Pushing the British out of Ceylon, 1918-1956: Issues

Michael Roberts

My essay on “The Basis of British Power” (July 2020) was instigated by articles from Prabath de Silva and Leelananda de Silva on aspects of the Donoughmore Reforms and subsequent developments. Vinod Moonesinghe has seized on secondary dimensions to press some hoary old strands of Trotskyist thinking and to laud (A) the intervention of SWRD Bandaranaike and  the MEP forces for getting rid of British military bases in the 1950s and (B) the radical political messages of the young LSSP politicians who burst onto the scene in the late 1920s and early 1930s.[1] This is linked to the standard Marxist belittling of the achievements of DS Senanayake and associates in the interpretation of the island’s path to independence.

.Vinod RG Senanayake

The fact remains that Bandaranaike could force the British government to discard its military presence because the 1947/48 constitution rendered it feasible; while the UNP’s pro-Western leanings did not prevent RG Senanayake from securing a rubber-rice deal with China in 1952 which thumbed its nose at the West — a remarkable and radical measure within the circumstances of the world then.[2]

That most of Sri Lankan political spokesmen from the 1910s to 1930s were men of property and far from being firebrands is not in question. This did not prevent those in the Legislative Councils of the 1920s from (a) demanding the introduction of an income tax; and (b) pressurizing the British colonial heads of state in ways that made their control of the Legislative Council (1921-25) fragile – thereby leading to the UK government’s decision to send the Donoughmore team out to Ceylon.[3] So, this opening had nought to do with the early Leftist movement or the Jaffna youth movement.

Nor did their leanings prevent most of the moderates in the Legislative Council from voting for universal franchise once the Donoughmore proposals were placed before them as statutory law. They even extended the vote to women aged 21-29 as well. That the early Leftists such as Philip Gunawardena, Terence De Zylva,[4] NM Perera, SA Wickremasinghe, Colvin R. de Silva and Wilmot Perera inserted radical anti-colonial strands into the thinking and rhetoric of the 1930s and 1940s cannot be gainsaid and certainly requires underlining and elaboration in detail. The Suriya Mal campaign directed at “Poppy Day” from 1933(?) or so was an intelligent challenge to empire-loyalism.[5] The Bracegirdle incident in 1937 took the anti-imperialist pitch still further.[6]

Ceylon’s public were now being taught to regard the Pax Britannica in caustic manner. The Young Turks in the Ceylon National Congress responded to this stream of intervention from the Left radical activists by mounting more strident demands before the ‘face’ of the British Governor from circa 1938.[7]


Again, one of the significant investigative projects of the 1920s Legislative Councils was the Land Commission – where the voice/work of CV Brayne and that of DS Senanayake carried weight; leading eventually to the Land Development Ordinance of 1935 – a vital measure in the regeneration of agriculture in the dry zone (as Leelananda de Silva has stressed). In parenthesis, it seems that the urban bias of urbane Leftists encourages them to short-circuit the peasantry and agriculture[8]. Serious students of the politics of the period 1931 to the 1950s need to listen carefully to the readings of their experiences recorded by such Civil Service administrators as M. Rajendra, Edmund Rodrigo and NW Atukorale to derive a fuller measure of DS Senanayake’s land policies as well as his political acumen.[9]

While his landed conservatism may have informed Senanayake’s nationalist pathways, one must attend to the suggestive snippets which indicate that he was alive to the probability that the chances of improving Ceylon’s control of its own resources in circumstances governed by the island’s lack of mass clout [unlike India] were best served by working with Britain and by exploiting British modalities of thought. In fact, the pressures mounted by the State Council and its leaders in the period 1931-37 yielded the considerable gains embodied in the Caldecott reform proposals of 1938 which would have reduced British control further had not the outbreak of WW II in 1939 scuttled the suggestions (see Note on Caldecott attached below). Thus, the outbreak of the war was a setback to the progress towards greater independence.

However, this very war made Ceylon central to the defense of British power. It also pitchforked OE Goonetilleke into the powerful seat of Civil Defence Commissioner reporting to Admiral Layton who was effectively ‘king of Ceylon’ from circa 1940, albeit in alliance with the Governor of Ceylon. OEG’s office was in the same building as DS Senanayake – then head of the Board of Ministers in the State Council. The two were a team …. and one cannot assess Sri Lanka’s path to independence without giving weight to this teamwork and the influence of OEG’s political acumen. A reading of Vernon Gunasekera’s little booklet on OEG is an essential task for any commentary on the issues of the 1930s and 1940s.[10]

What is more, OEG had Ivor Jennings as his right-hand as Deputy Civil Defence Commissioner. In effect, he also had him as an advisor on constitutional principles and parliamentary affairs. So, here, were Ceylonese men of some weight armed with an erudite British scholar when tackling the shackles of colonial rule. One route towards undermining a Lord is to deploy the Lord’s own moral and/or political principles against his dominance. A British bloke versed in British political thought was as good an instrument in one’s strategizing team as one could hope for.

