Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

The Leading Characters in the Political Turmoil of Sinhalese-Muslim Riots of 1915

by Sachi Sri Kantha

Birth Centennial tribute to James Rutnam

I provide below thumb-nail biographical sketches of 25 leading characters in the political turmoil of Sinhalese-Muslim Riots of 1915, as presented by James T.Rutnam, in his 1971 research paper  published in the Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies.  These sketches are highly relevant and informative to comprehend the 1915 ethnic riots.  I have re-arranged the sketches according to the chronological birth years of the featured individuals.

I present this material as a birth centennial tribute to James Thevathasan Rutnam (1905-1988), whom I consider as one of my mentors in political science and journalism.  Mr. Rutnam was born on June 13, 1905, in Inuvil, Jaffna.  Sixteen years after his death, Rutnam’s useful contributions to island politics, social activism and academics deserve a separate study.  He contested five elections in 1931, 1936, 1943, 1947 and in March 1960 from Nuwara-Eliya (first four attempts) and Colombo South (fifth attempt) to become a parliamentarian.  He lost in all five of these elections.  He pitted himself against four political heavyweights of his generation, E.W. Abeygunasekera in 1931 and 1936, M.D. Banda [UNP] in 1943, S. Thondaman [CIC] in 1947 and Bernard Soysa [LSSP] in 1960.  He was unsuccessful, in every attempt.  Perhaps Destiny had decided that Rutnam was more useful to Ceylon society, and Tamils in particular, as a journalist-historian and an academic than as a mere legislator.

For the present, I wish to note that Rutnam was a one-time young associate of Labour Leader Alexander Ekanayake Goonesinha, who was one of the 25 leading characters in the 1915 Sinhala-Muslim Riots.  Political history records that Goonesinha became an Indian-biting racist in the 1930s and 1940s.  That A.E. Goonesinha was facing tough competition for the Sinhalese bloc vote in his Colombo’s political turf with padre Bandaranaike on one side and the then Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist young fire-brands [N.M.Perera, Colvin R.de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene and Philip Gunawardene] in the other, is another story.

In 1977, when I connected with James Rutnam for the first time, I addressed him as ‘uncle.’  I jokingly taunted him about his past political association with Goonesinha.  He reiterated to me that not only Goonesinha, he was also a good pal of padre Bandaranaike – but that his links had in the 1920s when both Bandaranaike and Goonesinha had good visions, and before they were decorated themselves with racist bells and whistles.  It should also be noted that A.E. Goonesinha was also the first political mentor of UNP leader R. Premadasa.

In his 1971 study, the notable role of Edward Walter (E.W.) Perera following the 1915 ethnic riots has been highlighted by Rutnam.  Perera camped in Britain for over two years to valiantly lobby and seek redress for Ceylonese natives from the Colonial authorities.  The same E.W. Perera tasted the fickleness of electoral politics among the Sinhalese voters 28 years later, when the next generation sprouted.  History would have it that a lawyer and a debutant with the name Junius Richard Jayewardene [later to become the prime minister and President of the island in 1970s] would enter the island’s legislature in 1943 by resoundingly defeating E.W. Perera in a by-election to the then State Council in Kelaniya constituency.  Thirteen years later, in 1956, J.R. Jayewardene was humbled by the same fickleness of Sinhalese voters when he, in turn, was defeated by the Kelaniya constituency voters.  That Jayewardene was able to float his political star in the Colombo South constituency, buoyed by the sizeable segment of indigenous Tamil voters, from 1960 to 1977, and reach his ambitious dream also deserves notice.

In his multi-faceted career, James Rutnam also shone as a genealogist.  Because of his impeccable curiosity, to the chagrin of his two loudmouth contemporaries [padre Bandaranaike and J.R. Jayewardene] who were beating the racist drums in the mid 1950s, Rutnam presented genealogical digs showing that Bandaranaike and Jayewardene had Tamil ancestry and their forefathers [a Pandaram and a Mudaliyar] had emigrated to the island from Tamil Nadu, merely 500-600 years ago.  These genealogical studies have not been refuted by the concerned families even now.  James Rutnam married a Sinhalese lady, Evelyn Wijeratne, who died in 1964.  Rutnam passed away in 1988, at the age of 83.

