The ROHP in Ceylon, 1966-70: Interviews and Select Transcriptions

Michael Roberts

The Roberts Oral History Project involved many stages and a range of tasks. The interviewing process has been clarified in two items –embracing personnel in Britain and thereafter in “Ceylon” (yet to become “Sri Lanka”): AND

While this work was in progress a partial consolidation was pursued by transcribing the spoken word into written typescript. The ‘engine’ for this process was my wife Shona Roberts. Looking at some dates I find that some of this work began at Bath Place Oxford itself. The bulk of the work, however, was undertaken in Sri Lanka when we were living in an annexe at Siebel Place off Peradeniya Road in Kandy.  I could not type then, so the task was wholly Shona’s — a difficult job managing the spools and demanding rewinds often. I chipped in by listening and correcting the typed scripts [which then had to be re-typed]. All this was seen to in the period April 1966 to mid-1970 – a stage that saw the birth of our second child Maya Samantha in February 1967 and also involved child-minding and housekeeping tasks.

It would not be amiss to cast Shona as the “Heroine of Siebel Place.” The Adelaide University records indicate that there are a total of 1720 pages of transcripts!

Shona with Kim and Maya

In summary, the ROHP work embraced recorded interviews[1] in Britain with 23 British “public servants” and 2 Barbadian public servants (the latter being my father TW Roberts and my stepbrother TFC Roberts, a lawyer who served as a Police Magistrate in the island for some time). Of the 23 British men, most were in the CCS proper, but GH Ferguson had been the Inspector-General of Police in the 1910s, AS Harrison had been in the Education Department, Sir JB Nihill had been a Legal Officer in the 1940s and SA Pakeman had run University College in the 1920s to 30s.

In Sri Lanka two ‘stray’ British residents were embraced in my study – one a retired planter named Robert Semmence because he happened to be our neighbour at Siebel Place and the other, Derek Rowan, a big-wig in the mercantile sector. The main body comprised

28 CCS men[2]

07 Ex-DLOs –District Land Officers[3]

07 public servants of various types

70 “notables” – mostly politicians from a range of parties.

Several of the Ceylonese CCS men had retired by the time I visited them or were holding commanding posts in the private sector when I met them. My encompassment of District Land Officers arose from my abiding interest in British land policy and the colonisation schemes initiated in the 1930s [itself a fruition of the work of CV Brayne and the Land Commission pursued by the Legislative Council of the 1924-30 period. It so happened that the staff at Peradeniya University included three former DLOs in Adikaram, LW Madugalle, Dr. Merlin Peris and GJ Wijetunge …. so it was a simple process to tap their experiences.

My records indicate that the first of the Sri Lankan interviews was with the aging AE Goonesinha on 12 May 1966. I recall that my friend Kumari Jayawardena,[4] facilitated the interview and was present—though, alas, Goonesinha had aged and had limited recollections or vigorous opinions (in contrast to his endeavours past).[5]

I stress, here, that I was still a callow young man immersed in the empiricist tradition when I ventured on this historical work in 1965 and that my youthfulness would have encouraged many of the British and Ceylonese servants of state to take an avuncular teaching stance in their responses and elaborations. My position as an University Lecturer at Peradeniya may have encouraged some of the Ceylonese men to accept my ‘intrusion’ – the only individuals who were brusque when I approached them face-to-face were NM Perera and Bernard Soysa (who are therefore out of this scenario).[6]

Hector Abhayavardhana  GPMalalasekera

A large complement of Leftists is encompassed in this work: Hector Abhayavardhana, Colvin R and WA de Silva, Leslie Goonewardena, Vivienne Goonewardena, Philip Gunawardena, Robert Gunawardena, V Karalasingham, Pieter Keuneman, Anil Moonesinghe, Reggie Perera. Wilmot Perera, Basil Silva, TB Subasinghe, and Bala Tampoe. In my (unreliable) memory the sessions with Hector Abhayavadhana, Colvin R.  de Silva,[7] Wilmot Perera, and Leslie Goonewardena were particularly useful and wide-ranging.

