His rise to success

As part of the commemoration celebrations in honour of the birth centenary of the late Deshamanya N.U. Jayawardena, first Sri Lankan Governor of the Central Bank, senator, banker and financier, the road leading from Tangalle Bridge, Medaketiya Road, in Hambantota District will be renamed Deshamanya N.U. Jayawardena Mawatha, at a ceremony presided over by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on November 6. The house in which the late N.U. Jayawardena lived during his childhood was located down this road.
Here is an extract from the biography, N.U. Jayawardena – The First Five Decades, written by, Kumari Jayawardena (NU’s daughter-in-law) and Jennifer Moragoda (his granddaughter-in-law). The biography examines the formative experiences in N.U. Jayawardena’s early life and career, and the role he played behind the scenes, in shaping Sri Lanka’s key financial and economic infrastructure. His life is set against the backdrop of the political, economic and social upheavals of the first half of the 20th century, such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Second World War, and the period of Sri Lanka’s transition into an independent nation

N.U. Jayawardena – The First Five Decades by Kumari Jayawardena (NU’s daughter-in-law) and Jennifer Moragoda (his granddaughter-in-law). Published in July 2008


I came from a humble family and did not have any privileges of class or caste. I only had a great longing to study, and believed, even as a child, that education would open up vistas of greatness for me. As I grew old I had no desire to stagnate in a village that had few opportunities for the young to realise their dreams. Each of us when we are young, whatever our social and economic status, have visions of achieving greatness and leaving behind a mark for posterity.
(N.U. Jayawardena, interview with Manel Abhayaratne)

The Family
Ubesinghe Jayawardenage Nonis, later Neville Ubesinghe Jayawardena
(1908-2002), was born on February 25, 1908 in Hambantota. His father, Ubesinghe Jayawardenage Diyonis was born in Tangalle, in the Hambantota district, in 1879, and his mother, Gajawirage Podinona (known as ‘Nona Akka’), born in 1887, was from Devundara (Dondra) in the neighbouring Matara district. They were both Buddhists of the Durava caste. Of their 11 children, a daughter died in infancy and two sons died from illness in childhood – a not uncommon feature at that time. NU’s parents already had two daughters, Charlotte and Rosalind, when the eldest son NU was born. In a society where a male child was much desired, NU’s birth was welcomed and celebrated. As was customary, his horoscope was cast. His maternal grandfather carefully read it, and gave it to NU’s father with the request that he should not show it to anyone. When asked whether there was bad news in it, the grandfather had assured his son-in-law that there was no such thing, but that he should keep it carefully for reference at some future date (de Zoysa manuscript, p.37). As the eldest son, NU held a privileged position, and much care and attention were lavished on him by parents, grandparents and elder sisters. The latter referred to him as budu malli – a term of great affection. Subsequently, there were two more surviving sons, David and Peter. In addition to the two elder girls, three more daughters were born to the family – Wimala, Sita and Hilda. NU’s life in rural Hambantota is reflected in the nutritious food he ate – namely, buffalo milk, curd and kurakkan pittu – and the comments he made about his early childhood:
I was the third in the family and the eldest among the boys. My parents were very concerned and affectionate towards me. The first memorable event I recall is how my parents, particularly my mother, looked after me.
She would give me every morning a glass of hot buffalo milk and never failed to send me a glass of warm buffalo milk to school during our tea break. (Carol Aloysius, 2000)
He recalls that he crouched near a wall to drink the milk unseen, so that other students would not tease him. NU frequently claimed in later life that, perhaps, it was this glass of milk and buffalo curd that contributed to his robust health and longevity.

Hambantota in Colonial Times
In the Southern Province of Sri Lanka, the districts of Matara and Galle were relatively prosperous compared to the poverty-stricken Hambantota district. NU was to be linked closely with all three districts of the Southern Province in his youth. The Hambantota district was 1,013 square miles in extent, and in 1911 the population of the district was 110,508, mainly Sinhala, except for the town of Hambantota, which had a large Muslim population – many of Malay origin, dating from the time of Dutch rule in the maritime regions. NU’s parents had many Malay friends, as recollected by his sister Rosalind.
The district of Hambantota had three divisions – West Giruvapattu, East Giruvapattu and Magampattu – with a Mudaliyar as well as superior and minor headmen involved in the administration. While the Government Agent (GA) of the Southern Province was stationed in Galle, the Hambantota district was administered by an Assistant Government Agent (AGA) resident in Hambantota. A few months after NU’s birth in February 1908, Leonard Woolf became AGA of this district, serving there from August 1908 to May 1911. Woolf had joined the civil service in 1906, and on returning to Britain in 1911, he became a Labour Party political activist, anti-imperialist agitator, writer, publisher, and author of The Village in the Jungle, a novel of rural poverty based on his Hambantota experiences.
But he was, perhaps, to achieve most fame as the husband of the novelist Virginia Woolf, whom he married on his return from Sri Lanka. Valuable insights into life in the Hambantota area in that period are given in the second volume of Leonard Woolf ’s autobiography, Growing – which also describes his years in other parts of the country. His Diaries in Ceylon (1908-1911), published in 1962, details his day-to-day activities and observations as a civil servant.
Woolf ’s vivid descriptions of the environment and the climate of Hambantota, not only help set the backdrop to NU’s childhood, but also help us understand what may have propelled him and his family to leave the area. Hambantota was the poorest district in the island at that time, and is currently still one of the least developed. As Saparamadu, in his introduction to Leonard Woolf’s Diaries, writes:
The Hambantota District was somewhat dissimilar from the other districts of Ceylon. The land was flat and low and the climate particularly in the eastern half of the district was very hot and dry. The rainfall was usually as low as 25 inches a year. As a result of this climate, no settled forms of agriculture were possible except where irrigation facilities were available, and ‘the people generally were among the poorest in the whole island’. (Woolf, 1962, p.xxxvi-vii, emphasis added)

