Chance Events in the Making of the Four-Volume Documents of the Ceylon National Congress

Michael Roberts

 In 1977 a sizeable stock of historical manuscripts was made available to the public by the Department of National Archives in four volumes entitled Documents of the Ceylon National Congress and Nationalist Politics in Ceylon, 1929-1950. This outcome was the result of a substantial body of work. It was also the outcome of several fortuitous encounters.


Leonard Woolf  & Sir Franklin Gimson




The roots of this process lay within what has become marked as the “Roberts Oral History Project.” I initiated this project in capturing the memories of retired British public servants[1] in Britain in early 1965. The idea was made feasible by the support of my ‘boss,’ Professor Karl W. Goonewardena in Peradeniya, and a generous grant from the Asia Foundation in Colombo. These interviews, involving trips to various parts of Britain from my base in Bath Place, Oxford, were pursued between October 1965 and January 1966.

Once I returned to Peradeniya in March 1966, I gained further monies from the Asia Foundation to pursue this process of oral history with public servants in Sri Lanka, both those retired and some in office. But I did not rest there. I embraced active politicians in my oral ‘investigations.’ In fact, one of my early interviews was with the ailing A. E. Goonesinha – where I was accompanied by Kumari Jayawardena,[2] an amiable family friend and earnest scholar (whose father AP De Zoysa[3] was also embraced in my oral history).

A. E. Goonesinha …. & Goonesinha meeting Nehru







   Kumari Jayawardena


One of those I interviewed was a political activist named Gilbert Perera whose amiability was encouraging and supported by the fact that one of his relatives was Ruki Koattegoda of tennis playing fame — one of my close friends from undergrad days at Peradeniya.[4] In the course of our conversations in April 1969, Gilbert Perera told me that JR Jayewardene and one Koattegoda had originally planned to bring out a book on the Ceylon National Congress activities in the 1930s and 1940s — in effect complementing SWRD Bandaranaike’s work in editing .a volume on this theme in 1928.[5]











This information intrigued me. I made an appointment with JRJ and went to see him in his house at Ward Place, Colombo. Shown into his office and seated in front of him behind his desk, I popped the question to him about the old Ceylon National Congress documentary material. JRJ indicated that he and his fellow-travellers did indeed have such a publication plans in their mind then; whereupon he summoned a peon and gave some instructions. Within a few minutes, to my amazement, his lackeys produced carton upon carton of manuscripts and other material.

I was as wide-eyed as excited. I asked JRJ if he could loan the lot to the Archives so that they could be copied. JRJ looked at me then and indicated that “they” (Koattegoda and himself) had held intentions of organising a book depicting these efforts to the public. He then leaned forward, looked at me earnestly and asked: “will you publish them?”

I was taken by surprise …. stunned. His face was earnest ….. impassive … inscrutable.  A response was in demand. I said “Yes.” Bloody fool was I.

JRJ was – at that point of time circa 1969/70 – a Minister in Dudley Senanayake’s UNP cabinet…. A Minister without portfolio, but, as it happened, overseeing the Department of National Archives (a fact I was totally unaware of).

So, that THEN was how the process of generating the printed collection of CNC documents came into being. The Department of National Archives [DNA] was instructed to proceed with the work and to deploy my services as the organising hand. As I had been a regular working visitor to the DNA over the years,[6] the Director, Mr Amarawansa Dewaraja, was known to me, Moreover, he happened to be the husband of Lorna Dewaraja, a History Department colleague. As significantly, the Deputy Director was Haris De Silva, a close friend who had ragged me as a senior at Ramanathan Hall in 1957 and whose home in Nugegoda was among my pied a terre when I visited Colombo on work and for play.[7]

As I had a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Chicago in 1970/71, the actual task of preparing the stock of manuscripts for printing was postponed till circa 1972. The DNA negotiated with the Peradeniya University Library to deposit the LOT in a secure room in the library basement and assigned a young secretary to work under my instructions in organising the material for publication.

Memory can be deceptive, so it is better for me to reiterate the lines penned within the first volume in 1977 where I mark the personnel who made the four-volume book feasible and actual.

“I am grateful to Messrs Jayewardene, Tissa Wijeyeratne, G. T. Samerawickrame, JAL Cooray, H. A. Koattegoda and the late Gilbert Perera for their generous cooperation in my endeavours to increase the store of material in our national archival repository. In thee endeavours and in the preparation of these volumes, I was greatly assisted by Messre A. Dewaraja, Harischandra de Silva, M. U. De Silva, K. D. G. Wimalaratne, and K. D. Paranavitana of the Department of National Archives. The Library at the Peradeniya campus provided the working space and other facilities without which the preparation of these documents would not have been feasible.

I am grateful too to Mrs Sriyani Goonewardena nee Bernadette for her diligent and cheerful work in typing the documents. Above all, I must thank my wife, Shona, not only for tolerating the long hours I spent at this job, but also for chipping in with the typing, for putting up with my sundry and irksome demands, and for the many hours of  work she logged in the tedious task of assistant proof-reader. The printer’s devil, alas, can never be submerged in full. And where t[8]he printing process has been of the linotype, as in this instance, it is likely that the devil has had ample scope to make his presence felt.

The Department of National Archives building at the corner of Reid Avenue and Torrington Road







Nationalist Studies and the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya, 1968-1970s


1 The personnel included men in the Ceylon Civil Service as wellas  those in the eTchnical departments such as Irrigation …and also Professor Sa Pakeman from University Collegge.

[2] Kumari had been among those who knew my elder sister Audrey at Ladies College and our friendship blossomed because her husband Lal Jayawardena was completing his dissertation at Cambridge at the same time that I was in Oxford; and we happened to meet at the Public Record Office at Chancery Lane – discovering that our dissertation work had considerable overlap. This common interest drew Lal and me together in Colombo whenever I was in town on research work or my oral history project. He Jayawardena home a t Gregory’s Road was yet another home from home.

[3] Dr AP de Zoysa (1890-1968) had secured his Ph. D in Anthropology under Seligmann in 1929 and returned to Ceylon with his English wife before taking to the legal profession and then, in 1936 contesting and winning a seat in the State Council for Colombo south. See

[4] I used to meet Ruki at the Christmas season tennis tournament at the Galle Gymkhana Club in late December in the earl-mid 1950s when we were teenagers and then overlapped at Peradeniya from 1957.

[5] This was entitled Handbook of the Ceylon National Congress and published under the imprint of HW Cave & Co.

[6] This interaction with Haris at the Archives began in late 1961-into 1962 in Nuwara Eliya where the DNA was located. I used to travel there for short spells to pursue my postgrad research into agrarian developments ….and stayed at the boarding house run by Sam Mottau and family. Haris was a young officer at the DNA then and our friendship blossomed further.

[7] The work in Colombo in the period 1966-70 was mostly part of my oral history ‘gatherings;’ but also involved ongoing research at the Archives — now located at Vidyodaya University. “Play” was usually for week-end cricket or rugger matches for either Peradeniya rugger or for the Kandy District Daily News Trophy team.

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One response to “Chance Events in the Making of the Four-Volume Documents of the Ceylon National Congress

  1. Wonderful endeavors. Thanks for sharing.

    =Ananda Wijesinghe=

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