Unusual Tales From Hampshire and Anuradhapura: Where Colour does not bar Popular Vote

Prabhath de Silva, in The Island, 25 June 2020, where the title reads “Lessons from Ranil Jayawardene and Herbert Freeman”

Mr. Ranil Jayawardene is Britain’s new Trade Minister. He is only 35 years old. His father is a Sinhalese who had migrated to the UK, and his mother an Indian. He was born and bred in England. He graduated from the London School of Economics in 2008. Seven years later, in 2015, he was elected to the House of Commons as Member of Parliament (MP) for North East Hampshire in May 2015 from a predominantly white electorate [80.5%] in which the non-white population is at 19.5%. The whites of North East Hampshire could rise above their ethnicity and colour to vote for a son of South Asian parents and give recognition to the policies he represented and his talents and skills. Hats off to the progressive British people! Congratulations to Mr. Ranil Jayawardene!

British and Sri Lankan readers ought to be reminded that this is not the first time the English people have shown this progressive quality. The British students of the Cambridge University elected a Lankan student of Sinhalese ethnicity, James Peiris, (later Sir), an undergraduate of Cambridge in the 1870s, as President of Cambridge Union. The Sri Lankan polity at that time was divided more rigidly on the lines of the caste than on race or religion. Buddhism, in its abstract form, rejects the concept of caste in Vasala Suttra.

It is interesting to note that the concept of caste still plays a role in the minds of the Sinhalese as it did in the 19th and 20th centuries. In practice the concept of inherited occupations have been done away with due to the progressive reforms that facilitated the transition from feudalism to capitalism during the British rule in Sri Lanka which recognized merit rather than the feudal birth. [But] if one sees the marriage proposal columns in the Sunday newspapers, caste is a dominant factor. In the more conservative Tamil society, the caste system is more rigidly embedded .

James Peiris did not belong to the majority Govigama caste of the Sinhalese which claimed superiority over other castes. He belonged to the Karawa caste (whose occupations were largely fishing and carpentry in the pre-colonial feudal Lankan society). Owing to the progressive social, educational and economic policies introduced by the British colonial administration during the 19th century, a newly educated and wealthy native elite emerged. Significantly, the castes, such as Karava, Salagama (whose occupation in pre-colonial society was cinnamon peeling) and Durawa (whose traditional and inherited occupation was tapping coconut toddy) were considered socially inferior by the land-owning Govigama elite.

These castes began to exploit the new economic and educational opportunities excelling in the learned professions, education and entrepreneurship. Members of Karawa caste achieved a comparatively pre-eminent position in the elite and class formation due to their achievements in education, learned professions, judiciary, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. A significant number of Sinhalese Karawa were Christians. James Peiris won the only English University scholarship available to Ceylonese on merit in 1877 and proceeded to St John’s College, Cambridge. At Cambridge he achieved the rare distinction of securing a double first – a first class in the Law Tripos and a first class in the Moral Science Tripos. Peiris was the first non-European to be elected President of the Cambridge Union in 1882. He was called to the English Bar from Lincoln’s Inn as a barrister. He built up a successful practice as an advocate and served as District Judge of Galle for a short time. He played a pioneering and significant role in the movement for constitutionalism serving in the Legislature and being the only native to hold the position of Acting Governor of Ceylon.

In the 1920s, the English Newspapers in Oxford often praised S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, then a undergraduate at Oxford, for his eloquence at the debates of Oxford Union. He was elected Secretary of the Union by his fellow undergraduates who were predominantly white. The praise generously heaped on Bandaranaike for his eloquence at Oxford Union debates was an indication of the British ability to recognize talent and achievement. The election of James Peiris as President of the Cambridge Union and Bandaranaike as Secretary, Oxford Union were remarkable and unique at a time when society in England was almost exclusively white and only a few coloured Asian and black students studied there.

Bandararanaike, in his “Memories at Oxford“, sees ‘the British gentlemanly values crystallized in practice’ as ‘a universal discourse that can transcend the divisions’ based on ethnicity, class and colour. He says in his memoirs that”an Englishman is generous in recognizing merit in others. It is more difficult to overcome the various barriers to his friendship. Once, however, his respect is obtained, it is easy to become his friend, if one conforms to his standards. And what a true and loyal friend he is.”