Persistent Poverty and Disease
Woolf, in his Diaries, refers to the ‘small scattered and usually poverty-stricken villages of the area’ (ibid, p.175), and to areas where there had been no rainfall for four or five years. The town of Hambantota had the only hospital of the district in 1908, dealing mostly with cases of malaria. Leonard Woolf was concerned with the health of the region and recommended another hospital for Tissamaharama, pointing out that the death rate for the Hambantota district was extremely high – almost double the national rate (ibid, p.5). Woolf writes of the pauperised, almost famine-stricken people of Andarawewa and Beddewewa, whose pathetic plight he portrays movingly in his novel The Village in the Jungle, written on his return to Britain. In his Diaries, he expresses disquiet and solicitude for these village people and records that:
The villages are decimated by malaria. It is an awful sight to see the children. In Beddewewa tank, I saw a child about five… absolute skin and bones, but his belly was about three times the size of the body… I told the uncle that the child would die… he said ‘probably he will die, most of our families here are dying.’ I had the child taken to Hambantota. (ibid, p.215).

The persistent poverty and disease in the Hambantota district were frequently mentioned by Leonard Woolf and clearly concerned him deeply. He referred to a book by J.W. Bennett, a former Assistant Government Agent of Hambantota from 1827 to 1828, who described the severity of the malaria epidemics in the 1820s. This led Woolf to speculate on the better sanitary facilities, hospitals and dispensaries in 1910, but adding that: “it is difficult to account for the difference between Hambantota then and now for the town itself and its immediate surroundings appear to have changed very little.” (Woolf, 1962, p.132, emphasis added).

The Hambantota district had very poor communications with the outside world; and since the railway line from Colombo did not go beyond Matara, the Hambantota district relied on the sea and road routes. Steamers were run by a private company (under government subsidy) every two weeks, linking Colombo with the ports along the coast, including Batticaloa and Trincomalee. The Colombo-Hambantota journey cost Rs.5 (ibid, p.1xxii). As Woolf recalled:
We travelled about our districts on a horse, on a bicycle or on our feet. The pulse of ordinary life was determined by the pace of a bullock cart. There were no motor buses – even the ‘coach’ from Anuradhapura to the Northern Province was… a bullock cart… You could only get to know the villagers… by continually walking among them sitting under a tree or on the bund and listening to their complaints and problems. (ibid, p.1xxix-xx)

Agriculture and Chena Cultivation
Paddy was the main crop of the district and the principal occupation was agriculture – facilitated by major irrigation works linked to the Walawe Ganga and Kirinde Oya.
As Saparamadu notes: “Paddy production was done according to tradition methods,” but rinderpest was a problem, which in 1909 “wiped out almost the entire buffalo and cattle population, without which the extensive cultivation of paddy was impracticable”. (quoted in Woolf, 1962, p.xxxvii).

Where there was no irrigation, villagers resorted to the primitive ‘slash and burn’ (chena) – namely, the practice of burning patches of forest for cultivation. The scourge of malaria also added to the woes of the poverty-stricken villagers. In Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (1907, p.753), the Hambantota district was described as “the least promising and most sparsely populated portion of the Southern Province,” where agri-culture took “the pernicious form of chena cultivation,” referred to as “a wasteful system which flourishes in spite of all official efforts to discourage it.” Woolf noted that the people of East and West Giruvapattu ‘show no progress’:

Fever stricken, fatalists by nature, unable and unwilling to procure any occupation other than that which has earned the opprobrium of half a century of officials… fever and emigration has caused the disappearance of some and the reduction of many of these villages. (quoted in Denham, 1912, p.87-88) Other crops of the region were coconut and citronella, with most of the revenue for the district coming from the production of salt. Major Forbes, of the 78th highlanders, author of Eleven Years in Ceylon, published in 1840, describes many spectacular panoramic views from the town of Hambantota – of sea, salterns, forests and hills. Details of the economy and the means of livelihood of the region – based on rice cultivation and salt production – were also described by Forbes:

