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Christopher Ondaatje

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Sir Philip Christopher Ondaatje, Earl of Rothes[1] OC, CBE, FRSL (/ɒnˈdɑːi/; born 22 February 1933) is a Sri Lankan-born Canadian–English businessman, philanthropist, adventurer, writer and bob-sledding Olympian for Canada. Ondaatje is the older brother of the author Michael Ondaatje and lives in both Chester, Nova Scotia, and the United Kingdom. His nobility titles were recognised by the Lord Lyon in 2004 in the Baronage of Scotland as the Earl of Rothes, Baron and Lord of Leslie, and Sheriff of Fife[1].


Born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to Major Mervyn Ondaatje and Doris Gratiaen, a Chetty-Burgher family of Dutch and Indian origin, Ondaatje first went to S. Thomas' Preparatory School in Kollupitiya as one of its first students, and later went to Blundell's School in the United Kingdom. His name comes from an Indian ancestor called Ondaatchi from Thanjavur, India.[2] After his alcoholic father lost the family fortune, Ondaatje had to leave school a year from graduation.

In 1956, he emigrated to Canada, arriving in Toronto with virtually no money. He quickly began to rebuild the family fortune, becoming a wealthy stockbroker, going on to be one of the three founding members of Loewen Ondaatje McCutcheon. He became a multi-millionaire in the publishing industry by founding the Pagurian Press, which he later sold to the Bronfman family.

He represented Canada in the four-man bobsled at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. Although the first Canadian men's team won gold in the event, Ondaatje's team finished 14th out of 18 teams.[3] He is a member of the Chester Yacht Club in Nova Scotia, where he owns an island with a view of Chester Harbour.[4][5]


Ondaatje is a prominent philanthropist;[6][7] among the institutions he has helped are: The National Portrait Gallery, The Royal Geographical Society, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Somerset County Cricket Club, Blundell's School, The Sir Christopher Ondaatje Devon Cricket Centre at Exeter University,[8] Lakefield College School and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia[9] and the Chester Playhouse.[10]

The Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize – and annual award for "a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place" – is named after Ondaatje,[11] as is the Ondaatje Prize for Portraiture from the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.[12]

Political donations[edit]

In 2000, Ondaatje donated £2 million to the UK Labour Party.[13]


After many years of success, in which Ondaatje was considered one of Toronto's most aggressive and predatory businessmen, he left the business world in 1995. He moved to Britain and began a career as a philanthropist and adventurer. Travelling through India and Africa, he also became an author, following in the footsteps of his younger brother Michael Ondaatje, a novelist. His books describe his travels and adventures.

His 2003 book Hemingway in Africa details his thesis regarding the life and motivations of Ernest Hemingway.


Ondaatje was made a Knight Bachelor by the Queen in 2003 in her 2003 Birthday Honours for his philanthropy and charitable services to Museums, Galleries and Societies.[14] He had previously been made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2000 Birthday Honours,[13] and is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Senior Fellow of Massey College.

He was elected an Honorary Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature in 2003.[15]

In 2011, he was made an Honorary Fellow of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) and was awarded its Gold Medal. In 2013, the RCGS established a medal in his name – the Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration[16] — which is awarded annually to outstanding Canadian explorers.


  • Olympic Victory: The story behind the Canadian Bob-Sled Club's incredible victory at the 1964 Winter Olympic Games (1967)
  • The Prime Ministers of Canada, 1867–1967 (1968)
  • Leopard in the Afternoon — An Africa Tenting Safari (1989)
  • The Man-eater of Punanai — a Journey of Discovery to the Jungles of Old Ceylon (1992)
  • Sindh Revisited: A Journey in the Footsteps of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1996)
  • Journey to the Source of the Nile (1999)
  • Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari (2004)
  • Woolf in Ceylon: An Imperial Journey in the Shadow of Leonard Woolf, 1904–1911 (2005)
  • The Power of Paper: A History, a Financial Adventure and a Warning (2007)
  • The Glenthorne Cat and other amazing leopard stories (2008)
  • The Last Colonial: Curious Adventures & Stories from a Vanishing World (2011)
  • Ondaatje, Christopher, ed. (2013). Love Duet and Other Curious Stories about Music. Minehead, Somerset: Rare Books and Berry.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Lord Lyon page 5 - recognised titles in 2004" (PDF). Lyon Court. 9 June 2024. Retrieved 9 June 2024.
  2. ^ Ancestry.com
  3. ^ "Innsbruck 1964 Bobsleigh Four-Man Men Results", Olympics.
  4. ^ Taber, Jane (14 August 2013). "Canada's largest annual keelboat regatta livens quiet N.S. town". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 3 July 2022.
  5. ^ Brophy, Gwenda (4 January 2008). "'I dreamt the island was for sale'". Financial Times. Retrieved 10 July 2022.
  6. ^ Grice, Elizabeth (17 October 2007). "Sir Christopher Ondaatje: 'I have always identified with predators'". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  7. ^ Jury, Louise (5 June 2001). "Ondaatje comes to the rescue of 'Literary Review'". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 28 February 2009.
  8. ^ Cricket Centre Archived 23 March 2010 at the Wayback Machine, University of Exeter, UK.
  9. ^ Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Canada.
  10. ^ Chester Playhouse Archived 9 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine, Canada.
  11. ^ "RSL Ondaatje Prize". Royal Society of Literature. 9 September 2023. Retrieved 9 May 2024.
  12. ^ "The Ondaatje Prize for Portraiture". Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Retrieved 9 May 2024.
  13. ^ a b McSmith, Andy (5 January 2001). "Labour reveals more £2m donors". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  14. ^ "Knights bachelor – full list". BBC News. London. 13 June 2003.
  15. ^ "Current RSL Fellows". The Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved 5 April 2017.
  16. ^ "Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration". The Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Archived from the original on 17 July 2020. Retrieved 13 January 2017.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ridley, Jane (4 January 2014). "The food of love". Books. The Spectator. 324 (9671): 25. Reviews Love duet ....

External links[edit]

Baronage of Scotland
Preceded by
James Leslie
Earl of Rothes
Succeeded by
Preceded by
James Leslie
Lord of Leslie
Succeeded by
Preceded by
James Leslie
Sheriff of Fife
Succeeded by