25 Leading Characters in Colombo, circa 1915 [adapted from J.Rutnam, 1971]

1. Sir Solomon Christoffel Obeyesekera (1848-1926): Proctor, Supreme Court, Ceylon. Nominated member representing the Low-Country Sinhalese in the Legislative Council 1900-1916; knighted 1911. In the Legislative Council soon after the Riots, he attacked the ‘half a dozen misguided designing villains who have been trying to pose as leaders of the Buddhists’, and who belonged to the ‘lower[?] section of the Sinhalese community’, as being responsible for the Riots. He referred to them as ‘a few who are nobodies but who hope to make somebodies of themselves.’

2. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (1851-1930): Nominated Member representing the Tamil-speaking people, Legislative Council, 1879-1892; Solicitor General, 1892-1906; Elected Member representing the Educated Ceylonese, Legislative Council, 1911-1921; His advocacy of the Sinhalese cause in the Legislative Council in August, September and October 1915 was such that ‘no Ceylonese ever reached that summit of fame before or since’; [authored], ‘Riots and Martial Law in Ceylon,1915’ (Colombo, 1916).

3. Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam (1853-1924): for some time Official Member of the Executive and Legislative Councils, Ceylon; leader of the ‘Ceylonese Reformers’; author of ‘Our Political Needs’, Colombo, 1917; first President, Ceylon Reform League, 1917; Founder, Ceylon National Congress, 1919. Perera spoke of him as one whose ‘name, his personality, his connection with the cause of Reform have helped us considerably to secure recruits and further the cause in England’, Ceylon Daily News, 16 June 1919, p.5. On Arunachalam’s death the Ceylon Daily News described him as ‘the most powerful personality in Ceylon of the last decade’, 10 January 1924, p.6.

4. Sir Thomas Edward de Sampayo (1855-1927): Puisne Judge, Supreme Court, Ceylon, 1915-1924; ‘As a Sinhalese’, he wrote on 15 October 1915 to Sir Alfred Lascelles (formerly Chief Justice, Ceylon), ‘I am thoroughly ashamed’ of ‘the existing poison’, of Sinhalese nationalism.

5. Sir Robert (later Lord) Chalmers (1858-1938): ‘the financial genius of the British Treasury who prepared the famour Budget of Lloyd George in 1909 creating a sensation all over England and ultimately precipitating the Parliament Act’; Governor of Ceylon, 1913-1916; on 2 June 1915, Chalmers proclaimed Martial Law and ‘completely’ handed over ‘absolute power to the Military’ under Brigadier General Henry Huntly Leith Malcolm (1860-1938) who himself admitted that this was ‘most unusual’; on 18 November 1915 the London ‘Times’ reported that Chalmers was offered by cable an appointment in the Treasury by Prime Minister Asquith and that he had accepted it. Perera has contended that Chalmers was ‘recalled’….On the occasion of Chalmers’ departure from Ceylon in December 1915, Armand de Souza under the pseudonym ‘Vasconcel’ published an eulogistic poem in his paper ‘Ceylon Morning Leader’, where he wrote ‘We bid you from our hearts God-speed…Since England calls you at her need’. Chalmers was made a Privy Councillor (Ireland), 1916; G.C.B., 1916; and 1st Baron of Northiam, 1919. Chalmers lost both his sons in the Great War [i.e.,World War I], one on 25 May 1915, and the other sometime after the Ceylon Riots.

6. Sir John Anderson (1858-1918): Permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1911-1916; Governor of Ceylon, 1916, until his death from cancer on 24th March 1918. In the Colonial Office he generally opposed E.W.Perera’s moves and was largely responsible for preventing Ponnambalam Ramanathan from obtaining an interview with the Secretary of State, Anderson following the usual Colonial Office practice of relying on the advice of the ‘man on the spot’, who in this case was successively Robert Chalmers, a former Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, and Reginald Stubbs, formerly of the Colonial Office…Anderson, who had assured Bonar Law [see, Ceylon Daily News, 4 October 1919, p.3] that he would enquire every case of injustice with an ‘open mind’ became the most popular of all British Governors. His despatch to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Walter Long, on the Kegalle Shootings [see Sessional paper VI of 1917] was a sensational document, which marked a complete reversal of official opinion on the measures adopted to suppress the Riots. For his forth-rightness in condemning the excesses of the local British planters and officials, he was hated by the ‘prestige’ obsessed Europeans in the country. The horse-driven gun-carriage that carried his coffin for interment at the General Cemetry, Colombo, was rushed in a undignified gallop to the consternation and distress of all of us who saw it.

7. Andrew Bonar-Law (1858-1923): Conservative Member of the British House of Commons from 1900; Leader of Opposition, 1911-15; Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1915-16; Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1916-18; Lord Privy Seal, 1919-21; Prime Minister, 1921-23.

