Judge C. G. Weeramantry’s Memoirs: The Sri Lankan Years

A book review by Wickrema Weerasooria

Courtesy of the Island, 20 November 2010

 Next Wednesday, 24th November at a memorable function, Judge C.G. Weeramantry’s friends and well–wishers will launch the first volume of his two volume Memoirs. I gladly agreed to a request for a pre–launch review for this newspaper. The moment I received and commenced reading a proof copy of the book of a little over 500 pages, I could not put it down. It was so well written and the contents so absorbing, I could not stop reading page by page until I suddenly realized I was given the book for a review and not to read and keep. However, this book reminded me, once again, of the well known saying, “There is nothing really called a good book or a bad book. A book is either well written or badly written”. This book is so well written.

 Judge Weeramantry is too well known both nationally and internationally for me to even attempt to outline his achievements. So in this review, I will not talk about the man – the legend – except for a few interesting anecdotes he relates about himself in the book. Rather, I will concentrate on the book as a whole.

The Memoirs are in two volumes and this review is on Volume One called “The Sri Lankan Years”. Volume Two which is to appear shortly, is on the author’s life in Australia and on the Bench of the International Court at the Hague, popularly known as the World Court.

 Volume One, with an excellent Foreword by Mr. Sam Wijesinha, Retired Secretary General of Parliament and Chancellor of the Open University of Sri Lanka, can be neatly compartmentalized into two sections. Chapters one to twelve (consisting of 228 pages) is about Judge Weeramantry’s beginnings from his birth in 1926 to his marriage in 1952, his parents, his two brothers and the other members of “the extended family” who moulded his life. In this same part under headings such as, “Setting the Scene” and the “Social Picture during Childhood”, the author gives an excellent and authoritative account of the social, political and economic life in Ceylon of that period. This is a period which many of us and certainly our younger generation are now hardly aware. These pages of the narrative took this reviewer as well down “memory lane” of an interesting pre–independence period of Sri Lanka.

 Judge Weeramantry’s accounts of his parents (Gregory and Lilian), his uncle and aunt (Henry and Enid), and his two elder brothers (Lucian and Douglas) are very emotional. They engross the mind and grip the heart. The ‘closeness and the togetherness’ of this family is enviable and is perhaps what made Judge Weeramantry the Sri Lankan icon he is. Heredity and family background is important in building anyone’s character.

 In two chapters entitled “Hone and Family” and “My Father’s Life and Work”, Judge Weeramantry talks of his indebtedness to both his parents, Gregory and Lilian; how both of them got well qualified from Cambridge examinations which at that period of time was “the sign of excellence”. His mother, Lilian was not only a lover of English literature but an accomplished artist. The father (Gregory Weeramantry) was a born educationist who later taught at well-known denominational schools, such as St. Anthony’s (Catholic), Ananda (Buddhist) and Zahira (Muslim). He was also the Founder and First Secretary of the All Ceylon Union of Teachers and also founded Alexandra College in 1940 where well known Sri Lankans taught from time to time. Of Alexandra College, Judge Weeramantry states: “Alexandra College played a significant role and discharged a very useful function on the Sri Lankan educational scene. Many eminent Sri Lankans – judges, doctors, civil servants, lawyers, international officials and cabinet ministers – were greatly helped in their careers by this institution. Although it was a fee-levying private educational institution, there were quite a few students whose fees were completely waived by my father because he felt their parents could not afford the cost. Some of these students rose to high positions in public life and always acknowledge that this would not have been possible but for the assistance they received”.

 On his father’s 100th anniversary in March 1994, a former Minister of Education, Mr. Nissanka Wijeratne, paid a glowing tribute to Gregory Weeramantry under the title “A life of service devoted to education”. This tribute is published as an Appendix to the Memoirs.

 Judge Weeramantry also tells us that he and his two elder brothers also taught at Alexandra College and this teaching experience helped them to advance their careers in later years. His eldest brother, Lucian, took to law and became well known in international law and from 1962 served in several global Institutions affiliated to the United Nations. The main institution that Lucian Weeramantry served was the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) which was then the leading international institution on Human Rights. At that time, advocating Human Rights was a difficult task. As Judge Weeramantry himself states in his book – “I myself sometimes wondered why my brother Lucian was spending so much effort at the ICJ on putting together so many judgments which did not have the force of law but only expressed aspirations – so great was the entrenched feeling in the legal profession that human rights were not law. I recollect that once, when I was a young lawyer watching proceedings in our Appeal Court in the early 1950’s, a lawyer cited to a Judge some provision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was immediately asked “Are you seriously suggesting that this is the law of this country?” No judge in the world would do that today, just as any judge in any court in the world might well have asked that question at that time in legal history. However, Lucian’s book on The International Commission of Jurists. The Pioneering Years, published by Kluwer International of Holland in 2000 became the standard pioneering work on the subject”.

