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 Post subject: The national hero Edward Henry Pedris and the riots of 1915
 Post Posted: Thu Jul 07, 2005 2:10 am 
The national hero Edward Henry Pedris and the riots of 1915

Dr B.N.S. Karunatilake

On July 07, 2005, the 90th death anniversary of the national hero Edward Henry Pedris will be commemorated at a public meeting to be held at the statue of the national hero at the junction of Isipathana Mawatha and Havelock Road.

The execution of Edward Henry Pedris by the British was one of the most tragic events recorded in our 2500 year history. It was not only premeditated and planned but it was carried out under utmost secrecy.

Pedris was no ordinary person and he belonged to a very distinguished family with very influential relatives who were all leading businessmen, at that time in the heart of Pettah and was in 1915, the centre of all business and commercial activity. His father Duenuge Disan Pedris was one of the richest men in the country. Apart from extensive sugar cane plantations I am personally aware that he owned more than 120 very large residential properties in Colombo.

I am in possession of a House Rent receipt book that provides evidence. At that time, they were the largest properties that one could identify in Colombo. His father in 1905, purchased the five acre property on which the Isipathanarama Viharaya stands today and it has the largest Dagaba that is only second to the Dagaba at the Kelaniya Temple. The paintings in the Viharage have been done by M Sarlis one of the very best temple painters of that period.

The riots of 1915 had a lasting and indelible impression on the people of Ceylon and it resulted in tremendous disenchantment with British rule. For the generations that lived at that time in the twenties and thirties, it was one of the most widely discussed tragic events The riots led to movements which spearheaded major changes in the administration and politics of the country and was the precussor of the freedom movement.

To the present day younger generation these are little known facts because the career of this illustrious patriot is, along with many others who lived thereafter to put up a bold struggle for the motherland, has not been referred to in the historical narratives that have been made available to the younger generation. Edward Henry Pedris was the only son in a family of five children.

His father had great hopes that he would one day take over his business enterprises and become a leader in the commercial world. But these hopes were short lived because the outbreak of the riots that started in Gampola brought about his untimely execution. Edward Henry Pedris was born on 16th August 1888 in Colombo. He first attended the Colombo Academy situated in the Pettah. From the Colombo Academy he joined St Thomas' College where he excelled in sports and shone out as a good cricketer, playing for the school's first eleven. After some time he returned to Royal College, the former Colombo Academy, and played cricket and engaged in other sports activities. At both St Thomas and Royal he was a top scorer in the cricket team. Pedris was a teetotaller and he had a wide circle of friends both in his schooldays and thereafter.

The writings of E. W. Perera, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Armand De Souza and A.E. Goonesinghe relating to this period give a major insight into the events that took place during the riots and how the people reacted. The people sought a full inquiry into the causes of the riots, the methods used to suppress and inflict cruelty on the people, the arbitrary punishment of offenders, the collection of funds for the payment of compensation and the way the country was administered by the British under martial law. Although the Sinhalese asked for a Commission of Inquiry that request was never granted.

The British administration misjudged the riots and was ruthless in supressing the disturbances. The Sinhalese community in their Memorandum to the British Government pointed out that the British had violated the undertakings given in the Kandyan Convention of 1815, which was signed between the British Government and the Kandyan Chieftains to expressly protect the ancient rights and privileges enjoyed by the Buddhists.

The licence was refused by the Government Agent despite the fact that the Buddhists gave the freedom to the Moors to determine the time at which the procession would pass the Mosque. Thereafter the Basnayake Nilame of the devale sued the Attorney General, Sir Anton Bertram, for unlawfully denying him the right to hold the Perahera that had been a immemorial privilege enjoyed by the Buddhists. The case was heard before the district judge of Kandy, who after a long drawn out trial found that the facts were in favour of the plaintiff, the Basnayake Nilame. The Supreme Court, however reversed the judgement and thereafter, an appeal was made to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. While this situation remained, on May 20th 1915, which was a Wesak Day, two carol parties were licensed as usual to conduct their religious processions on the streets of Kandy, subject to the condition that they should not pass the newly built mosque on Castle Hill Street with music before midnight.

To avoid conflict the carol parties kept to the terms of the stipulations made by the Government Agent. However, there was hostility between the two religious groups that resulted in the outbreak of violence in and around Kandy, and it soon spread to Gampola, Matale, Kurunegala and Kegalle. However, no sooner the riots ended in Kandy there was an outbreak of violence in Colombo that started in the Government Railway Workshops in Maradana. These disturbances soon spread to the other parts of the City. Although the acts of lawlessness spread from place to place, in cases where timely action was taken to contain them the uprisings soon subsided, as was evidenced in Badulla and Kurunegala. But the British without making use of the powers given by the normal laws of the country, proceeded to take the very extreme step of proclaiming martial law in six provinces, in two of which there was no violence or disorder at all.

