Saturday 08, November 1997


Remembering H. W. Codrington,scholar and historian

by Cecil Jayasinghe

Among the many English Civil Servants who spent the best part of their lives in Ceylon during the colonial period and who devoted their spare time to historical research, Humphry William Codrington was one of those eminent scholars who contributed immensely to elucidate Sri Lanka's past history and culture.

The eldest son of Rear Admiral William Codrington of the Royal Navy he had his education at Winchester College and Oxford University. After passing the Colonial Civil Service Examination he was posted to Ceylon as a Cadet in 1903.

His administrative assignments in the Ceylon Civil Service took him to provincial towns such as Kalutara, Anuradhapura, Badulla and Nuwara Eliya and Kandy where he made use of his time for the study of historical documents. He took a great interest in Ceylon History, culture and antiquities and collected a large number of Sannasas, numismatics, dresses of Kandy Chiefs, land tenure and revenue, village names and by his research cleared many misconceptions relating to these topics.

The Catalogue on Coins published in 1914 was an authoritative work on the subject. The books `Land Tenure and Revenue', `Ceylon History' and ` Notes on Ceylon Topography' were his other reputed works of note. He contributed learned articles to the `Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society' and they became the basic data for the researchers and historians in later decades.

Codrington not only mastered Sinhala and Tamil, but became familiar with Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit, which were very useful for the Sannasas, mostly from learned Buddhsit Bhikkhus. The Mahanayake Thera of Malwatte and T. B. Keppetipola, Basnayake Nilame of Embekke Devale were close collaborators in the study of the languages and research.

He was Government Agent Sabaragamuwa, Uva Province and Central Province. A random incident in his official capacity is worth recalling as related by a senior officer who had worked under him. When Codrington was in office attending to papers, an Englishman had entered his room without prior notice with his hat on, pulled out a chair and sat beside his table. Codrington was unmoved and when the Englishman tried to draw his attention. He looked up, put on his hat and attended to his work.

The Englishman introduced himself as the manager of Walkers. Codrington retorted and had said that the intruder, being an Englishman was disgrace to the King of England and the Government of Ceylon and that manners should be learnt before acceptance of office as manager.

Codrington was a close associate of Dr. Senerath Paranavitane, the renowned archaeologist and scholar and inspired the latter in his research on antiquities and Ceylon history. Codrington retired in 1932 after a very useful contribution to Ceylon and its people and on 7th November 1942, passed away in England. Dr. H. W. Thambiah in his book `Sinhala Laws and Customs' refers to several place names, customs, systems and descriptions of land tenure as authoritative expositions and it is a fitting tribute to Codrington, a great English Civil Servant who has contributed much to the study of numismatics and antiquities.