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D. S. Senanayake
@ The Island - 22 Oct 2000

Don Stephen Senanayake was born on 20th October 1884, at Botale, a village in the Hapitigame Korale of the Negombo district in the Western Province. The name of the village has nothing to do with the colloquial Sinhalese word, with the same spelling and pronunciation, meaning ‘bottle’ derived from the Dutch ‘bottel’. The village was named after ‘Bodhi-tale’—the place of the Bodhi or Bo tree.

One of Senanayake’s ancestors may have been in the party of Buddhists who in ancient times brought a sapling of the old Bo tree at Mahaiyangana to be planted at the shrine of the good King Sri Sangabo at Attanagalla. On their last stop before reaching Attanagalla, they remained for the night at Botale. In the morning they found that the sapling had taken root in the soil where they had left it. There is of course no evidence to prove that the venerable Bo tree one now sees at Botale was the direct descendant of the tree at Mahaiyangana—traditionally one of the places in Sri Lanka visited by the Buddha. There are many, however, who believe that it was.

Only a few miles from the much larger village of Ambepussa, on the Colombo-Kandy road, Botale, stood on the frontier between the Sinhalese kingdom ruled from Kandy and the maritime districts held by the Portuguese. It was often an outpost of the Portuguese during their battles with the Sinhalese. The Portuguese historian, De Queyroz, in his ‘Conquest of Ceylon’, published in 1688, says that the Portuguese under Captain Francesco Pimental at Attanagalla made themselves dreaded in such a manner that, not having more to do, they went to encamp at Botale, a league further. The Sinhalese, for their part, erected a stronghold at Dedigama. In 1598 the quarters were shifted to "the pagoda at Botale, a place suited for assaults, with great loss to the enemy".


The village of Botale seems to have been known for a sturdy breed of peasants. It was said that men from the area had constructed the tunnel through which the Sinhalese Prince Vidiya Bandara, who was a prisoner of the Portuguese, escaped with the help of the Franciscan friars who had their monastery at a spot near Queen’s House in Colombo where the President of the Republic of Sri Lanka now resides.

Stephen Senanayake’s father, Don Spater Senanayake, came of a land-owning family. The prefix ‘Don! had been used, since Portuguese times, by the low country gentry, as it had been in the Iberian Peninsula, where it originated Don Spater’s father, Don Bartholomew, was born in Botale in 1847 where the ancestral house still stands. It was for Don Stephen a hideaway to rest from the burdens of office or think out a solution to some knotty problem. It was here that he mixed freely with the country folk and shared his thoughts and aspirations with them. They brought their problems as well as their disputes to him and it is said that an aggrieved party in the village rarely resorted to a court of law, for Senanayake was judge and arbitrator in all causes which they referred to him.

Don Spater finished his schooling at St Thomas’ College, Matale. He married a Miss Senanayake (no relation) from Kehelella which was in the same district as Botale. They had three sons, of whom Stephen was the youngest, and a daughter. After the father’s death the four children remained close to their mother who was a deeply religious woman.

The Senanayakes of Botale were rooted to the land but Don Spater saw possibilities in mining plumbago (graphite) for which there was a growing demand in Europe, the United States and Japan. Ceylon plumbago was regarded by experts as "so much superior to any other turned out". It was mined in many parts of the island but chiefly in the Kurunegala district, where the Dodangaslande, Ragedera and Maduragoda mines were situated, and in the Kelani Valley where the Bogala mine was the largest. Don Spater’s contemporaries and rivals in the plumbago business included such well known merchants as Jacob de Mel. Mudaliyar D. C. Attygalle, N. D. P. Silva, D. D. Pedris, H. J. Peiris, M. A. Fernando, John Clovin de Silva, U. D. S. Gunasekera and H. Bastian Fernando, all of whom left considerable fortunes. Stephen grew to manhood when the plumbago trade was booming and even as a school boy he knew a great deal about the ‘black gold’ and the men who dug it from his father’s mines.

The massive volume entitled Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, published in 1907 by Arnold Wright for Lloyds’ Greater Publishing Company of London, has the following reference to Don Spater Senanayake: "After being educated at various schools in Ceylon, he started business on his own account in the plumbago-mining line at the early age of eighteen years. He now carries on business as a plumbagominer, merchant, estate proprietor and general planter. His offices are situated at Siri Medura, Castle Street, Cinnamon Gardens, and his stores are located at Kitulwatte, Kanatte, Colombo."

The article refers to the modern machinery installed in Don Spater’s mines and estates and states that the graphite extracted the refrom is collected at Ambepussa and forwarded to Colombo. It also lists the names of his mines and coconut estates. Two pages of pictures go with the article, including the family group with the striking figure of Don Spater, in Mudaliyar’s dress, with the three sons standing behind their seated parents and sister, Mrs. F. H. Dias Bandaranaike. Don Spater Senanayake was given the rank of Mudaliyar, not as a Government official but as "a worthy citizen", by Governor Sir Joseph West Ridgeway.

At the end of the nineteenth century, many Sinhalese families interested themselves in the public life of the country. Seats in the Legislative Council were filled by nomination by the Governor. In 1839, the only Sinhalese member was G. Phillipse Panditaratna. He was succeeded by his kinsman J. G. Dias, the eldest brother of Sir Harry Dias who succeeded him in his turn. On Sir Harry’s retirement, James Dehigama, a Kandyan lawyer, was nominated. The seat went back to the family circle with the nomination of James D’Alwis, whose daughters married Christoffel Obeyesekere and Felix R. Dias. He was followed by J. P. Obeyesekere and Albert de Alwis, in turn. The succession was broken by the nomination of A. de A. Seneviratne, but restored by the entry of Christoffel Obeyesekere in 1889. In that year an additional seat was provided to represent the Kandyan Sinhalese and T. B. Panabokke, who had been Obeyesekere’s classmate in the Colombo Academy (later the Royal College), was nominated. It was not uncommon for a Kandyan in Government service or one who had retired as a Ratemahatmaya (chief headman) to be selected, as was the case with Hulugalle Adigar, who was succeeded by his kinsman, T. B. L. Moonemalle. When the pattern was about to be broken, Mr. (later Sir) Christoffel Obeyesekere, no doubt irked by the new spirit of nationalism, said on a well known occasion that much of the trouble in the country was due to "nobodies" trying to become "somebodies".

D. S. Senanayake was the first member of the Senanayake family of Botale to enter the Legislative Council though his older brother, ‘F. R.’, could have at any time won a seat by election and was always a powerful influence behind the scenes until his premature death.

Family influence was also an important factor in the choice of Tamil members. The first Tamil to be nominated to the Legislative Council was A. Coomaraswamy Pulle. He was followed by Simon Casie Chitty. Governor Stuart Mackenzie spoke of "his extra-ordinary, perfect attainment by a foreigner of the English language so difficult to all foreigners". The nomination of Edirimanasinghe Mudaliyar in 1850 gave a long run to a single family with its roots in Manipay. His brother-in-law Ponnambalam Mudaliyar was the father of P. Coomaraswamy, P. Ramanathan and P. Arunachalam, all three of whom were nominated members of the Legislative Council at various times. Edirimanasinghe Mudaliyar had been succeeded by Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, another uncle of the three Ponnambalam brothers, J. R. Weinman, the witty chronicler of this period said that "the major aim of every Councillor is to keep the thing going in the family".

With the introduction of the electoral system of representation, many descendants of the above-named found their way into the legislature through the front door. This is, of course, not surprising. As a recent writer has said, "a democratic political system cannot make elites superfluous, though it may ensure their rapid and regular circulation".

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