 It was also Lucian Weeramantry who defended Reverend Somarama, the Buddhist monk who shot Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in September 1959. Lucian later (1969) wrote an excellent book on the trial entitled “The Assassination of a Prime Minister”.

 Two other members of the Weeramantry family that had a major influence and impact were the well known lawyer and later Supreme Court judge, Justice Thomas de Sampayo. He was one of the country’s most respected judges of the period 1910 – 1925. The other was Mr. D. J. Wimalasurendra, the Engineer, who later became famous for the Laxapana and Norton Bridge electricity power projects. The Weeramantry Memoirs contains valuable accounts about both of them which any future historian can use.

 Moving from Judge Weeramantry’s parents, two brothers and family, the author’s accounts of Sri Lanka’s Heritage, about the different races and the religions, the country’s social, political and economic landscape of the period between 1900 – 1948 while we were still under British rule – is all fascinating reading. No doubt the events and facts about which Judge Weeramantry writes about, has been written about earlier by several of our historians. However, what is significant is that these topics have not been written about in the way expressed in the Weeramantry Memoirs. Remember, Judge Weeramantry is now writing about all these historical facts in 2010. His wide experience and mature age, has enabled him to talk of the same events and people in an amazingly different way. That is what is important about this book – the man writing it.

 With the superb literary prowess he has acquired over the years by writing over thirty books and hundreds of articles and through his academic lectures, the description that Judge Weeramantry gives of Sri Lankan Festivals and Events like Vesak, Christmas, Ramazan, Vel, The Kandy Perahera, Sinhala and Tamil New Year are also so readable unlike many of the scholarly works written about these events, where the technicality has dulled the readability.

 Weeramantry also focuses and writes of the Fabric of Sri Lankan Society of the early period 1900 – 1948 in a way and manner this reviewer has seldom read before. His accounts of racial harmony between the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslims and the Burghers are literary master pieces that even our current Reconciliation Commission chaired by former Attorney-General, Mr. C.R. de Silva may care to look at. How the Ceylonese of that period comprising of Natukottai Chettiars, Colombo Chetties, Parsees, Bharatas, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Memons, Malayalees and Chinamen, despite all their religious and racial differences, all lived together in reasonable amity. Judge Weeramantry’s message is clear; the majority must look after the minorities whatever the outcome. That is how nations survive and develop. We must avoid conflict.

 Everyone who has worked with or knows Judge Weeramantry or knows of him, is fully aware that he bears no prejudices, racial, religious or cultural. He is blind to any such prejudice. In this connection it is significant and of anecdotal interest that Judge Weeramantry is also colour blind. He says this in his book stating that this is one of the reasons he gave up the suggestion to be a doctor. In his Memoirs he says (at p. 205).

“My ambition of becoming a doctor was rendered unreal by the fact that I was seriously colour blind. I thought to myself that there might indeed be occasions when I might not be able to distinguish blood from some other dark fluid and I realized that this just would not do for a doctor. Imagine a doctor who could not spot blood when he saw it! This might have dire consequences for some poor patient. So that grandiose idea was laid to rest”.

 Judge Weeramantry’s account of what was then (and even now called in Colombo circles) the “April Holidays”, how the rich and affluent fled to the hills in Nuwara Eliya, is worth repetition in a newspaper column. So also, his account of horse racing and the Turf Club where the ladies of Colombo Society showed off their fashions. Colombo’s five star hotels have replaced the Colombo Race Course – which now houses research and educational institutions like the National Archives, part of the Colombo University and extensions of Royal College.

 One chilling account by Judge Weeramantry of the Martial Law Period of 1915, which was one of the darkest hours of British rule, will interest anyone. It is about how Pedris, a Sri Lankan Police Officer from a well-known family was executed by the British by a firing squad for allegedly not controlling the rioters in Colombo. Pedris, who at that time was not on official duty or in uniform, was innocently at the scene of some rioting. Some Englishmen had identified him and reported the matter. He was arrested for complicity and despite all pleas for clemency by his immensely wealthy family and by influential native Ceylonese of that time, he was executed. A statue is now erected to Pedris at the park near Dickman’s Road.

 Next, and most significantly, we come to an event that perhaps changed Judge Weeramantry’s life and made him the legend he has become. To use a legal term it was a “landmark decision”. That was marrying Rosemary de Sampayo. When he had been in practice for about eight years, at the age of 32, he had met her at a function in 1958. It was love at first sight. As he himself says in his book, “I realized that this was the young lady I had been looking for. I wasted no time in showing my interest which was reciprocated and things moved rapidly and by 1959 we were married. (The author does not tell us how he showed his interest or how the gracious lady reciprocated). However, we all know that the couple had, in rapid succession, five children – two sons and three daughters and they are now also blessed with eleven grandchildren.