  M. Rajendra   TB Subasinghe 

I suspect that my father’s standing in minds of the older generation of Sri Lankans and his long association with Galle aided the accommodating warmth of reception I received from such personnel as P de S. Kularatne, WA de Silva and his brother Colvin R – because our house in Pedlar Street in the Fort sat cheek by jowl with that of H. de S Kularatne (brother of P. de S) and our families intermingled frequently. These ‘linkages’ could be described as a “Salagama” chain. There was also a Karava ‘chain’: my stepbrother Gilbert had been an institution as teacher and cricket coach at St. John’s College, Panadura; and it is probable that this association encouraged the readiness with which Leslie Goonewardena responded to my inquiries.

Likewise, my sister Audrey was a bosom friend of Suriya Wickremasinghe from her Ladies College days in the 1950s – so this facilitated the warmth with which Dr. S. A. Wicks (a Matara man) and his English wife responded to my questionings. There is, truly then, a Southern Province flavour to several connections.

Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide Helen Attar of the Adelaide Univeristy Library — an invaluable mediating hand

SPECIAL NOTE re ACCESS to the Roberts Mss at the BARR SMITH library, Adelaide University

To go directly to the digitised typescripts go to

To go directly to Comments on Pul Eliya go to 

To access the list of the Roberts Mss material go to

The full list of the cassettes tapes is at

The full list of transcripts is at

If people are looking at your manuscripts collection, including items in the separate listings of interviews, transcripts, oral history recordings, maps and Government documents, they just need to email and request a digitised copy.  The Barr Smith Library recommends the deployment of a NOTE such as this:

“For access to this collection or to request a digitised version of an item, please contact Rare Books & Manuscripts at

**** ****


BH Farmer 1957 Pioneer Peasant Colonisation, London.

Edmund Leach 1961 Pul Eliya. A Village in Ceylon. A Study of Land Tenure and Kinship, Cambridge University Press.

Lal Jayawardena 1963  The Supply of Sinhalese Labour to Ceylon Plantations (1830-1930), Ph. D Thesis in Economic History.,Cambridge University.

V Kumari Jayawardena 1972 The Rise of the Labour Movement in Ceylon, Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press.

Michael Roberts 1994: “I shall have you Slippered’ The General and the Particular in an Historical Conjuncture,” being chap 9 in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation Reading, Harwood Academic Press, 1994, pp. 213-48.


[1] The interview with Sir Peter Clutterbuck (Secy to the Donoughmore Commission) was not recorded in accordance with his wish. But I penned a summary for the ROHP records. Likewise, a short memo was compiled after each interview indicating my readings of person and exchanges.

[2] Several of these CCS men were in senior mercantile posts after having retired early; Others were in retirement.

[3] My dissertation work had been in British land policy and I had intimate knowledge of the books crafted by BH Farmer and ER Leach …and had visited both in Cambridge (while Leach was one of my D. Phil examiners). As a result, the comments in Leach’s book Pul Eliya served as a means of addressing 20th century government programmes.

[4] Kumari was a friend of my sister Audrey (arising from Ladies College overlaps), but I got to know here in UK because I banged into her husband Lal Jayawardena at the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane. Lal’s research field overlapped with mine and we had several riveting chats.

[5] See the incident analyses in Roberts, “I shall have you slippered’ … 1994.

[6] Bernard Soysa asked me to send him a written list of questions. NM was distinctly brusque. I did not bother them.

[7] One unforgettable interview at his home in Pendennis Avenue, Kollupitiya began at midnight and lasted till about 2.00 am.


Filed under accountability, British colonialism, communal relations, devolution, economic processes, ethnicity, governance, historical interpretation, island economy, land policies, language policies, Left politics, life stories, modernity & modernization, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power politics, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes

2 responses to “The ROHP in Ceylon, 1966-70: Interviews and Select Transcriptions

  1. Pingback: Under Scrutiny: Edmund Leach’s PUL ELIYA | Thuppahi's Blog

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