Introducing the Ceylon National Congress: Its Agitation & Its Context

Michael Roberts

The four-volume edition of DOCUMENTS OF THE CEYLON NATIONAL CONGRESS was presented by the Department of National Archives in 1977 and has been out of stock for some time now.

Haris De Silva — Deputy Director, DNA in the 1970s

Volume ONE contains a book within a book written by me and entitled ELITES, NATIONALISMS and the NATIONALIST MOVEMENT IN BRITISH CEYLON – in seven chapters and running to ccxxii pages.

This lengthy work was drafted in the year 1973 when I was teaching at the Department of History at Peradeniya University. Like the documents, the initial typing would have been done by Ms  Sriyani Bernadette, the typist assigned to me by the DNA to prepare the documentary material … and this is a moment to mark and praise her diligent work on the whole stock.

The empirical and analytical approach which is embodied in the seven chapters was informed by my conservative ideology in resisting the Marxist concepts favoured by such friends as Kumari Jayawardena and SBD de Silva.[1] Hence my writing deploys the concept of “elites” and subdivides that tool into “national elites” and “local elites.”[2]

In this manner my perspectives and my research were guided by the old-fashioned British empiricist traditions and had much in common with the approach of my senior colleague Professor KM de Silva (who had marshalled several of us to produce the second and third volumes of the History of Ceylon (outstanding ‘monuments’ to the scholarship of a band of Peradeniya scholars that have not been replicated yet).




My perspective was also supported by my research work on class formation in Sri Lanka – understood via the “elite” concept. This work was pursued in the period 1966-1973 and was aided by my engagement in oral history interviewing members of the well-to-do Karava families. In this line of research two Karava gentlemen in Colombo were not only a lively mine of information; their homes were my homes and they put me up on occasions when I scootered down from Peradeniya. So, let me, here, honour

Sena Jayasuriya

& Shanthi Sri Chandrasekera …. ………………………

two vibrant middle-class personalities who provided me with insights into the processes of class formation in British Ceylon. Both have, alas, passed away many years back—but this moment enables me to inscribe an epitaph marking their encouragement and enthusiasm in the cause of historical retrieval.

Another middle-class Karava family also deepened my knowledge of the processes of class/elite formation: that of LSD Pieris – Lankeswera Pieris in formal manner, but “Bena Pieris” to close friends. Quite marvellously, Bena’s soulmate was Sita …. Sita Mendis, a lass who had been my contemporary as an undergrad at Peradeniya University and, who, as vitally, was the daughter of GC Mendis, the doyen of Sri Lanka’s historiographical trajectory.

As remarkably as marvellously, the Pieris family had access to a rare collection of 19th century letters written or received by one of their ancestors: Hannadige Jeronis Pieris. They sought my aid in publishing these letters with a suitable introduction. The result was a book that appeared in print in 1975 as Facets of Modern Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris, Colombo: Hansa Press, 108 pages (printed in on the poor-quality paper available in that Bandaranaike era).

My academic training in the years 1966 to 1973 was also honed by the lively seminar discussions known as the Ceylon Studies Seminar which were usually held in the Sociology Department building on Peradeniya Campus.[3] Against the background provided by the miserable and amateurish JVP uprising of early 1971, these discussions were among the ingredients servicing and sharpening my analytical skills at the moment when I was crafting the book within a book in the CNC documentary tale.

Amongst other currents, some of us in the CSS circle became aware of the sharpening of Sri Lanka Tamil hostility to the prevailing political conditions and the associated ‘climate’ within of island – an awareness[4] that was, in my readings, sharpened by interaction with Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe (a thinker and activist who had a finger on the pulse of the several political currents within our land). Guided by these concerns, the CSS indulged in a difficult logistical exercise and, with the aid of Fr. Kenneth Fernando at Bishop’s House in Colombo and Mark Cooray of the Law Faculty at Colombo University[5] and the Marga Institute, organised an all-day seminar on “The Sinhala-Tamil Problem” on the 3rd October 1973.

These summary details provide the background that informed and sharpened the data and the analytical threads that went into the book-within-a-book presented as ELITES, NATIONALISMS and the NATIONALIST MOVEMENT IN BRITISH CEYLON.


SBD de Silva The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, London, Routledge & kegan Paul, 1982

Kumari Jayawardena “The Origins of the Left Movement in Sri Lanka,” Modern Ceylon Studies, vol 2, pp. 95-121.

Kumari Jayawardena The Rise of the Labor Movement I Ceylon, Durham: Duke University Press.

Michael Roberts Facets of Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris, Colombo, hansa Press, 1975

Michael Roberts   “How It Became. Documenting the Ceylon National Congress,” 22 May 2018,

Michael Roberts  “Nationalist Studies and the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya,” 1968-1970s, 2 October 2018,

Michael Roberts “Nationalisms in Ceylon: Origins, Stimulants and Ingredients,” 30 April 2022, ………………………………………………….. mulants-and-ingredients/


[1] I interacted in amiable manner with both Kumari and SBD in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I often visited Lal and Kumari at their home in Gregory’s Rd in Colombo whenever I was in Colombo; while I banged into SBD at the Archives (then at Vidyodaya University). For more data on these scholars, see and as well as Underdevelopment/Silva/p/book/9780415851367

[2] As I matured and moved into working in the Anthropology Department at Adelaide University from 1977  I became ready to deploy the class concept – so that the terminology of “bourgeoisie” and “working class” could be easily superimposed over my “elite” concepts.

[3] See  “Nationalist Studies and the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya, 1968-1970s,” 2 Oct. 2018,

[4] This reading on our part was in wholesale opposition to that of a cluster of Arts Faculty lecturers who were closely allied with the UNITED FRONT government of the 1970s (one that had three senior lecturers from Peradeniya Uni serving in key managerial positions in the United Front government (viz., HA de S Gunasekera, P. Udagama and Osmund Jayaratne). In one of the CSS informal planning meetings, WI Siriweera stood up and categorically asserted: “There is no Tamil problem” – as one assertion ina speech which challenged the proposal to focus on the Sinhala-Tamil relations.

[5] Mark Cooray was in the same year as me at Peradeniya University from 1957 onwards and we became close friends in the circle of the Student Christian Movement. His parental home in Turret Rd Colombo was always a home to me whenever I chose that option. His marriage to another friend, Noreen, meant that in subsequent decades in the 1980s their home in Sydney was always an open house to me. To this day, I miss them both. See

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