How It Became. Documenting the Ceylon National Congress

Michael Roberts

   BU4A8624 (1) Haris de Silva

The four volume Documents of the Ceylon National Congress produced by the Department of National Archives in 1977 runs into 3208 pages. In keeping with bureaucratic rigidity, the four volumes are still sold at some Rs 250. The give-away price has not enabled it to reach the public. The treasure trove of documentary data within these four volumes –  encompassing LSSP and Communist Party meetings in their early days — remain unknown and unseen. How many scholars, let alone armchair historians, know that FC “Derek” de Saram, Oxford Blue and Ceylonese cricketer of note, was among the ginger group (identified as “Young Turks” by me as the editor of the documents) who attempted to rejuvenate the CNC in 1938/39 by converting it into a party that could contest elections?[1]

Along one dimension the Documents of the Ceylon National Congress produced in 1977 is nevertheless a testament to the assiduous labours of numerous personnel in the Department of National Archives during its enforced peregrinations from Nuwara Eliya to Gangodawila and Cinnamon Gardens between the 1950s and 1970s. That is why this present book is dedicated to those who staffed the DNA in the 1960s and 1970s and particularly to GPSH de Silva, its Deputy Director. It so happened that “Haris” de Silva was my senior at Ramanathan Hall in Peradeniya University and then became a good friend and ally in my research endeavours after we moved beyond our undergraduate years — capping this support by monitoring the publication process  of the four volume Documents (hence his appearance in the opening scenario).

Along another dimension the Documents of the Ceylon National Congress is an accident – a kind of fairy tale.  So, folk, sit back and absorb this tale of how I stumbled into this enterprise unforeseen and by chance.

How the Documentary Book Came into Fruition

My training in the discipline of History at Peradeniya University in the 1950s was fostered by such teachers as W.J. F. Labrooy, Sinnappah Arasaratnam. Karl W Goonewardena, Shelton Kodikara and Kingsley M. de Silva. The disciplinary leanings were, by and large, in the British empiricist tradition. That leaning was also fostered when I pursued my dissertation work on British agrarian policy in nineteenth century Ceylon under the guidance of Professor Jack Gallagher at Oxford University in the years 1962-65.

This research involved many hours of labour at the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, London. At that site, I got to know Lal Jayawardena and thus his wife Kumari Jayawardena who had been a friend of my sister Audrey at Ladies College, Colombo. Lal’s dissertation work was in economic history and involved a macro-survey of the growth of plantations in the island[2] and engaged the slashing criticism of the British “Waste Lands Ordinances” of 1840 and 1897 by Ceylonese nationalists. So, our discussions in the tea rooms around Chancery Lane were as earnest and convivial as highly profitable for my intellectual development.

My empiricist leanings were consolidated yet further when I returned to Peradeniya University in 1966 as a lecturer and widened by research interests directed towards exploring (a) the origins of “Ceylonese nationalism” and (b) the growth of the Ceylonese middle classes during the colonial period and especially in the 19th and 20th centuries.[3] These two strands of interest were intimately connected because “Ceylonese nationalism,” as well as the parallel Sinhalese and Tamil nationalisms,[4] were nourished within the middle and lower middle classes (who can also be identified in Marxist terms as the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie).

 The gentlemen of the Orient Club outside their premises [then at Lindon Hall, Flower Rd] in the early 1900s. This cluster includes leading Ceylonese poltical activists such as Frederick Dornhorst, HJC Pereira, FR Senanayake, James Peiris and EJ Samerawickrame. A great deal of the planning on how to tackle the British colonial order was conceived and discussed within these premises — with EJ Samerawickrame among the most assiduous workers in the cause.

My previous work on agrarian transformation was of material assistance in my new engagements in these fields because the development of coffee plantations and the opening-up of the highlands to trade and capitalist development was the path of economic advancement for many Sri Lankan families, especially from the low-country areas of the south west.

In pursuing this research trajectory in the manner of an empiricist historian, I did not adhere to the Marxist framework of class favoured by such friends and colleagues in research as Kumari Jayawardena.[5] Rather, I chose to deploy the concept of “elite” (subdivided into “national elites” and “local elites”). This leaning therefore colours the interpretations of my writings in the 1970s on the  CNC and may provide grounds for critical assessment.

