Celebrating Duncan White in Pictures and Words

Michael Roberts 

The recent TV broadcasts of the Commonwealth Games at Birmingham and the Athletics Championship at Eugene in Oregon stimulaed thoughts of the breakthrough for Ceylon aka Sri Lanka initiated by the Trinitian athlete Duncan White in 1948.  In securing the second place  in the exacting 400 metre hurdles in the London Olympics on 31st Ju;y 1948, Duncan White carved his name in silver in the annals of Sri Lankan sport.










In assembling photographs and items that mark his life, I am overjoyed that two individuals who featured in my life world at the University of Ceylon in Peradeniya as it was then known also come into focus. One is Leslie Handunge, the industrious and energetic Direcor of Sports in my time at Peradeniya University in the late 1950s through to the 1960s: he was a top-claSs boxer in his manly days and was also part of the  Ceylon Olympic squad in London …. and, boy oh boy,  isn’t the picture of that squad enough to capture many female hearts.








The other is KLF Wijedasa an athlete of considerable prowess himself: he has written a news article on Duncan White. “Wijey” was senior to me at Peradeniya University and a leadign athlete who went on to ecome Director of Sports at the Colombo Campus and thus a friend whom I interacted with on occasions in the late 1960s and early 970s.

  Needless to say, Duncan White was feted when he returned to Ceylon and the picture of him with John Kotelawela and another Minister at some ceremony  is one mark of the weight that was attached to this Lankan man of excellence.

However, perhaps the most significant  statement in the light of the island’s disastrous political upheavals in the years 1956 to 2022 is the photograph of the four athletes  who carried a baton to the podium where DS Senanayake and other dignitaries stood for the march-past marking Ceylon’s Independence on 4th February 1948.

Duncan White, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sharm Mustafa and Oscar Wijesinghe are seen in this picture which appeared in The Ceylon Daily News decades ago. Duncan White, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Oscar Wijesinghe and M.A.M. Sherrif  represented the four communities when they brought four scrolls to the Independence Square to be handed over to the Prime Minister  D.S. Senanayake to be read for the public to hear.”

“The four reputed athletes represented the four communities. They were Oscar Wijesinghe (Sinhalese), Lakshman Kadirgamar (Tamil), Mohamed A Sherrif (Muslim) and Duncan White (Burgher). Arriving at the Independence Square they handed over the scrolls to young females representing the four communities. Swarna Amarasuriya (Sinhalese), Srimani Ramachandran (Tamil), Ayesha Zally (Muslim) and Phyllis de Kretser (Burgher). In turn the four damsels handed over the scrolls to the Prime Minister who read them over the public address system.”

Alas, those hopeful multi-ethnic strands of oneness now lie sundered and brittle. Within this context, there is no event that marks this sundering more deeply than the assassination of Lakshman Kadirgamar by the Tamil Tigers on the 12th August 2005 — shot by the side of his house in Colombo 7 by a sniper using the house of a Tamil gentleman named Thalayasingham.**

  So, take in the other pictorials and items on Duncan White in reflective mood.




KLF Wijedasa: “A Symbolic Moment of Ethnic Otherness at Independence Day, 4 February 1948,” 4 February 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/02/04/a-symbolic-moment-of-ethnic-oneness-at-independence-day-4-february-1948/

Trinity College: “Duncan White: The First Athlete to win an Olympic Medal for Ceylon,” October 2019, …………………………………………….. https://trinitycollege.lk/2019/02/10/duncan-white-the-first-athlete-to-win-an-olympic-medal-for-sri-lanka/

George Braine:  “Duncan White and the returned Trinity Lion,” 6 October 2022, https://island.lk/69917-2/

Philip Gourevitch: “Killing Kadirgamar,” 22 August 2005, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/08/22/killing-kadirgamar

Rear Admiral Dr. Shamal Fernando: “Duncan White’s Silver in London and His Spectacular Astounding Hurdling,” 18 July 2021,  sundayobserver.lk/2021/07/18/sports/duncan-white’s-silver-london-1948-and-his-spectacular-astounding-hurdling







Filed under accountability, art & allure bewitching, communal relations, cultural transmission, education, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, patriotism, performance, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, trauma, travelogue, unusual people

9 responses to “Celebrating Duncan White in Pictures and Words

  1. Sachi Sri Kantha

    Hello Michael, here my comments on this particular item? You had started the piece with Duncan White’s athletic achievement in 1948 by winning Olympic silver medal, and ended with Lakshman Kadirgamar’s 2005 assassination. As a ‘lapsed historian’ of Sri Lanka, you should be aware of the the political turmoils which engulfed the independent island in the span of 57 years.
    It would have been more informative if you had offered a little more information on Duncan White’s career after his athletic exploits. Details available in the Wikipedia entry notes that Duncan White left Ceylon in 1963 for a job in Nigeria, and eventually settled in Warwickshire, UK. Would you care to comment on WHY he had to leave Ceylon?

