of the 20th Century
Dr. James T. Rutnam
A True Scholar - Prof. K.
"Lanka Guardian", 1 July 1985
James Thevathasan Rutnam turns eighty today.
The four score years of his life so far spans an
important period in the history of modem Sri
Lanka - an epoch beset by changes more radical,
more rapid and, towards the end, more painful,
than in any preceding age in recent
He was born at a time when Pax Britannica was
reigning supreme and British rule in this
tropical island seemed unshakable. The background
against which he grew up could hardly have been
more stable. Then came the changes. And today, as
he begins his ninth decade, the land he loved is
in turmoil and slipping inexorably towards the
abyss of civil strife.
Having raised his voice against the British as
a mere lad and later associated himself with
political organizations and leaders with a desire
to lead the country out of bondage, he must
indeed be a sad man today.
James failed to make a name in politics. From
the beginning he was torn between politics and
scholarship and gradually opted for a career in
politics. When he finally gave it up, the loss to
politics was scholarship's gain. Looking back,
one wishes he devoted more time and energy for
scholarship. He perhaps has no regrets.
Whatever one's chosen area of interest is, one
eventually gravitates to history is a favourable
maxim that James always publicises. His own
enduring interests in history were not a late
development but were first formed while he was at
the Ceylon University College and the Law
It was at the latter institution that his
inclination for historical research first won
recognition, when he was awarded the Walter
Pereira Memorial Prize for Legal Research for his
monograph on the introduction or trial by jury in
It was his first important piece of historical
research and, I believe, it was from that time
that he became interested in the life and work of
Alexander Johnston, the papers relating to whom
are among the most valuable collections that
James had acquired over many years from different
parts of the world.
In the early years James had a passion for
genealogical studies and soon became a specialist
in the field and was sought after by many to
trace their family trees.
Genealogy naturally led him to biography. He
regularly wrote biographical sketches of leading
political personalities and colonial
administrators to the local press and became an
authority on the lives of national leaders.
Among his best contributions in this field is
undoubtedly the well-written biography of his
political mentor, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, on
the occasion of the latter's birth centenary
celebrations in 1953. It was published in
English, Sinhalese and Tamil by the Government.
His researches into the life of Arunachalam led
him to unravel the work of William Digby,
Arunachalam's mentor, and to the acquisition of
the valuable Digby Papers.
Modern history has been his forte. But he is
not one .who favours narrow specialization and
has shown as much zeal for the medieval and
ancient history of Sri Lanka as for the modern.
His writings on Fraser of Trinity College, the
Polonnaruwa Colossus and the Tomb of Elara
clearly reveal that he is equally at home in all
the periods of the island's history.
He worked in isolation and never knew his real
worth. Recognition eluded him for a long time.
When he reached the age of seventy, he had
written himself as a 'successful failure'. Little
did he realize that he was entering a new stage
in his life - that of a guru figure. Recognition
He was elected President of the Jaffna
Archaelogical Society, a Member of the Governing
Council of the Royal Asiatic Society (S.L.B.) a
Faculty Member of the University campus in
Jaffna, and later a Member of the Council of the
University of Jaffna. And that new university
honoured him with a D. Litt. degree at its first
convocation. But when all this came, James was
not going to rest on his laurels. He busied
himself with the establishment of the Evelyn
Rutnam Institute for Intercultural Studies in
Jaffna, a dream that was his ever since the
sudden death of his beloved wife, and began his
long awaited work on the Alexander Johnston
He felt that time was running out and ploughed
through the paper with the eagerness of a student
working for a Ph.D. in a place plagued by
frequent power cuts. It was an amazing sight to
see him flashing a torch with his trembling right
hand on to a document held in the other and
reading late into the night when men of his age
were enjoying a good night's sleep after playing
with their great-grand children. But alas for
nearly a year now, his cherished work has been
cruelly interrupted by the developments in
Thorough in his investigation, critical in his
approach and dedicated to his research, James is
a master of words which he puts together very
elegantly. A scholar of true universality, his
intellectual personality is perfectly imaged in
his fluent style. On this day of remarkable
achievement, James Rutnam deserves to be saluted
in Shakespearean phrase: Thou art a scholar.
Tribute by Basil Perera
Daily News, 13 June 1975
James T. Rutnam is a distinguished scholar of
social and political affairs, a man of liberal
and progressive views, once an adored
schoolmaster and a successful businessman. He is
above all a man of integrity with a keen sense of
Born in Jaffna, he was educated at the Manipay
Hindu College and later at St. Joseph's College,
Colombo and St. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia.
As a boy he loved reading the Bible and also the
works of Ruskin and McCaulay. From this reading,
no doubt, did he acquire the lucidity of style
and felicity of expression which we have come to
associate with all his writings.
