John Kotelawala (Snr) commits suicide in his cell | Sunday Observer
First sensational murder trial in Ceylon:

John Kotelawala (Snr) commits suicide in his cell

8 March, 2020

The crowds that storm the court to listen to the gory details of a sensational criminal trial or the public who read the same details in print are clear indications of the absorbing interest in which a sensational court case is followed. The writer delves in-depth to a murder trial that took place in the latter part of the 19th century

There were several families that made fortunes in the latter part of the 19th century. Mudliyar D. C. G. Attygalle of Madapatha, Piliyandala was one such person who amassed enormous wealth. In addition to huge tracts of coconut land he also owned several plumbago mines, namely Kahatagaha Mines and Maduragoda Pits. Plumbago was in great demand at that time and tons of it were shipped to England to manufacture pencils. There were no ball point pens then.

Don Charles Gemoris Attygalle made money in coffee, graphite and arrack renting. Though born in Salpitikorale, he worked at the Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya and was a very efficient officer in agriculture.

He was later transferred to the Hakgala Gardens from where he resigned to grow coffee in Kadugannawa. With the profits he made, he began graphite mining and then arrack renting. He became one of the largest land owners in the Kurunegala District. Mudliyar Attygalle died in 1901.

Attygalle siblings

The Mudliyar had three daughters and an only son - Francis Dixon Attygalle. The eldest of the daughters was Alice.

John Kotelawala (Snr) was also from the same village. He joined the Police, which was then known as the Ceylon Constabulary, in the capacity of a Police Constable. He was a very able and daring police officer and within a few years rose to the post of a Police Inspector. At that time most police inspectors were British. He was a man of guts which earned him early promotions. He became known for busting up gambling dens, the most famous being the one portrayed in the play Nainage Sooduwa.

It is not known whether the mudliyar’s eldest daughter married John Kotelawala on a proposal, or whether it was a love affair.

They had three children. They were Sir John Kotelawala (one time PM), who married and divorced Effie Dias Bandaranayake; Barrister Justin Kotelawala (who married the daughter of Sir A. M. de Silva, FRCS) and Freda, who married C.V.S. Corea, one of the earliest men to specialise in homeopathy. Their son was Dr. Gamini Corea of UNCTAD fame and Justin’s son is Lalith Kotelawala of the Ceylinco Group.

It is not know whether the mudliyar approved of Alice’s marriage to John Kotelawala (Snr). A few years after this marriage Mudliyar Attygalle died leaving an unlettered widow, two unmarried daughters and a school-going son, Francis Dixon, who attended Wesley College.

To manage the enormous Attygalle Estate, John Kotelawala (Snr) resigned from the Police, along with Singhoni Perera, who served as a Police Sergeant under him. It is reported that John Kotelawala (Snr) appropriated a major portion of the profits from the coconut estates and the plumbago mines.

It was so much over and above his wife’s share, that his mother-in-law Mrs D. C. G. Attygalle was forced to file several cases in the Kurunegala District Court to eject him from the management. Her son Francis Dixon left Wesley College at 16, but he was too young to pit his strength against his brother-in-law John.

On Mrs Attygalle making representations to the Governor of Ceylon, Francis Dixon though a minor, was conferred ‘Letters of Venia Aetatis’, making a major out of a minor, using the Governor’s powers.

When Alice and John Kotelawala’s children were yet of tender age, Francis Dixon’s second sister married Engineer Col. T.G. Jayewardene an uncle of the late President J.R. Jayewardene. Col. T.G. had four lawyer brothers; Justice E.W (King’s Counsel), Justice A. St. V. (King’s Counsel), J.S. and J.Q.

John Kotelawala (Snr) knew that with the union between the Jayewardene family and the Attygalle family, his ability to appropriate the bulk of the proceeds of the Attygalle Estate would be severely curbed. At the wedding in Madapatha Walauwa, he made derogatory remarks against the Jayewardenes, referring to them as Thambiyas. The grandfather of these five brothers was a Thombu Mudliyar who had migrated to Ceylon from the Coromandal Coast during the time of the Dutch.

Francis Dixon was infuriated that his brother-in-law to be and his family were insulted. Thereupon, he went up to John Kotelawala (Snr) and gave him a slap. John (Snr), in the presence of the congregation told Francis Dixon, “Umba denaganning yakada habalapethi kevai kiyala” (You are yet young to know that you are doomed).

Thereafter, John Kotelawala (Snr) planned the murder of Francis Dixon for the insult he suffered at the wedding. He enlisted the help of his former Police Sergeant Singhoni Perera to commit the murder. He floated a bogus company called Ceylon-Japan Trading Company and set sail to Japan, to create an alibi.

