By Upali K. Salgado In the eyes of the world the birth of a new nation is often preceded with a struggle for freedom. During the 20 years before we gained our independence we saw no such prolonged military struggle. On Independence Day (February 4, 1948), the representative of King George VI, the Duke of [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Life in Ceylon two decades before Independence


By Upali K. Salgado

In the eyes of the world the birth of a new nation is often preceded with a struggle for freedom. During the 20 years before we gained our independence we saw no such prolonged military struggle.

On Independence Day (February 4, 1948), the representative of King George VI, the Duke of Gloucester read out a personal message from the King. He said: “I know that my people in Ceylon are ready to make a full and rich contribution to the association of free peoples, and I am confident that you will carry out your responsibilities ably to the end. My wishes go out to you on this great day”.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the Leader of the House, thereafter proposed the address of thanks in an eloquent speech. He made known his sentiments by saying:”I should like to say a word here about Britain. We have had a number of grievances in the past regarding faults both of commission and of omission on the part of the British rulers. Such faults are probably common to any imperial policy in respect of the subject race, but I should like to take this opportunity of expressing my appreciation of the grace and dignity as well as the sense of realism which is now actuating the British people in voluntarily granting Independence to subject countries such as India, Burma and Ceylon”.

This was followed by the taking down of the Royal Ensign. The Lion Flag was unfurled by our first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake. This historic event took place 132 years after the Lion Flag had been hauled down in Kandy, by the British conqueror and a little more than 150 years since a part of the Island became a British colony, with the signing of the Treaty of Amiens with the Dutch VOC.

Japanese air raids, 1942: RAF Hawker Hurricanes were scrambled from the temporary airstrip at the Colombo Race Course. Pic courtesy

Subsequently, the Lion Flag was replaced officially with certain changes to represent all major communities resident in Ceylon.

Today, after 65 years of gaining independence a question that is uppermost in the minds of people is whether with mature statesmanship we can achieve inter-communal harmony supported by an acceptable and workable constitution to promote further development, and an ever lasting peace.

Let us then look back at the days leading to Independence. We were politically mature in the backdrop of 150 years of British rule. There were ingrained establishments such as a good administration, the institution of Justice and a remarkable system of secondary education.

Life during British colonial times moved on at a leisurely pace after the great economic depression of the early 1930s. In those dark times the economy had been at a standstill and cash crops tea, rubber and cinnamon were not exported. Payment for the cash crops based on a “coupon system” was in operation. Several people were unemployed overnight. The British administration maintained a firm hold and there were no industrial strikes, although A.E. Goonesinghe’s Ceylon Labour Party was active in a lukewarm manner. The only major strike they engineered was an attempt to cripple D.R. Wijewardene’s newspaper business, but being a clever businessman he temporarily “imported” press workers from the Madras Mail to produce the Ceylon Daily News and The Observer. Goonesinghe on the next day read the full newspaper of twelve pages. It was a stunning blow to the Ceylon Labour Party and the strikers.

A noteworthy annual event in those days was the Governor’s Cup at the Colombo Turf Club. That day was always declared a Mercantile holiday. It was a time when after a hard day’s work, Papa played the piano and Mama danced the baila. Popular songs of the time were “Oh my darling Clementine”, Pack up your troubles in a old kit bag “etc. Every function ended with the playing of “God Save the King”.

The cost of living was low with food aplenty and Japanese goods flooding the market.  The next major happening that engrossed the whole Island was World War – II (1939-46). After Pearl Harbour where several ships of the US fleet were sunk and the fall of Singapore in the Eastern sphere to the Japanese, the epicentre of the British military command shifted to Ceylon. In 1942, Sir Geoffrey Layton was appointed “Commander in Chief of the Island” and subsequently with the appointment of Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1944 as “Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the East,” Kandy became his command headquarters.

We witnessed two Japanese air raids on April 5th 1942 (at Trincomalee and Colombo), which subsequently Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to as ‘the most dangerous moment of the Second World War”. Over thirty Japanese fighter aircraft were shot down over Colombo. The writer who was then a student recalls Colombo city at that tense hour resembled a heavily fortified impregnable military bastion. There were thousands of troops in Colombo. The Colombo Race Course had been converted to an airstrip for “Spitfire” fighter aircraft to take off at short notice. Roads were closed and anti-aircraft guns had been positioned at strategic points.

Those were difficult days for the few Colombo residents, due to exigencies of Government service. Food and clothing were rationed. Shops were closed and the only sales outlet was the important co-operative store. Rice, coconuts, flour, brown sugar, tea, kerosene were rationed. Schools were evacuated to the provinces, and life was at a virtual standstill. Hospitals were always short of drugs. There was no entertainment. A strict “Black Out” was imposed every day for over two years. No civilians could travel at night in Colombo without a Police pass.

With the end of the war peaceful conditions prevailed for our statesmen to negotiate with Whitehall for measures of self government.

It culminated in our being granted Independence on February 4, 1948, when Clement Attlee was the British Prime Minister. Quite unlike in India, where there were communal riots for a long time in the 40’s, resulting in the Partition of India, our march for Independence was without a shot being fired.

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