DS on a political platform and Jennings at ease

DSS and OEG in London DS on a political mission with Ambassador Corea

10a=DS Senanayake on podium++ DS on a political platform

It is true that such a path to political freedom does not arouse the enthusiasm generated by the storming of the Bastille or the mass confrontations of a general strike. These scenarios are integral to the romanticism within radical modalities of assessment. But ……. the desire for sturm und drang can skew appraisal.

Such modalities also encourage a misleading inattentiveness to scale.

SCALE: my article is in effect an argument about scale. It stresses the contrast between

  • the geographical scale of island Ceylon set in comparison with of the Indian subcontinent; ….
  • …. and placed within the framework British naval power prior to the gigantic shock waves it suffered in 1941/42.

Any inattentiveness to these major themes in challenging the article means that the gunfire lands in the seas of the Indian Ocean.


Ariyaratne, R. A. 1977 “Communal Conflict and the Formation of the Ceylon National Congress”. The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, 1977 Vol. VII No. 1, pp. 57-82. http://dlib.pdn.ac.lk/handle/1/3639 (PDF available)

Bandaranaike, S.W.R.D. 1928. “The hand-book of the Ceylon National Congress: 1919-1928”. The National Museums of Sri Lanka. http://search.lib.ou.ac.lk/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?biblionumber=26224&shelfbrowse_itemnumber=28550

De Silva, K. M. 1981 “Elite Conflict and the Ceylon National Congress”, A History of Sri Lanka. University of California Press, pp. 389-401.

De Silva, Leelananda 2020 “Momentous Changes in Ceylon instituted by the Donoughmore Commission,” 13 July 2020,  https://thuppahis.com/2020/07/13/momentous-changes-in-ceylon-instituted-by-the-donoughmore-commisison/#more-44104

De Silva Prabath 2020 “Free Education in Ceylon: Tales Missing,” 12 July 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/07/12/free-education-for-ceylon-tales-missing/#more-44063

Fewster, Alan 2013 “The Bracegirdle Incident: How an Australian Communist ignited Ceylon’s Independence Struggle,” 13 January 2013, https://thuppahis.com/2013/01/13/the-bracegirdle-incident-how-an-australian-communist-ignited-ceylons-independence-struggle/

Gunasekera, Vernon H 1981 Life and Times of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, Kandy.

Gunawardena, R.H.R. 1990-1994 “Politics of the Ceylon National Congress 1900-1930”. Kalyani, Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences, University of Kelaniya, 09-13: 219-247, http://repository.kln.ac.lk/handle/123456789/5577

Jayawardena, V. Kumari 1974 “Origins of the Left Movement in Sri Lanka,” Social Scientist Vol. 2, No. 6/7 (Jan-Feb 1974), pp. 3-28.

Kelegama, J.B.  2002 The Significance of the Ceylon-China Trade Agreement of 1952,” Island, 22 December 2002, https://thuppahis.com/2020/07/23/a-landmark-trade-pact-rubber-rice-deal-between-sri-lanka-and-china-1952/#more-44282

Moonesinghe, Vinod 2020 Bracegirdle and the Early LSSP in Anti-Colonial Thrusts,” 1 January 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/01/01/bracegirdle-and-the-early-lssp-in-anti-colonial-thrusts/

Roberts, Michael 1977 Documents of the Ceylon National Congress, Colombo, Dept of National Archives.

Roberts, Michael 2018 “How It Became. Documenting the Ceylon National Congress,” https://thuppahis.com/2018/05/22/how-it-became-documenting-the-ceylon-national-congress/

Roberts, Michael 2020 “The Donoughmore Reforms in Ceylon In Retrospect: The Missing Background of Naval Power,” 18 July 2020. https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-donoughmore-reforms-in-ceylon-in-retrospect-the-missing-background-of-naval-power/

ROHP = http://www.adelaide.edu.au/library/special/mss/roberts/


AN APPENDIX on Andrew Caldecott

Sir Andrew Caldecott was sent to Ceylon to smooth the way for further advance at a time when agitation for constitutional reform was intense. In November 1937 he was instructed to sound opinion and to recommend amendments to the constitution. His ‘reforms dispatch’ of June 1938 was written with a vigour and directness unusual in official documents: it led to prolonged discussion in the state council, but to no general agreement, the basic difficulty, as always, being the question of minority representation. The outbreak of war halted consideration of constitutional advance, but Caldecott was convinced that if Ceylon’s war effort were to be maintained a positive approach was required. On his recommendation the British government in 1941, and again in 1943, promised a commission on constitutional reform as soon as the war ended; and a commission was in fact appointed in 1944, the year in which Caldecott retired.

In the meantime, Caldecott set himself out to be a constitutional governor, an objective misunderstood by certain sections of the European community which failed to see, with his clarity, that early self-government was inevitable. His aims were more clearly appreciated by the local politicians, such as D. S. Senanayake and J. R. Jayewardene, and he soon earned their respect and confidence. That Ceylon remained stable during the critical war years was largely due to his leadership. The sudden appointment, after the fall of Malaya, of Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton as commander-in-chief in place of the governor, nearly led to Caldecott’s resignation; happily this step was not taken and the two men, temperamentally so different, worked harmoniously together to the great benefit of Ceylon. With Caldecott’s consent King’s Pavilion (the governor’s house in Kandy) was taken over by Mountbatten when he was appointed supreme allied commander, south-east Asia command. This proved to be an ideal arrangement since Mountbatten had chosen Peradeniya, only a few miles away, as his headquarters in Ceylon.

