A Christ's-Educated Liberal in Colonial Ceylon - Sketches of the Life of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam
The Master’s Occasional Series: Exploring our Diverse Eminent Alumni
Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam (1853-1924) was a Ceylon Tamil scholar and statesmen who attended Christ’s in the 1870s, where he embraced and excelled in history, classics and law.
Above all, however, he imbibed a sense of liberalism and sought a new future for his country of Ceylon. Returning home, he was the first Ceylonese to gain entry to the Ceylon Civil Service through open competition. He held senior official and judicial posts, and later served in the Legislative Council. He grew frustrated by the imperial and colonial world that confined the liberalism he believed was Ceylon’s due with its ancient cultures and history.
The expression of liberal sentiments in Westminster contrasted with the practice of colonialism in Colombo. In his 1917
address as the first President of the Ceylon National Congress he articulated what some described as an “epochal”
argument for responsible government for Ceylon within the British Empire, and for a Ceylonese identity. His vision
would collapse in the face of sectarian and ethnic divisions, and he largely withdrew from politics, dying a
Outside politics he wrote historical and legal texts and maintained lasting connections with his Cambridge contemporaries such as Frederic Maitland, Edward Carpenter and the Marquess of Crewe. In one if his last public speeches he referred to his liberal ideas for Ceylon as ‘dreams cherished from the time I was an undergraduate…during those never-to-be-forgotten days’. Ultimately his dreams were not fully realised, but their evocation still lingers.
A recording of the event can be streamed below: