Plus - Appreciation

Eminent historian and university administrator par excellence

Professor K. W. Goonewardene

Professor K. W. Goonewardene (fondly known as Carl to many), who passed away recently at the age of 84, was a great scholar and distinguished professor.

He was an eminent historian who devoted his life to scholarly pursuits and to improving the academic life of the universities. He was a university administrator of the highest calibre. Above all, he was a genuinely humane person who was always there for the underprivileged.

Professor Goonewardene was very thorough and original in his research. His work on the early part of the Dutch period was the basis of a superb PhD thesis he wrote at the University of London in 1953. He knew several languages, including Dutch, Portuguese and German, and had a very good grasp of Sinhala. This knowledge helped him to conduct extensive and original research and write with authority on the Dutch in Sri Lanka.

His research in Dutch colonial history extended from South Asia to Southeast Asia. He was one of the few historians specialising in modern Sri Lankan history who could research both local resources in the Sinhala language and foreign sources in foreign languages.

His PhD thesis, “The Foundation of Dutch Power in Sri Lanka”, published in 1958, is a pioneering work on the subject and a landmark study not only of the Dutch period of Sri Lanka but also of the colonial Dutch era in Asia. In that study, he gave a balanced account of Rajasinghe II, who had been portrayed as a tyrant by many previous historians. His critical evaluation of Robert Knox’s account of life in the Kandyan kingdom threw new light on the work and its significance.

Professor Goonewardene was a leading authority on European colonial expansion in the 17th and 18th centuries. His critical evaluation of the original sources, and his unique gift for reading between the lines, often resulted in a revision of established views on modern Sri Lankan history in general, and the Dutch period in particular. He challenged the Eurocentric view of western and local historians, and highlighted the achievements of Asia vis a vis the West.

Professor Goonewardene was always immaculately attired, and was among the best dressed teachers at Peradeniya. He was a strong supporter of teaching in Swabhasha at the universities, at a time when many academics of his generation were either sceptical or unenthusiastic about the transition.

He lectured in English and Sinhala with equal ease. In his tutorial classes, he encouraged his students to think clearly and critically. He was on several occasions appointed head of the Department of History of the University of Peradeniya. He was instrumental in expanding the scope of the history programme at Peradeniya to include East and Southeast Asia.

In that effort, I was fortunate. I was chosen to specialise in Chinese history and became the first university lecturer in that field in Sri Lanka, while a colleague of mine was selected to specialise in Southeast Asian history.

Professor Goonewardene went out of his way to help students and fellow lecturers. I am aware of one notable case involving a bright and promising student whose bad handwriting threatened to blight his future academic career. The professor asked the student to call at his office after the examination and read out his answers to him, so he could give him a deserving grade. That student went on to become a highly regarded scholar.

Whenever faculty members required additional study leave to complete their postgraduate studies, the professor would do his best to help. I was one of those who benefited from his kind efforts. I was seeking additional leave to complete my postgraduate studies in the US in the early ’70s. The university authorities were not willing to consider my request, but Professor Goonewardene, with the support of the late Professor Shelton Kodikara, who was president of the Peradeniya Campus at the time, fought vigorously on my behalf to get the additional leave approved.

Professor Goonewardene was twice appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts, the University of Peradeniya. In 1969, he was made Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kelaniya, at a critical time when the administration of that university had been sharply criticised by a Royal Commission. He skilfully steered the university past several obstacles and challenges.

The University of Kelaniya student centre was built largely through Professor Goonewardene’s efforts. He left Kelaniya University in 1972, when all universities were brought under one umbrella, and returned to Peradeniya. Professor Goonewardene also served on the University Grants Commission (UGC).
In all these capacities, he displayed his excellent abilities as a university administrator.

Besides his role as a professor and university administrator, Professor Goonewardene devoted a great deal of time to volunteer work, helping others. He served in various national and international academic societies, committees, and advisory bodies, such as the Royal Asiatic Society, Sri Lanka Historical Association, the National Museum, the National Archives, the Indian Historical Records Commission. He also served on the Peradeniya university senate and council.

In recent years, when he was failing in health, I would meet Professor Goonewardene whenever I visited Sri Lanka.

His death is a great loss to his family –his beloved wife Lakshmi and loving sons Anura and Nandana and their families – and to his many friends, colleagues, students, and the whole country.

May he attain Nibbana!

Mahinda Werake

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