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18th July, 1999

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Turning point in freedom struggle

Dr. H.N.S. Karunatilake

Although Ceylon was ceded to the British through conspiracy and intrigue by the Kandyan Convention of 1815, the insurrections and wars of liberation which followed over the next 100 years are evidence that the people of Ceylon did not accept British sovereignty over the island.

The first war of national liberation was gallantly fought by the Kandyan chiefs and the bhikkus in 1817/1818. This was followed by another war of liberation in 1848. In both these national wars of liberation, the British panicked and they chose to crush the uprisings in the most cruel and ruthless manner. Tens of thousands of Sinhala peasants, particularly in the Uva, Central, North West and the Sabaragamuwa Provinces were slaughtered by British troops who were stationed in the island. Those hardest hit by British rule were the Kandyan peasants whose lands and assets were appropriated indiscriminately, particularly after the enactment of the Crown Lands Ordinance of 1840. The influx of Indian labour and the establishment of coffee plantations from 1830 onwards worsened their plight because plantations encroached into the Kandyan villages and the poverty stricken menial Indian immigrant labourer introduced a culture and a way of life which was totally alien to the Kandyan people who were proud of their heritage.

After the two wars of national liberation, which the British were able to suppress with force, there were nationalist and Buddhist revivals from about 1870 onwards by which time the coffee plantations had totally inundated the Kandyan lands. By 1900, this revival had gathered considerable momentum as the Sinhala people were concerned about the privileges which they had lost and those that the British authorities had afforded the minorities, both in the Kandyan territories and the low country. The British followed the characteristic divide and rule policy to strengthen their administration by giving added advantages to the Muslims and the Tamils.

In the centenary year of the Kandyan Convention, i.e., 1915, events moved to a head because it revived the feelings of nationalism and the people became acutely aware of the rights and privileges which were afforded by the Kandyan Convention but had been denied to them. Disaffection prevailed due to the order issued by Saxton the Government Agent of Kandy to deny the rights of the Maligawa Perahera to pass the Castle Hill Street Mosque, with traditional ceremony and ritual. The riots worsened with the widespread rumours that Moors from Colombo and South India were preparing to attack the Dalada Maligawa. The disturbances which arose on Wesak Day, May 28,1915, spread far and wide over a good part of the country. Martial Law was declared islandwide, excluding the northern and eastern provinces, by Governor Robert Chalmers on June 2,1915. Strangely enough, Martial Law was declared after the riots were practically over.

Young Edward Henry Pedris' contribution towards the struggle for freedom begins with the incidents which concerned Sinhala businessmen in the Pettah which was then the financial and business centre of Ceylon. Both D.D. Pedris (Father) and N.S. Ferna-ndo Wijesekera (uncle) were leading businessmen at that time and were amongst the most wealthy and influential families in the island. Two of the first to be taken into custody from leading families were Albert Wijesekera (a cousin of young Pedris) and Edmund Hewavitarna who was arrested on the allegation that he had travelled in a motor vehicle with Albert Wijesekera. Albert and Edmund were subsequently tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The incident involving Edward Henry Pedris was the result of a rumour spread that the business premises of D.D.Pedris and N.S.Fernando Wijesekera were broken into by Muslims. On hearing this rumour, a violent crowd had left Peliyagoda for Colombo. On hearing this, young Pedris and other officers of the Town Guard rushed to the Kelaniya Bridge. These officers halted the march and persuaded the people not to go into the city. Due to his fearless disposition, some British Police officers who were envious of young Pedris had fabricated a story that he had instigated the people to march into the city. After his arrest, Pedris was first taken to the barracks on Echelon Square where his helmet was knocked off and his military decorations stri-pped. Later on, under the tightest security precautions, he was taken to the Welikada Prison. At this time, over 60 other leading citizens who had identified themselves with social and temperance movements were in custody. A few days after the imprisonment of the more than 60 leading citizens, D. Edward Henry Pedris was transferred to another cell because he was to be court martialled. In the court martial, Pedris was charged with treason, shop breaking and wounding with intent to murder.

Valiant attempts were made by young Pedris father and leading citizens in the next two or three days which were available between the decision of the court martial and his impending execution to obtain a reprieve. However, there were three British officials who were clearly responsible for the turn of events and the subsequent execution of young Pedris. They were Inspector General H.L. Dowbiggin, Brigadier General H.H.L. Malcolm and above all the eccentric, introvert, Governor Robert Chalmers. Hector Van Culenderg, a prominent citizen and legislative councillor, and Douglas de Saram were among those who made efforts to obtain a reprieve for Pedris but they failed.

The execution of Edward Henry Pedris hastened the movement towards independence and gave courage to those nationalists who pioneered the movement. It resulted in the formation of the Young Lanka Youth League and finally the Ceylon National Congress in 1917 which united all the forces in the country to finally obtain freedom in 1948.

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