The Colonel Olcott Centennial Meeting, a remembrance of the life and work of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott and his influence on colonial Sri Lanka, organized by the recently established Coalition of Sri Lankans in the US, was held in Washington DC on February 17, 2007.

Former official of the State Department holding the rank of Minister Mr Harry Cahill, the keynote speaker on the occasion, gave a stimulating analysis of Colonel Olcott, one would hardly find in text books. As Ambassador Cahill said, there were distinct characteristics in Colonel Olcott, which he played over and over again in the various phases of his life. When his family lost everything they had, he went into agriculture about which he knew nothing, learnt everything he could about it, then spread the knowledge he acquired for the benefit of mankind, which he did through the New York Tribune. Then Colonel Olcott went into the military and did the same. Thereafter he became a very effective lawyer. His belief in spiritual awakening, in life after death, led him to form the Theosophical Society in New York along with Madam Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and others. His intense study of the field of religion and spirituality led him to reach out across the world, to India and to Sri Lanka, which were the heart of spiritual learning. Mr Cahill very aptly placed in perspective Colonel Olcott’s significant contributions for social, religious and educational progress in Sri Lanka during colonial times. Mr Cahill’s own experiences in Sri Lanka and his anecdotes about his re-enactment of Colonel Olcott’s arrival in Galle, added to the enhancement of the event.

Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke, who addressed the well attended gathering, gave an insight into pre-colonial and colonial Sri Lanka, the influence of Buddhism on Sri Lankan society and the waning of Buddhism since western colonial powers landed in the country. Referring to the immense contribution made by Colonel Olcott to the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the Ambassador said Colonel Olcott contributed to unification of several Buddhist sects in Sri Lanka and published “Buddhist Catechisms” in consultation with Buddhist clergy, which was used as a basic text book in Buddhist schools. The Ambassador also brought into sharp focus the influence of Colonel Olcott on Sri Lankan society and the importance of his contribution to vernacular education in Sri Lanka. He stressed the role Colonel Olcott played in Sri Lanka’s education. “The other major contribution of Col. Olcott to Sri Lanka was the catalytic role he played in uplifting education in the island.” He said, “Colonel Olcott is remembered by Sri Lankans for several major contributions he made, which helped reshape the island’s history as well as its destiny”, and recalled how he designed the Buddhist flag and petitioned London to declare Wesak Day a holiday.

The Ambassador brought into perspective the historical importance of Colonel Olcott’s advent to Sri Lanka. “It was the good fortune of Sri Lanka that Colonel Olcott’s arrival in the island coincided with the awakening of another native, who, years later, turned out to be another “Elder Teacher”. That was the Anagarika Dharmapala, who after meeting with Colonel Olcott and Madam Blavatsky, functioned as their interpreter.

The Ambassador linked Sri Lanka and America through Colonel Olcott, his link with the Theosophical Society and his belief in Buddhism. “Colonel Olcott is known as one of America’s first Buddhists, and an important contributor to both the Indian renaissance and the Sinhalese Buddhist revival in colonial Ceylon.”

The speeches were followed by a film that showed Colonel Olcott’s life and work in Sri Lanka, which made more meaningful all the tributes paid to him.

Click here for the Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke's speech

Embassy of Sri Lanka
Washington DC

21 February 2007

Home | Sri Lanka-US Relations | Trade | Investment | Travel | Consular | Press Releases |
Statements | Features | Reports & Publications | Archive | Contact I Ideas Line