Four Bajans in British Ceylon

Michael Roberts

The sea lanes of the British Empire took men (rather than women) far and wide.  Sri Lankan traders, many of them from Galle and its hinterland, traded in Mombasa, Zanzibar and even as far inland as Blantyre in the Rhodesias during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Others went as workers to Thursday Island and northern Australia.[1] Yet others traded at Singapore or joined the colonial service in Malaysia.[2] A few intrepid souls ended up in Brazil and the Caribbean. David Scott, a scholar-academic from Jamaica whose writings encompass the Sri Lankan scene, is descended from one such diasporic Lankan through his mother.

So, too, did four sons of Barbados end up in Sri Lanka as part of the British colonial order during the early twentieth century. This is a partial picture of their engagements in the field of cricket. Let me identify them first and note that there is self-interest in this story.

T.W. Roberts (1880-1976)

J.C.W. Rock (c.1886-1946)

T.F.C. Roberts (1901-1984)

Gilbert C. Roberts (1903-81)

Both “TW” (as he became known) and, a little later, Rock secured Barbados Scholarships that took them to Oxford. They then sat for the public examinations Britain that secured them a spot in the Colonial Civil Service (rather than the more prestigious Indian Civil Service) in the 1900s. Serendipitously, from my point of view that is, they chose to work in Ceylon as Sri Lanka was known then.

The Ceylon Civil Service was at the apex of the socio-political hierarchy in the island’s order. A colour bar was in force within its ranks, although never explicitly inscribed on paper. Till C. L. Wickremasinghe revealed his merits and breached this barrier circa 1923 during an era when devolution was on the horizon, those within the CCS coloured  brown or black were never given the plum jobs as Assistant Government Agents and/or senior posts in prestigious departments. This meant that in their early days they were assigned posts in such outlying towns as Batticaloa, Ratnapura or Matara where the scope to display their sporting skills (in circles that counted) were limited.  While JCW Rock turned out for the NCC at some point and also played for the Excise Department; we hear little about his performances other than a brief reference to him s  “a mighty smiter of the ball” in the same mould as TW Roberts (Perera 1899: 91). TW after scoring 247 n.o. for Kalutara Bar

But TW’s capacities and performances receive some notice in both Feonenader’s and SS Perera’s compendiums. Says Foenander: “Playing for  the Colombo Sports Club for many years he was one of the most  aggressive batsmen that Ceylon had between 1905 and 1914. His magnificent innings of 70 for Mr. Vanderspar’s XI vs the M.C.C. Amateurs, who included JN Crawford and KL Hutchings, will long be remembered in the annals of Ceylon cricket” (1924, p. 189).

Those who know their cricket history will tell you that during these decades to play for Vanderspar was akin to playing for Ceylon. And English cricket buffs will tell you that Foenander’s account of this particular game conveys shades of Aravinda de Silva’s brilliant innings in a losing cause for Kent against Lancashire at Lords. For TW’s 70 runs were out of a total of 157 secured by Vanderspar’s men after the MCC Amateurs marshaled by AO Jones’ totaled 252 (1924, p. 84).

TW is also listed alongside FJ Siedle among the prominent six-hitters in the Ceylon cricketing scene. Foenander writes that “both were prolific hitters and very fast scorers” (1924: 72-73). His opportunity to display his talents in the leading circles came when he was based in Panadura as Police Magistrate. He hit the headlines when he scored 241 n. o. for the Kalutara lawyers against the Galle Bar in 1908 (Foenander 1924: fac. 179, 223 and Perera 1899: 98).

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Tommy Roberts Gilbert Roberts

TFC Roberts (b. 1901) and GC Roberts (1903-81) were sent to their grandfather’s house in Barbados for their education. Both attended Harrison College in Bridgetown. TFC (Tommy) went to London in 1921 to train for the bar and Gilbert Roberts moved to Codrington College to read for his B. A. He left Barbados for Ceylon in 1924 and was joined there eventually by Tommy and his English wife (Dolly). Gilbert, also known as “G C,” eventually married Jean Bastiaensz of Matara in 1929. He had served as bestman a little earlier when his father, TW walked down the aisle to be wedded to a local lady, Miriam Perera, daughter of W. Henry Perera by Clarissa Bastiaensz, who thus became his second wife after his English soul-mate passed away.

TFC Roberts was an allrounder who played for the Colombo Sports Club and, when stationed in Panadura, for the Panadura Sports Club. GC Roberts played for Harrison College and family lore indicates that he represented Barbados and even played in a West Indian trial match, where he was dismissed first ball by that demon quick, Martindale. He was one of Ceylon’s hardest-hitting batsmen in his day, spanning the 1920s to 1950s. He played mostly for the Panadura Sports Club. SS Perera summarizes his cricketing capacities thus: he “never thought an innings was complete without a sixer. A genial soul, his batting was in the West Indian mould. …. One big hit  of his on the Panadura Esplanade was against the Colombo CC; it landed alongside the walls of St. John’s Church across the upper road.” (Janashakthi Book of Cricket, 1899: pp. 459-60)

He also coached the St. John’s College team at Panadura, where he was a teacher for many decades beginning in the mid-1920s. He was something of an institution in this his new “home-town” – not least for his swimming capacities and the handstands on the beach (the old version of modern aerobic exercise).

