103rd death anniversary of Henry Pedris: Supreme sacrifice that led to the national independence | Sunday Observer

103rd death anniversary of Henry Pedris: Supreme sacrifice that led to the national independence

Edward Henry Pedris
Edward Henry Pedris

The colonial rulers of the era may have never realised that the cruel execution of a young Sinhalese patriot in the Welikada prison 103 years ago, on the 7th of July 1915, would lead to the emancipation of this country from their rule 33 years later. It was ironic that their attempt to frighten our leaders of the day by killing young Henry Pedris on that day on the pretext of controlling Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915 would turn the tide against them.

Sri Lanka lost its sovereignty to the British in March 1815. There were two rebellions against the colonial government in 1818 and 1848 but both were brutally suppressed. Since then there was no strong leader or organization which could raise their voice against the British rule.

The great debate of Panadura in 1873 and the arrival of Colonel H. S. Olcott in 1880 created a resurgence among the Sinhala Buddhists. This was enhanced subsequently by the brave and tireless campaign of the great Sinhala patriot, when Ven. Anagarika Dharmapala. Sinhala Buddhists were getting up from their slumber to think of their rights. The temperance movement started by the Senanayake Brothers in 1912 in Meerigama brought together the Sinhalese Buddhists and some Christian leaders on the same platform against the liquor policy of the government. These activities were looked upon with suspicion by the British rulers but not considered as attempts to overthrow their rule. A. E. Gunasinghe, Victor Corea and several others formed the Young Lanka league in March 1915, In commemoration of the centenary of Kandyan convention. At the inaugural meeting they all pledged to fight for independence signing a document in blood. However, this was a secret organization.

Sinhala-Muslim riots started in Kandy on the 28th of May 1915 which was the Vesak day, when some Muslim hooligans started stoning a Buddhist carol group proceeding along Kandy streets. Initially the police and the authorities turned a blind eye on the rioters.The attitude of the governor Sir. Robert Chamers was one of lethargy and complacency. As the riots spread in various parts of the country authorities took this as a rebellion against the government. Their suspicion was mainly on the Sinhala Buddhist leaders of the temperance movement. This led to the arrest of prominent Buddhist leaders of the period like Senanayake brothers, Hewavitharana brothers, D.B. Jayatilake, W.A. De Silva, John de Silva, Piyadasa Sirisena, A. E.Gunasinghe and Ven, Battaramulle Subhuti. Edward Henry Pedris who was from a wealthy family and worked as a town guard also was taken into custody on the charge of instigating the Sinhalese against the Muslims. Ven. Anagarika Dharmapala who was in India at that time was barred from visiting Ceylon and his newspaper Sinhala Baudhdaya was banned.

Pedris who really tried to bring peace among the Sinhalese and Muslims was court martialled on the false charges of leading a struggle against the government and killing Muslims. Brigadier General H. H. L. Michael who inquired into the case ordered the execution of young Pedris within two days, without leaving time even for an appeal. Pedris’s father who was a wealthy Business man offered to pay a ransom of money equal to the weight of his son but it was turned down.

The courage and bravery of Henry Pedris facing his executioners was equalled only by the bravery of little Madduma Bandara and Keppetipola nilame facing the same fate about a century before. A. E. Gunasinghe, later the pioneer labour leader, gives a vivid picture of Pedris’s end in his autobiography. The horror and sadness of the story remains the same even after 103 years. Mr. Gunasinghe recollects “the terrible memory of that night in the jail remains with me.

The family of D. H. Pedris’s father, mother, sisters were all present and there were crying and wailing late into the night. It was terrible to listen to. There was a pirith ceremony and a few priests came and chanted pirith. At 5am some Punjabis, the superintendent of the jail and others came to Pedris’s Cell and requested him to dress to go for the execution. With courage and fortitude, he put on his uniform bereft of the paraphernalia due to the rank of Major. At about 6am we saw him being marched out and it was remarkable to see him keeping step with the soldiers who escorted him. He was taken behind the Jail and what happened later when he was shot was related to us by Dr. Merle Perera, who was present there as the prison doctor.

