Sir John Kotelawela in Australia and New Zealand in 1955

Earlson Forbes,** Courtesy of The Ceylankan, XXIII: 3, August 2020, where the title differs a mite

Ceylon’s third Prime Minister, Sir John Kotelawela, was known as an outspoken, strong  and, as some would say, a flamboyant leader.  He had a chance of being the second Prime Minister of Ceylon when the first Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon, D. S.  Senanayake, passed away in 1952.  Sir John was a strong contender for the vacant position.  However, he was overlooked for appointment and the son of D. S. Senanayake , Dudley Senanayake,  was appointed to the position.  As fate would have it, Sir John did not have to wait long for his second shot at the Prime Ministership.  Dudley Senanayake’s period as Prime Minister was riddled with civil unrest.  In 1953, he resigned and this time around Sir John was chosen as the third Prime Minister of Ceylon. 

Sir John (1895-1980)
John Kotelawela Snr 1865-1908

Sir John’s elevation to the highest political position in the land had not been a textbook smooth ride.  His family had undergone a period of difficulty in his early years.  His father accused of murder, committed suicide while the murder trial was underway.  John was only 11 years old at this time.  However, the family fortunes in the form of graphite deposits and extensive land holdings, wisely managed by his mother, ensured Sir John had an easy economic ride in his youth and the early years of manhood.  He had his education at Royal College, Colombo.  Leaving Royal College, under circumstances which were considered to be dubious, he spent several years mostly in France and the United Kingdom.  In the U K, he attended Cambridge University to study Agriculture.

On his return to Ceylon Sir John pursued his two great interests in public life: politics and the Army.  In 1922 he joined the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI) and over the next two decades rose to the rank of Colonel.  During this time there was a complicated relationship between the Ceylon Defence Force and the British Army.  As a consequence, most of Sir John’s service in the Army was considered to be one of a ‘reservist’.

Sir John’s political career began in 1931, when he was elected to the State Council seat of Kurunegala.  Later in his political career he was the elected member for the seat of Dodangaslanda.  Before his elevation to the position of Prime Minister of Ceylon, Sir John served as Minister of Communications and Works, Minister of Transport and Works and as the Leader of the House of Representatives.

Much has been written about Sir John’s attendance and performance at the Bandung Conference held over a period of 6 days.   However, comparatively little is made of the nearly four weeks he spent in Australian, New Zealand and Thailand in the latter part of 1955.  What did Sir John do during this visit and what may have motivated him to devote so much of his limited time primarily to the tour of Australia and New Zealand? 

On the international front, the late 1940s was a momentous period as a very large part of Asia attained independence or established completely new governments.  India and Pakistan gained their independence in 1947 and Ceylon followed in early 1948.  In late 1949, Sukarno wrested power from the Dutch after centuries of Dutch rule and in the same year the Peoples Republic of China was proclaimed by the Communist Party of China under Mau Zedong.

Post World War 2 or post independence, domestic problems were much the same for war torn Europe or the newly independent nations of Asia.  There was the rising need to achieve economic and social development through the modernisation of industry and agriculture, the building of infrastructure, and the establishment of education and health services for all or most of the population.  Western Europe was able to make progress in its drive for re-construction and development due to the establishment of the Marshall Plan.  Initiated by America and operating from 1948 the Marshall Plan made available millions of dollars for development projects in Western Europe.  Russia did not wish to participate in the Marshall Plan and prevented some Eastern European Nations from joining.  As a consequence the benefits of the Marshall Plan substantially flowed to Western Europe. 

There was no Marshall Plan for the development of Asia, but very soon after the Marshall Plan was operational, Britain and Australia were looking to establish a scheme to assist the British Commonwealth and Asia in its economic and social development.  Communism was far from dead in Asia and among other things a fundamental motive in establishing a scheme to aid development was to stop the spread of Communism.  The view was held that the most effective soft way to stop the spread of Communism was to raise the living standards of populations in the poorer Asian countries. 

In 1950 a Commonwealth Conference was held in Colombo to formalise plans for the establishment of a permanent body to tackle the question of re-construction and development and alleviation of poverty in Asian member countries and even beyond member country borders.  Britain ‘as the mother country’ was planning to take the lead in this matter.  However the initiative was momentarily seized by the Australian Minister for External Affairs, Percy Spender, who was a strong advocate of an ‘Aid’ scheme for developing member Nations.  Minister Spender’s scheme was advanced and he had even given it a name, viz, ‘the Spender Plan’.  As things turned out Mr. Spender did not have his way and it was decided to name the scheme the ‘Colombo Plan’.  The Colombo Plan was officially launched on 1st July 1951.  The headquarters of the organisation was to be situated in Colombo and this remains unchanged to this day.

The founder member countries of the Colombo Plan were Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Pakistan and Ceylon.  Although the flow of funds under the Colombo Plan covered major development infrastructure projects, its intent was to also focus on education and individual advancement by providing a variety of scholarships and educational grants to individuals and educational institutions.  Out of an initial total allocation of 31 million pounds sterling, Australia gave Ceylon nearly 20 million pounds.

The emerging importance of the Colombo Plan as a resource for the development of industry, agriculture, infrastructure and education in Ceylon was apparent to Sir John.  It could be said that his keen interest in the potential benefits of the Colombo Plan was one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, for his prolonged visit of three weeks to Australia and New Zealand in October and November 1955.  The itinerary of this visit is outlined below.  For the details the author has relied mainly on photographic records and accompanying narrative held by the National Archives of Australia (NAA) and the New Zealand Government Archives.  A few examples of the photographic records are appended   below. 

 In general terms Sir John’s visit is described in NAA records in the following manner.

