Bracegirdle’s Anti-Slavery Struggle as Depicted by Robert Gunawardena

Translation by Vinod Moonesinghe from Robert Gunawardena’s “Memoirs of Bracegirdle” … 1.44  to 

Robert Gunawardena 

Mark Anthony Bracegirdle

“Bracegirdle’s anti-slavery struggle”

In April 1937, a remarkable incident took place which strengthened the anti-imperialist struggle and aroused the interest of the masses. That is, the Bracegirdle Incident which is spoken about by older people to this day.

Mark Antony Lyster Bracegirdle, an Australian, came to Lanka in December 1936 to gain appointment as the assistant superintendant of a tea estate owned by a British plantation company. It is possible that the plantation company which appointed him to this position did not know that he had been a young member of the Australian Communist Party.  Having come to Lanka, Bracegirdle took up his duties in a tea estate not far from Madulkele, beyond Katugastota.

Being possessed of socialist labour principles, having read the progressive English language periodical ‘The Samasamajist’ and having observed the propaganda activities of our party, he became close to our party. Leslie first made his acquaintance, in Kandy. He took the side of the workers on the plantation on which he worked. The plantation owners, being unable to bear to see a compatriot superintendant on their estate taking the side of the workers and acting in an anti-imperialist fashion, sacked Bracegirdle from the estate. After leaving the estate, he joined our Samasamaja Party, at that time the only anti-imperialist socialist revolutionary party.  From the day he joined the party, he began writing anti-imperialist articles and making speeches at meetings. We took him to Lanka Samasamaja Party meetings.  He took a special place at all meetings, at which he spoke showing the need to take forward the liberation struggle to free Lanka from the imperialists and to establish a workers’ and peasants’ government.

Because Bracegirdle spoke against the white imperialists at these meetings, the imperialist plantation owners conspired to expel Bracegirdle from Lanka and had a deportation order made by the then imperialist governor of Ceylon, Stubbs. The order was as follows:


The Governor’s Deportation Order  ….

The Samasamaja Party took a decision especially to act against this arbitrary order and immediately to hide Bracegirdle. The Party entrusted to Reggie Senanayake, an enthusiastic party activist and to myself the task of hiding Bracegirdle. When Selina[i], a member of our Party was informed of this, she said that a place for hiding Bracegirdle could be found at Lunugala. Selina went to Lunugala and with her brother Willie Jayatilleke found a place close to Lunugala and informed us. For three days after the deportation order was published, we hid Bracegirdle at ‘Pretoria’, the Colombo house of Arthur Weerasekera. As soon as Selina informed us that the hiding place for Bracegirdle was ready, Bracegirdle, Reggie Senanayake and I drove through Avissawella, Ratnapura, Balangoda, Bandarawela and arrived at about 4 am. We went to the place which Selina and her brother had got ready. It was a small shop made from planks, on the side of the road in the bazaar of Lunugala. Although there were other houses etc behind it, these too were not suitable for living in. When Bracegirdle said he could not stay there, we there and then had a discussion about what steps we should take.

Bracegirdle then mentioned there was a cave in the jungle behind the plantation on which he had worked as an assistant superintendent, which would be suitable.  While working on the estate,


he had seen the place while out walking. At this point it was about 5 am.  Since we had to drive to Madulkele, I checked the petrol level in the car. There was insufficient petrol for the journey. There was not enough time to go to a petrol shed to get petrol. At this point Willie Jayatilleke said that he had two gallons of petrol at his house. He quickly brought it and put it in the tank, but the car would not start as there was water mixed with the petrol. We quickly removed the petrol from the tank, brought some petrol from the town and started our journey. By this time it was light. Bracegirdle sat in the car in disguise. We set out from Lunugala via Badulla and Welimada and it was late afternoon by the time we got to Nuwara Eliya. We had lunch at Welimada.  Since Bracegirdle had decided to stay in the cave in the jungle behind the estate on which he had worked, and since he would not be able to buy food there, and as it would be cold, we bought him provisions for a week, torches, batteries, boxes of matches, tin foods and a blanket from Nuwara Eliya and set out for Madulkele. When we arrived at Kandy it was about 9 pm. We drove down Lady Blake’s Avenue in Kandy, passed the Katugastota bridge, went to Wattegama and thence through Bracegirdle’s previous estate. We parked the car at other end of the estate and got down. Bracegirdle wrapped up the food and necessities we had bought in a blanket and walked to the end of the estate road. We told him to come to the same spot at midnight in seven days and to immediately come to the car when a torch was shone. Bracegirdle took his necessities and went towards the cave.

Reggie Senanayake and I drove the vehicle from the night we left Colombo to the night after. We had driven some 436 miles. Having dropped Bracegirdle at the estate, as we were driving back to Colombo at night, because we were excessively sleepy, we passed Kadugannawa and stopped the car on the roadside near Uthuwankanda and slept for about two hours. By now it was about 4 am.


