70 Years of Independent Sri Lanka – Hands Across The Seas

Sri Lanka, the resplendent island off the southern coastal tip of India, celebrates her 70 years of Independence from Great Britain February 4, 2018. To her credit, Sri Lanka maintained its vibrant democratic system all these seventy years. The country can boast that it experienced universal franchise before independence in 1948 during the system of government it experienced – the State Council System.

Since independence in 1948, relations between the United States and Sri Lanka are based on mutual interests and a shared commitment to the ideals of democratic governance. U.S. policy toward Sri Lanka is characterized by respect for its independence, sovereignty, and moderate nonaligned foreign policy; support for the country’s unity, territorial integrity, and democratic institutions; and encouragement of its social and economic development.

When the Sri Lanka America Association of Las Vegas celebrate this 70-year pride of the Sri Lankan nation on the American soil, we endeavor to place, for record, the historic relations Sri Lanka and the United States of America developed from early 1800s, mostly in the spheres of education and social enhancement.

The people to people interaction between the two countries, each proud of their respective histories as representative democracies was to grow with Sri Lanka attaining independence in 1948 and has evolved through the years expanding on the basis of many common values.

Although formal diplomatic relations between the governments of newly independent Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and the United States of America was established in 1948, contacts between the peoples of the U.S.A and Sri Lanka are nearly 230 years old.

The American visitors in the early part of the 19th century came not in search of trade but of souls. As early as 1813, Rev. Samuel Newell, a New England clergyman spent some months laboring in missionary activity in Sri Lanka. He was, in a sense, a forerunner of the American missionaries who came to the Jaffna Peninsula to preach the words of Christ.

The early American missionaries, like the Rev. Edward Warren, who arrived in July 1816, took special interest in educating the people of the area in both English and their own Tamil language. Since education had been such an important factor in the rapid development of the United States, the missionaries hoped that founding schools throughout the northern peninsula would help to bring about the much needed social reforms, the elimination of poverty, and overall improvement in the lives of the people.

The last years of the 19th century saw another remarkable American come to Sri Lanka to learn; Buddhist Theosophist the dedicated Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. Col. Olcott is remembered with love and gratitude by the Sinhalese Buddhists of Sri Lanka, since he reawakened the nation and inspired them to struggle for their legitimate rights, at a time they faced considerable setback in education, government employment and access to professional activity, under British colonial rule.

Assisting Sri Lankans to restore Buddhism to its pristine glory, he drafted and published, in consultation with the Buddhist clergy, a Buddhist catechism. To provide Buddhism with a unifying symbol, he designed a Buddhist flag to incorporate the six colors of the aura, which, according to tradition, surrounds any place where the Buddha walked. He campaigned to have “Wesak”, the day which commemorates the Birth, Enlightenment and Death of Lord Buddha, recognized as a public holiday. By petitioning the British authorities in London, he regained “Wesak” as a legal holiday. He was instrumental in starting Buddhist educational institutions such as Ananda College in Colombo in 1886 and preached throughout the island and worked successfully to achieve official recognition for Buddhist education. Subsequently Colonel Olcott also founded Mahinda College in Galle and Dharmaraja College in Kandy while supporting founding of Museus College. These schools taught the nation’s children to value their civilization and culture.

As Colonel Olcott came to Sri Lanka from the United States to become a giant among men in Buddhist circles, yet another remarkable man, Dr Ananda Coomaraswamywent from Sri Lanka to the United States to become one of the world’s leading Oriental scholars and left a rich intellectual legacy to the world. Named the Curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1917, Dr. Coomaraswamy was not content merely to interpret his native Sri Lanka and Asia for the West, but also used his scholarly gifts to create closer understanding between the two cultures. This great Ceylonese scholar and writer, as curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, led the American people to an appreciation of both the art and the philosophy of the East. He was the author of over 500 works.

While missionaries, merchants and other individual Americans left their mark on Sri Lanka in the 19th century, consular and commercial relations between the US and the then British Colony prospered. [A U.S. consular presence had been on the island since 1850] In 1850, John Black, a Scottish merchant resident in Galle, was named the first American Commercial Agent in Ceylon. The American Commercial Agency was to move to Colombo in 1870 and later became the American Consulate in British Ceylon.

Sri Lanka America Association of Las Vegas thought it fit on this independence day to highlight the rapport, connections, fraternity and goodwill between Sri Lanka and the United States of America.