James entered the old Ceylon University in
Colombo and the Law College. At the latter he
became the editor of the Law Students Magazine
and also won the Walter Pereira Prize for legal
His political career began as early as 1922, when
he was only seventeen, making his first public
speech from the Tower Hall platform. On that
occasion E.T. De Silva, then a rising star in our
political firmament, hailed James as 'a young man
of high ideals, very popular among contemporaries
of his own generation.'
James T. Rutnam was a teacher at Uva College,
Badulla and Wesley College, Colombo and served
for three years as the Principal of St. Xavier's
College, Nuwara Eliya. It was here that he came
into a head-on collision with the colonial
He had formed a trade union at Nuwara Eliya and
went to see one Mr. Smith regarding grievances of
some transport workers. Smith gave him a patient
hearing, but at the end shouted, 'I will give you
five minutes to clear out of this place!'
The young Rutnam was flabbergasted by this
shocking behaviour. Yet he recovered sufficiently
to snap back: 'I will give you three minutes to
give me a satisfactory answer.' Getting none, he
went out to lead a two month strike of the
By this time Rutnam had become a member of the
Young Lanka League led by Victor Corea and A.E.
Goonasinghe. That was a radical organization of
'Young Turks' discontented with moderate policies
pursued by the nationalist leaders.
The founder members had signed in blood a pledge
to work for the liberation of the nation from
foreign rule. Rutnam wrote later: "many of us
heard for the first time the compelling call for
freedom when Goonasinghe's stentorian voice came
crackling into our ears."
When S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike made his first public
speech here - at the YMCA Forum - soon after his
return from Oxford, it was James T. Rutnam who
proposed a vote of thanks and hailed him as the
hope of Young Lanka.
He became a founder member of the Progressive
Nationalist Party that Mr. Bandaranaike formed
with the aim of fostering a spirit of true
nationalism and widening the base of political
agitation, till then, only the monopoly of a few.
But when the attempts of the young radicals
failed, Mr. Bandaranaike and Mr. Rutnam joined
the Ceylon National Congress.
Mr. Rutnam was also associated with the
'Cosmopolitan Crew' formed in 1926. It was this
association that organized protest demonstrations
against the sale of poppies on November 11th
every year. Their movement led to the 'Suriya
Mal' campaign and then to the left movement in
James T. Rutnam, made a number of unsuccessful
bids to enter the supreme legislature. Twice in
the state council days, he attempted to beard
E.W. Abeygunasekara in his own den at Nuwara
Then he contested M.D. Banda when the latter
contested the by-election after Mr.
Abeygunasekara's resignation, following the
findings of a Bribery Commission. He polled
11,093 votes against Mr. Banda's 12,652. The
Latter just won. But the former succeeded in
unseating him through an election petition.
Mr. Rutnam can claim to be one of the oldest
living journalists, having being writing since
1922. He once reminisced about how 'my hand
turned to the pen to pour my heart's rage, and
this pen has ever since kept moving'. He is
probably the only Ceylonese who had a letter
published in Mahatma Ghandi's prestigious Young
His journalistic writings have been of a varied
nature. No one can read his writings without
recognising behind them all the hand of a
maestro, the art of a master craftsman.
H.D. Jansz classed him among the three best
writers of English prose in the island. But even
more than his journalistic work, it is in the
field of real scholarship that James Rutnam has
made his mark and will be remembered by
An acknowledged authority on the British period
of our history. Professor Labrooy once
congratulated him for his 'uncanny instinct' as
of a sleuth in detecting and for his 'patience
and perseverance in your pursuit.'
It is not surprising that three books published
recently - H.A.I. Goonetilleke's 'Bibliography of
Ceylon', Professor Nadarajah's 'Legal Systems of
Ceylon' and Kumari Jayawardena's 'The rise of the
Labour Movement of Ceylon', all refer to this man
of scholarship and culture.
He has founded the Evelyn Rutnam Institute for
Cultural Relations, in memory of his wife, from
whose death in 1964 he never fully recovered.
They were such a devoted pair.
About her, he wrote 'She came to me to learn, and
remained to be my teacher.... she was my constant
friend and companion. She guided me and inspired
me. She was an exceptional woman.'
James T. Rutnam - a Versatile Servant
Prof. Bertram Bastiampillai, 2005
ICES Colombo is commemorating and celebrating the
100th birth anniversary of Dr. James T. Rutnam,
scholar, politician, humanist on 2 December 2005
at the ICES Auditorium.
Dr. S. U. Deraniyagala, Dr. Kumari Jayawardena,
Prof. S. Pathmanathan and Mr. Silan Kadirgamar
are to deliver lectures at this event.
The late James Thevathasan Rutnam hailed from
Manipay in the northern peninsula but spent a
good part of his life in Colombo 7 as its popular
and illustrious personality.
His father was a man of means and owned property
in Pandateruppu in Jaffna district. James led a
comfortable life in his early years. His mother
was a Miss Dwight.
James Rutnam lived in spacious two storyed house
at Baron's Court in Guildford Crescent, Colombo
7, with a widespread garden around to.