Again in the 1930s, Pieter Keuneman, a Dutch Burgher was elected President of the Cambridge Union by his fellow undergraduates. In the 1950s, Lalith William Athulathmudali, a Govigama Buddhist, and Lakshman Kadirgamar, a Tamil Vellala Christian were elected Presidents of Oxford Union by a predominantly white student community. In the 1960s, Tyronne Fernando, a Sinhalese Karawa Christian, was elected the President of the Labour Union at Oxford. Keuneman, Athulathmudali, Kadirgamar and Fernando served as Cabinet Ministers in post-Independent Sri Lanka.

In the 1990s, the British people elected Niranjan Deva Adittya de Silva (Karawa Catholic) as a member of British Parliament again from predominantly white Brentford and Isleworth constituency in 1992 and later to the European Parliament. Now Ranil Jayawardene is the latest entrant of Sri Lankan descent to the British Commons and has also achieved cabinet office thanks to the generosity and courage of the progressive British people. Only progressive people with a mindset rising above our backgrounds of race, religion, language and prejudices, can make such decisions. We Lankans, having known what divisive politics based on the caste, religion, race and language has done to us, can learn from the progressive British,

One may find common ground or similarity between the ‘progressive British people’ and ‘the Sinhale Buddhist peasants’ of Anuradhapura who lived in the 1930s and in the early 1940s during the Donoughmore Constitution era (1931-1947). There was an English civil servant named Herbert R. Freeman who served as Government Agent of Anuradhapura. Freeman was born in Suffolk, England in 1864 and educated at Marlborough College in Wiltshire. He joined the Ceylon Civil Service, the premier bureaucratic institution through which the British governed the colony of Ceylon.

Freeman loved the poor Sinhalese villagers and looked into their problems with a great deal of dedication, understanding and sympathy. He used to travel by bicycle to almost every village in the district and understood the peasants and their problems and did much to help them. After his retirement, Freeman decided not to return to his native England. He chose to live in Anuradhapura, continuing to help the peasants.

Poor villagers were often fined in the Magistrate’s Court for clearing patches of jungles for cultivating grains and vegetables without the permission of the government. They engaged in ‘chena cultivation’ to earn a humble and basic livelihood. Freeman would go to court and pay their fines out of his own pocket. He would then help them to get permits for such cultivation.

A general election was held in 1931 after the grant of universal adult franchise under the Donoughmore constitution. Freeman stood as a candidate for Anuradhapura against a well known and wealthy Sinhalese aristocrat of the area who spent enormously on his campaign. Freeman’s was a simple campaign in an era where a colour rather than a symbol was assigned to each candidate. His colour was blue against his rival’s red. Freeman would ride his bicycle to a large tree or a tank’s bund and make short speeches in poor Sinhalese, telling those attending his meetings “Numbala chanda polata chande danna yannawa . Numbala ,rathu patata chandaya danawa. Ethakota mama Engelanthayata apahu yanawa” (you will go to the polling booth and cast your vote for the red colour ,and I will go back to England’) , The peasants of Anuradhapura who loved him dearly would say,”Aney Hamuruwane yanna epa”( Your Honour please don’t go’). Then, Freeman would tell them, “Numbala chanda polata yanawa, numbala nil patata chandaya danawa, ethakota mama councilayata yanawa. (you will go to the polling booth and cast your vote for the blue colour, then I will go to the Council”) The peasants would respond with a “sadhu sadhu”.

The peasants of Anuadhapura rose above their racial and religious backgrounds to vote overwhelmingly for Freeman who truly loved them and tirelessly worked for their well being. They elected him with an overwhelming majority and his opponent even lost his security deposit. Freeman was re-elected uncontested in 1936. He represented the people of Anuradhapura till his death in 1944. The Hansards of the State Council from 1931 to 1944, testify to his significant contributions to the well being of the peasants he loved. According to his last wishes, his mortal remains were buried at the graveyard of the Anglican Church in Anuradhapura and his only belongings, a pair of spectacles and walking stick were buried with him in a modest grave. He was a good Christian who truly lived up to Christ’s commandment “Love thy neighbour as you love yourself,” a Good Samaritan to the peasants of Anuadhapura. The peasants of Anuadhapura of the Donoughmore era were also progressive people like the British people in a sense that they could rise above their racial and religious backgrounds to elect an Englishman to represent them in the country’ legislature repeatedly till his death.