 Everyone who knows Judge Weeramantry also know how his charming wife, Rosemary has stood by him and for him when her husband was a busy lawyer, a Supreme Court Judge, a Law Professor, and the Vice President of the World Court. Also, during all these times, he was a legal scholar and a prolific writer of over thirty five world class texts. As Judge Weeramantry himself states:- “Rosemary and I shared all things, all experiences and a series of wonderful memories. Rosemary was an immense source of support to me in my work, never interfering in it but always unobtrusively giving me all the support needed. Even when I launched out on the great enterprise of writing my books on the law of contracts, the amount of time this claimed increased my concentration on legal activities. Yet Rosemary never grudged this extra time but wove herself into the activities connected with it. When typists were typing the manuscript or juniors were reading through it or I was busy writing it, she was part of the scene, supporting us all with refreshments as well as with her company and making less tedious the endless hours spent on this work”. Weeramantry adds:- “With my five children came their school friends, their school work, their outings, their birthday parties – all these were great sources of joy and I also had the special privilege, that all my juniors joined with us in happy ways of keeping our children interested and entertained. Laughter, childish fantasies, games, picnics, excursions, story-telling, study sessions – all of these mingled with the professional demands upon my time and if I was able to build a bridge between these two worlds, Rosemary was the principal builder of that bridge. For illness and emergencies we also had the powerful support of Rosemary’s mother (Mrs. Cecilia de Sampayo) with all her experience, in the background”. When the time came eventually for us to give up this happy lifestyle and move to Australia, Rosemary was in tears – both at the thought of leaving and at the certainty of life in this foreign country of which as yet we knew so little. Yet she accepted the decision and we decided to make the best of it. As things turned out this also turned out to be a happy phase in our life”.

 The second part of Volume one of these Memoirs consisting of chapters 12 to 24 of a little over two hundred pages, is about Judge Weeramantry’s meteoric rise in his legal and professional career, first as a law lecturer, then as practicing lawyer, a Supreme Court Judge, Law Professor at Monash University and finally as a member and later Vice President of the World Court at the Hague, Netherlands. Here Judge Weeramantry takes us on an odyssey of Sri Lanka’s Legal and Judicial System of the period 1900-1980. He discusses the Legal Heritage of our country, the then global recognition of our Legal Profession and our Judiciary, our Multicultural Legal system with so many laws, Roman Dutch, English and the Personal Laws – Kandyan law, Thesawalamai and Muslim law – all applying in harmony and without conflict and also the high degree of independence and integrity of our Judges.

 In Chapter 16, Weeramantry highlights the following concerns for our legal and judicial sector. Firstly, have they become too elitist and separated from the masses? Should not our legal research be more socially oriented? Also the urgent need to minimize laws delays and provide more Legal Aid. Other areas he identifies is the need for more attention to international and comparative law.

 Among the notable cases on which Weeramantry became famous was the Thenuwara Testamentary case where he prevented Mrs. Thenuwara inheriting under her husband’s (a doctor) last will on the basis that a wrongdoer could not benefit from the will. With extensive research and brilliant advocacy, Weeramantry proved to our District Court that the wife was involved in the murder of her own husband and could not, therefore, benefit from the will. This was despite, an Army Captain (the wife’s alleged paramour) being earlier convicted for the doctor’s murder. The Thenuwara case should be studied by any lawyer contesting a last will.

 In my view, it was Judge Weeramantry’s scholarly treatise on Contract Law in 1966 in two volumes that won him what I may call the “Oscar” in the legal field. For that great legal treatise the University of London awarded him a higher doctorate in laws (LL.D). He was the first Sri Lankan to be so honoured. Sri Lanka’s greatest ever lawyer, Mr. H.V. Perera said this of this publication. “Dear Weeramantry, your book is of a higher standard of excellence than any book of any subject written by any Ceylonese author at any time, May you go from strength to strength”. In this revieweropinion, no one can better H.V. Perera’s testimonial!

Weeramantry did go from strength to strength. As he himself states in his Memoirs, “This book opened the floodgates for me and it led me into various other fields of writing – from philosophy, to sociology, to comparative law, to international law, human rights, religion and nuclear issues”. Weeramantry cites the English Judge, Lord Diplock who said, “Judges make law in bits and pieces; Authors write entire texts and make law out of whole cloth”.

 Weeramantry resigned in April 1972 from the Supreme Court Bench accepting the prestigious Haydyn Starke Professor of Law chair at Monash University. He had twenty more years to serve and only two other Supreme Court judges were above him in seniority. Thus, he could have been Chief Justice soon and for very long. However, on hindsight, we all think his decision then was right. History has also proved it to be so. Between 1972 and now Weeramantry has become a global figure bringing honour to Sri Lanka as no Judge serving in Sri Lanka could ever have done. And, what we like about this great and gracious man is that despite his five children and eleven grandchildren living abroad, he chose Sri Lanka to work. Through The Weeramantry International Centre for Peace Education and Research (WICPER) which he runs from Colombo, Judge Weeramantry has made the Sri Lanka’s young men and women his extended family. May he live long and guide us. The best way to learn more about his book can be said in just three words. BUY HIS BOOK.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sinhala-Tamil Relations, unusual people

Leave a Reply