Be that as it may, this line of research meant considerable “oral history” where I met descendants of families who had garnered wealth in the 19th and 20th centuries. Elderly womenfolk were among the best informants in this field. This is what can be termed “ethnographic research work” which became my initial steps towards anthropology. It also meshed neatly with another project that is now identified as the “Roberts Oral History Project” or ROHP.


The inspiration for this project arose from my familial background. My father Thomas Webb Roberts (1881-1976) had been a “Ceylon Civil Servant” (CCS) in the British era[6] – working as one of the administrators from 1901 to 1935 before retiring as a pensioner to settle down in his beloved town of Galle (where I grew up and attended St. Aloysius College). He had moved to England[7] in 1961 to live out his life with one of my elder sisters in Streatham, London. Driven by my absorption in the history of the island, I asked him to write an account of his administrative experiences. He duly did so in 1963 by penning his “Memoirs.”

This moment stimulated me to consider recorded interviews with him and British CCS men as well as other administrators who were living in retirement in the United Kingdom. A British public service organisation provided me with access to the names and addresses of these personnel. I prepared an oral history research scheme involving a tape-recorder (the old spool type), monthly expenses and travel support for a period extending from circa October 1965 for five months or so and then presented this scheme to the Asia Foundation in Colombo with the strong backing of Professor Karl Goonewardena who headed the Department of History at Peradeniya.

The Asia Foundation endorsed the project. I completed my dissertation by the beginning of summer in 1965 and after short tour of Scotland as part of the Oxford Authentics Cricket Team and a two-month spell earning some cash as a bus conductor on the Isle of Wight, I returned to our semi-detached cottage at Bath Place, Oxford (rented from Merton College). This became my base for a number of trips to different parts of England to interview those administrators who had not only agreed to help me with my quest, but often provided me with bed and board on the occasion.[8]

 at matriculation in 1962 …  and at Bath Place near New College with daughter Kim in 1966

Franklin Gimson Leonard Woolf

I interviewed 32 personnel in late 1965 and early 1966; while also sustaining a correspondence with a few that yielded information, particularly on land policy and the Land Development Ordinance of 1935. Most of these interviews were recorded on spool, though a few (including Sir Peter Clutterbuck[9]) did not wish to have the talks recorded.

I carried my tape-recorder and tapes back with me when I returned to the island in March 1966 with my wife and child to resume my job at Peradeniya University.[10] It was only natural that I was moved to consider the continuation of this project by probing the experiences of retired Sri Lankan administrators. The Asia Foundation was more than ready to provide me with monies to cover travel expenses and other ancillary needs, while I had two married sisters in Colombo whose houses were home-from-home during week-end research trips or longer stays in the vacation months.

It so happened that I was interacting closely with Kumari and Lal Jayawardena who were back in Colombo at Gregory’s Road. Kumari’s line of research into the history of the labour movement[11] meant that the aging AE Goonesinha was one of the first persons I interviewed in Sri Lanka on 12th May 1966.[12] In brief, my compass now embraced politicians as well as administrators. Colombo was the location of most of these endeavours and my trips there were usually on a Vespa scooter with the tape-recorder between my feet and my luggage strapped on the pillion. In sum, another 118 personnel were interviewed, of whom 39 could be described as politicians.

A E Goonesinha Kumari Jayawardena Leslie Goonewardena

MD Banda SA Wickremasinghe Edmund Samarakkody

These researches into the island’s history and politics through the experiences and readings of administrators and political activists of all types were a learning curve for me as a young callow researcher. They sometimes brought new friends (for e. g. Vernon Gunasekera of the LSSP now resident in Kandy[13]). On the odd occasion they generated ‘new finds’. That is, I came across new documents of historical value such as the Minutes of the Ceylon Reform League 1917-19.[14]

Given my archival orientations, I invariably encouraged those holding such material to loan it to the Department of National Archives so that copies could be made; and sometimes mediated the physical transfer of such material. One political activist who readily cooperated in this ‘exchange’ was Gilbert Perera, who had been one of the Secretaries of the Ceylon National Congress in the late 1940s.[15]

Perera indicated that JR Jayewardene may have lots of the CNC documents. So, one day – I forget when, but it is likely to have been late 1969 or early 1970 – I made an appointment to see JR who was the Minister of State in the ruling UNP government led by Dudley Senanayake.