The case of the Anuadhapura peasants of inherent rural simplicity was only one of the few exceptions or examples in Sri Lanka’s polarized and divisive political history. In 1912, when the franchise was limited to the educated Sri Lankan elite, an election was held to elect an educated Sri Lankan to the legislature. Sir Marcus Fernando, a highly educated eminent physician stood for election. He was the most eligible candidate on the basis of merit. Sir Marcus was a Catholic and a Sinhalese of Karawa caste. The elite of the Sinhalese Govigama caste did not want to see an eminently educated Karawa Sinhalese elected because of caste rivalries. They could not find a candidate from their caste to match Sir Marcus, and invited Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, also an eminently educated Tamil of Vellala cultivators’ caste] ,a high caste in the Tamil polity, who had retired from politics long ago, having served as a member of the Legislative Council ,to contest Sir Marcus who lost because the educated Tamil vote shifted in favour of Sir Ponnambalam and the Govigama educated people voted en bloc for Ramanathan. This shows how the caste played a more divisive role than the race at that time.

The Ceylon National Congress in the beginning was led by elite members of minority caste, religious and ethnic groups together with the leaders of the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community. Eminent leaders like Sir James Peiris (Sinhalese Christian Karawa ) Sir Ponnambalan Ramanathan (Hindu Tamil) and E. W. Perera (Sinhalese Christian) led the Ceylon National Congress which agitated for self rule. After his return from Oxford, Bandaranaike joined the Ceylon National Congress led by a group of anglicized elite to agitate for constitutional reforms towards self-rule. The British government appointed a Royal Commission headed by Lord Donoughmore to inquire into further reforms to the constitutions to meet Sri Lankan aspirations. Bandaranaike was a member of the Ceylon National Congress which made representations to the Donoughmore Commission. A.E. Goonesinha, Sri Lanka’s pioneer labour leader, appeared before the Commission and demanded the grant of universal adult franchise. The delegation of the Ceylon National Congress of which Bandaranaike was a member, vehemently opposed Goonesinha’s progressive proposal and demanded that the qualifications of education and wealth should remain and preferred limited franchise to the elite.

This shows that Goonesinha who was influenced by the contemporary policies of the British Labour Party was progressive whilst the Ceylon National Congress led by the elite semi feudal Sri Lankans were reactionary. The Donoughmore Commission which consisted of progressive British politicians of the day, was fully convinced that the grant of universal adult franchise should be introduced in order to enable the ordinary peasants to elect representatives of their choice in order to speak on their behalf in the legislature. With the introduction of the universal adult franchise under the Donoughmore constitution, race ,religion and caste began to play a role in politics at elections.

Bandaranaike, who hailed from an aristocratic, Anglicized Sinhalese Christian family renounced his Christian faith and embraced Buddhism. In an article entitled “Why I became a Buddhist”, he gives a rational and intellectual explanation for his conversion.

J.R. Jayewardene, another Anglican like Bandaranaike, also embraced Buddhism. These converts were derisively called ” Donoughmore Buddhists’ . At the first general election held under the Donoughmore Constitution, Mr. E.W.Perera , an eminent leader of the Sri Lanka’s Independence movement was contested by J.R.Jayewardene. Perera was a Christian. It is said that the issue of his religion was exploited and it had been the main reason for his defeat.

Bandaranaike soon adooted the national dress, learned the Sinhalese language and began to tread on a path of communal politics based on Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism . Having read Classics at Oxford , he was a Barrister-at-Law. A Tamil Hindu counterpart of his Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism was G.G. Ponnambalam who emerged from the Sri Lanka Tamil polity. Ponnambalm read Science at Cambridge and became a successful Barrister.

Bandaranaike founded his own communal organization named “Sinhala Maha Sabha and Ponnambalam founded the All Ceylon Tamil Congress. Professor C. Suntheralingam, an Oxford educated Professor of Mathematics and a Barrister, and an eminent Tamil politician in his letters to his grandchildren, describes Bandaranaike and Ponnambalam as “Communal Careerists” in Sri Lankan politics.

