C.W.W.Kannangara is well known as the Father of Free Education. Besides, he was a significant political figure in Sri Lankan history.
C.W.W.Kannangara, the Father of Sri Lankan Free Education!

The proud history that this splendid island of Sri Lanka holds, however, paved its way ahead with so many ups and downs. As per history, the colonial influences, independence movements, and socio-economical instabilities impacted this country’s long journey from time to time. Owing to these reasons the political leadership of this country was always a significant highlight. Besides, when looking back at the political history of this great nation, there are few eminent personalities that we can never forget. Yes, C.W.W.Kannangara, is simply one such great leader that created a new era for the betterment of this country. Hence, we focused this read on this true Sri Lankan politician. Continue reading, and you will get to know many things that you did not know about the history of this wonderful island!

Who is C.W.W.Kannangara?

Dr. Christopher William Wijekoon Kannangara, famous as C.W.W.Kannangara, was a Sri Lankan lawyer and politician. Besides, he is well-known as the island nation’s post-independence founder, and the person behind the establishment of Sri Lanka’s free education system. Further, he greatly contributed to the cause of independence as a lawyer and orator.

Apart from that, he also served as the president of the Ceylon National Congress. Later, as the first Minister of Education in Ceylon’s State Council, he was influential in implementing substantial reforms to the country’s education system. By making education free for all children in rural areas of the country, he benefited thousands of poor students. In fact, he indeed opened up education to children from all social classes.

He also started the Central Colleges program, which developed high-quality secondary schools in the country’s rural districts. Likewise, his contribution in the field of education covered a wide scope. This made him popular as the “Father of Free Education” in Sri Lanka.

Early Life and Education of C.W.W.Kannangara

Christopher William Wijekoon Kannangara was born on October 13, 1884, in a beautiful village in Southern Sri Lanka. His mother died when he was a child, leaving him with four siblings. His father remarried, and his second wife gave birth to four more children. Later, he lost his work, and the family faced financial difficulties. 

Young Kannangara attended the free Wesleyan Missionary School. However, the prize distribution ceremony at this school changed the life of this young boy. In fact, Kannangara received the majority of the prizes on this day. Accordingly, this young boy was able to impress Rev. J.H Darrel, Principal of Richmond College, Galle, who was the chief guest at this occasion. Accordingly, Darrel gave Kannangara the opportunity to take a scholarship exam through the Richmond College Foundation. He received the scholarship after excelling in Mathematics on the exam. Moreover, he also got a grant for freeboard and accommodation at this school as well. Owing to these opportunities, he was able to complete his education at an elite school of the day.

C.W.W.Kannangara was a standout student at Richmond. In fact, he topped the Ceylon and British Empire list in Mathematics at the Cambridge Senior Examination in 1903. Besides, he also captained Richmond College’s first eleven cricket team in the same year. Further, he was a member of the school soccer squad, for which he won colors. His debating skills and acting abilities also made him shine brighter.

Early Career of C.W.W.Kannangara and Entry to Politics

He joined Richmond College’s teaching staff as a mathematics instructor after completing his education. Afterward, he went on to teach mathematics at Prince of Wales’ College, Moratuwa, and Wesley College, Colombo. He studied law while teaching and passed the Proctor’s Intermediate and Final examinations in July 1908 and 1910, respectively, qualifying as a Proctor in 1910. That year, he graduated from Wesley College and moved to Galle, where he began his civil law business.

Kannangara became a member of Anagarika Dharmapala’s historic temperance movement and collaborated with its leaders. For the first time in 1911, elections took place to elect an Educated Ceylonese to the Legislative Council of Ceylon. Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Marcus Fernando were the two main contenders. However, C.W.W.Kannangara was a strong supporter of Ramanathan. Further, he became the Honorary Secretary of the Ramanathan Support Committee in the Southern Province.

Ramanathan defeated Fernando in the Legislative Council election. Kannangara supported Ramanathan against J.S. Jayawardena in the 1917 elections. Kannangara had founded the Galle National Association, the city’s first political organization, that year. He thereafter became a member of the Ceylon National Congress.

