The hero… that time forgot | Sunday Observer

The hero… that time forgot

4 July, 2021

There are many heroes who risked their lives to fight for the independence of our country, Ceylon as it was known then, which had been under the rule of Western nations for hundreds of years.

Two or perhaps three centuries ago, the pioneers of the struggle for independence were mostly from wealthy and powerful families.


However, not all those who contributed to the struggle for independence were able to live in a free country.

The reason was because many of them were killed under the Western rulers, especially under British rule of that era.

Born into a very wealthy family, Edward Henry Pedris was a well-educated youth who played a significant role in the struggle for independence.

His 106th death anniversary fell on July seven and this article describes the story of this great person.

Henry Pedris was born on August, 16, 1888 in Galle, and was the youngest of five children and the only son of Duenuge Disan Pedris and Mallino Fernando Pedris.

Henry Pedris’ father and his uncle N. S. Fernando Wijesekara were leading businessmen at that the time, and his family was among the wealthiest and most influential families in the country.

Henry Pedris first attended Royal College, Colombo and later entered St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia where he excelled in sports and became famous as a Cricketer, playing for the school’s cricket team.

After some time he returned to Royal College where he again played cricket and engaged in other sports activities too.

His father had great hopes that Pedris would one day take over his business ventures and become a leader in the commercial sector.


At that time, with the outbreak of World War I, the British Government mobilised the Ceylon Defence Force and raised the Colombo Town Guard a regiment of volunteers to defend Colombo in case of an attack.

Accordingly, Henry Pedris joined the Colombo Town Guard as a private and first Sinhalese to be enlisted to the new regiment. He later became an excellent marksman in a short period of time and due to his excellent horsemanship was made a commissioned officer in the administrative section.

Within a year, Henry Pedris was promoted to the rank of captain. The promotion along with his immense wealth, Henry Pedris was envied by many.

In 1915, the Muslim Sinhala riots (popularly known as the Muslim Sinhala Kolahalaya), which began in Kandy after a group of Muslims attacked a Buddhist procession.

The then British Governor of Ceylon, Sir Robert Chalmers, feared he might lose control of the colony and on the advice of Brigadier General Malcolm, the former declared Martial Law on June, 2, 1915 following which he ordered the Police and Army to shoot any person who they deemed a rioter.

With the increase of the violence, looting broke out within Colombo and Henry Pedris, as he was responsible for the defence of the city, successfully managed to disband several rioting groups after having peaceful discussions with them.


However, certain aristocrats including British officials and those of prestigious Sinhalese families, were not happy with Henry Pedris since he had gained much popularity at the time and they culminated in false charges being drawn up against him.

The charges were that Henry Pedris shot at a group of innocent Muslims and had incited people to march to the city of Colombo from Peliyagoda area.

Based on these accusations, he is said to have been arrested. Following his arrest, the British, fearing an open rebellion, imprisoned more than 80 prominent Sinhalese leaders including D. S. Senanayake who later went on to become the first Prime Minister of Ceylon, D. R. Wijewardena who later founded Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Lake House), Edwin Wijeyeratne, Dr. Cassius Pereira, E. T. De Silva, F. R. Dias Bandaranaike, Henry Woodward Amarasuriya from Amarasuriya Walawwa in Unawatuna and A. H. Molamure.

Following his arrest, Henry Pedris was brought before a Field General Court Martial at the Headquarters of the General Officer Commanding, Ceylon in Malay Street, Slave Island on July, 1, 1915 and the Court Martial Board was made up of British officers of the 17th Punjab Regiment and Henry Pedris was defended by Advocate L. H. de Alwis.

The Field General Court Martial quickly found Henry Pedris guilty of the charge of treason and sentenced to death. The date of the execution was set for July, 7, 1915 without providing any form of appeal.


Having been sentenced to death under the terms of the Army Act, the death sentence had to be ratified by the Governor.

However, the case of Henry Pedris was not referred to the Governor by Brigadier General Leigh Malcolm.

Following his conviction, his family filed an application for “writs of certiorari and prohibition” in the Supreme Court of Ceylon, to which relief was denied by a bench comprised of the then Chief Justice Sir Alexander Wood Renton and two other justices.

The judgement was never published in the New Law Report and the 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 prominent citizens and educationists including both British and Ceylonese appealed against the judgment without any impact and an appeal was also made to King George V.


On July, 7, 1915, Pedris was stripped of his rank and executed by firing squad made up of Punjabi soldiers from the 17th Punjab Regiment.

Thousands of people from various parts of the country were marching to Colombo to protest his execution, but the then British Governor deployed British troops to block the march. Following the execution, his body was buried in an unmarked grave, in keeping with military tradition of a burial of a traitor, against the wishes of his family.

However, Henry Pedris’ father, D. D. Pedris had people spy on the transport and burial of the body, and the British had accidentally chosen a cemetery where the Pedris family owned several plots.

One of those plots was chosen for the interment, and only one or two members of the Pedris family knew the exact location.

Later, in 1987, Henry Pedris’s suspected grave was unearthed, and the remains were verified to be his and reburied.

By the time of the execution of Henry Pedris by the British, his father, D. D. Pedris had gained a life insurance for his son at the amount of Rs. 25,000 in 1915.

The insurance company, Manufacture’s Life Insurance Company refused payment on the grounds that Henry Pedris was lawfully executed.

The administrator of Pedris Estate then filled action in the District Court of Colombo and District Judge Wadsworth dismissed the action and ruled in favour of the insurance company.


Thereafter an appeal was made by Benjamin Bawa, and Eugene Wilfred Jayewardene to the Supreme Court and it was taken up before, Chief Justice Sir Alexander Wood Renton and the decree of the District Judge was set aside and the case was sent back for further inquiries, the plaintiff having to prove although convicted, Henry Pedris did not commit treason.

Back in the District Court, Manufacture’s Life Insurance settled the matter with a full payment, presumably under pressure from the colonial Government.

Henry Pedris’s death was also meant as a warning for other Ceylonese leaders who were leading the independence movement and after the execution; the blood-soaked chair on which Pedris was sitting during the execution was taken to the prison cells in which many Sinhalese leaders including D. S. Senanayake were held and shown to them with the warning that they would be next.

Also, many claims are there that the execution of Henry


Pedris by the colonial Government marked the beginning of the Ceylonese independence movement with many people especially from the educated middle class taking an active role in it.

Their action resulted in Ceylon gaining independence in 1948.

In 1916, Henry Pedris’s father D. D. Pedris built the Isipathanaramaya Temple in Havelock Town, Colombo in memory of his slain son. Two statues of Henry Pedris have been erected in Havelock Town and in his hometown Galle.

On the occasion of the unveiling ceremony of the statue in Havelock Town, it was decided that the adjacent sports grounds should be renamed in Henry Pedris’s memory.

And so, on July, 7 1987, the Edward Henry Pedris Stadium was declared open and D. D. Pedris had also built a pilgrims’ rest in Polonnaruwa and named it the “Edward Henry Pedris Rest” which was maintained with income gained from lands owned by the Pedris family in Anuradhapura known as the Kuttampokunakele and the Basuwakkulamakele.

Pedris’s mother, Mallino Pedris gifted the land for the Mallikarama Temple in Dematagoda in 1920 in her son’s memory.

Very few in today’s society know about heroes such as Henry Pedris, who gave up all their wealth, power, and even the life, to lead the country to independence.

If they had not sacrificed their lives and continued the struggle for independence of this country, we would still be a subordinate nation to the West.

So we shall always remember these heroes who sacrificed their lives and inherited a free country for us.