The crew of the sinking Prince of Wales abandoning ship to the destroyer Express. Moments later, the list on Prince of Wales suddenly increased and Express had to withdraw. Observe the barrels of the 5.25 in guns, which were unable to depress low enough to engage attackers due to the list.
The British imperial presence across the far-flung lands of the Indian Ocean rested on military power, with Britain’s naval arm as the spinal column supporting its reach and force. That dominant presence received a rude shock in the South China sea on 10th December 1941 when the Japanese air force flying from aircraft carriers sank the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser Repulse — a few days after the US Navy had been mauled at Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941. The implications were expanded when a raiding force of Japanese aircraft carriers and supporting naval ships penetrated deep into the Indian Ocean and raided Colombo and Trincomalee on Easter Sunday 5th April 1942; while sinking the Hermes and cruiser Cornwall off the coasts of the island.
The impending decline of British colonial power across the domains of the Indian Ocean was signaled by this momentous set of events. In pointing up the principal foundations of British power, these moments have a bearing on the acceptance of the radical Donoughmore Commission proposals by the British cabinet and any comparative sweep of the decolonization process in India and the lands adjacent to that sub-continent.
This note does not detract from the valuable contributions imprinted within recent newspaper articles by Leelananda de Silva and Prabath de Silva which presented useful insights on the progressive outcomes flowing from the Donoughmore Commission’s reforms and those flowing from programmes of the State Council in the 1930s and 1940s — with both authors being implicitly influenced by the political debates of the immediate post-1948 era.
One overarching aspect of these latter debates was the assessment of the Ceylonese political agitation against the backdrop of the stirring mass agitation pursued by Gandhi, Nehru and the Indian nationalists in neighbouring India. This encouraged commentary that belittled the achievements of the Sri Lankan leaders – with those of Marxist persuasion leading this set of criticisms.
Such lines of comparative thinking were (and remain) misleading and befuddled. They bypass and shut out any consideration of the BASIS of British power in the territories spanned by the Indian Ocean. Note that: the INDIAN OCEAN …. meaning the states and spaces extending from the shores of Africa and the Red Sea to the peninsula we know as Malaysia with its strategic ‘lane,’ the Strait of Malacca.
A central aspect of the British imperial presence across this region in the period extending from the 1760s to the 1940s was military power. There were two fundamental pillars supporting this power: (A) the organisational and hardware capacities of the British Army and (B) the naval might of the British Navy. Of these two arms the more central was the Navy – because it could carry lethal force to most trouble spots in the vast span of the Indian Ocean.
Within the land mass of the Indian subcontinent, however. reach and effectiveness of military muscle assembled and distributed by the naval arms was limited …. the more so in the 20th century once the Indian nationalists began assembling mass support and intelligently deployed bodies in non-violent satyagraha. Gunfire, laathis and military regiments directed at female satyagrahis were not feasible as a consistent pattern of repression within the vast spaces of the sub-continent.
Ceylon in contrast was an island — one threaded by a network of roads and railways. It follows that the British could deploy its sea power to marshal the forces required to combat any anti-colonial threat of a violent or demi-violent character. Trincomalee, Colombo and Galle provided ports, while Katunayake, Koggala and Trinco had airports.
It is in this context that the liberal patricians serving as the Donoughmore Commission, his Lordship Donoughmore, Drummond Shiels, Francis Butler and ABC, presented a forward-moving set of proposals notably involving (A) near universal franchise; and (B) what can by roughly designated as 7/10th independence.
They so proposed. The proposals went to the Colonial Office headed by Sydney Webb and thence to the British government of that day. I intervene here. What transpired in between that moment and the final “YES” from the British Cabinet?
I suggest that the War Office would have been consulted. The British chiefs of war, representing the Army, Navy and Air Force, would have said: if push comes to shove, we will have few problems in marshaling our forces to retain political control. That degree of confidence was feasible in 1928-31 –unlike the post 1941 decades.
This possibility must be pursued via research work. Dit the War Office provide a nodding “okay” to the proposals of the Donoughmore Commission.
My argument does not end there. Any comparison between the nationalist struggles in Ceylon and India (and, for that matter, those in Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia) should attend to the stress on military logistics and military might that is the central pillar in my argument – with its focus on the British naval capacities …. a long arm if ever there was one.
A long arm yes.
Till the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser Repulse were sunk by Japanese planes in the South China Sea off Malaysia on the 10th December 1941. ……………… and this momentous event, as we know, followed the even more meaningful mauling of the American Navy and psyche at Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941.
The implications were further underlined when a marauding Japanese aircraft carrier force raided Colombo and Trincomalee on 5th April 1942, sinking the aircraft carrier Hermes off Batticaloa and the cruiser Cornwall elsewhere, while causing extensive damage at the ports of Trincomalee and Colombo.
British imperial might received a mighty blow then in 1941-42. The decolonization process in subsequent decades was aided materially by this set of events. Ironic that: for an expanding imperial power (Japan) to weaken the military foundations of another imperial power in what can be understood as insidious ways.
To comprehend that type of process, therefore, one must attach weight to the vital significance of sea power in the British colonial dispensation across the Indian Ocean.
 At Pearl Harbour USA lost 4 aircraft carriers, 03 cruisers, 3 destroyers, 01 training vessel and 188 aircraft; while 2403 Amerccan servicemen died.
 The Donoughmore Commission restricted the voting power of females to those 30 and over. The Legislative Council of Sri Lanka opted to equalize male and female rights to those. 21 and over.
 Sydney Webb’s importance, needs underlining of course – both via the choice of personnel for the Commission but also by throwing his own background voice and the probability that Leonard Woolf’s thinking was brought into play in the course of preliminary as well as subsequent discussions.
 At Pearl Harbour USA lost 4 aircraft carriers, 03 cruisers, 3 destroyers, 01 training vessel and 188 aircraft; while 2403 AmerIcan servicemen died.