8. Brigadier General Henry Huntly Leith Malcolm (1860-1938): according to Perera, ‘retired on half pay in December 1915’; commanded a brigade in the British Expeditionary Force in France when he returned from Ceylon, and in fact left the service only on 10 December 1917, on the ground of ‘age’. ‘Some of Malcolm’s contemporaries had doubts about his sanity’, says P.T.M.Fernando.

9. Don David Hewavitarne (1864-1933): took the name of Dharmapala – Protector of the Dharma – in 1888 and was known thereafter as the Anagarika Dharmapala. In 1932 he became a Samanera, and in 1933 was ordained as Sri Devamitta Thero. He was a member of the Buddhist Theosophical movement established in Ceylon by Colonel H.S.Olcott and Madame H.P.Blavatsky from 1880. He broke away from Colonel Olcott, October 1904, and Buddhist Theosophy, March 1906; founded the journal Sinhala Bauddhaya and the Maha Bodhi Press in Ceylon, May 1906; he was suspected by the Ceylon Government of being an instigator of the Riots and was for a time prohibited by the Indian Government from leaving Calcutta, where he had established the headquarters of the (Buddha Gaya) Maha Bodhi Society which he founded in 1891. During the reign of terror in 1915 almost everybody in Ceylon denied having had any association with Dharmapala. Even Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan whom Dharmapala admired and supported (see extract from Dharmapala’s letter dated 21 October 1915 from Calcutta to Ramanathan, Ceylon Daily Mirror, 26 November 1971, p.4) had to dismiss his influence as insignificant. He died at the Mulagandhakuti Vihara in India with the last words, ‘May I be reborn in a Brahmin family in India to work for the upliftment of Buddhism…’

10. Rev.John Simon de Silva (1868-1940): Wesleyan Methodist minister from 1892; Sinhalese litterateur, author of a weekly-column Kalina Lipi in the Sinhalese newspaper Dinamina, 1915-1938; edited ‘Rivikirana’ and ‘Gnanodya’, two Christian journals; active worker in the Temperance movement; Christian nationalist; in 1913 he organised with Dr.Paul E.Pieris and others an annual National Day observance on the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year’s Day.

11. Sir Don Baron Jayatilaka (1868-1944): Member, Legislative Council, Ceylon 1924-1931, State Council 1932-1942; Representative of Ceylon Government in India from 1942 until his death on 31 May 1944; scholar, patriot and a great Buddhist leader; author of ‘The Buddhist Temperance Movement of Ceylon’, London, 1916.

12. Sir Anton Bertram (1869-1937): Attorney General of Ceylon, 1911-1918; Chief Justice, 1918-1925, Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1929; he was ‘a conscientious character who could become jittery under pressure’, wrote Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore of his colleague in Ceylon.

13. Rev.Alexander Garden Fraser (1873-1962): M.A.(Trinity College, Oxford) 1895; Principal, Trinity College, Kandy (1904-1924); Ordained as priest at Kandy 9 September 1915; Principal, Prince of Wales College, Achimota (1924-1935); revisited Ceylon 1935 and 1949. After Ceylon attained Independence, her first Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake, offered Fraser the honour of being a Distinguished Citizen of Ceylon.

14. Sir Alexander MacCallum Scott (1874-1928): Liberal Member of the British House of Commons 1910-1922; joined Labour Party 1924; author of two books on Winston Churchill (London 1905 and 1916). Scott was the first Member of Parliament who was approached by Perera to take up the Sinhalese cause. Perera introduced to Scott by his ‘old and trusted’ friend, Henry Evan Auguste Cotton (1868-1939), formerly Liberal member of the British House of Commons, East Finsbury, and editor of the journal India.

15. Paulus Edward Pieris (1874-1955): B.A.(Trinity College, Cambridge), L.L.M. and Litt.D.(Cantab), Barrister-at-Law, Inner Temple 1895; Ceylon Civil Service, 1896-1935; Trade Commissioner for Ceylon in England; Organiser of the National Day movement in 1913; historian and patriot.

16. Edward Walter Perera (1875-1953): Member of the Ceylon Reforms Deputation to Colonel John Seely, Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, on 26 October 1909; President, Ceylon National Association, 1910; President, Ceylon National Congress, 1926; led Ceylon National Congress Deputation to the Donoughmore Commission, 1927; Resigned from Congress and formed the All-Ceylon Liberal League along with Francis de Zoysa, H.A.P.Sandrasagra, and N.E.Weerasooriya, 20 March 1931; Member, Legislative Council 1921-1930, State Council 1931-1935; defeated at State Council elections for the Horana Seat 1936, Kelaniya Seat 1942. Like his father, Edward Francis Perera (1848-1920), E.W.Perera was an ardent advocate of Buddhist causes, but both remained Christians to the end.

