FR Senanayake remembered in a New Biography

Leelananda De Silva, Sunday Island, 17 March 2019, reviewing  F.R. Senanayake – Illustrious Son of Lanka … published by the Senanayake Foundation – October 2018. 109 pages. Rs. 800/-.

Left to Right Standing: Fredrick Tissa, Mrs. F. R. Senanayake, Richard Gotabhya (R.G). Seated: Phyllis Nedra (Girlie), Swarna Neela, Chandra Upali, Rupa and Mr. F. R. Senanayake

This slim volume of 100 pages introduces to a new and younger generation of Sri Lankans, one of the heroes of Sri Lankan independence – F.R. Senanayake. These heroes who fought for our independence are now in the course of being forgotten. It is essential that we do not forget them and annual commemoration events attempt to keep memories alive. The early chapters in the volume describe his early years and marriage, and some turbulence in family circles. There is very little about his time in Cambridge and England. The other chapters deal with his political and social activities – the temperance movement, Sinhala-Muslim riots including his incarceration and the early political struggles for independence. Most of the information contained in these chapters have been known to a wider audience, but yet it is worthwhile describing them afresh to a new generation. F.R. Senanayake’s grandson, Rukman Senanayake is the man behind this publication.

F.R. Senanayake married into the Attygalle family. The Attygalles were rich, graphite mine owners. There were three sisters and one brother in that family. The eldest sister, Alice, married John Kotelawala, father of the later Prime Minister, Sir John Kotelawala. The second sister, Lena, married Colonel T.G. Jayewardene, paternal uncle of J.R. Jayewardene. The third sister, Ellen, married F.R. Senanayake. The son, Francis Dixon was murdered at the age of 21. His Kotelawala brother-in-law, was charged with the murder and he committed suicide in prison. He always maintained his innocence in this crime. An interesting feature of this family background, is that all these families entered politics and constituted the core of the United National Party in its early years. That is one reason why the UNP was described as the Uncle-Nephew party. These families had their own political differences even later on, after independence, as can be observed in the rivalry between Sir John Kotelawala and Dudley Senanayake, differences between Dudley and R.G. Senanayake, the unfriendliness between R.G. Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene and tensions between Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene. The volume has more detail of the family disputes than I have described here.

The volume has an informative chapter on the Temperance Movement. The agitation against the liquor policy of the government started in 1912 and F.R. Senanayake and his father Spater Senanayake were the leaders of that movement. Other leaders at the time were W.A. De Silva, C. Batuwantudawe, Edmund Hewawitharana and many others. “In 1918, the toddy taverns and the arrack taverns stood at 736 and 669 respectively. But by 1928, the toddy taverns were reduced to 229 and arrack taverns were reduced to 148. This success story severely dented the revenue earned by the colonial government.” The movement had some degree of success in achieving its aims. What is arguably more important is that this kind of civil society action contributed to Sri Lanka’s fast developing demands for independence.


There are two long chapters on the Sinhala-Muslim riots and its origins (1912–1915), and the subsequent incarceration of the Sinhala leaders, including F.R. Senanayake and the harsh treatment they had to undergo in prison. This was one of the worst periods of British rule in Ceylon, and it is obvious that the civilian Governor and civilian government agents lost administrative control and power was wielded by the police and the army. Sri Lankan leaders fought back and sent delegations to England to protest against the authoritarian power wielded by the British in Ceylon. F.R. Senanayake played a leading role in all these political activities.

F.R. Senanayake was not a politician, and was more a social activist, social leader and philanthropist. He never entered the Legislative Council, and when a member had to be selected for the Negombo seat, he did not enter the race, and proposed the name of his brother, D.S. Senanayake, who was elected to the Legislative Council. Was this a premonition on his part, that his life would not be long? He died in 1926.

One of the shortcomings of this volume, is that the early years of F.R.’s life – schooling in Ceylon and his Cambridge days – are not adequately described. Cambridge and Britain had some influence on him. Why did F.R. Senanayake name his house on Gregory’s road (now R.G. Senanayake Mawatha), Grasmere? Was it that he loved this beautiful place in the Lake District of England. Grasmere was also the home of the English poet, William Wordsworth? Or was it that he had close Cambridge friends and associates there? Readers would have liked to be more informed of his life in Cambridge and the studies he pursued. There is also one suggestion that I would like to make. The Senanayake Foundation could play a larger role in encouraging Universities and other scholars to undertake appropriate research, especially on the period 1931 to 1977, when there was a parliamentary system of government, and the era of Senanayake dominance.



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One response to “FR Senanayake remembered in a New Biography

  1. A.T.Petangoda

    Please be kind enough to inform, whether is it available to buy right at the moment.

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