Independence is an opportune time to look back on the glorious days of Sri Lanka. As Ponnambalam Arunachalam (later Sir) reminds us in ‘Sketches of Ceylon History’ – a lecture he delivered in 1906 in the presence of Governor Sir Henry A. Blake – there is perhaps no country in the world that has such [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

From colony to call for freedom

Reflections on Independence, 69 years on by D.C. Ranatunga

Historic moment: A parade to mark the first Independence Day celebrations in 1948

Independence is an opportune time to look back on the glorious days of Sri Lanka. As Ponnambalam Arunachalam (later Sir) reminds us in ‘Sketches of Ceylon History’ – a lecture he delivered in 1906 in the presence of Governor Sir Henry A. Blake – there is perhaps no country in the world that has such a long continuous history and civilization. “At a time when the new great nations of the West were sunk in barbarism, or had not yet come into existence, Ceylon was the seat of an ancient kingdom and religion, the nursery of art, and the centre of Eastern commerce. Her stupendous religious edifices more than 2,000 years old and, in extent and architectural interest, second only to the structures of Egypt, and her vast irrigation works, attests the greatness and antiquity of her civilization. Her rich products of nature and art, the beauty of her scenery, her fame as the home of a pure Buddhism, have made her from remote times the object of interest and the striking manner the ancient native chronicles which Ceylon is almost singular among Asiatic lands in possessing.”

The ancient kings held sway until the early 16th century although they faced invasions from rulers of different provinces in India. Then came the Portuguese. When a Portuguese fleet from Goa sent to capture some ships of their Arab rivals in trading activity was carried by current to the harbour of Galle, they went back and returned a few years later and succeeded in getting the king who was ruling from Kotte to agree to the erection of a factory which they ultimately converted into a fortress. They ousted the Arabs (also called Moors) and took over the trade. When the king realised his folly it was too late. The Portuguese had territorial ambitions, commercial greed and religious conversion in mind.

The Kandyan king and his subjects however maintained a heroic struggle against the Portuguese, who were to face the might of the Dutch who expelled them in 1658. The Dutch ruled until the British appeared on the scene by the end of the 18th century. In 1782, when Britain was at war with Holland, the English East India Company despatched a force to reduce the Dutch possessions in Ceylon.

In 1796, all places occupied by the Dutch were handed over to the British. In 1802, by the Treaty of Amiens, they were formally transferred to Britain. Ceylon which was administered by the English East India Company from 1797 to 1802, was then made a Crown Colony. In 1815 the British declared war against the last king of Kandy whose misgovernment had estranged his own subjects. Eventually he was captured and taken prisoner. The Kandyan Convention was signed on March 2, 1815 between the British authorities and the Kandyan chiefs, the king was dethroned and the Sinhalese surrendered the island to the British sovereign with full reservation of their rights and liberties. “They may claim to be one of the few ancient races of the world who have not been conquered,” says Arunachalam.

That marked the end of the oldest dynasty in the world after enduring for twenty-four centuries, and the whole island passed under the sway of Britain. Following the Uva Wellassa Rebellion in 1818 the authority of the Kandyan chiefs was taken away and given over to civil servants in the British administration. Meanwhile, the British Government became anxious that finances were not being properly balanced and a Commission was appointed under Sir William Colebrooke to investigate and propose reforms. In 1933 on the Commission’s recommendation an Executive Council was appointed to control the acts of the Governor, and a Legislative Council, nominated by the Governor, to represent various interests and government departments. With the opening up of plantation crops starting with coffee, European business interests came to the island and soon became a formidable minority. In the years to follow, they started agitating for constitutional reforms. The local intelligentsia too gradually began to realise to need for more participation in the administration.  Patchwork was done by increasing the number of members of the Legislative Council at regular intervals but the agitators were not happy.

Agitation for self-government

In 1919 the low-country Sinhalese and the Tamils united to form the Ceylon National Congress and demanded that the majority of the Legislative Council and at least half the Executive Council should be Ceylonese.

Obviously realising that colonies could no longer be governed autocratically, the British Government decided to test out Ceylon with more reforms.  The Donoughmore Commission was appointed to recommend changes. The first State Council was thus established in 1931.

When Governor Sir Andrew Caldecott arrived in 1937, he had instructions to study the constitutional position carefully, taking into account the different opinions about the State Council system.The Governor recommended a Cabinet of the ‘normal type’ (in place of the Board of Ministers under the Executive Committee system), the elimination of the system of Executive Committees, and the retention of territorial representation which had replaced communal representation when members were elected to the State Council from 1931. It was coupled with the grant of universal adult suffrage when all male and female Ceylonese over 21 years were given the right to vote. This increased the voting population from 204,997 (based on educational and property qualification) to 2,175,000.

No further action was, however, taken due to the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

On May 26, 1943, a declaration by the British Government stated: “The post-war re-examination of the Ceylon Constitution, to which His Majesty’s Government stands pledged, will be directed towards the grant to Ceylon by the Order of His Majesty in Council of full responsible government in all matters of civil administration”.

This was the first positive response to agitation over many years by Sri Lanka’s leaders on the need for self-government.

Following the 1943 Declaration the Secretary of State requested the Ministers who were agitating for self-government with other statesmen and organisations to frame a constitution for examination. A Commission appointed in September 1944 under Lord Soulbury came and spent five months (December 1944 to April 1945) before making their report public in October 1945. On the Commission’s recommendation, a Westminster style of government was established with a bicameral legislature and the first general election based on party system was held in August 1947.

On June 18, 1947, Governor Sir Henry Monk Mason Moore made a statement at a special session of the State Council  that “early steps will be taken by His Majesty’s Government as soon as the necessary arrangements are negotiated with the new Ceylon Government to confer upon this country fully responsible status within the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

On December 19, 1947, Ceylon Independence (Commencement) Order in Council, 1947 was released at ‘the Court at Buckingham Palace’ declaring that “the appointed day for the purpose of the Ceylon Independence Act shall be the fourth day of February 1948”. Present was “The King’s Most Excellent Majesty in Council”.

Thus the colonial saga ended and a new chapter in this island’s history began.

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