Led into his study by an attendant and facing JR at his desk, I remarked that Gilbert Perera had indicated that some Congress documents were in his possession. He answered in the affirmative, summoned an aide and gave instructions. As his aides brought box upon box – umpteen boxes and yet more boxes — into the room, I was gobsmacked.  Plucking up courage I asked him if he could loan them to the Archives for copies to be made.

JR remained poker-faced. I could not decipher any receptiveness to this idea. He then turned pensive: “Koatte [Koattegoda] and I thought of continuing Banda’s work[16] and producing another volume on the organisation.”

He then looked at me and asked: “Will you undertake the job?”

Volāre! Cantāre! What to say!

Like a bloody fool, I said “Yes” because that was one way of getting the material into the island’s archival stock.

What I did not know then was that at that point of time the Department of National Archives fell within the jurisdiction of the Minister of State – JR’s domain.[17] So his wish was his command. The Archives was commissioned to assist me in taking on the project. Since I had secured a Fulbright Fellowship for 1970/71, this meant that the organisation of this project only commenced when I was ready to take it up on my return to teaching work at Peradeniya University in late 1971.

Mr Amarawansa Dewaraja, Director of the Archives, sent the voluminous body of documents to the University of Peradeniya library premises and hired Sriyani Bernadette (now Sriyani Goonewardene) to work under my instructions in preparing the material. We had a space in the basement of the library and I went through the boxes of document and made certain  choices. Sriyani’s willing industry was one pillar in the process that eventually led to the four-volume Documents of the Ceylon National Congress and Nationalist Politics in Ceylon 1928-1950 (1977) running to 3208 pages in total.

The printing and editing of the documents in the years 1974/75 was also a tedious and slow process involving several trips to Colombo. When I headed to Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship in July 1975 the Archives informed me that the final book form would be delayed because of printing backlogs. It was a pleasant surprise when the four volumes appeared out of the blue in early 1977 to coincide with Independence Day. This was because a change of government had taken place and JR Jayewardene, now the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, could take centre stage at a media event involving the presentation of de-luxe copies of the four-volume work to him. C’est la Vie.

In contrast with the Indian National Congress in British India, the Ceylon National Congress did not spearhead the last stages in the battle for independence. The key roles in that struggle were played out behind the scenes by DS Senanayake and his aides, Oliver Goonetilleka and Ivor Jennings, with the newly-established United National Party led by DS Senanayake as the front ‘portal.’[18]

Jennings at work DS Senanayake & OE Goonetilleka with a British VIP

Senanayake had moved away from the CNC  during the 1940s – in part because of the influential positioacquired by the Ceylon Communist Party within that body in the years 1943-44.[19] Senanayake eventually created the United National Party on the 6th September 1946 as a broad coalition directed towards winning the General Elections under a new constitution. The CNC, as well as the Sinhala Maha Sabha led by SWRD Bandaranaike, were incorporated as loose affiliates within his umbrella party.

So, what one sees in the period 1945-50 was what I have designated as the “Congress Rump.” Note the end-point: 1950 … not 1947 or 1948.

Few scholars have attended to this ancillary dimension of Sri Lankan political history – largely because few are aware of the Documents of the Ceylon National Congress.[20] In addressing this issue (briefly and inadequately) in 1977, I had this to say: “[t]he Congress-Rump of the years 1946-50 was not without political significance in the light of subsequent developments. It provides heralds and antecedents of the ideological and social forces that went into the social and political upsurge of the year 1956 (page clxi in original book).”[21]  

     Jayantha Weerasekera

George E de Silva  P de S. Kularatne

In briefly depicting the meetings of the Congress in the period May 1946 to January 1950 which addressed central political issues, I presented indications in support of this tentative thesis. I also marked individuals who were unhappy with the subordination of the CNC within the UNP favoured by JR Jayewardene and associates. These included Peter Galoluwa and DM Manoratne of the Maradana National Congress Association; Gilbert Perera (advocate and businessman), Jayantha Weerasekera (journalist and writer –also spelt as Wirasekera), PP Siriwardena (landed proprietor & teacher in Veyangoda) and P. de S. Kularatne (a school principal from a well-endowed Karāva family).