What we heard from him was an astonishing story- a wonderful display of courage. It appears that he sat on his chair and then the Superintendent of police gave him a handkerchief to cover his eyes with.

He declined and said “I have mine” and took one from his pocket and tied it around his eyes and after bidding goodbye to the doctor and other friends who were there, in oriental fashion, he boldly said “I am ready”. In two minutes Pedris was no more.

Later the chair was brought full of blood to the place where all of us were assembled to wash ourselves. There were lots of other places where it could have been taken for cleaning, but it was brought there purposely to instil fear into the hearts of the political prisoners.

The sight of the chair full of blood, and broken arms was shocking, it was on this occasion that F. R. Senanayake stated that this was an act by the British government deliberately perpetrated to frighten us. “If they think they have done it, they are sadly mistaken, on the contrary, as far as I am concerned, I take the solemn pledge, here and now, that even if I am forced to beg on the roads with a coconut shell I will spend all my wealth on teaching these fellows a lesson”.

Dr. Kumari Jayawardane gives the following account of the dark period of martial law in “Rise of the labour movement in Ceylon”. During the period of Martial law which lasted until August 1915, the troops and police along with armed British planters and civil servants unleashed a punitive campaign of terror.

Long after the riots have subsided people who were thought to be implicated in the riots were summarily shot by these armed civilians.By and order in council of August 1915, those responsible for these unlawful shootings were indemnified.And by the riots, damaged ordinancea levy was forcibly collected from the Sinhalese community indiscriminately to compensate the Muslims. On the execution of D. E. Pedris she says the following, “in the famous case of D. E. Pedris, a wealthy young member of the town guard who was sentenced to death under court martial for allegedly instigating rioting, the governor who normally confirmed of commuted death sentences, was not consulted. In a letter to the secretary of state for the colonies on the morning after the Pedris execution the governor noted that “the brigadier general saw fit not to refer the matter to me. And the death sentence was carried out” this was the only death sentence during the course of riots that was not referred to the governor. The reason may have been that, since Pedris was in the town guard, his case was subject solely to Military Jurisdiction; it is also possible that the military authorities desired to make and example of at least one member of the Ceylonese elite. Whatever, the result of this shooting caused a deep resentment and bitterness among the Sinhalese. It made Pedris into a national martyr, and as the Rev. J. S. De Silva recorded in his diary, this execution during the “reign of terror created a “feeling of horror throughout the country”.

The attitude of the colonial rulers towards the Sinhalese is evident from the following words of R. E. Stubbs, colonial secretary.

“They are a set of skunks-mostly I regret to say, men educated in Europe-one or two Cambridge men among them”

The Cambridge scholar he mentioned was F. R. Senanayake. D. B. Jayatilake was an Oxford scholar.

The way the colonial rulers inflicted much pain on the Sinhalese people and the brutal execution of Henry Pedris created deep unpleasantness among the Sinhalese leaders. They realised the need to liberate the country from British rule.

P Ramanathan, who was the elected member of the educated Ceylonese carried on a great agitation in the legislature. Sinhalese, Christian leaders also came forward to help the Sinhala Buddhists. A large meeting attended by over 5000 people was held in the public hall, Colombo in September 1915, with advocate James Peires in the chair. In this meeting another Christian leader Dr. Solomon Fernando made a strong speech, at the end of which he collapsed and died on the stage. Another Christian advocate E. W. Perera went to England taking a copy of “shoot at sight” hidden in a shoe. It was during the first world war when he risked the sea journey where German submarines were patrolling the seas. Later P. Ramanathan also joined him. The response of the colonial office was poor. They presented the facts to some of the British parliamentarians also. At last governor Chamers was called back.

And a more kind-hearted Sir John Anderson was sent here as the governor. He gave much relief to the affected people but became unpopular among the government officers. The struggle to achieve the political rights of the Ceylonese people was strengthened by the establishment of the Ceylon National Congress in 1918.

The leadership given by the famous Tamil leader P. Arunachalam, was really great. Since gaining the Universal franchise in 1931, Ceylonese got a greater share in the administration. Agitation for independence was carried on continuously, and the achievement of independence on the 4thof February 1948 made the martyrdom of Henry Pedris fruitful.