17. Don Charles Senanayake (1878-1931): Proprietory Planter, Mine owner and Merchant. [Eldest brother of] Frederick Richard Senanayake (1882-1926) and Don Stephen Senanayake (1884-1952).

18. Frederick Richard Senanayake (1882-1926): B.A., L.L.B. (Downing College, Cambridge), Barrister-at-Law (Lincoln’s Inn); Interned with his brothers D.S.Senanayake, future prime minister and D.C.Senanayake, at Welikada jail Colombo, during the Riots. F.R.Senanayake contributed generously to the ‘Royal Commission Fund’ of which he was the Hon.Treasurer. The expenses of Perera and Jayatilaka during their stay in England were to a large degree defrayed from this Fund. F.R.Senanayake became the most influential Sinhalese leader from the time of the Riots until his untimely death. Together with Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam he convened a ‘Sinhalese Conference’ at the Tower Hall, Colombo, on 20 September 1919, at which Arunachalam, speaking in Sinhalese, on behalf of the convenors inaugurated ‘a movement in the Sinhalese districts of the Island’ for ‘political, social and economic improvement’ [see, Ceylon Daily News, 22 September 1919, p.1]. F.R.Senanayake became the first President of this organisation which was eventually named The Lanka Maha Jana Sabha. Although Senanayake did not himself aspire to be a Member of the Legislative Council, he was a powerful ‘Member-maker’ in the Sinhalese districts during the Legislative Council elections of 1921.

19. Don Stephen Senanayake (1884-1952): First Prime Minister of Ceylon; entered the Ceylon legislature in 1921 and continued as a member until his death on 22 March 1952; in November 1945 he succeeded in bringing the Ceylonese communities together to vote for the acceptance of the Constitution offered by the UK Government in the White Paper of 31 October 1945.

20. Don Richard Wijewardene (1886-1950): ‘the greatest newspaper man in the history of Ceylon journalism’.

21. Samuel John Kirupairatnam Crowther (born 8 February 1888): B.A.(St.Edmund Hall, Oxford) 1907-1910; Curate, St.Paul’s Church, Colombo; Editor, Ceylon Daily News, 1918-1931; joined Times of Ceylon, 1933; retired 1946.

22. Alexander Ekanayake Goonesinha (1892-1967): journalist and Labour leader; founded the Young Lanka League, the Ceylon Labour Union and Ceylon Labour Party; pioneer agitator for manhood suffrage and Trade Union rights for urban labour; editor of the ‘Searchlight’, the ‘Nation’ (along with E.T.de Silva, 1884-1926), and ‘Young Lanka’; was defeated by S.W.R.Dias Bandaranaike (1899-1959) in a contest to represent the Maradana ward in the Colombo Municipal Council, 1927; member of the State Council for Colombo Central; member of the House of Representatives for Colombo Central [1947], and Minister without Portfolio in D.S.Senanayake’s Cabinet; Ambassador of Ceylon in Indonesia.

23. Albert Godamunne (1893-1967): Proctor S[upreme].C[ourt]., active member of the Kandyan National Assembly, a political organisation which agitated for a Federal System of Government for Ceylon divided into three States composed separately of the Tamil provinces, Kandyan Sinhalese provinces, and the Low Country Sinhalese provinces.

24. Joseph Lionel Christie Rodrigo (born 31 July 1895): Government scholar from Trinity College, Kandy; M.A.(Balliol College, Oxford); Editor, Ceylon Morning Leader, 1921-1926; Professor Emeritus of Western Classics, University of Ceylon, Peradeniya.

25. Diyunuge Edward Henry Pedris: a member of the (mounted) section of the Colombo Town Guards, and [young and only son of D.D.Pedris] who was executed by shooting on July 9, 1915. The next of kin of Pedris claimed Rs.25,000, the sum for which Pedris was insured in 1907. On 10 July 1915, Inspector of Police F.P.Samarasinghe was executed, also by shooting.

Sources

James Rutnam: ‘The Rev.A.G.Fraser and the Riots of 1915’.Ceylon Journal of Historial and Social Studies, July-December 1971, vol.1 new series, no.2, pp.151-196.

K.Indrapala (ed): James Thevathasan Rutnam Felicitation Volume, presented by the Jaffna Archaeological Society to its President James T.Rutnam, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, 13th June 1975. Released 1980. 158 pp.

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Posted June 7, 2005