SUNDAY OBSERVER Sunday Observer - Magazine
Sunday, 29 June 2003  
The widest coverage in Sri Lanka.











Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

Silumina  on-line Edition

Government - Gazette

Daily News

Budusarana On-line Edition

Anecdotal account of the 1st Ceylonese soldier migrant to Australia: 

Pioneer, not convict

The word 'convict' is not appropriate to many who were banished to Australia in the early days of its colonisation. During this period even a slight misdemeanour was sufficient for the British imperial forces to label them as convicts and banish them to harsh, inhospitable lands like Australia.

by F. S. R. Jayamanne

The first recorded arrival of Ceylonese to the continent of Australia took place in February 1816, when the SS Kangaroo brought to these shores Drum Major O'Deen, and his wife and three children who were banished to the Penal Colony of Australia by the British Governor, of Ceylon Robert Brownrigg.

The Malayan Drum Major ODeen, later to be known as O'Dean a Non Commission Officer of the 1st Ceylon Regiment, who switched allegiance to the Kandyans in 1803, was absorbed into the service of the Kandyan Monarch. As a reward he was given a beautiful Kandyan girl in marriage.

When the Kandyan kingdom was captured by the British in 1815, Odeen was arrested for treason, court martialled and sentenced to be shot. However, Odeen's sentence was commuted by Governor Brownrigg to "Banishment to the Penal Settlement in New South Wales, Australia". Some speculate the sudden change of heart of the Governor was for two reasons.

One to subsequent good conduct and fighting spirit of the Malay Regiment. Secondly, Odeen provided the Governor with invaluable information regarding the fate of Major. Davie of the 1st Ceylon Regiment and Captain Romley, of the 73rd Regiment. Major Davy's Company on their way to Kandy were outnumbered and surrounded by about 20,000 of the king's forces. The prisoners were given the option of either entering into the king's service or facing death. Obviously Major Davy and some officers refused. Those who refused were immediately beheaded. The first war proved a disaster to the British. The eye witness account of the massacre by Odeen conveyed to the Governor probably saved Odeen from the firing squad.


The article in the Sydney Gazette of 17 February 1816 (page 1) reports: The "Kangaroo" has brought hither from Colombo several convicts. One of the prisoners is a Malayan who was a Drum Major of 1st Ceylon Regiment. He is accompanied by his wife and three children, of whom the two youngest are boys.

The feeling mind could not fathom how this small family could contribute to their own support, given the harsh, unforgiving land to which they were banished. In comparison their native land with salubrious climes abound in fruit and all natural luxuries of the East.

Odeen's name changed through different census. From 1818 he was known as William O'Dean/Odeen. From 1822 to 1825 the family name is recorded as Hooden and in the 1828 the census the name is Wooden. By 1840's the 1st name had changed from William to John.

The family

This remarkable family, having survived the Kandyan wars, was later to survive in the harshest of environments on far Northern coast of the Colony, now known as the Northern Territory. Documents regarding O'Dean's activities, records have not provided such an accurate record of all the children. It is assumed that three children were born in Ceylon and another two were born in Australia.

Mrs. O'Dean (The Sinhalese woman) known as Eve died in 1839 aged 50, at the home of the eldest daughter, Sarah Harriett. Incidentally, painstaking research into the O'Dean family tree was compiled by Glennys Ferguson, three times great grand daughter of Sarah Harriett O'Dean, the eldest child of William and Eve O'Dean. Sarah Harriett should be the first child born in Ceylon. Ref: Glennys Ferguson. "Ceylankan" Feb. 2002.

Our hero John O'Dean (Odeen) died 23rd May 1860. The death notice in Sydney morning Herald read, "On the 23rd instant, at 111, Woolloomooloo St. At the advanced age of eighty seven, Mr. John O'Dean, the beloved father of Mrs. T. Purcill and of Mrs. J. Brady, of Woolloomooloo, an old and respected colonist, and many years Government Interpreter in this city. He leaves a large circle of relatives and friends to mourn their loss."

By December 1818, O'Dean managed to secure a plum job as a Watchman at HM Dockyard. This is quite an achievement for a convict. At this point I should mention that the word "convict", is not appropriate. During this period, even a slight misdemeanor, was sufficient for the British Imperial force to label them as convicts, and banish them to harsh, inhospitable lands like Australia, to fend for themselves. Added to their misery, it is on record that they were harshly and brutally treated.

However, it should be mentioned that the British in their wisdom, have selected the right material to tame a wild inhospitable country like Australia.

These unfortunate so-called convicts were tough, resilient, courageous, innovative, and adventurous lot.

They built this vast untamed, inhospitable continent, into a vibrant, country we now call "the lucky country."

Today we enjoy the fruits of their labour. All Australians should be grateful for their pioneering spirit. So we shall call them pioneers and not convicts.

Our O'Dean fall into this category.Coming back to our hero, O'Dean was promoted as a Constable of the Government Domain, and was appointed as a Malay Interpreter in 1827. William O'Dean presumably the first officially appointed Interpreter, between Australia and South East Asia, arrived with his son in Raffles Bay. The name of the son is not recorded. It is assumed that he was one of the two boys born in Ceylon.

Thus ends the saga of the Drum Major of 1st Ceylon Regiment and his comely Sinhalese wife. At the end of their tether they were completely westernized, having joined the rich genetic cocktail that is Australia. Today John and Eve should have thousands, if not millions of their descendants, spread right across Australia and beyond.

These episodes of John and Eve prove that we should not create racial stereotypes, and form ethnic ghettos.

We belong to one gene pool, which is the human race, and that we should consider ourselves as citizens of the world. Today most of John and Eve's descendants will have blond hair and blue eyes, as a result of numerous intermarriages.The original dark skin and brown eyes of O'Dean and Eve (the Sinhalese woman), would have been churned out long time ago. You may come across a brunette, blond or a red head anywhere. You could assume that some of them may be genetically connected to our John and Eve.

Finally I dedicate this article to our human family, with joy and appreciation of the Ceylonese family, John and Eve O'Dean, who made good in Australia - The Lucky Country. My grateful thanks to Victor Melder, our Melbourne custodian of Sri Lankan history, culture and other related subjects. I appreciate his support in giving access to his home library, which is a veritable treasure trove.


1. The Kandyan Wars - by Col. Geoffrey Powell

2. Tri Sinhala - by Sir Paul E. Peiris

3. The first Ceylonese Family in Australia - Glennys Ferguson. In the "Ceylankan" Feb 2002 issue published by the Ceylon Society of Australia.

Premier Pacific International (Pvt) Ltd - Luxury Apartments

News | Business | Features | Editorial | Security
Politics | World | Letters | Sports | Obituaries

Produced by Lake House
Copyright 2001 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.
Comments and suggestions to :Web Manager

Hosted by Lanka Com Services