20th May 2001
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Book Review

  • Noel's crusade for Cocos
  • Learning 'birds' at a tender age
  • Noel's crusade for Cocos

    The Cocos Islands Mutiny by Noel Crusz, reviewed by Lt. Cdr. Somasiri Devendra, SLN (Rtd)

    Noel Crusz, like Every man, was on a per sonal pilgrim's progress. His goal: the truth about the Mutiny. Thirty years on the trail he found no "yellow brick road", but only tortuous paths, culs-de-sacs, blank walls and blanker record rooms, till it was difficult to tell fact from fiction. Along the way he met many witnesses: some helpful and honest, others grudging, dissembling, greedy, boastful. Some, for the lack of fact, fictionalised and thus devalued the story. Others tried to prise his hard-won material and money, offering for sale dubious material for thirty pieces of silver. But he persisted, seeking facts, shunning the bankrupt's choice of "faction".

    Finally, the official documentation came his way. And he could, at the age of eighty, at last lay down his pen and say: "I am also at journey's end. I have seen the full range of human emotion experienced by the officers and men who were involved.... the politics of army factions.... the readiness of some to exploit and distort the conflict between authority and expectation.... between leaders and those who lose their way.... between the Asian dream and the colonial fulfilment.... and the deeper quest for enduring values." 

    Some of us, his near contemporaries, patiently awaited this work. I, for one, feel rewarded for my patience and, now, must have my say.

    What is it about this Mutiny that reverberates over half a century on? Why does it deserve a book? Many are the reasons, many the questions that had to be explored. Three mutinies in the British Army during the Second World War, but only the three mutineers from Cocos were hanged for Mutiny.

    Who were they and why did they mutiny? What, indeed, is the story? The events themselves, what made them happen, and even Crusz's search - all of them. Take your pick. Crusz opts, true to his journalistic discipline, to sift truth from rumour and to record it, leaving material for analysts and the future.

    The Mutiny took place, and must be viewed against the background of war and the Asian dreams of independence. It affected simple individuals, driven by idealism, inadequately trained, with an undertow of colonial prejudice and mistrust. This is a perspective not readily available to students of pure military operations history. Crusz has covered all these angles, showing his awareness and concern with them, yet claiming no definitive status for his work. The story is not complete, he says, the motives yet open to interpretation; fallible human witnesses and incomplete documentary evidence are, alas, not enough. His humility in presentation, his essential humanity and his dogged dedication to his quest ensures that this book will be the best work written on this subject for many a long day.

    The book is structured simply: "Before", "During" and "After". Crusz takes over 60 pages to cover the background to the events on Cocos, 75 for the central story - of which only seven describe the incidents of the night - and 65 for the closing scenes and his search for the truth.

    Having waited so long for this book, I went through it with a fine-toothed comb. Unsurprisingly, I found lapses in the first part. I cannot fault Crusz, researching the core story and its reverberations, for this failing. But let me dispose of them first:

    Some are simple errors like "Hoodstower" for "Hood's Tower", SAGALING for SAGAING, SUTLEG for SUTLEJ. There are factual errors: the CRNVR could not provide assistance in Colombo or anywhere else in 1937, as the first recruits were enlisted only in 1938. And Ceylonese leaders in the State Council did not volunteer to join the war. 

    More serious is the internal contradiction of facts relied on. Dr. N.M. Perera and Colvin R. de Silva could not have intervened to speak on behalf of the convicted mutineers. Note 5 to Chapter 1 says that they had been imprisoned on 17.6.40 in Kandy and escaped from there on 5.4.42 during the raid. It is common knowledge that they, thereafter, went underground in India, their whereabouts not known during this time. They were to be arrested if found.

    Then, the technical errors, such as the description of the SAGAING as a merchant ship when she was really a Henderson (British and Burmese Steam Navigation Company) Passenger Liner requisitioned by the Admiralty. The description of the HERMES, too, is insufficient and in some ways inaccurate. But these details do not matter, they do not influence the narrative.