    As for Kadirgamar’s life, the politics of this ‘Johnny Come Lately’ guy to SLFP in 1994 and background details on his assassination still waits for an in-depth study. It is easy to tag LTTE’s name for any political assassination that happened between 1975 and 2009, to promote one’s anti-LTTE bias. The reasons, WHY they happened, the roles played by the victims prior to their assassinations and who were the beneficiaries of their untimely deaths also deserve serious attention. Have you checked the commentary by W.A.Sunil and K. Ratnayake entitled ‘Unanswered questions about Sri Lankan foreign minister’s assassination’, posted in the World Socialist web site (the link is https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2005/08/sril-a26.html) for more background information ?

    Final words of your commentary mentions about the ‘house of Tamil gentleman Thalayasingham’. I suggest, please read the above cited Sunil and Ratnayake item, for more information, about him. You write as an authority of Sri Lankan cricket. Has it escaped your attention that this Lakshman Thalayasingham was a cricketer in Royal College team during 1960s?

  2. Daya Wickramatunga.

    Sri Lanka will do well, if as per the revised Constitution in 2021, under SVASTI, if it assures to all its people- Freedom, Equality, Justice Fundamental and Human Rights. That it guarantees the dignity and well-being of succeding generations of Sri Lankans.

    All people, irresapective of ethnicity and religion should be treated alike. I am a Sinhalese Buddhist, married to a Tamil Catholic. I saw no difference in her nor did she see a difference in me. We met at the University (Colombo Campus) in the 60s and we got married in 1970. I work for Dilmah Tea and my salary goes directly to the Carmelite Convent in Mattakkuliya.

  3. EMAIL RESPONSE to SACHI SRI K on 22 August 2022 from one “CHARLIE K”:
    “I found this note to be unfair but will only touch on a few points because I don’t want to drag my mind into this kind of twisted debate.

    What is a “lapsed historian”? This is an ageist remark. There is no such thing as a lapsed historian. Being an historian with appropriate academic qualifications is not like a car registration which has to be renewed every year.

    You have a right to be an historian as long as you choose to do so Michael. Keep going and live a good life.

    The 99-year old Henry Kissinger is probably the only sane person in US politics today.

    Kadirgamar was an intelligent person who had every right to make his own choices in life which could never justify his assassination. There are no shades of grey to assassinations.

    I know nothing about Sri Lankan cricket so can’t comment on this aspect.”

  4. Sachi Sri Kantha

    I need to add my tuppence to the comment of Charlie K. The ‘lapsed historian’ comment my me, is NOT my original. Michael would understand that better, as I’m ‘needling’ him jokingly by repeating the thoughts of originator of this remark – respected Prof K.M.de Silva! No offense meant to Michael, at all.

    Well, not many (either in USA or elsewhere) will agree with the thoughts of Charlie K that ‘Kissinger is the only sane person in US politics today.’

  5. K. K. De Silva

    Re the assassination of Foreign Minister Kadirgamar , although no one was convicted in Sri Lanka, & the Udalagama Commission appointed to investigate Serious Violations of Human Rights , including the FM’s assassination , came to an abrupt end without investigating this case, a person connected to the LTTE was tried in Germany for being an accessory in the assassination & sentenced to imprisonment. See the report here :

  6. Mullaitivu Anthony

    it is a well known FACT, acknowledged even by the West and in particular Canada, that the LTTE bore sole responsibility for the murderous cowardly assassination of Mr Kadirgamar.

    ‘It is easy to tag LTTE’s name for any political assassination that happened between 1975 and 2009, to promote one’s anti-LTTE bias’

    Yes one should supposes Rajiv Gandhi, Neelan Tiruchelvam, Amirthalingam etc etc to name a few, who’s lives were brutally taken in the most in-human way possible, were pinned on the LTTE to promote one’s anti-LTTE bias’.

    Even the death cult (LTTE) & it’s former leader ‘the Hilter of South Asia’ would have would have had a good laugh knowing there are intellectuals still around trying to find reason for mindless acts of terror, still you are here doing a much better job than Bala Thambi.

