The Bracegirdle Incident. How an Australian Communist ignited Ceylon’s independence struggle

Alan Fewster

11-MA Bracegirdle with LSSP leaders, Horana Bracegirdle beside Colvin R. de Silva and other Trotskyite leaders at Horana in 1937 – Pic from Victor Ivan, Paradise in Tears, Plate 164.

The Bracegirdle Incident is the true story of how an Australian communist labour agitator almost brought down the British colonial government in Ceylon in 1936. Unknown in Australia, the case of Mark Anthony Lyster Bracegirdle became a cause celebre in Ceylon’s independence struggle, and his name remains revered among the Left in Sri Lanka today. The son of an artistic English blue stocking, Bracegirdle arrived in Australia in 1927. He joined the Communist Party of Australia and quickly became a ‘bagman’, or financial organiser, attracting the attention of the Commonwealth security service. In 1936 Bracegirdle sailed for Ceylon, ostensibly to become a tea planter.

img791 copyAppalled at the conditions endured by his Tamil labourers, Bracegirdle spoke out publicly in their support, antagonising the so-called ‘Planter Raj’, and Ceylon’s colonial authorities. Bracegirdle went into hiding in the jungle and, using skills learned in the Australian bush, for 10 days thumbed his nose at the police, who were unable to find him. He then allowed himself to be arrested.

By then, Bracegirdle’s supporters in Ceylon’s nascent communist party had  assembled a formidable legal team to defend him, and won a famous case of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court. This verdict was a complete humiliation of the British governor of the day, and had serious repercussions in the Colonial Office in Whitehall and in Colombo, where there was a commission of inquiry. The local communists made huge capital from the Bracegirdle case, which galvanised tremendous public support for the independence movement. The led to the political downfall of the man Britain had seen as its leading ‘brown sahib’ in Ceylon.

Based on original historical research, the Bracegirdle Incident is the most coherent account of the story to be written in English, or Sri Lanka’s two major languages, Sinhala or Tamil. It is a fascinating insight into the mindset Ceylon’s colonial era and into the culture of the powerful, white tea planting community. The book also examines Ceylon’s labyrinthine nationalist politics, and for the first time, firmly cements an Australian at their heart.

Bracegirdle copy  SirReginaldStubbs Sir RE Stubbs & Andrew Caldecott, British governors img780




Prologue:  Nawalapitiya, Ceylon, 4 April 1937                               12

  1. Radical bohemian                                                                           13
  2. Creeper to comrade                                                                        19
  3. The first convenient ship                                                               26
  4. Futile and colourless agitation                                                     33
  5. Persons of gigantic intellect                                                          40
  6. Wild, Godless communism                                                          52
  7. The T-group and the brown sahibs                                              62
  8. This most misguided act                                                               71
  9. Well out of it                                                                                    78
  10. Inaccurate inferences and uncertain facts                                   86
  11. Constitutional maladjustments                                                    94
  12. A kind of market-place court                                                      102
  13. No great harm                                                                               109
  14. The street Arabs’ chorus                                                              114

Epilogue: London, Berlin, 1937-39                                                   124


brcegirdle book cover ++Australian Scholarly Publishing
ISBN: 9781921875793
Format: PB Release date: 1 February 2013 Available to Pre-order = A$39.95

Alan Fewster Alan FEWSTER


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One response to “The Bracegirdle Incident. How an Australian Communist ignited Ceylon’s independence struggle

  1. Pingback: Pushing the British out of Ceylon, 1918-1956: Issues | Thuppahi's Blog

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