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Punchi Hewa Mendis (1883–1965)

by Regina Ganter

This article was published:

Punchi Hewa Mendis (1883-1965), merchant, jeweller and pearler, was born on 12 September 1883 at Magalle, Galle, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), second of four children of Sadiris Punchihewa, merchant, and his wife Nikkonona Warusavithane. After primary schooling, Mendis received a British education to grade 4 at Richmond College, Magalle.

A number of Singhalese in northern Australia had come from Galle province, and in 1896 Mendis arrived at Thursday Island at the invitation of an uncle Mendis de Silva, who was already there but had intended the arrangements for Mendis's older brother Marshall Punchihewa. Nevertheless, the youngster obtained employment with Alexander Corran as a reporter for the Torres Strait Pilot; he covered the 1899 cyclone that decimated the pearling fleet and cost over 300 lives and the 1905 fire that destroyed nineteen shops. In 1904 he had begun a retail business as agent for S. Hoffnung & Co., whose torches and batteries were in great demand. Next year he rented the See Kee building in Douglas Street and eventually became local agent for some prominent Brisbane wholesalers. He learned photography and attached a studio and dark room, and a printery that produced the Church of England Parish Gazette.

Known in Australia as Punchi Hewa Mendis, he also acquired skills in valuing and cleaning pearls and by 1913 had become a licensed pearl trader, achieving great success in a period of booming prices. In 1913 a store was opened at his hometown, Magalle, where a Punchihewa club acted as a friendly society for the clan. Marshall started a jewellery business at Yokohama, Japan, which was destroyed by the 1923 earthquake. The brothers had pioneered the first experimental consignment of trochus shell from Australia to Japan in 1915. This became a lucrative industry that buoyed the Australian pearl fishery through a number of upheavals.

In 1915 Mendis returned to Magalle to marry Mercy de Silva, from a family that ran a jewellery emporium based in Singapore. Mercy, a woman of independent means, never came to Australia, where the migration of Asian women contravened official policy. They had two sons Siripala (b.1919) and Nissanka (1926-1989) before Mercy died in childbirth in 1932. After their mother's death, both boys were brought to Australia to attend All Souls' School, Charters Towers, before joining the Mendis business, which by then was acting as agent for Thomas Brown, (Sir John) Chandler, Kodak and others, and ran the only newsagency on the island. Mendis also partnered J. C. Harman in a pearling fleet. It was confiscated, however, with all pearling luggers, during World War II.

Becoming a prominent resident of Thursday Island, Mendis had affectionate links with the white elite, including the bishop of Carpentaria and Corran, the mayor, and family links with the Asian-born population, forged by clan members whose immigration he had sponsored, including Peter Warnakulasuriya, who became part of the local Ahmat family. In 1940 Mendis expanded his business to Darwin, then thriving with preparations for war. He commenced construction of a large building (now demolished), which became the headquarters of General MacArthur's staff and survived bombing to become a police station. During the civilian evacuation of Darwin, Mendis moved to Brisbane where he purchased the Tillse shop in Adelaide Street. In 1942 he responded to Prime Minister Chifley's appeal by purchasing £60,000 in war bonds to support the war effort. In 1944 he acquired a farm at Manly, to shelter his extended family, among them a number evacuated from Thursday Island. He returned to the island, its business centre wrecked by the allied armies, in 1946, rebuilt several shops and resumed pearl and shell trading to the United States of America. But the island's golden age had passed.

When Mendis became a justice of the peace in Queensland in 1946, then a rare appointment for citizens of Asian descent, as a devout Buddhist he swore on the Tripitaka instead of the Bible. He judiciously abstained from alcohol and spoke Singhalese to his sons. Every few years he revisited Ceylon. He lived and breathed his work, keeping shop hours from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week during the lay-up season, when the community's numbers were swelled by the considerable floating population from the luggers. He died on 8 September 1965 and was buried with Buddhist rites on Thursday Island, which he considered his home. His sons survived him. Mendis Road at Berrimah, Darwin, was named after him. Although the Thursday Island store was sold in 1974, in 2003 it was still popularly known as the 'Mendis Shop'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. C. C. Lock, Destination Barrier Reef (Melb, 1955)
  • J. C. H. Foley, Timeless Isle (Thursday Island, Qld, 1982)
  • W. S. Weerasooria, Links Between Sri Lanka and Australia (Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1988)
  • R. Ganter, The Pearl-Shellers of Torres Strait (Melb, 1994)
  • People (Sydney), 9 Apr 1952, p 30
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 29 Aug 1958, p 7, 13 Sept 1960, p 12.

Citation details

Regina Ganter, 'Mendis, Punchi Hewa (1883–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 September, 1883
Magalle, Galle, Sri Lanka


8 September, 1965 (aged 81)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.