We gained independence from the British in 1948 and know how race, religion, language and caste have played a role in Sri Lanka’s politics particularly after 1956, when Bandaranaike as Prime Minister was responsible for the enactment of Official Language Act making Sinhalese, the only official language disregarding the Tamil and Marxist demand for making both Sinhalese and Tamil as official languages. The enactment of his ‘Sinhala Only’ and the events that followed drastically changed the political landscape of Sri Lanka, resulting in communal riots, disturbances and tensions culminating in a 30-year civil war.

History has shown that issues of race, caste, religion, language and blind political affiliations have always been exploited by the leaders and these machinations have not originated from the ordinary people or peasants.

Innocent peasants may be misled, misguided and mobilized by the leaders to achieve their narrow self–serving interests and ambitions by exploiting ethnicity, religion, caste and language in the South Asian political context.

The question that we ought to ask ourselves as Lankans are: ‘Can we learn lessons from the progressive British people and nearer home from the Anuradhapura peasants of the Donoughmore era to rise above our backgrounds of race and religious and prejudices and blind political affiliations to take the right decisions as the occasion demands? From the life of Freeman too we can learn a lesson. How an Englishman could rise above his elite background, colour, religion and race to serve the peasants of Anuradhapura. The life and deeds of this Englishman speaks volumes. Today in Anuradhapura, we see only his grave and a road named after him as two modest monuments in the midst of large monuments and imposing statues of post–Independence Sinhalese politicians and national heroes that adorn that city.


location and date unknown 

Wikipedia on Herbert Rayner Freeman

Herbert Rayner Freeman (6 March 1864-April 1945) was an English born Ceylonese public servant and politician.[1] Herbert Rayner Freeman was born in Suffolk, England on 6 March 1864,[2] was educated at Marlborough College, England (between 1878 and 1882)[3] and went to Ceylon to join the Ceylon Civil Service during 1885.[4] Freeman served with the Government Agent’s Office (the “Kachcheri“) in Jaffna (1891), Galle (1885), Kurunegala (1886), Galle (1889-1890), Jaffna (1891) and Puttalam (1902). During this time, he served as the Police Constable of Kandy, Matara, Hatton, Galle and as a District Judge he worked in Jaffna, Kegalle and Chilaw.[5] He served as Acting Chief Minister of the Eastern Province and as the Government Agent of the Eastern Province (1907) and the Government Agent for the Northern Province (1910).[2] He was appointed as the Government Agent of the Western Province (1913-1914). During that time, he was a member of the Legislative Committee and the Committee on the Epidemiological Committee. In 1915 Freeman was appointed as Government Agent of the North-Central Province a job he maintained until he retired on 20 November 1919, at the age of 55, having served with the Ceylon Civil Service for 32 years.[6] At retirement he had the option of returning to England or remaining in Ceylon. He decided to remain and engage himself in working for the improvement of the life of the villagers of the North Central Province.… (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._R._Freeman)

Rohan H Wickramasinghe: in Island, 20 March 2010: “How Freeman won the NCP seat”

With general elections due shortly and the fact that elections of one sort or another seem to have become a staple in our way of life in Sri Lanka, it may be timely to consider electioneering and politics in an earlier era in this country. The account, which follows, is an unvarnished account of the ‘politics’ of Herbert Freeman, an Englishman resident in Anuradhapura, who was elected by the votes of the people of the North-Central Province to represent them in the Legislative Council and later the State Council (national level bodies, which approximated to the Parliament, which came into being later). He was an uncommon man, which accounts for the fact that much was written about him in reports in and about that era. What follows is compiled from these reports, which may have some minor discrepancies with regard to certain dates, which are understandable since some reports were published many years after the events described; other accounts appeared in contemporary newspapers.

Herbert Rayner Freeman was born on the 6th March 1864, was at Marlborough College, England (1878 to 1882) and came out to the Secretariat in Ceylon in 1885. On reaching the age of 55, he retired as an Officer Class 1, Grade 1 of the Ceylon Civil Service after a period of service of 32 years. His last posting was as Government Agent (North-Central Province) for four and a half years. When he retired, his yearly salary was Rs. 20,250 and his yearly pension, which commenced on 20 November 1919, amounted to Rs. 12,487/50.