Important Milestones of C.W.W.Kannangara’s Political Career

Dr.Kannangara passed several milestones in his political career while witnessing the changes he did and their result. The following sections will enlighten you more about them.

Legislative Council

O. C. Tillekeratne, a member of the Southern Province Legislative Council, died owing to a train accident at the Wellawatte station on April 13, 1923. C.W.W.Kannangara stood for the vacant Legislative Council seat in a by-election on May 23, 1923, and won by a margin of 1854 votes over David de Silva, who received 115 votes to Kannangara’s 1969. In the 1924 elections, he was re-elected. That was by beating Francis de Zoysa with 4,177 votes to Zoysa’s 2310.

State Council

Kannangara became a member of Anagarika Dharmapala’s historically significant Temperance movement. Accordingly, he got a chance to work closely with leaders such as Sir D.B. Jayatilleke, D.S. Senanayake, F.R. Senanayake, and Arthur V. Dias. Besides, during the time of martial law that followed the riots of 1915, he rose to national fame as a lawyer defending leaders of the Sri Lankan independence movement.

This led him into national politics. Further, he got into the National Legislative Council in 1923, winning a by-election for a seat in the Galle District left vacant by the death of O.C. Tillakaratne. He won it by 1969 votes to 115 votes on April 13, 1923. The next year, he was re-elected with 4,177 votes, compared to 2310 for his nearest opponent. The State Council replaced the Legislative Council as the national legislature in 1931, after the Donoughmore Commission’s recommendations. In 1931 and 1936, C.W.W.Kannangara was re-elected to the State Council. In 1931, he was able to become the president of the Ceylon National Congress.

For the first time, the State Council was made up of Executive Committees and Ministers and was elected by universal suffrage. Kannangara was also the first chairman of the State Council’s Executive Committee of Education in 1931. Accordingly, he was also able to become Sri Lanka’s first Minister of Education as well. H.W. Amarasuriya, W.T.B. Karaliyadda, A. Ratnayake, G.R. De Zoysa, P.E. Madawela, and Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe made up the Executive Committee of Education, which included C.W.W.Kannangara. He is also remarkable for being the first minister in the State Council to wear the national costume.

Education Reforms and Introduction of Free Education

The Education Ordinance of 1939, passed by the State Council, gave the Executive Committee of Education the authority to create new laws, paving the way for a new educational system in Sri Lanka.  The new system was supposed to ensure that all children in the country, regardless of social class, economic status, religion, or ethnic origin, had equal access to education.

In 1942, a special committee was appointed to report on the state of education in the country. C.W.W.Kannangara was the chairman of this committee. Accordingly, the report, which was issued in 1943, made several recommendations for giving “lasting value to the nation”.

Recommended Education Reforms

Some of these highlighting education reforms he recommended are as follows.

  • From kindergarten through university, education should be free.
  • In primary schools, the mother tongue should be the medium of instruction.
  • From Grade 3 onwards, teaching English should happen in all schools.
  • A curriculum for children that develops their “brain, heart, and hands” should be implemented. In other words, for a child’s well-being, emotional education is just as important as intellectual and practical ability education.

However, Kannagara was charged with putting the recommendations into action. Among the other reforms he enacted were ensuring that every student received instruction in the religion of his or her parents, preventing teachers from being exploited by school administrators by having their wages paid directly by the government, and providing adequate provisions for adult education

He also constructed a network of central schools (“Madhya Maha Vidyalaya”) outside of major cities. These brought high-quality secondary education to the villages outside Colombo as well. His goal was to establish a central school in every electorate in the country. As a result, while there were only three central schools in 1941, there were 50 by 1950. Kannangara also established an annual scholarship program in 1943, which provided free board and accommodation in Central School hostels to the top 20 scorers on the scholarship exam.

During his 16 years as Minister of Education, he improved historic pirivenas, Buddhist monks’ educational institutions, and built the University of Ceylon, Sri Lanka’s first university. C.W.W.Kannangara also worked to dismantle the two-tier education system. He was against it as it made affluent kids learn English while the rural masses learn the vernacular tongue. While he advocated for the teaching of “Swabasha” (native languages) in schools, he also recommended that kids acquire English in order to compete in today’s world.