Martial law was proclaimed on June 2nd and within 10 days normality was restored through the rigour of the martial law in the provinces. The British used untrained volunteers and many of them were employed in the plantations and commercial establishments, shops and factories, to supress the riots and they went on to shoot hundreds of civilians who had hardly anything to do with the riots. The volunteers were of unsuited temperament and they went allover the country accompanied by Punjabi soldiers unleashing a reign of terror in the villages. However, martial law continued until August 30 1915, long after the riots had ended.

The authorities misconstrued the situation and thought that this was an uprising against British rule and they did not take the trouble to consult the leaders of the different communities in the Island. The views and opinions of the Sinhala leaders would have been invaluable for a correct understanding of what had happened during the riots. More so especially since the British Governor Sir Robert Chalmers and Sir Anton Bertram had arrived recently in the Island. The Government gave ear to false reports and rumours that were circulated by irresponsible individuals in regard to the origin and aims of the riots.
In no way was it a deliberate and organised attempt by the Sinhalese people to defy the British government and this was proved by the fact that no British military officer was attacked by the rioters and no government property was damaged and no European living in the remotest parts in the Island had suffered from violence.


The most drastic and rigorous restrictions and prohibitions were imposed on the people and most of them were innocent. One such regulation was that any person not obeying orders was liable to be shot at sight. People were warned that they should remain in their villages throughout the period of the martial law. Village headmen were taken hostage to ensure that people remained in the villages.


The houses of prominent Sinhalese were searched and ransacked by the military and the Police, their private documents were seized, letters by post were censored and persons were subject to great humiliation. Innocent prominent people were arrested and jailed for periods ranging from a fortnight to five months. They were denied all privileges afforded to remand prisoners and were locked up in solitary cells for over 18 hours per day under the most insanitary conditions and were not allowed to see their lawyers or the closest relations.

Edward Henry Pedris was summarily executed after a very brief court martial under the direction of only British officers and the execution was carried out in the Welikada jail on July 7, 1915 well before the pardon from the British Crown could arrive. The significance of the riots in the context of the national hero must be looked at in the light of the nature of the British administration at that time. There were only two elected Ceylonese representatives in the legislature and they were Sir Hector Van Cuylenberg and Sir Ponambalam Ramanathan. These two were elected because of the electoral reforms initiated around 1910 by another great patriot E. W. Perera.

It will be seen therefore that the Sinhalese community did not have adequate representation in the legislature and it was equally unfortunate that at that time Ceylon had a ruthless and tyrannical Governor Sir Robert Chalmers who had the audacity to remark that "It was not necessary to have two eyes to rule a small petty country like Ceylon" On the outbreak of the riots the civil administration and the functions of the judiciary were set aside and Chalmers summarily handed over the civil administration to the military then led by the commander of the forces Brigadier General H.L.L. Malcolm.

It was in the background of these circumstances that the arbitrary arrest of Edward Henry Pedris took place. Thousands of men were tried summarily by military courts and shot dead in all parts of the Island while others were incarcerated in the Welikada prison for no reason at all. Among them were temperance leaders like F.R.Senanayake, D.B. Jayatilake, W.A. de Silva and Dr Hewavitarana against whom the British obviously had a grudge as they had spearheaded the freedom movement.In the case of Edward Henry Pedris the main issue was that he was accused, without any supporting evidence of having shot at a Muslim mob in the Pettah. Another fabricated story was that he had incited people to march to the City of Colombo from Peliyagoda.


Soon after his arrest and incarceration he was tried by a military court as civil courts had been abandoned and all civil cases tried by a court martial of three or five military officials. Pedris was tried by a special court of three military officials and was immediately sentenced to death. Chalmers passed on the decision to confirm the death sentence to Brigadier General Malcolm who was all powerful at that time. Chalmers stated that it was not necessary for him to intervene as he had entrusted all duties to the militaryThe only person who was able to intervene in this case was Sir Hector Van Cuylenberg who was the elected representative in the legislature, but his representations were not taken seriously by the military.

Many leading citizens and educationists and others like Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan also intervened without any impact. It was E. W. Perera who has been long forgotten as a great national patriot and hero, who made representations against the atrocities committed by th British and took up the cases of the Ceylonese who had been imprisoned or shot dead during the riotsHe had to leave for England by ship amid the war at a time when hundreds of ships were being sunk in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Oceans by German submarines. He had to carry in his shoe the infamous order issued by Inspector General H.L.L. Dowbiggin known as the "shoot at sight" order that later figured in the debates in the House of Commons.

E.W.Perera was assisted in London by D.B. Jayatilake that resulted in the British Government introducing reforms and concessions after 1918, but it also led to the recall of Governor Chalmers and the retirement of Brigadier General Malcolm. Chalmers was succeeded by the very benevolent British Governor Sir John Anderson who was very sympathetic towards the Ceylonese.

Sir John Anderson took up the position that the execution of Edward Henry Pedris was an act of grave injustice and was totally unwarranted and he added. "that there was evidence which could have saved Pedris".


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