When he reached the age of retirement he had the option of returning to England or remaining in Ceylon. He decided to stay on and engage himself in working for the improvement of the life of the villagers of the NCP. His endeavours in this direction are attested to by the dedication by John Still of his book ‘Jungle Tide’ (published in 1930) to H.R.Freeman “Knight-errant and champion of the Jungle Peoples’ rights”. Elsewhere, Richard Aluwihare, who was appointed Acting G.A. (NCP) on the 4th December 1941 (and was later High Commissioner to India) has, also, attested to the gratitude, affection and respect of the villagers of the NCP towards Freeman (see John O’Regan, ‘From Empire to Commonwealth; Reflections on a career in Britain’s Overseas Service”, 1994).

Newspaper reports of that era, together with information from the above book and various issues of the Ceylon Civil List, fill in the picture of an unusual man. Freeman was in the habit of walking miles along lonely jungle trails (accompanied only by his umbrella!) to visit the sick and those in need of help in other respects. While he was far from being a rich man, he used to buy medicines for the sick and agricultural requirements for needy farmers. (There were those who tried to take advantage of his generosity and it has been recorded in O’Regan’s book that his reaction was “I would far rather be duped by ninety and nine rogues than turn down a single deserving appeal”) He, also, paid the fees of a competent lawyer to defend and secure the discharge of someone he felt had been unjustly accused in a charge of murder. On occasions he attended courts to speak on behalf of villagers who were defendants, and there were instances, he had paid the fines of accused, whom he felt should not have been prosecuted.

In 1924, Freeman decided to contest for the seat for the NCP in the Legislative Council. The sitting member was my grandfather, S.D.Krisnaratne (elected 23 April 1921), who has been described by Richard Aluwihare as ‘a Sinhalese lawyer of very high standing”. Krisnaratne was, also, Unofficial Police Magistrate, Justice of the Peace and Crown Proctor.

Freeman had two messages for the voters of the NCP. The first related to the fact that his colour for the election was green, while that of Krisnaratne was red. Freeman visited each village with a betel leaf stuck on the side of his tropical hat. He impressed on the villagers that they should vote for the green colour, which was that of the betel leaf, and that Krisnaratne’s colour, red, was that of the spittle when the betel leaf was chewed and spat out.

Freeman’s second message was linked to his style of campaigning. He would walk down a jungle trail (accompanied only by his umbrella) till he reached the intersection of two paths. He would stay there till a few villagers assembled to listen to the ‘Agente unnehe’. He proceeded to tell them in fluent Sinhala that he was contesting for the NCP seat in the Legislative Council and that, if he was not elected, he would be returning to England. He, also, mentioned that he would not be able to offer transport to the voting booths and that they would have to find their own way.

Freeman won the election on the 12th September 1924 by a majority of 7423 having received 8311 votes as against 888 for Krisnaratne, who forfeited his deposit. There were no allegations of election fraud or vote rigging and matters passed off peaceably.

Freeman took up his seat in the Legislative Council and later in the State Council, which opened on the 1st July 1931. In all, he represented the NCP for 20 years until his death in 1945. At his request, the umbrella, which had accompanied him over the years on jungle trails and to high office in Colombo, was cremated with him.

While Krisnaratne had served on the Local Government Board during his term on the Legislative Council, Freeman participated in the deliberations of the Public Works Advisory Board and of the Anti-Malaria Advisory Committee. In the State Council, Freeman (representing Anuradhapura) and the noted engineer, Stephen William Dassenaike (representing Colombo South), were both elected on the 13th June 1931 and both served on the Executive Committee for Communications and Works.

Freeman appears to have been argumentative during his service in the Legislative and State Councils and was (regretfully) suspended on at least one occasion. However, it is a matter of record that his efforts on behalf of the villagers of the NCP was much appreciated and acknowledged by his colleagues in Colombo. The wide-spread acceptance by the people of Anuradhapura and the rest of the NCP of Freeman, who was resident in Ceylon for some sixty years and able to converse with the villagers of the province in their own language, lends credibility to the view that it is, indeed, possible to build a united Sri Lanka free of considerations of ‘minorities’ and ‘majorities’.



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