A brilliant, far-sighted administrator, but withal warm-hearted and with a quick intelligence tempered by a human sympathy and understanding, Caldecott was ideally suited for the task of helping to transform empire into Commonwealth. Ceylon owed to him much of her trouble-free progress towards the independence which she attained in 1948. His contribution to the development of the Commonwealth, and in particular of Britain’s overseas services, continued after his retirement. Early in 1947, after failing to convince the Colonial Office of the necessity to create a colonial administrative service centrally controlled and hence able to make a positive contribution to the development of colonies achieving home rule, he resigned from the colonial service appointments board to which he had been appointed on retirement. A letter of his to The Times in June 1947 gave widespread publicity to the urgent need for a true unification of the colonial service and for a central control over its cadre and rate of recruitment as each colony progressed along the road to self-government. It is fair to say that the creation of HM overseas civil service with effect from 1 October 1954—such a vital step in the smooth progress from colonies to independence—owed much to the stand taken by such a respected former colonial governor as Caldecott.

https://www.britishempire.co.uk/maproom/ceylon/andrewcaldecott.htm ….. Picture courtesy of National Archives


It has taken me intermittent work over two days to cast this essay. Several of the topics addressed in this survey demand many days of work. Any serious assessment of DS Senanayake’s land policies will demand months of research: this should necessarily include (a ) a reading of the relevant Notes and Mss in the Roberts Oral History Project and (b) absorbing the recorded interviews with selected personnel in ROHP and (c) other pertinent literature, inclusive of work on CV Brayne  and the writings of  Fairlee Wijemanne, BH Farmer and Gerald Peiris.

THEN, when assessing DS Senanayake’s moves towards independence, there will be many pertinent interviews in the ROHP collection to listen to, besides the considerable literature associated with such authors as Harshan Kumarasingham, KM De Silva and others.  


[1] See his Comment dated 19 July 2020 at https://thuppahis.com/2020/07/17/battleships-down-early-signs-in-the-decline-of-british-imperial-power-across-the-span-of-the-indian-ocean/#more-44133.

[2] See JB Kelegama’s revelatory account – the more important because it was written in 2002 and guided by his experience in conducting “trade negotiations with China over a dozen times” ……………………….. https://thuppahis.com/2020/07/23/a-landmark-trade-pact-rubber-rice-deal-between-sri-lanka-and-china-1952/#more-44282

[3] Assiduous readers need to absorb KM de Silva’s many writings on this topic. As I am on vacation in Galle I have no access to my own Adelaide library or other institutions to guide readers more minutely.

[4] Terrence De Zylva was active in the Suriya Mal movement of the early 1930s and has not received enough attention though information will be found in the “Introduction” in Roberts, 1977 volume I and in Kumari Jayawardena’s writings. Here is a brief web summary: “educated [at] Wesley College, Colombo, 1911-15. School master, Prince of Wales, Wesley College, Zahira, and Sri Sumangala. Established Kolonnawa Vidyala (now named the Terrence de Zilva School). Active in Suriya Mal campaign, 1933-35. Founding member Lanka Sama Samaja Party, 1935. Jailed during WWII. Sided with Philip Gunawardena in post-war split in LSSP. Councillor, Kolonnawa Urban Council.”

[5] Kumari Jayawardena’s publications will provide information on this topic. As I am touring Lanka at present  I do not have access t my Adelaide library or other resources.

[6] See Fewster 2013 and Moonesinghe 2020.

[7] Dudley Senanayake, JR Jayewardene, FC de Saram and others have been identified as the “Young Turks” who inserted fresh vigour into the activities of the Ceylon National Congress from circa 1938 in the “Introduction” to the Documents of the CNC (1877) which I have penned [but which item is not within my reach at the moment as I am on the road]. The relevant segments of the Documents in Volumes 3 or 4 will display summary accounts of the annual gatherings of both the LSSP and the CNC in December every year.

[8] Agrarian policies in the British period was a major arena in my research interest way back in time. Thus, my oral work in the course of the ROHP in the 1960s attended to the CCS man Brayne’s thinking and the report of the Land Commission of 1928(?), while deploying ER Leach’s short note in his Pul Eliya to seek written appraisals from administrators who had worked in the dry zone.

[9] Visit the Roberts Oral History Project via the Adelaide University Library web site = http://www.adelaide.edu.au/library/special/mss/roberts/

[10] Ironically, Vernon Gunasekera was Secretary of the LSSP in the mid-late 1930s. But he was also related to OEG and crafted this little booklet in 1981. Articulate and incisive as he was in his thinking, I suspect that my several interviews with him in Kandy in the ROHP collection will yield useful material: these were conducted on 7th and 22nd July 1966; 29 March 1967 and 18 December 1967…………….http://www.adelaide.edu.au/library/special/mss/roberts.



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