Cattle and buffalo were the people’s most valuable property; the prosperity of the whole district depended upon them. It was almost entirely an agricultural district and rice, the most important crop, was dependent for ploughing and threshing upon cattle and buffaloes. Everywhere the only form of transport was the bullock cart, and in Hambantota town… there were a large number of carters, many of them Mohammedans, who depended for a living upon the transport of salt and so upon their bulls who pulled the carts. (quoted in de Zoysa manuscript)

Leonard Woolf gives us a vivid impression of the Hambantota district in his time:
Twenty miles east of Hambantota was Tissamaharama with a major irrigation work and a resident white irrigation engineer. Here was a great stretch of paddy fields irrigated from the tank and a considerable population of cultivators. Magampattu also produced salt. All along the coast eastwards from Hambantota were great lagoons or lewayas. In the dry season between the south-west and the north-east monsoons, the salt water in these lewayas evaporates and ‘natural’ salt forms, sometimes over acres of the mud and sand. Salt was a government monopoly, and it was my duty to arrange for the collecting, transport, storing, and selling of the salt – a large-scale complicated industry. (Woolf, 1961, p.175)
What is notable is that in the 68 years between the accounts of Forbes and Woolf, the economy and society of the region remained more or less unchanged.

Hunting and Shooting with the International Elite
One feature of the Hambantota region, referred to as a ‘sportsman’s paradise,’ was game hunting during the ‘open season.’ Magampattu was famous for its game and wild animals.

Woolf (1961, p.200) writes that there was a Government Game Sanctuary located there, of ‘about 130 square miles, in which no shooting was allowed.’ Its unusual Game Ranger, named Henry Engelbrecht, was a former Boer-War soldier from South Africa, who had been imprisoned in the island, and then stayed on and died in Sri Lanka in 1928. The big game in Magampattu jungles were leopard, bear, elephant, buffalo and deer. There was also wild boar, snipe and teal. Although Woolf disapproved of shooting animals, he had to be officially involved in catering to the ‘hunting-shooting culture’ of the time, and to entertaining the international elite, of (in Woolf ’s words) ‘Princes, Counts, Barons,’ as well as ‘less exalted people, soldiers, planters’ (ibid, p.178). The international sportsmen included royalty and aristocrats, such as the Crown Prince of Germany, and Baron Blixen, a Danish cousin of Queen Alexandra.

As Woolf wrote, ‘Big game shooting was organised in Colombo as big business,’ a Colombo firm providing the hunters with carts, trackers, tents and food (ibid, p.218). Some of the hunters stayed at Woolf ’s official residence and no doubt also patronised the Hambantota Resthouse, where NU’s father would have seen to their comfort. Woolf describes his distaste for the hunting scene, and the ‘sportsmen’ whom he described as ‘uncongenial’ (ibid, p.218):

The issuing of licences to shoot big game was in my hands and in the open season sportsmen from all over the world used to come to Hambantota. I got to know a great deal about the business of big game shooting; the more I learned, the less grew my love and respect for those who shoot and for those who organise shooting. (ibid, p.176).

As Woolf further elaborated:
As time went on and my experience of the jungle, shooting, and shooters increased, I became more and more prejudiced against my fellow white Men. A great deal of this big-business organised safari was despicable butchery. (ibid, pp.217 & 224).
The foreign royalty, nobility and celebrities, along with the Sri Lankan rich, who visited the area for ‘big game’ hunting would have been a stark contrast to the pauperised, unhealthy villagers, whose plight had changed little over the century. Woolf had to deal with both groups; however, he had less empathy for these wealthy ‘sportsmen’ and more for the poor villagers. He became attached to the place and the people during his time there. As he recalled: It was Magampattu and the eastern part of the district which really won my heart and which I still see when I hear the word Hambantota: the sea perpetually thundering on the long shore, the enormous empty lagoons, behind the lagoons the enormous stretch of jungle, and behind the jungle far away in the north the long purple line of the great mountains. (Woolf, 1961, p.176).

But to the young NU of the 1920s, Hambantota district had no romantic appeal. It had not changed and still remained among the poorest parts of the island – where only the fittest survived – from where ambitious young persons had to migrate to the more developed areas, for their education, and future employment.

Looking back on his life, NU often expressed the view that he had never intended to stagnate in a place with no opportunities. An event in 1911 that galvanised people of the island was Halley’s comet, which shot across the skies. NU, aged three at the time, would have seen this spectacle – in fact, his elder sister Rosalind, aged six, recalled seeing the comet. Another witness to the event was E.F.C. Ludowyk, who recalled Halley’s comet and going with his family to view the phenomenon from a house near the sea in Galle, noted that “there were crowds to watch the comet, which blazed like a torch in a dark vault” (Ludowyk, 1989, p.71). Leonard Woolf was also stunned by the sight in Hambantota:
…[T]he head of the comet was just above the horizon, the tail flamed up the sky. The stars blazed with brilliance only on a clear, still black night in the Southern Hemisphere and at our feet the comet and the stars blazed, reflected in the smooth velvety, black sea… it was a superb spectacle…magnificent… awe-inspiring. (Woolf, 1961, p.192)
Like Halley’s comet, NU’s rise to success would prove to be meteoric.