Those who led the struggle
Independence wasn't handed to us on a
platter by the British colonialists. Our local leaders representing all
races, religions and communities had to fight for their rights and
demand political freedom. Here, we feature some of those who led
Ceylon's struggle for independence.
Don Stephen Senanayake was the first Prime Minister of Independent
Sri Lanka (Ceylon).
He was born on October 20, 1884 in Botale, Meerigama to Don Spater
Senanayake and Heehelelle Catherine Elizabeth Perera Gunasekera. D.S.
was the youngest in the family with one elder sister and three brothers.
F.R. Senanayake, another well-known politician, was his second elder
A product of S. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia, D.S. enjoyed sports
more than academic activities and excelled in cricket, boxing and
A famous story about him describes how his father was happy about his
son always becoming the fourth in the class, only to realise very much
later that there had, in fact, been only four boys in that class.
D.S. gave up studies at the age of 18 to take over the family estates
after his father's death. He entered public life by identifying himself
with the Temperance Movement, following in the footsteps of brother F.R.
D.S. was the first member of the family to enter the Legislative Council
and was appointed the first Minister of Agriculture and Lands in 1931.
Elections for the first government of Independent Ceylon were held in
1947. Upon independence in 1948, D.S. Senanayake took office as the
country's first prime minister. Prior to Ceylon's independence, he
formed the United National Party (UNP).
D.S. died in a riding accident on March 22, 1952 and was succeeded as
Premier by his son, Dudley Senanayake.
Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike was born on January 8, 1899
in Nittambuwa to an upper class Sinhala family. He received his
education at S. Thomas' College, and later at Oxford University,
S.W.R.D. returned to Ceylon in 1925 and having practised law for a
while, entered politics in 1926. He was a member of the UNP, which he
served from 1931 to 1951. He held a Cabinet position too. In 1951, he
led the Sinhala Maha Sabha faction of the UNP to form the Sri Lanka
Freedom Party (SLFP).
He led the SLFP to victory at the 1956 election and became Prime
Minister. He died on September 26, 1959 after being shot. His wife,
Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world's first female Prime Minister
after his death.
Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was his daughter.
Some of his achievements were establishing the Ministry of Culture and
Department of Ayurveda, turning the Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas
into universities, abolishing British bases at Katunayake and
Trincomalee, nationalising the bus service and Colombo Port and
declaring May Day a holiday.
The Ponnambalam Brothers
Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Ponnambalam Arunachalam and their less
well-known brother P. Coomaraswamy were
nominated heads of the
Legislative Council at different times. Their father was Ponnambalam
Mudaliyar and their mother, Sellachi Ammaiyar.
Ponnambalam Ramanathan was born on April 16, 1851 and was educated at
the Colombo Academy (now Royal College) and Presidency College in
Madras, India. Returning to Ceylon, he chose the legal profession and
became an Advocate of the Colombo Bar.
In 1879, at the age of 28, Ramanathan made his entry into politics by
acquiring the Nominated Unofficial Member seat in the Legislative
Council. At age 38, he was a senior barrister and Unofficial Leader of
the Legislative Council.
He was the Solicitor General from 1892-1908 and became a King's
Councillor in 1903, one of the first to receive this honour. He also won
the Legislative Council seat for the Educated Ceylonese in 1911 and held
it for 11 years.
He was one of the leaders of the campaigns which demanded the release
of Sinhala leaders who were imprisoned after the riots of 1915. He was
Knighted in 1921 when he was 70 and became an Unofficial Member of the
Legislative Council from 1922-1924.
He also set up two schools, of which one became the Jaffna
University. Lawyer, legislator, scholar, statesman and orator,
Ramanathan died on November 26, 1930 at the age of 80. Ponnambalam
Arunachalam, also known as Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva, was born on
September 14, 1853 and received his education at the Colombo Academy.
He won the Queen's Scholarship in 1871 and entered Christ College,
Cambridge. He returned to Ceylon and sat for the Ceylon Civil Service in
1875 and became the first Ceylonese to enter the Civil Service.
Arunachalam was the Registrar-General from 1888-1902 and published
the four-volume Census of Ceylon in 1901, which was one of his
outstanding works. He retired from the public service in 1913 and
received a Knighthood.
The speech that he made on 'Our political needs' as the first
President of the Ceylon National Congress (1919-1922) is termed as one
of the greatest speeches made in the island. He was President of the
Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society from 1913-1916.
Arunachalam, who also contributed much towards the freedom struggle,
died in 1924.
