Colonel Henry Steel Olcott:
Trail blazer of Buddhist schools
Henry Steel Olcott was born on August 2, 1832, into a pious
Presbyterian household in Orange, New Jersey. In his teens he attended
the College of the City of New York and Columbia University. At the age
of 20, he became a convert to spiritualism. Soon he was championing a
host of other causes, including antislavery, agricultural reform,
women's rights, cremation, and temperance. At the age of 28 he married
Mary Epplee Morgan, daughter of the rector of Trinity Parish, and they
had three sons.
Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, Helena Petrovna and C.W.
He was earning a reputation in the field of agricultural education by
establishing a school farm and lecturing on agriculture at Yale
University. Olcott was agricultural editor of the New York Tribune. When
the Civil war began in 1863, he joined the Army, serving initially as a
special commissioner investigating allegations of fraud in the New York
Disbursement office. Having achieved the rank of Colonel, he was
seconded to the U.S. War and Navy departments in the Washington. He was
commended for his work by the Secretary of the Navy.
Following Abraham Lincoln's assassination, he was a member of the
team that investigated the President's murder. In 1865, he resigned his
Commission and returned to New York where he studied law and became a
member of the Bar, specialising in Customs and excise and insurance
cases, he became a recognised expert in this area of law. In 1874 he had
a chance to meet Russian occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and one
year later he and Blavatsky co-founded the Theosophical Society, an
organisation that would soon play a major role in introducing Americans
to the ancient wisdom of the East. Olcott became President, Blavatsky
its Corresponding Secretary in the Society.
In 1880 May 16th Olcott and Blavatsky arrived to Colombo. There was a
huge crowd awaiting to welcome then white cloths was spread for them
from the Jetty Steps to the road where carriages were ready, and a
thousand flags were frantically waved in welcome.
A few days later on May 25 at the Wijananda Temple in Galle, Olcott
and Blavatsky observed Pansil by reciting in broken Pali the three
refuges and the five precepts of Theravada Buddhism and becoming the
first European-Americans to publicly and formally to become Buddhists.
Olcott started to promote Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) in
Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but also to work, as he saw it, purify and reform
Buddhism of practices that have crept into the popular tradition.
Olcott's second visit to Ceylon in April 1881, together with Ven.
Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, who had spearheaded the first phase of the
Sinhalese Buddhist revival, he crisscrossed the western province for
eight months in a bullock cart of his own design.
He sold merit cards and solicited subscriptions to support his
National Education Fund, wrote and distributed anti-Christian and
pro-Buddhist tracts and secured support for his educational reforms.
Olcott's great achievement was to start school for Buddhist children,
Ananda College had its roots 128 years ago in that historic year 1886 at
No. 61, Maliban Street, Pettah, when she started as a Buddhist High
School and C.W. Lleadbeater, a foreigner and convert to Buddhism became
the first Principal, and there was 37 students enrolled to the school.
Gradually Olcott founded Buddhist schools in main cities, such as in
Kandy Dharmaraja College in Galle Mahinda College in Matara Rahula
College and in Kurunegala Maliyadewa College.
He also established the young Men's Buddhist Association and lobbied
for recognition of the Buddha;s birthday (Vesak Poya Day) as a national
holiday and acted as adviser to a committee appointed to design a
Olcott pioneered unity between different Buddhist communities. He
travelled to Burma and to Japan and advocated the formation of a World
Buddhist League. In 1950 when the world Buddhist Fellowship was
established, it adopted Olcott's flag as its emblem.
Colonel Henry Steel Olcott's life was ended at the age of 75 in India
on February 17, 1907.
Senior Old Anandian took the initiative in organising the ceremony to
Mark the "Olcott Day", which falls on February 17, at College premises.