C.W.W.Kannangara, on the other hand, encountered strong opposition to his plan to provide free education in the country, particularly from socially and economically affluent people who had benefited from the British’s significant advantages. This includes a number of C.W.W Kannangara’s political college graduates, including D.S. Senanayake, Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister. In fact, Senanayake was against his proposal to eliminate school fees in “denominational schools.” And the interesting fact is that this bill was brought up for a vote in the State Council when Senanayake was away. Kannangara talked for six and a half hours to persuade other council members to vote for the bill. Dudley Senanayake, A. Ratnayake, J. R. Jayewardene, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, and Dr. N. M. Perera were assisting him.

Political Career of C.W.W.Kannangara After Independence

His achievements in the State Council in the subject of education, however, did not translate into popularity among his constituency. Hence, he was defeated in the 1947 General Elections. In fact, Wilmot A. Perera, the founder of the popular local school Sri Palee College, defeated him in the Matugama electorate election. C.W.W.Kannangara then got the opportunity to assume duties as the Consul General of Ceylon in Indonesia. He held this position from 1950 until 1952. 

Then, after defeating S.A. Silva in the 1952 general elections, he returned to politics. He entered the Parliament of Ceylon from the Agalawatta electorate. In Dudley Senanayake’s new cabinet, he became the Minister of Housing and Local Government and served as the Chief Government Whip. He refused the position of the Cabinet Minister of Education. That is because certain key members of the administration did not want to give him the chance to push through more education changes.

The Role of C.W.W.Kannangara in Spreading Buddhism

In the initial post-independence period, he was a passionate advocate of the cause of spreading Buddhism in the West, which was receiving increasing public support in Sri Lanka. 

Hon. C.W.W.Kannangara went on to say that the Lanka Dhammaduta Society would help one of the largest Buddhist projects started after India’s Great Emperor Asoka. As a result, he urged all Buddhists to support the society in any way possible in order to assist it in firmly establishing the Buddhasasana in Germany.

He attended multiple public meetings of this society, including the introduction of the One Million Rupee Fund, to emphasize his unwavering support for Buddhist missionary activity in the West (Dasa Laksha Aramudala). On September 6, 1954, it was held at the Colombo Town Hall, presided over by Hon. Dudley Senanayake. Then, on August 7, 1956, Hon. S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, who was the Prime Minister of Ceylon during that era, opened the new headquarters of the German Dharmaduta Society located at Colombo 07. 

Also, as the Minister of Local Government, Hon. C.W.W. Kannangara participated in the opening ceremony of the Sixth Buddhist Council in Rangoon, Burma

Death and Legacy of C.W.W.Kannangara

In 1956, C.W.W. Kannangara stepped down from active politics. Vidyodaya University conferred a D’Litt on him in 1961. In great opposition to some of today’s politicians, when Dr. Kannangara resigned, he had no fortune, no home or property, no money in the bank. Thus, his survival was such a concern. Accordingly, he appealed to the then Speaker of Parliament for financial assistance. The response was swift. He got a one-time grant of ten thousand rupees and a monthly allowance of five hundred rupees till his death.

On September 23, 1969, he died in the Colombo General Hospital. The cremation took place according to traditional Buddhist procedures at the Anderson Golf Links, which eventually became the location of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) at Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 07.

However, in Sri Lanka, there are a number of institutions that take his name. The authorities built a statue of C.W.W.Kannangara at the Parakramabahu Central College in Polgahawela. Besides, the erudite Buddhist Scholar Dr. Ananda Guruge wrote a book based on the biography of C.W.W Kannangara.

The Bottom Line

It is no secret that the contributions of C.W.W. Kannangara played a vital role in making Sri Lanka the most literate country in South Asia today. Thus, the people of Sri Lanka owe a great debt of gratitude for providing them with free education and thereby laying the groundwork for changing this country’s social, political, and economic history. Therefore, C.W.W. Kannangara should certainly be honored and remembered by all Sri Lankans with much gratitude for the immense service he rendered in creating a better Sri Lanka!