independence, when the government restricted the recruitment of foreign managers, these Ceylonese officers were catapulted to the top management of their prestigious companies. But it is a testament to the all-round training at Royal College that even the academically less educated people who joined private sector companies became business luminaries in the country.

A member of the Class of 1946.


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