  7. Sachi Sri Kantha

    The comments of K.K. de Silva and Mullaitvu Anthony are appreciated, especially the details provided by K.K. de Silva. As per Mullaitivu Anthony’s diatribe on LTTE’s deeds, I limit my comments to what Michael has focused on – Duncan White and Lakshman Kadirgamar, in his original piece. Other assassinations in which LTTE has been implied are beyond the scope of this short comment. He

    Anthony seems to be peeved by my comment of ‘anti-LTTE bias’ to Michael. Allow me to expand a little more. Michael had cited only Philip Gourevitch’s short report. But, he failed to cite the review of investigations reported by W.A. Sunil and K. Ratnayake, in the World Socialist website. This I had pointed out in my very first comment.

    Another important reference available on Kadirgamar, was the biography penned by his daughter Ajita Kadirgamar [‘The Cake that was baked at Home’, Vijitha Yapa Publictions, 2015, 342 pp.] Even in this biography, Kadirgamar’s daughter DO NOT openly point fingers at the LTTE. This reference also Michael had failed to include. Why? Isn’t this an anti-LTTE bias?

    What is interesting are the comments available in this bography book, by Kadirgamar’s son Ragi. I quote some sentences, in pp. 446-447.

    “Why had LK told his security personnel not to search the neighbouring houses that day and a few days earlier?
    Why had the Scotland Yard inquiry beel called off before they had concluded their investigation?
    Why had his head of security been replaced a few years earlier by a person who did not have the same high qualifications?
    He had confided a few years before his death in a close friend living abroad that his life was in danger from within his closest circle in Sri Lanka, but would not say exactly who he feared most…..
    Who benefitted from his death, who was threatened by his continued life? We start to see that his death benefitted not only the obvious violent groups in Sri Lanka, but also groups and individuals behind the scenes, some who conveniently, publicly pointed to the perpetrators….”

    Now, I return to the reference cited by Michael – that of Philip Gourevitch in the New Yorker of Aug. 22, 2005. He had written, “I found myself flanked by a pile of machine guns. Yet, despite such precautions, Kadirgamar was shot dead at his home on the evening of Friday, August 12th, hit four times by snipers firing from a neighbor’s house.” But please note, Gourevitch couldn’t positively identify the identity of the sniper, and whether he/she did in fact belonged to the Tamil Tigers?

    The last sentence of Manjula Fernando’s piece ‘Minister Kadirgamar assassination: glimmer of hope for justice’ in Sunday Observer, Jan 26, 2020 (check the date – almost 15 years later) referenced by K.K. de Silva also states, “The sniper who shot the former Foreign Minister Kadirgamar was never traced or arrested.”
    Now, connect the dots. How could one place the blame on Tamil Tigers, if the investigators have NOT positively identified the assassin?
    Isn’t it simple common sense, that the assassin of Kadirgamar was, one of his security details, which Gourevitch had stated poignantly that when he was with Kadirgamar, “I found myself flanked by a pile of machine guns.” In the university, many had been introduced to something called ‘Occam’s Razor’, named after William of Ockham (c.1285-1349). It states ‘Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate’. In simple English, this means ‘Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity’.

  8. Charlie K.

    With regard to the statement “Well, not many (either in USA or elsewhere) will agree with the thoughts of Charlie K that ‘Kissinger is the only sane person in US politics today.’”, please give us the benefit of your reasoning here.

  9. Sachi Sri Kantha

    OK. I’ll provide a brief reply to Charlie K’s question.

    In my view, ‘Kissinger is the only sane person in US politics today’ should be tagged as a joke, considering that Kissinger has been hounded as ‘war criminal’, since his involvement in the US policy making during Vietnam War period. Even, he was condemned for the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, he jointly shared with his Vietnamese counterpart.

    Not only Vietnam war, Kissinger’s fingers in the Bangladesh liberation war, role in Chile’s turmoil (by standing with notorious dictator Pinochet), role in East Timor uprising (by supporting Indonesia’s dictator Suharto) has been strongly condemned.

    Charlie K should check Christopher Hitchen’s book ‘The Trial of Henry Kissinger’ (2001).
    The latest revelations on Kissinger’s diplomacy has been recorded by Jon Lee Anderson ‘Does Henry Kissinger have a conscience’ (The New Yorker, Aug 20, 2016).
    And Politico magazine of Oct 10, 2015 carries an assessment of ten historiansm under the caption ‘Henry Kissinger: Good or Evil?’
    [the link is, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/10/henry-kissinger-history-legacy-213237/%5D
    Hope, this would suffice.

    My personal choice among the living American intellectuals to the honor of ‘the only sane person in US’ will be Prof. Noam Chomsky, and not Kissinger.

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