It is the task of the new generations of scholars to test this little thesis amongst others spawned by the arguments in the introductory book that I fashioned in 1977 by delving into the mass of CNC documents as well as other pertinent data.

Fare thee well.

    ***  ***

CNC one CNC Docs


Note that this list is meant as an aide to readers. I have not necessarily studied all the items here before penning this prefatory essay; but will certainly work on them before writing the projected “Postface” for the new version of my 1977  Ïntroduction”.

Bandaranaike, SWRD (ed) 1928 The Hand-book of the Ceylon National Congress, Colombo, HW Cave & C o.

De Silva, Chandra R. 1997 Sri Lanka. A History, 2nd Edn. New Delhi, Vikas Publishing House.

De Silva, Kingsley M. n. d. The Second World War and the Soulbury Commission, 1939-1945 … The Stationary Office. AT ……………………………………………………………..

De Silva, Kingsley M. 1993 Sri Lanka. Problems of Governance, Kandy, ICES.

Jayawardena, V. Kumari 1972 The Rise of the Labor Movement in Ceylon, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kumarasingham, Harshan 2013 “ ‘The Jewel of the East yet has its Flaws’ – The Deceptive Tranquility Surrounding Sri Lankan Independence,” Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics … also at

Kumarasingham, Harshan 2013 “The ‘Tropical Dominions’ – The Appeal of Dominion Status in the Decolonisation of India, Pakistan and Ceylon,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Dec 2013

Roberts, Michael

1973    “Elites and Elite Formation in Ceylon, c. 1830-1930” in History of Ceylon, Vol. III, pp. 263-84.

1974    “Problems of Social Stratification and the Demarcation of National and Local Elites in British Ceylon”, Journal of Asian Studies, August 1974, 23: 549-77.

1974    “Fissures and Solidarities: Weaknesses within the Working Class Movement in the Early Twentieth Century”, Modern Ceylon Studies, vol. 5: 1-31.

1974    “Labour and the Politics of Labour in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries”, review article, Modern Ceylon Studies, 5: 179-208.

1989    “The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite within the MEP Coalition of 1956” in K.W. Goonewardena Felicitation Volume, ed. by C.R. De Silva & Sirima Kiribamune, Peradeniya University, pp. 185-220.

2015    “TW Roberts and His Cricketing Moments,” 12 April 2015,

Rusesll, Jane 1983 Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, Dehiwela, Tisara Prakasakayo.

Rusesll, Jane 1981 Our George. A Biography of George Edmund De Silva, Sri Lanka.

Russell, Jane 2017 “Jane Russell on Sri Lankan Political /history in Debate with Kumarasinghma’s Readings,” 24 May 2017,



[1] See Roberts, Documents, 1977: pp. clv-clviii. Speculatively, I note that FC de Saram would have been debarred from political advocacy once he became a reserve Army officer during the war. Fortunately, he was not b debarred from playing cricket for the Sinhalese Sports Club and Ceylon. It is no accident that the de Saram family, JR Jayewardene and Dudley and EL Senanayake – all from roughly  the same generation –were stalwarts of the SSC during the mid-twentieth century..

[2] Jayawardena’s dissertation at Cambridge, entitled “The Supply of Sinhalese Labour to Ceylon Plantations (1836-1930) The Study of Imperial Policy in a Peasant Society,” was completed in 1963. It is a pity that it has not been turned into a book by any organisation in Sri Lanka. Some indication of its value can be gleaned from my references to its findings in Roberts, “The Impact of the Waste Lands Legislation and the Growth of Plantations on the Techniques of Paddy Cultivation in British Ceylon: A Critique,” Modern Ceylon Studies, 1970, vol 2: 157-96.