    I will not try to deal with Crusz's narrative - the book must be read for that - for its fascination for me lies elsewhere. There is the Ceylonese schizophrenia - pride in and dislike of the "Whites" they were fighting for. There is the "Asian Dream" - an admiration for the Japanese (and even the Germans!) they were fighting against. There are the fault lines in Ceylonese society that became deep fissures under the strain of home-sickness, extreme youth, poor training, bad leadership and enforced solitude in a strange land. There is the motley cast of characters that played out this drama. And, this above all: the character of Bdr. Gratien Fernando, "the intellectual soldier who brought with him to Cocos 'not a bagful of clothes but a bagful of books'" and whose "words spoken.... and indomitable courage on the way to the gallows were on everybody's lips for weeks to come both among prisoners and staff". Truly a character out of Joseph Conrad.

    Every drama needs a backdrop and Crusz is right in spending much time in describing the background. The political historian will recognise the Ceylonese schizophrenia. The British were looked up to, for they wielded power. They were disliked, because they misused it. They were distrusted, for their perfidy in sacrificing Malaya to lure America into the war. Consequently, in a knee-jerk reaction, the Japanese were looked up to - to put the British in their place. To the credit side of the Japanese was that they were the one Asian nation that cocked a snook at the 'whites". On the debit side was that they were the "unknown devil", whose atrocities, ultimately, began to erode their charisma. Within itself, Ceylonese society, too, had many a minor conflict that could erupt under stress, as they did in the Cocos: Buddhist Sinhalese, Hindu Tamils, Christian/Catholic Burghers and Eurasians, each competing for a higher place in the pecking order. The perception that the Services were being monopolised by the Burghers and the Catholics: educated youths from 'good' family backgrounds were favoured. A large percentage came from Catholic Schools in and out of Colombo. Of the leaders of the Mutiny, Gratien was the odd man out as he came from a traditional Sinhala Buddhist home and, though a convert to Christianity at S. Thomas' College, continued to be influenced by his first religion. Crusz comments: "Interestingly.... none of the mutineers were former students of (Ananda and Nalanda)". Echoes of these concerns became rampant cries in the days of the "The Betrayal of Buddhism" and "Catholic Action" in the mid fifties. Within the Army context, the Ceylonese (all members of the British Army) considered themselves superior to their Indian counterparts in the Indian Army. Overseas postings in Malaya and the Seychelles opened their eyes to the stark realities: "Black is black and white is white, and never the twain shall meet." And all these simmered below the surface at Cocos, waiting for an accident to happen.

    The trigger was bad leadership, on the part of the Officers and the NCOs. Gardiner, a Britisher with a Ceylonese commission, seeking an overseas posting to escape a troublesome marriage; 'Cool, composed.... calculating while.... seething with anger.' With war's end, he erased himself from the records, retreating into nothingness. (Why?) Stephens, a nineteen-year-old, opinionated Eurasian with only a planter's experience of handling indentured Indian labour. Ignorant and boastful de Sylva, who pushed Gardiner over the brink, and carried his alleged "secret" to his grave: perhaps that it was he who may have been responsible for many things? The NCOs unable to detect a plot being hatched amongst the handful of men on this speck of an island. (After the executions, Quartermaster Sergeant Perera was discreetly "dishonoured and drummed off"). All Gardiner had to do was follow his predecessor, Lyn Wickramasuriya's sensible and professional parting words. But he was a Britisher, and so he knew better.

    The events on Cocos cast long shadows - when the 1962 coup d'etat was foiled, a number of CGA officers of that vintage were among the plotters. (Even the Army's official History observes a conspiracy of mealy-mouthed silence on this: five lines about it, "no names - no pack drill", and 40 pages of official reasons why they were not penalised.) But, when the Regiment was disbanded and re-formed, it was entrusted to none other than Lyn Wickramasuriya. "In my beginning is my end."

    In 1971, when the Navy was infiltrated by the JVP, I saw elements of the same social dynamic that propelled the Cocos Mutiny. It is there today in the resurgent JVP and the "Sihala Urumaya" waiting in the wings for a date with destiny. No, the Cocos Mutiny may not yet be over.

    Only seven pages for the act on centrestage. They must be read over and over again. 

