ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, February 04, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 36

Flight to destiny

We reproduce an article that appeared in The Sunday Times Millennium Supplement, Past Times

Gamani Corea spoke to Feizal Samath of that memorable trip with D.S. before Independence

It was 1945 and young Gamini Corea like many others was preparing for the arduous sea voyage to Cambridge University in England where he had secured a place for higher studies.

That was the time local students made their way by sea to England for advanced studies, in the absence of commercial flights. Little did Corea realize then, that this trip to England would create history and pave the way for Sri Lanka’s Independence from British colonial rule!

Corea, an excellent student who had passed the London Inter-Science Economics Exam and would later become one of Sri Lanka’s most distinguished personalities, had applied for a passage on the convoy of ships that made the journey to England. His university term was beginning in October 1945.

He had obtained a place in Corpus Christi College in Cambridge but delayed his departure for two years due to the war. Ships, in which passengers were housed in cabins that had several but rather uncomfortable bunkers, went in convoys, as a precaution since the Japanese war was on, though the German war was over. However, one evening around June, Corea’s grandmother, Mrs. Alice Kotelawala, returned home after a meeting with Don Stephen Senanayake, then Minister of Agriculture and Lands and Leader of the House, with some interesting news.

Corea was staying with his grandmother at her Horton Place residence, where the world-renowned economist continues to live today.

Senanayake had told Mrs. Kotelawala that he was flying to England on a mission in July, and on learning that Corea was also going there - though much later - had invited Corea to join him (Senanayake).

“I was elated,” recalled Corea. “I went to meet Mr. Senanayake after that and asked whether it was okay to come along. He said it was perfectly in order but that I had to pay for my ticket.”

Senanayake, subsequently the first Prime Minister of Ceylon, had been invited by the British Government to discuss the Soulbury Commission report, which paved the way for the British to grant Independence to Ceylon in 1948. The minister was to be accompanied by Arthur Ranasinghe, former head of treasury and now working under Senanayake, his personal physician Dr. David Silva and personal valet, Carolis.

British authorities had offered an entire plane for Senanayake and his delegation to fly to England and the minister, in view of the space available, had offered a seat to Corea and Ernie Goonetilleke, son of Oliver Goonetilleke, who was also going to Cambridge for studies. The elder Goonetilleke, the first Sri Lankan Governor General, was then the Civil Defence Commissioner.

“I was excited to be flying for the first time and all of a sudden I had to advance my arrangements since I was going to England at least three months ahead of schedule,” said Corea. The youngster was planning to stay with a Sri Lankan doctor and his wife, Alfred and Carmel Gunasekera. The doctor was practising and residing in West Hampstead.

All hell broke loose after the newspapers ran a story saying Mr. Senanayake was going to London with an official delegation. The names of the delegates, including that of Corea and Goonetilleke, were also listed.

“There was a big furore in the State Council. Mr. W. Dahanayake, a vociferous critic of the government, denounced this move saying it is family bandyism, nepotism and so on and said MSC does not stand for members of the State Council but for ‘Members of the Senanayake Caucus,” laughed Corea.

Matters were not helped by the chief secretary. He defended the move, saying these two young men were qualified and competent enough to assist Senanayake.

More embarrassment followed. "Mr. Senanayake's schoolboy secretaries" screamed a headline in a newspaper editorial, criticizing the appointment of the two youngsters on the delegation. What ran through Corea’s mind at that time? “Well, I was young and was embarrassed that I was receiving so much publicity. On the other hand, I wasn’t worried because I knew nothing wrong was done. As a result of it I received a lot of visibility in the press.”

Corea vividly remembers the day he landed in England the 13th of July 1945. But the trip, in a RAF York bomber transport plane that still had camouflage paint, took three days, as night flying was not permitted then. There were only six passengers on board. They took off from Ratmalana airport and reached Karachi for the night. Corea - feeling cold since it was his first flight - continued to wear the pullover knitted by his grandmother in the hot mid-summer evening in Karachi, drawing curious stares from people.

The next night was spent in Cairo, before the group flew via Malta to an RAF military airfield in Bristol in England. Senanayake’s delegation was put up at the Grosvenor House hotel in London.

The next morning, Senanayake took the two youngest members of the delegation to Dr. Gunasekera’s house where they stayed thereafter. But Corea, keen to find out what was happening with regard to the negotiations, daily took the under-ground train from West Hampstead to London to meet up with Senanayake who, unlike other somewhat taciturn members of the delegation, chatted freely about the goings-on.

“I was interested in the events,” said Corea, noting that Senanayake’s discussions were delayed in London as their arrival occurred at a time when a change of government was taking place. The Sri Lankan delegation had to stay longer than anticipated.

The elections, under the government of Winston Churchill, were over when the delegation arrived in England. When the results were announced a few days later, the Labour Party had surprisingly clinched victory.

It was Senanayake who gave Corea his first glimpse of Cambridge. Senanayake had been invited by Sir Ivor Jennings, a former head of the University College in Colombo, to visit Cambridge. After his meetings with Jennings, Senanayake took Corea along to Corpus Christi College to meet Corea’s future tutor, Mr. H.D.P. Lee.

It turned out that Senanayake’s two sons, Dudley and Robert, had also studied at Corpus Christi College before the war. The conversation turned personal with Lee, initially polite and courteous, becoming quite animated and warm, on realizing Senanayake’s links with the college.

More than 50 years after the event, Corea - now a top UN retiree whose last UN job was Secretary-General of UNCTAD - still remembers many of the things that happened on that historical trip with Senanayake. “I particularly remember the flight over Cairo. Unlike today, planes didn’t fly at great heights then and we could see everything the Persian Gulf, desert sands and oil pipelines. It was a beautiful sight. I also remember bomb-damaged London with all its austerity.”

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.