[3] This line of research was signalled by my Ceylon Studies Seminar paper on “The Rise of the Karavas,” on the 4th March 1969. See Chapter 2 in this book as well as my substantive work Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karava Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931 (Cambridge University Press, 1982);

[4] The latter have usually been referred to as “communalism,” but I have always been attentive to the overlaps of meaning in the two concepts in the indigenous languages Sinhala and Tamil. I do not see why a Sinhala (or Tamil) nationalism cannot nestle within a “Ceylonese nationalism” as a segment within a larger whole. See chapters 3 and 4 in this book.

[5] Note my critical engagement with her approaches in “Problems of Social Stratification,” 1974 and “Labour and the Politics of Labour,” 1974.

[6] See my “TW Roberts and His Cricketing Moments” (2015) for some biographical facets.

[7] My pater had an abiding interest in race horses and their form …. and in betting wagers. He was disgusted to his marrow when Mrs Bandaranaike banned horse racing in the island and since I had, by then, finished my education and got a job, he was free to migrate (since he had no property in Sri Lanka anyway).

[8] Note that I had to travel the length and breadth of England in order to meet hose who were ready to oblige my pursuits. This was in stark contrast with Sri Lanka where most of the retired administrative personnel resided in Colombo.

[9] As a young public servant, Clutterbuck served as Administrative Assistant to the Donoughmore Commission when it went out to Ceylon in the late 1920s.

[10] During spells when she was not working, my wife Shona typed up some of the interviews, so a few are available a as documents. The University of Adelaide funded the transmission of all the recorded interviews from spool to cassette in the late 1980s. More recently, the Special Collections Unit under Cheryl Hoskin at the Barr Smith Library at the University placed all the recordings on internet. They  can be accessed at

[11] This work resulted in an important book: see Jayawardena 1972.

[12] Kumari was present and participated in the questions presented to old man Goonesinha.

[13] Vernon Gunasekera was interviewed on four occasions: 7th & 22nd July 1988, 29th March 1967 and 18th December 1967.

[14] These were handed over to me by Mrs G. L. Cooray whose deceased husband had been the Secretary of the Ceylon Reform League. They were the parents of Mark Cooray, a bosom friend from Peradeniya days – whose home at Dharmapala Mawatha was also a home-from-home to me when I visited Colombo on my research work.

[15] Gilbert Perera was interviewed on the 2nd August 1969.

[16] JR Jayewardene was referring to SWRD Bandaranaike, Hand-Book of the Ceylon National Congress, printed in 1928 by HW Cave & Co.

[17] I suspect that the Minister of State in that government did not oversee powerful administrative arenas and that it was a sinecure meant to sideline a potential threat to Dudley Senanayake’s sway.

[18] The British documentary trove relating to these negotiations is now accessible though the monumental labour of Professor KM de Silva in association with the Royal Commonwealth Institute and other organisations at BDEEP at Analytical survey can begin by consulting KM de Silva’s books on the topic and by attending to the more recent studies by Harshan Kumarasingham.

[19] The Communist Party’s entry into the Ceylon National Congress was obviously directed by the Soviet Union’s association with the Western nations in the struggle against the fascist states of Germany and Japan.

[20] KM de Silva and CR de Silva have consulted this set of books; but few other political surveys of the 20th century undertaken in the last forty years seem to have done so. In part this is because the volumes have not been advertised. The Archives building is certainly within easy reach and the four volumes cost only a few dollars.

[21] In this connection, see Roberts, “Political Antecedents,” 1989.




Filed under British colonialism, caste issues, constitutional amendments, cultural transmission, economic processes, education, electoral structures, ethnicity, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, land policies, landscape wondrous, language policies, Left politics, life stories, modernity & modernization, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power politics, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes

8 responses to “How It Became. Documenting the Ceylon National Congress

  1. I was delighted to read this long note. The key role played by Mike in unraveling the hidden aspects of the 20th century history is indeed remarkable.I am penning down this note for him to know that there are people who appreciate what he has done.I belong to the old generation. Let us hope that the younger generation too has access to his work and emulate him

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