    The failure of the Bren to fire was the turning point. Why did de Sylva, the officer, send an NCO, Jayawardena, to check the weapon after the Mutiny? The responsibility was his. Later, he disagreed with the NCO's report. Jayawardena claimed he knew about the Mutiny, and took unilateral steps to foil it by loading blanks. 

    Why did he not share the information with de Sylva? My guess is that Jayawardena was banking on the silence of de Sylva, and that de Sylva had his reasons for not wanting to appear in Court even as an expert witness - for reasons he carried with him to the grave.

    The last word has to be in praise of Noel Crusz, not only for his tenacity but for having put into this book all the elements that the average Sri Lankan writer, writing about Sri Lanka, would avoid for political correctness. The book is now receiving the recognition it deserves as an exercise in military research and reportage. And so, he emerges as the other hero of the Cocos Islands Mutiny.

    Learning 'birds' at a tender age

    'Let's Look at Our Birds - 
    A Child's Introduction to
    Bird-Watching' by Sita de 
    Saram, reviewed by
    Anne Abayasekara

    What a lovely idea! Prompted by her little grand-daughter's excitement over birds, gifted artist and writer, Sita de Saram has produced a delightful book to introduce children to their feathered friends. "I realized that while there are several excellent publications about the birds of Ceylon, they are all addressed to adults. Seeing Suhanya's pleasure in watching birds and trying to identify them, I decided to produce a book that was specifically meant for young children," Sita told me. 

    Always an environmentalist and lover of wild life, Sita's simple Foreword conveys to children the importance of safeguarding our environment in order that our birds are not in danger of vanishing from our sight. 

    Sita starts with common or garden birds seen in towns and suburbs and has painted 12 of them, giving a brief and clear account of each without going into details that would hold little interest for the young. Among these birds are the rose-ringed parakeet, the sunbird, the common coucal (aetikukula) the red-vented bulbul, the white-breasted kingfisher, the black-headed oriole and others. Below the English name, the popular Sinhala and Tamil names by which each is familiarly known, are also given. 

    In the next section the reader is invited to look at some birds who choose to reside near marshes, tanks and lagoons - like the little cormorant, the lesser whistling teal, the red-wattled lapwing (or Did-he-do-it?), the little egret, the painted stork, etc. 

    And in the final section, are the birds whose habitat is the forest and jungles of our country. These are the green imperial pigeon, the brown-headed barbet, the jungle fowl, the hoopoe, the crested serpent eagle and the brown fish owl. 

    Each bird has been captured on canvas with loving care and the setting of each is different. The greater flamingo, for instance, strikes a majestic pose beside a stretch of water, while the hoopoe which feeds on beetles and grubs is shown standing on dry ground. 

    The birds have been imaginatively posed and the distinctive features and colouring of each one clearly shown. I only wish the sketches were a little larger. Opposite every page showing a bird, is a page which gives an outline of it for the child to colour and a space in which to record where he/she first saw the bird. 

    This is indeed a book designed to kindle a deeper interest in bird life in the minds of youthful readers and it is to be hoped that teachers and parents will encourage them by taking children on excursions to the aviary at the Dehiwela Zoo, or to bird sanctuaries. 

    Even joining our young in watching the variety of birds that still comes into our gardens and learning to identify them, will be a worthwhile and pleasurable pursuit. 

    Sita tells me that she hopes to introduce her book through schools for a start, at a special price of Rs. 200 each. One hopes there will be an enthusiastic response. A Sinhala translation is in the offing. 

    It is particularly good news that this work is only the first of a series planned by the author. I have seen her paintings for the next three books which will be about taking a look at our trees, our waterfalls and our heritage sites. 

    I find the whole project most exciting and one that should appeal to all who value the natural beauty with which our land has been blessed and its historical treasures - both of which are in danger of being despoiled by human carelessness, greed and indifference. 

    It is heartening to note that this first book has been sponsored by the Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation which has shown concern for environmental issues and is working with the Department of Wildlife Conservation to ensure that Horton Plains, one of our priceless national reserves, is kept free of pollution and litter. 

    Sita de Saram's splendid effort to implant in the young mind a love of and appreciation for those assets which we should all unite to safeguard and preserve, deserves our fullest support. 

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