Having played hide and seek with the Police, we returned to Colombo the next day and reported to the Party that the place first prepared at Lunugala was not suitable, that we had, therefore, hidden him at the estate on which he had previously worked and that we would be bringing him in another week. It was decided that since Bracegirdle was being brought back in a week, a hiding place would be prepared. At this point, a house at Grandpass near Kosgashandiya (Jak tree junction), near the Police Station was taken on rent in the name of a Party sympathiser Benny Peiris in order to hide him. On the 24th many whites congregated on the top floor of the GOH Hotel[ii] to see Bracegirdle leaving the Colombo harbour. The owner of the estate Bracegirdle had worked on was also there. However, Bracegirdle didn’t get on the ship.

The then imperialist Inspector General of Police, the Englishman Banks exerted himself mightily, scouring the countryside to apprehend Bracegirdle in accordance with the Governor’s order, using policemen in every nook and corner of the country by day and by night. Being unable to capture Bracegirdle, day by day, the arrogant, tributary grandeur of the imperialist police headed by Banks and of the entire reactionary state machine grew ever less.

Meantime, the Party carried on with its propaganda activities. Leaflets asking ‘Where is Bracegirdle’ were circulated and meetings were held. The slogan ‘Banks, Out’ was popularised. Thus was the brutal nature of the imperialist slave laws revealed to the people.

After seven days had passed, Reggie Senanayake, Manis Appuhami, Stephen,  Milton Perera alias David – who later went to prison for several years following  a trial after the South-Western Bus Company strike –  and I, with a pistol for protection, set off for Madulkele in Reggie Senanayake’s car and in Violet Sri Chandrasekara’s. We arrived at the estate at midnight and, as the road was narrow, we stopped the big car

   p. 49

and Reggie Senanayake, David and I went in the small car to the end of the estate road, where we stopped and shone torches at the jungle. Then Bracegirdle came running from the direction of the jungle to the car. The time was about 12.15 at night. Putting Bracegirdle in the small car, we left the estate, put him into the bigger and left for Colombo. Arriving in Colombo, we left him at the house near the Jak tree in Grandpass.

After that, the Party organised meetings and marches. At these rallies the slogans were ‘Where is Bracegirdle’, ‘Banks Out’, ‘Withdraw the slave laws’ etc. After several days of such propaganda rallies and marches, we announced that Bracegirdle would address the people on 5th May, and challenged the authorities to catch him. I accepted the responsibility of taking him to the meeting on that day. Two days before the meeting, we became uneasy about the house near the Jak tree. Therefore immediately I took him from there to Weka[iii] plantation in Koratota, in the Hewagam Korale[iv], where a sympathiser called Wickremaratne worked, and left him at a house there in the care of Wickramaratne.

On the 5th, a crowd of about 25,000 people were packed on Galle Face Green to see and hear Bracegirdle. Although the meeting was due to begin at 5 pm, people from various areas started coming there from about 3 pm. White mounted police were everywhere on the green.

I had previously told KG Amerasinghe and the party secretary, Leslie that I would be bringing a car bearing Bracegirdle at such and such a time to such and such a place on the Green on the afternoon of the 5th. At the same time I had told Amerasinghe to open the door at that place and to enable Bracegirdle, somehow or other, to get to the platform, even jumping over the people there. I went to the Weka plantation on the afternoon of the 5th, put Bracegirdle in the car, asked him to lie down on the floor by the back seat 50

and brought him to Colombo to the Galle Face Green. As arranged earlier, as soon as I stopped the car Comrade Amerasinghe opened the door. Bracegirdle, who bounded out of the car at that instant, ran about 150 yards through the crowd and climbed onto the platform. As I was driving the car forward, the people around thinking there was a disturbance, gathered round the car. Even though I hit a few people, I kept driving the car to the other end of the Green, stopped the car, got down and, pretending to be an innocent, walked to the stage and sat beside it. The sound ‘Comrade Bracegirdle’, ‘Comrade Bracegirdle’ could be heard all around. However, the hundreds of police who were there looked on unmoving as if suspended. None came forward to catch Bracegirdle.

Bracegirdle got up on the platform and began to address the gathering. His speech was as follows:

‘The Sinhalese comrades, although they may have black skins, have hearts as valuable as gems. The Capitalist Europeans in Ceylon are white of skin, but they have hearts as black as the darkness of purgatory.  The Europeans in Ceylon talk in their spare time about how they will shoot the leaders of Ceylon’s workers and people. The Capitalist Europeans in Ceylon hate me because I took the side of our black workers and peasants. However, the power of the poor classes, workers and peasants of the world grows day by day. Hence, whatever outrages may be committed by the Capitalist of Ceylon, the workers, power which has been built up because of the Samasamajists will be impossible to destroy. The attendance at this meeting of this army of people and the faith you have in me is a foretoken of the victory of the working class of Ceylon. They may perhaps be able to catch me. However, I have no fear of this in my mind. My only idea is to give my life if necessary for the working class of the world to come to power and to prosperity.

p. 51

The great victory of you, the workers of Ceylon and the baseness of the deceitful Capitalists will be broadcast by me across countries and borders. Working people of the world, unite! Victory to the world revolution! Victory to the Lanka Samasamaja Party!’

