From Independence to Exile: The Extraordinary Story of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (Part 1)

The Road to Independence


Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, Governor General of Ceylon 1954 – 1962

Nine years of researching the background to my novel The Devil Dancers introduced me to some fascinating historical characters. One of the most remarkable was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, one of the key architects of Ceylon’s Independence and the first Ceylonese to hold the post of Governor-General. This is the first of three articles on one of the most brilliant statesman of his generation.

Every so often, a clutch of papers is released by Britain’s National Archives following a 30 year embargo. While most historians and journalists dream of discovering a juicy scandal – perhaps some questionable relationship between a Cold War politician and a spy – many of these documents appear insignificant and the reasons for keeping them in ‘cold storage’ obscure.

Such might be the conclusion when viewing the few humble sheets of paper that relate to a brief diplomatic exchange in 1977 in which a flurry of memos passed between the British High Commission, Colombo and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London.

One report stated starkly: “All convicted under Criminal Justice Commission Act (including Exchange Control Offenders) have reportedly been granted freedom.”

The effect of this terse note was to poke a stick into the Whitehall ant-heap, raising awkward questions of royal protocol and Britain’s diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka.

The subject of all this activity? An 82 year-old ex-patriot, one of the most gifted politicians of his generation, who had been living in London in self-imposed exile for some 17 years.

Humble beginnings

At first glance, the curriculum vitae of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke appears somewhat pedestrian. The only son out of eight children, he came from a respectable middle-class family, his father holding various positions within the Postal Service. Brought up a Christian and educated at Wesley College, Oliver showed promise, yet lacked the vital impetus of wealth and status. His attempts to gain a scholarship to study in England failed and he was overtaken by wealthier contemporaries whose degrees from Oxford or Cambridge virtually guaranteed them a place on the fast-track to positions of influence and political power.

Behind the scenes, Sir Oliver assiduously forged his own path to the top working his way through a series of worthy, but unexciting-sounding posts, such as a sub-accountant at the Colombo Bank, assistant auditor in the government railway service and Colonial Auditor until, finally, he obtained the post of Financial Secretary of Ceylon.

Accountants rarely transform into super heroes. But Sir Oliver broke the mould. A good head for figures was just one of his many talents. He was also a consummate negotiator and political tactician who not only oversaw the safe transition of his country to independent status but who managed, on at least one occasion, to prevent the early onset of the ruinous civil war to which it finally succumbed.

He acquired many powerful friends who included fellow exile and former Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala. Their first meeting set the tone of their future relationship. Sir Oliver had returned to Wesley College as a teacher and was refereeing a soccer match with Royal College whose team captain was Kotelawala. Sir Oliver recounted how “not long after the match started, the rival captains forgot soccer and in the course of play started to rush at each other like two warring bull elephants.” Taking swift and decisive action, Sir Oliver sent both captains off the pitch.

On a subsequent occasion, his skills of diplomacy once more came into play when the hot-tempered Kotelawala, now honorary Secretary of the Orient Club, settled a dispute with his fists.

Heading off a move by outraged members to eject Kotelawala, Sir Oliver suggested he resign his post and remain as an ordinary member; a tactic that proved agreeable to all sides, ensuring Kotelawala’s continued membership and his future patronage of the Club. There was also a benefit for Sir Oliver who “consented to fill” the post from which he had persuaded his friend to resign.

The feisty Kotelawala was just one of a growing circle of powerful friends that Sir Oliver gathered around him. Others included D.S. Senanayake who was to become the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon and Lord Soulbury who lent his name to the new Constitution implemented in 1946.

Despite the lack of a glamourous public profile, Sir Oliver’s brilliance as an administrator brought him to the attention of the British during World War II when Ceylon was in imminent danger of attack from Japan. He was asked to lead the Civil Defence Department, an appointment that marked a significant departure from the norm.

According to Dr E.F.C. Ludowyk: “The choice of the quickest-witted Ceylonese of his generation for a position which would normally have gone to a top-ranking white bureaucrat showed how far things had changed from 1915 and even from 1931.”

Sir Oliver set about this new task with his usual energy and enthusiasm, drawing up plans for the construction of 60-foot wide fire-gaps in Colombo which necessitated the bull-dozing of many buildings and the relocation of their occupants.

However, he was to reflect bitterly on the tardiness of the compensation paid for these acts of destruction.

“My hope then was that after the war a new Colombo would arise … but looking at those neglected fire-gaps which have never been repaired, I cannot help but think that very often small nations who join their more powerful allies in a total war-effort are left to fend for themselves and, as in the case of Ceylon, do not get a farthing of reparations.”

Words which could be applied to similar arrangements elsewhere in the 21st century!

In fact, Sir Oliver’s role in Civil Defence had unexpected advantages when members of the Soulbury Commission visited Ceylon in 1944. Negotiations for the country’s independence had not progressed as quickly – or as far – as the Ceylonese had wished. However, instead of confrontation, Sir Oliver launched a charm offensive, using the civil-defence organisation to transport the Commission members around the island and ensure they had a memorable trip.

Throughout these critical negotiations, Sir Oliver employed his diplomatic skills to good effect, smoothing out disagreements and heading off destructive confrontation. He was not only a skilled negotiator, but appears to have had an uncanny knack for recognising people he could trust. One such was Lord Soulbury with whom he developed a warm friendship and who he judged, within minutes of their first meeting, to be a man who would “be fair and honourable in all his decisions.”

Sir Oliver’s partnership with D.S. Senanayake was another key element in the smooth transition to Independence. When Senanayake, frustrated by the shortcomings of the Soulbury Commission, threatened to push ahead without them regardless of the consequences, it was Sir Oliver who interceded, advising moderation.

The result of this hard work, based on goodwill and moderation, was a triumph for Senanayake in the State Council. After a speech in which he urged representatives not to “refuse bread merely because it is not cake”, the British scheme was passed by 51 to 3.

Observers, such as Sir Ivor Jennings, were in no doubt about the extraordinary achievement of the Senanayake-Goonetilleke partnership. Without them, he believed, Ceylon would have remained a Crown Colony. If so, who knows what it might otherwise have had to endure before gaining Independence?

This article was first published in the Colombo Telegraph on 4 December 2014

Next: Part 2 – From Dawn to Dusk


Related Items:

Kent’s Illustrious Exiles: Sir John Kotelawala

An article on Sir Oliver’s friend and former Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala. This article, which appeared in the Colombo Telegraph, can also be found in the archive section of this blog under June 2014.

A Tangled Web: the Abbot, the widow, the Assassin and the Prime Minister

Read about the conspiracy that led to one of the most shocking political assassinations of the 20th century. Click here

This entry was posted in Ceylon, Exiles, History, Independence, Sri Lanka, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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