A great revivalist of Roman-Dutch law in Sri Lanka

168th birth anniversary of Sir Thomas de Sampayo

by Test User
September 17, 2023 1:21 am 0 comment 218 views

By Dr. Punsara Amarasinghe

The grandeur of the legal profession in this country and its related rich traditions have mainly derived from the British. The inception of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka dates back to 1801 and the establishment of the apex court was legitimated by King George the Third under the Royal Charter of Justice to preserve and uphold the British sense of justice, which strictly prohibited the cruel mode of punishments.

Sir Thomas de Samapyo

Sir Thomas de Samapyo

After the acquisition of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court was extended to the whole island and the adoption of the charter of justice as a subsequent effect of Coolbrook-Cameron reforms in 1833 bolstered the development of the legal profession in Sri Lanka under British.

Legal profession

The legal profession was initially confined to British and Burgher-Eurasians, in which the natives were discouraged.

Yet there were exceptional Sinhalese and Tamils who stood against all odds by climbing the ladder of law in the Huftsdorp. But even those who entered the profession of law and the judicial service in the Bench were mainly from affluent and influential Sinhalese-Tamil families connected to the British governor.

Dias Bandaranaike, Jayewardane and Obeyasekara were the clans who reigned the unofficial bar through the grace of their British patrons. It was in this context Thomas de Sampayo came to the fore to disrupt elitism that prevailed in the legal profession and the colonial judicial service.

Thus, revisiting his luminous life is an inspiration for the armatures in the profession of law today, especially in a stage where the integrity and the majesty of the legal profession are at stake.

Sir Thomas de Samapyo was born on September 10, 1855 and he rose to eminence from his humble beginnings as his father Maha Vidane Mudaliyar Gabriel Sampayo passed away in his childhood. In his biography entitled “The Humane Judge”, author Rienzi Weerarathne describes the hardships faced by young Thomas de Sampayo in his adolescent age.

Thomas started his education at St. Benedict’s College under the Benedictine brothers in Kotahena and this rigorous religious upbringing moulded his faith, which he kept throughout his life. St. Benedict’s was the leading Catholic school in Colombo before the rise of St. Joseph’s in 1896 and its speciality was its broad emphasis on religious education. Having secured the Queen’s scholarship, Thomas de Sampayao was eligible to study at Royal College, Colombo, which was the foremost educational institute in the colonial government in the late 19th century.


Life at Royal College or Colombo Academy resembled all the Victorian ethos practised by contemporary English public schools such as Eton and Harrow. The school education at the Academy emulated classical tradition blended with masculine sports, which intended to produce gentlemen for the service of the British Empire. Royal was an arena for Sampayo to excel in scholarship, where he continued to win all the prizes in classics and mathematics, which culminated in winning the coveted Turner prize for Latin. Having won the English University Scholarship, Samapyo pursued his LL.B at Clare College, Cambridge.

Notwithstanding his excellent academic records from both Royal and Cambridge, Samapyo faced tough days as a young advocate in the Huftsdorp. Just like today, the opportunities were limited and those who came from less-known backgrounds suffered from the asymmetrical circumstances they faced.

Thomas’ luck in the court was far away from him and the initial attempts he made in securing a place as a lecturer at the newly established Law College got nipped in the bud. These deplorable factors finally led him to conduct private tuition classes for law students at home.

Wheel of fortune

The wheel of fortune turned in favour of Thomas de Sampayo with his selection to Ceylon Law Reports as the co-editor.

Also, he translated Dutch Jurist Johannes Voet’s Donations into English from Latin, which aptly illustrated Sir Thomas’ legal erudition. The lack of contacts or the elite privileges could no more hinder Thomas Sampayo’s path as his merit vanquished the former, especially his vast knowledge in Roman-Dutch Law attracted him to the senior British judges in the Ceylon bar.

The use of Roman-Dutch law continued to be a vital part of the civil law system in Ceylon under the British as they accepted its living applicability as the common law of the island. But, there only few practitioners or judges were well versed in the Dutch texts, which resulted in a steeping decline of the Roman Dutch law by the end of the 19th century.

It was certain that Sir Thomas’s exceptional knowledge of Roman-Dutch law increased his appearances and many well-known British judges became acquainted with Sir Thomas to discuss the issues of Roman-Dutch law. In the seminal work written by Justice A.R.B Amerasinghe on the history of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, Justice Amerasinghe describes how Sir Thomas de Sampayo carried a small text of Voet in his cloak to cite the original maxim of the Dutch jurist to validate his argument before the Bench. Thomas de Sampayo reached the zenith of his legal career in 1903 and was sworn in as a King’s Counsel along with Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Fredrick Donrnhost as one of the first “silks” of the bar.

In 1915, he entered the judicial service of Ceylon as a puisne judge and his judgements reflected the intellectual calibre he upheld as a jurist. For instance, he sought the trace the foundational pillars of Muslim law in Ceylon in the case of Marrikar vs. Marrikar and his analysis provided a new interpretation of the law of partition in the case of Fernando vs. Peris in 1916.

Once British justice Wood Renton described Sir Thomas de Sampayo as the most well-versed jurist regarding the Roman-Dutch law doctrine in Ceylon and such praise was not an exaggeration as Sampayo’s legal acumen preserved the original characteristics of Roman-Dutch law from a total eclipse. In 1924, he functioned as acting Chief Justice on several occasions and in 1924, he was conferred of rank of Knight Bachelor by the King.

Sir Thomas de Sampayo’s life epitomised the life of a jurist devoted to the lore of law. He accomplished things in an era, where commoners like him were excluded from reaching excellence in the profession of law. He challenged the dominance held by several families in the unofficial bar by gradually outnumbering their prominence through his sharp legal analysis of the bar. However, his greatest contribution could be summed up by stating that Sir Thomas Sampayo was one the greatest revivalists of Roman-Dutch Law in the country.

The writer is a lecturer at the Department of International Law, Faculty of Law, Sir John Kotalawala Defence University

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