After Bracegirdle’s speech, many comrades and members of Parliament addressed the gathering. After the meeting the Internationale issued forth from some 50,000 mouths. Undoubtedly, this made Imperialist hearts in Ceylon even colder.[v] That day after the meeting we went with Bracegirdle to the GOH Hotel and had dinner in front of the imperialist whites.

After this, Bracegirdle began to work for the Party. After about 3 weeks he was unexpectedly taken into custody. Because he was arrested unexpectedly after the expiry of the order, our party brought a court case against the government for breaking the 1899 slave law .

The judgement of the court was for Bracegirdle. In this case, HAV Perera appeared without fees. Although the struggle to free Bracegirdle had finished, the struggle to free the people of Sri Lanka had not finished. After working for some time for our party, Bracegirdle said he wanted to go to England and left Sri Lanka.

Of the incidents written in gold in the history of the Lanka Samasamaja Party, the Bracegirdle Incident has a special place. Although it is an incident of the past, the way we acted during it may be useful to you, who have not yet finished the journey to socialism.

  Translated from: Robert Gunawardena, Satanaka satahan, Kosgama: 2007, Vijith Gunawardena


[i] Selina Perera neé Peiris

[ii] Grand Oriental Hotel, Fort

[iii] Wæka

[iv] The ‘County of the Villages of the Soldiers’, present Kaduwela Secretarial Division

[v] ie it frightened them




Filed under accountability, British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, democratic measures, disparagement, economic processes, ethnicity, governance, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, Left politics, legal issues, life stories, martyrdom, nationalism, performance, political demonstrations, politIcal discourse, power politics, security, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, unusual people, working class conditions, world events & processes

3 responses to “Bracegirdle’s Anti-Slavery Struggle as Depicted by Robert Gunawardena

  1. Ana Jung

    Wow. Would make a -terrific- movie!

  2. Chandre Dharma-wardana

    Ler me present my reading of the poltical fallout from the Bracegridle affair, without trying to give references etc., and writing at length. I leave that to someone else.

    The Bracegirdle story reads like a great story of fighting for the underdog, but there is much reason to believe that it had unexpected negative social consequences, especially for the Estate workers.

    Leave aside the English planters, even the local (Sinhalese and Tamil) planters, as well as most people of the time who had the vote (remember, these were State Council days) looked upon the Samasamajists and Bolsheviks in much the same way that people today look at Jihadists and others who plan to capture power by violent means.

    People like DS Senanayake (initially said to be somewhat sympathetic to plantations workers’ bid for some degree of naturalization) feared that the Bracegridle affair was a precursor to larger scale labour unrest in the plantations, thus tanking the Ceylon economy. largely dependent on plantations.

    The Kandyan leaders, and GG Ponnambalam (who were NOT favourable to giving voting rights to “coolies”) hardened even more. Of course, the up-country Sinhala and Tamil landowners (like Peri Sundar) were entirely on the side of the British planters and “hated” the communist “agitators”.

    The agitators too made absolutely no concessions with their glorification of the bloody Soviet revolution, while NM Perera and other leaders regarded Rosa Lumemberg and other extremely violent individuals as their role models. In those times, the need for a revolutionary and bloody capture of power by “historical necessity” was standard dogma.

    Later (in the 1960s) it became “power by the ballot OR the bullet”, and finally, after the left leaders joined Sirima (for survival), it became only the ballot, with a few fire-brand “revolutionaries” splitting off.

    So, when the Indian Citizenship Act was finally drawn up (presumably by people like Kandiah Viaithiyanathan, with inputs from Ponnambalam and others), it is said to have become more hardened than the earlier opinion on the matter. At the time, a harder Citizenship Act had the support of most of the Sinhalese leaders as well as most of the Tamil leaders of the day.

    Thondaman too was conscious of the negative impact of Left polItics on improving the lot of estate workers, and he followed a more concillatory polItical program and avoided the Left Movement. Thondaman’s politics ensured that there was no major economic disruption in the Tea plantations (until their nationalization under Colvin, re-privatization under JR, and then under the glyphosate-pesticide ban in 2015 under the Sirisenap-Ven. Ratana-Sirisena orgainc agriculture ideology that presaged Gotabhaya’s complete agrochemical ban in 2021)..

    However, the above analysis is a simplification, and some scholar needs to make a more closer study of the pros and cons of the impact that left politics had on making things MORE DIFFICULT for the Indian Estate workers.

    It should be remarked that the Indian Citizenship Act has been denounced and held against DS Senanayake, esp. by ITAK supporters, presenting Senanayake as a “racist discriminating against Tamils”. It gave citizenship to Indian (and other) workers if they could show continuous residence in the country for 8 years (to grossly simplify a complex law).

    However, if one considers how other countries and their polItical leadres treated such stateless or oppressed citizens (e.g., “native people” in Canada, Australia, blacks), or hispanic workers in the USA even TODAY, we see that Ceylon’s political leaders were extremely open-minded, while Nehru, and UK’s leaders simply washed their hands off the issue. The situation of “indian workers” or “Chinese workers” in other newly independent colonies and how their plight also got worse due to mis-placed Marxist agitation should also be considered.

    • These comments are quite thought-provoking and pertinent — the more so because they are laced with an awareness of the difficulties of the topic and context.

Leave a Reply