Edward Walter Perera, known as the 'Lion of Kotte', was a devout
Christian who was a leader in the Reform Movement which was then
gathering momentum. The advocate gave up his practice to campaign for
more political freedom for the locals.
The Martial Law declared after the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915
resulted in many prominent leaders being shot and killed and many others
being imprisoned without trial. Local leaders felt that the British
government will have to be informed of the situation in the island
despite the problems they were facing over World War II.
It was E.W. Perera who undertook this dangerous journey to war-torn
London. His mission was successful.
Frederick Richard was a powerful influence on Ceylon's politics until
his premature death in 1925.
The elder brother of D.S. Senanayake, he had his education at S.
Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia from where he entered Cambridge College in
F.R. entered the political arena by propelling the YMBA and the
Temperance Movement, which had been introduced by his father. He
invested heavily in the YMBA.
He was the first politician from the family and was the first leader
of the Ceylon Independence Party. D.S. took his place after his sudden
death during a pilgrimage to Buddha Gaya, India.
Don Baron Jayatilaka was born on February 13, 1868 at Waragoda,
Kelaniya, the son of Don Daniel Jayatilaka and Elisiyana. At seven years
of age, he was sent to the Vidyalankara Pirivena to learn Sinhala, Pali
Then, he was admitted to the local Baptist school to learn English
and other subjects in English medium. Later, he studied at Wesley
College, Colombo and passed out from the Calcutta University.
He was responsible for a revival in Buddhism; he together with Col.
Henry Steele Olcott started many Buddhist schools. He also founded the
YMBA in 1898 of which he was the President till his death.
He ventured into politics with a fight for those imprisoned and was
arrested in 1915 and released a few months later. He was unanimously
elected President of the Ceylon National Congress on June 21, 1923.
He was the Leader of the House and the Minster for Home Affairs on
September 22, 1931. In 1936, he accepted the post of Ceylon's
Representative in India. He was Knighted for his services to the
Motherland in 1932.
The well-known scholar and educationist died in 1944.
Don David Hewavitharane was born in September 17, 1864 to H. Don
Carolis and Mallika Hewavitharane.
He received a Christian education at Christian College, Kotte and
then studied at Colombo Academy. Around 1886, he turned to Buddhism
under the influence of Col. Henry Steele Olcott and Madam Blavatsky, who
were propagating Buddhism and Buddhist education in Sri Lanka. He
started helping them and changed his name to Anagarika Dharmapala.
He was instrumental in reviving Sinhala and Buddhist sentiments among
the people; he was in the forefront of the freedom struggle through his
publication Sinhala Bauddhaya, which guided nationalist and religious
Dharmapala was ordained as a Bhikku in Sarnath, India in 1933 and
died there the same year at the age of 69.
Don Richard Wijewardene, the founder of Lake House, was born on
February 28, 1886; his father was Don Philip Wijewardene. He was
educated at St. Thomas' College, Colombo and at Cambridge, England.
He returned to his Motherland in 1912 and started his legal career at
Hulftsdorp. It was here that he was given the idea of starting a
He acquired the Dinamina newspaper in 1914 and took over The
Ceylonese in 1918, which he renamed the Daily News. One of his biggest
accomplishments was buying the then 90-year-old Observer in 1923. Other
papers such as Silumina and Thinakaran were also started by him.
DRW played a leading role in politics of the era as well as in the
freedom struggle. Through his newspapers, he campaigned for
constitutional reforms and greater political freedom. Although he
promoted nationalist sentiments, he was never harnessed by communal
He died on June 13, 1950.
Dr T.B. Jayah
Tuan Burhanuddin Jayah was born in Kandy on January 1, 1890. He
studied at St. Paul's College, Kandy and S. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia
and received his degree from the University of London in 1913 and joined
Ananda College as a teacher. In 1921, he was appointed Principal of
He entered politics in 1924 and was elected to the Legislative
Council. The speech that he made in passing the Dominion Bill is
Teacher, principal, legislator, State Councillor, freedom fighter,
parliamentarian, Cabinet minister and High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in
Pakistan, Jayah died in the Holy City of Medina, Saudi Arabia on May 31,
1960 at the age of 72.
Sir James Peiris
Born in 1856, Sir Peiris was the chairman of the committee which was
protesting the British Governor's handling of the riots and the unfair
and discriminative treatment being meted out to Sinhala Buddhist
As a Christian, although he was offered privileges by the ruling
British, he refused them and stuck to his principles. The man who
campaigned avidly for political reforms died in 1930.
Some others who fought for independence
Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera
Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera
Arthur V. Dias
W.A. De Silva
Colvin R. De Silva
Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy
Daisy Dias Bandaranaike