The Prime Minister of Ceylon, Sir John Kotelawala in Australia on an official visit from 26 October to the 8 November. The tour programme covered four States and visits to important centres of learning, scientific institutions, primary and secondary industries and the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme under construction. Sir John met leaders of various Governments and civic dignitaries.’

The four States visited were New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria.  The tour also took in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). 

In New South Wales Sir John was feted by the Premier, Mr J. J. Cahill at a State Luncheon given in his honour.  In Sydney there was also a Civic Reception given in honour of Sir John by P. D. Hills, Lord Mayor of Sydney.  The Lord Mayor’s Reception was held at the Town Hall. The High Commissioner for Ceylon at this time, Mr. P R Gunesekera, accompanied Sir John on these occasions.  (See figure 1).

As in New South Wales Sir John was treated as an honoured guest of the State of Victoria. The Lord Mayor of Melbourne held a function in his honour. It was that time of year in Melbourne; yes Melbourne Cup time and Sir John attended the Flemington racecourse to witness the running of the Melbourne Cup.  Melbourne was also making final preparations for holding the 1956 Olympic Games.  Sir John was taken on extensive tours of the building works in progress; the new stadium, swimming pool, velodrome and sports arenas.  It afforded an opportunity for Australia to display its construction skills so important for Ceylon in any future plans for infrastructure developments.  (See figures 2 and 3).

Not much is available by way of photographic record of the time spent in South Australia and Western Australia.  There is one record of Sir John inspecting names at the War Memorial at famed King’s Park in Perth.

By far the greatest interest is in the time spent by Sir John in the ACT.  Apart from the formal occasions, the places visited mirror both Sir John’s political and personal interests.  The visit to the Snowy Mountains Scheme was of particular interest as Ceylon was undertaking its own hydro electric scheme (Laxapana). The commissioning of the Laxapana Scheme was just completed at this time.  Agriculture and farming were observed when a visit was made to, ‘Uriarra Station’, a sheep farm approximately 30 kilometres out of Canberra. Here he was treated to an exhibition of sheep shearing in which he showed great interest.  He had a conversation with the owner of the station (Mr. D. Hyles) wanting to know the detail of sheep station operation and management.  Also, Sir John had commented on the high quality of the wool produced from the merino sheep at this station. 

There also was a visit to the Royal Military College, Duntroon, which apparently aroused his interest in military matters. Sir John commenced his visit inspecting the Guard of Honour. He then spent hours touring the College with the Commandant, Major- General R.  Campbell. The tour was not completed until Sir John had also walked around the College grounds and looked at points of interest outside. 

Another of Sir John’s many appointments in Canberra was a press conference with members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. The Sydney Morning Herald of Thursday November 3 1955, reported a summary of Sir John’s speech in the following words:- ‘after eight years of independence Ceylon remained happy with her membership of the British Commonwealth.  It had meant practical benefits for her and the Colombo Plan was one of the finest things done. In Ceylon it was helping in the general rise in living standards the main reason why Communism was fast disappearing there.  Sir John said it was essential that the upward movement of living standards should continue because empty stomachs were the one thing Communism could thrive on’.

Along with the above, the formal events associated with a state visit by a Prime Minister took place.  On his arrival in Canberra, Sir John was greeted by the Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Menzies.  Whilst in Canberra Sir John called on Sir Robert Menzies and Dame Patti Menzies at the latter’s residence, ‘The ‘Lodge’. In reciprocation the High Commissioner for Ceylon, Mr. P R Gunasekera, hosted an official reception for dignitaries and guests.  The final formal event was a visit to the War Memorial where Sir John laid a wreath on the Stone of Remembrance.  

On the completion of his Australian Tour Sir John flew directly to New Zealand.  It is not intended to cover his itinerary in detail in New Zealand.  Suffice to say Sir John was accorded formal honours extended to a visiting Head of Government. The Government of New Zealand hosted a grand luncheon for Sir John on 10th November 1955. Sir John toured parts of New Zealand including the Capital, Wellington. Figure 4 shows Sir John attentively inspecting a dental procedure being performed at a Wellington dental school.          

Before Sir John left Ceylon for Australia and New Zealand the Indian Daily Mail carried a news item to say:- “Sir John Kotelawala has accepted invitations to visit Australia, New Zealand and Thailand.  He will leave on October 25th and return one month later’.

The author has not been able to get details of Sir John’s itinerary in Thailand.  This visit was most likely connected with the formal establishment of diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Thailand which occurred at this time (November 1955).    

Much valuable knowledge, networking contacts, and useful personal experience about the Colombo Plan as a crucial future resource would have been gained by Sir John and his official party on this long visit.  However very soon after Sir John’s return to Ceylon the political landscape altered dramatically and ensured he would not be in a position to direct government policy any longer.  Less than five months after Sir John’s return, a General Election was held in Ceylon. This was in early April 1956.  The United National Party (UNP) led by Sir John suffered a devastating defeat at this General Election. The Election was won by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike whose victory reduced the seats held by the UNP from 54 to 8.  This humiliating electoral loss meant that, ‘the lights were switched off permanently’ on the political career of Sir John. 

Earl Forbes    

** Earlson Forbes was among my circle of pals at Peradeniya University in the late !950s. In Sydney he seems to have become an “Earl.” I prefer the old Peradeniya ways.



Cartoon: Sir John at Bandung Conference [supplied by Rohan De Soysa of Colombo]


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One response to “Sir John Kotelawela in Australia and New Zealand in 1955

  1. Patrick Rodrigo

    The Maha Sanga got their way and got their power back by getting the people to vote Sir John out of power and vote in SWRD Bandaranaike, who came in hanging on to the robes of the Buddhist priests.

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