On one occasion when I was visiting Panadura as a teenager who also played cricket, he demonstrated a stroke that I have never ever seen anyone play – deliberately. One has to select a yorker for this innovation: when the ball arrives on middle-and-leg just adjust feet and bat and glide the ball with angled bat to fine-leg between one’s feet  and leg stump. In brief, a delicate ‘French -glide.’ Even the French would gawk at that one!! Knowing my limitations, I firmly relegated the idea to my locker and always kept it there. But this can be a puzzle to set before the West Indian cricketers and the big hitters of the IPL: did Weekes or Sobers play such a shot? do Maxwell or Pooran attempt such artistic innovation? Maybe these blokes scored (score) plenty and rapidly without the need for such fancy stuff?

Dhanasiri Weerasinghe[3] recalls witnessing G C playing this shot in the middle. Dhanasiri, an elegant batsman who went on to play for Sri Lanka, considers G C to have been his principal mentor in the art of batting. He also provided a vivid description of a game in 1955 between Panadura SC and the snooty English club of the day, CCC, where John Arenhold had reduced the former to 5 runs for 3 wickets but then encountered firm resistance as old G C scored 55 n. o. at one end, while he himself scored a century.

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These stories indicate that the progeny of the three Bajan Robertses were  nourished as Ceylonese with TW’s rented home within the fort of Galle, where he chose to retire, serving as the mahāgedara,the “patriarchal lineage house” (literally “great house”). Therein lie many tales. But most members of the Roberts’ lineage in Sri Lanka have dabbled and dibbled at tennis, cricket and other sports. A few went on to represent Ceylon and Sri Lanka.

Sheila at tennis Beverley in group photo … Ceylon vs England, 1948

Sheila Roberts in tennis in the late 1940s and early 50s.

Beverley Roberts for the Ceylon Women’s cricket team against the English women’s team led by Molly Hide in 1948 when they played a whistle-stop match as the “Orion” paused in Colombo.

Tony Sirimanne for the Sri Lankan rugger fifteen as redoubtable scrum half and leader of men.

Jagath Fernando for the Sri Lankan Schoolboys Cricket team in 1970 before he went on represent Sri Lanka at rugger till a karate chop when playing for the CF& FC against the Police ruined both his rugger and cricketing career potentiliaties. Tony Sirimanne

Jagath Fernando

Jagath at rugger

 

The Rock Lineage

John Rock’s son also bore the same initials “JCW”  and attended Royal College. He can be seen in the Royal cricket team captained by FC de Saram in 1931. He was multi-talented and received school colours in rugby, cricket, athletics, tennis and boxing (Perera 439). It seems that he migrated (presumably to England) at some point in the 1930s. But his sister “Jean” married another doyen of the cricketing fields in Lucien de Zoysa who was, like FC de Saram, a rollicking part of the SSC club of sportsmen, raconteurs and sturdy clubmen. While Jean and Lucien divorced, they bequeathed to the island one Michael de Zoysa: cricketer, tea trader, SSC stalwart and a cricket administrator who was forthright in his ways ….. with the SSC also benefiting from his capacities as a curator of cricket pitches. Michael’s untimely death in September 2019 was a blow that carries unfortunate reverberations for many institutions.

 

REFERENCES

Arumugam, Thiru 2019: “The Devonshire reaches Queensland,” ……  https://thuppahis.com/2019/11/18/the-devonshire-reaches-queensland-with-500-cingalese-coolies-in-1882/

Foenander, SP 1924 Sixty Years of Ceylon Cricket, Colombo, Ceylon Advertising & General Publicity Co.

Perera, SS 1899 The Janashakthi Book of Sri Lanka Cricket, 1832-1996, Colombo.

Roberts, Michael 2006 Essaying Cricket. Sri Lanka and Beyond, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publishers

ALSO

https://www.historyofceylontea.com/ceylon-publications/feature-articles/michael-de-zoysa-mentor.html

https://www.elankanews.com/michael-de-zoysa-new-sri-lanka-team

https://www.historyofceylontea.com/media-archive/videos/interview-with-michael-de-zoysa–93

A Memorable SSC Moment in 1973


[1] See Arumugam … https://thuppahis.com/2019/11/18/the-devonshire-reaches-queensland-with-500-cingalese-coolies-in-1882/

[2] The firm of BP de silva in Singapore and related firms on the east coast of Africa are among the examples of this outreach. The family had its roots in the Magalla area in Galle.

[3] Dhanasiri is a family friend and, alas, passed away recently.

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