He entered Ceylon Law College as a youth and in
the first year examination won a coveted prize
awarded for his highly commendable performance.
Thereafter James Rutnam left Law College and did
not pursue studies.
For a short while, James Rutnam adjourned to
Nuwara Eliya and headed St. Xaviers College. An
interesting incident of this time was Rutnam's
encounter with a "white planter boss" of a tea
Rutnam was radical in his thinking and inclined
to be a leftist in his ideas, ideals and
attitude. He espoused the fair cause of the
labourers in an estate who were on strike. James
Rutnam "bearded" the arrogant authoritarian white
planter in his office and strongly advocated the
demands of the labourers.
At a time when the white colonizers believed that
the sun never set on their empire, the heady
planter peremptorily gave five minutes to clear
out of his office.
James Rutnam recognized that the odds were
against him and gave the planter the five minutes
to be reasonable, and then quit the planter's
office promising to fight another day. Rutnam was
James Rutnam's left leanings made him to welcome
Maude, later Mrs. Pieter Keuneman, of the
Communist Party at the Colombo harbour and offer
generous hospitality on her arrival.
With such a predilection, Rutnam later on
extended hospitality at his abode to Robert
Gunawardena, a left political figure, when he
returned from China after a stint of national
service as a diplomat.
James Rutnam was an avid reader and an energetic
collector of books, manuscripts, learned
journals, and writings. It was also well known to
the intelligentsia of Rutnam's propensity and
eminence as a writer on politics, government,
history, both ancient and modern archaeology and
It is in this capacity that Rutnam visited all
the remarkable libraries, museums, and archives
in the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and the
United States to record only a few countries
where Rutnam spent time and money reading and
collecting valuable books and originals of
No wonder scholars and researchers constantly
visited James Rutnam from the universities in
Colombo, Peradeniya and Jaffna. He never forsook
his reading and collection of literary material
and would go to great lengths in search of
learned publications and rare manuscripts.
It was enlightening to read Rutnam's continuous
contributions to 'The Tribune', a popular journal
then among readers of contemporary national
Many will recall Rutnam's revelations in two
noteworthy and popular recounts of the
genealogies of two leading national and political
personalities. In similar manner, Rutnam delved
into esoteric data to refute wrong hypotheses
propounded by some writers, more chauvinistic
Rutnam had a number of contacts with university
dons. researchers, leading legal figures and
businessmen. His stupendous library astounded
one, and many learned personnel often consulted
Rutnam and gained much from him.
He would spare time to inform and educate. It was
no surprise that James Rutnam bequeathed his
invaluable library to Jaffna College,
Vaddukoddai, and even put up a building in Jaffna
to house his rich bequest of books.
It was named the Evelyn Rutnam Institute and
remains under the American Missionaries as a
testimony to James Rutnam's love of research and
learning, and encouragement to young
Rutnam took a lively interest in The
International Association of Tamil Research
(IATR), the architect and builder of which was
the late Reverend Father Xavier S.
James Rutnam gained a prominent role when the
Association held its International Conference of
Tamil Research in Jaffna and Madurai. He was a
close associate of Father Thaninayagam,
archaeologists, Directors of Museum and
university teachers like Professor T. Nadaraja,
W. J. F. Labrooy and many others.
James Rutnam was an active and regular member of
the then exclusive club, Capri, and his
companions and friends with whom he met were
several. Reading, writing and research and travel
kept Rutnam happily engaged in life.
The pursuit of stores of learning and learning
itself in spite of a demanding social life and
domestic engagements demonstrated that James
Rutnam led a full rich life.
Although he would often refer to himself as "a
successful failure"; really James Rutnam lived
life to the best, and successfully, over the
seven score and ten years of the Biblical
On the 1st of every month, James Rutnam
generously assisted many who called on him,
regularly and repeatedly. He was generous to his
former aides in full measure. June 13th was
another special day for James Rutnam as it was
his birthday and he would recall that it is St.
Anthony's day. He celebrated the event
James Rutnam, when young, fell in love with
Evelyn and thereby forfeited the favour of his
father who did not like the union. But James
loved Evelyn dearly and tears welled up in his
eyes whenever he spoke of her with undying
fondness. James had three daughters and five
Today, I believe, only one son, Chandran, is in
Sri Lanka. when young, James Rutnam did a
lucrative business in rice imports from Rangoon,
then capital in Burma, now Myanmar. Being
magnanimous, liberal and sociable, and
charitable, he spent as he earned.
Parkison's Disease affected James Rutnam, and in
his last days he was unfortunately and sadly
paralysed too, I felt. I called on him then at a
house in Anderson Road off Dickman's Road,
Havelock Town. James Rutnam was a true, faithful,
and lovable learned companion. Many are those who
benefitted from Rutnam's erudition especially.
Rutnam did try to enter politics but failed. What
national politics lost, yet learning and culture
gained, better fields indeed.