The plan

Singhoni Perera enlisted the assistance of his cousin Baron Perera, and the two of them found in Piloris alias Pila, a man who could kill by shooting. At that time there were very few people who could handle firearms. Piloris was from Wadduwa and is said to have fought in the Boer War, under the command of Winston Churchill.

Singhoni and Baron bought a gun from Walkers for the princely sum of Rs 25. For a few days, they kept Piloris in a room in Pettah. They made certain that Piloris did not know their identities.

Francis Dixon Attygalle was in the habit of residing at the house of C.P.Dias, his former Head Master at Wesley College, when ever he came to Colombo. Dias was a highly respected person, and was a Municipal Councillor. In that era it was prestigious to be elected to the CMC. Dias Place in Pettah is named after this gentleman.

One night, when Francis Dixon was on the verandah of the Dias residence, Singhoni and Baron took Piloris near the fence, with instructions that Piloris should open fire, when Francis Dixon comes out to the garden. There was no electricity way back in 1905. Things worked according to plan. Singhoni called out, “Francis, Francis”, and Piloris opened fire as Francis Dixon came out. Then Singhoni and Baron made a quick get-away, having given strict instructions to Piloris to return on a particular route. The plan was for Singhoni and Baron to kill Piloris on his return journey.

The hired assassin was paid some money with the promise that the balance would be paid when the job was complete. It dawned on Piloris that he should not return on the designated route, and that now, his own life could be in danger. He was intelligent enough to know that the safest place would be the cell in a police station. Therefore, he went straight to the police and told them that he had shot a man totally unknown to him.

Francis Dixon, apart from John Kotelawala (Snr) had other, enemies on his estates, because he was a strict disciplinarian. Kotelawala (Snr) though an ex-police officer, was not too popular with the British police officers. He was then the President of the Carters Association of Colombo. In those days, the mode of transport was bullock carts. There were no lorries and vans.

Francis Dixon Attygalle died in hospital after a few days without wanting to make his sister Alice a widow, by implicating his brother-in-law, but left all his properties on a death bed Will, to his other two sisters; Mrs T.G. Jayewardene and the youngest sister, who later married F.R. Senanayake, the father of R.G. Senanayake. F. R. was the elder brother of D. S. Senanayake.

F.R. died at the age of 44 yrs. He was a barrister. Had he survived, F.R would have been our Prime Minister and not D.S. Senanayake.

Soon after, Alice sent a cable to her husband in Japan, “Francis died. Funeral took place”. The fool John Kotelawala (Snr) cabled back, “Who shot him?” By his stupidity, he gave the show away! Intelligence was never the strong point of Kotelawala.

British police officers found Kotelawala’s cable very strange. How did he know, thousands of miles away in Japan, which Francis Dixon died of gunshot wounds? There were no telephones then, no radios or TV. Soon after Singhoni sent a cable in code; “Cow calfed”, which was deciphered to mean, job accomplished. The police patiently waited, and as John (Snr) landed at the Colombo Jetty, they arrested him and took him to the Police Magistrate of Colombo. Kotelawala (Snr) got cold feet and made a confession implicating Singhoni and Baron as accomplices.

The police were not interested in Piloris. The Attorney General with the powers vested in him, made Piloris Crown Witness, provided he spilt the beans.

Because of the personalities involved and the gruesome manner in which the young man was killed, it evoked much attention to become the first sensational murder trial in Ceylon.

Three English barristers were retained for the three accused. Eardley Norton a top criminal lawyer from Madras was retained for John Kotelawala (Snr), Thomas Thornhill a Criminal Lawyer from Calcutta for Singhoni and F. A. Hayley, uncle of Chas P. Hayley appeared for Baron.

The Trial came up in 1906 before Justice Wood-Renton (later Chief Justice), in the Colombo Assizes, and went on for several days. On the day of the verdict, it was clear that these accused would be sentenced to death. John Kotelawala (Snr) had cyanide smuggled into his cell and committed suicide. Singhoni and Baron were sentenced to death.

The Carters of Colombo got into a frenzy thinking that their boss had been killed by those who appeared for the prosecution. They were so ignorant that they did not understand the niceties of a fair legal trial.

The prosecution was conducted by Acting Attorney General Walter Pereira (KC) who later became a Judge of the Supreme Court. He is responsible for the Laws of Ceylon. His house was the present Pettah Kachcheri. Pettah was then, a highly residential area. Walter’s son Aelian Pereira, became a top class jury lawyer. According to him, hundreds of carters stormed his father’s house and was about to attack him and his young family.

One carter started climbing the front steps. Walter Pereira got hold of this man and threw him into the crowd and amazingly, the whole crowd dispersed and walked towards Asoka Gardens Junction, Galle Road to the house of C.M. Fernando (the first Ceylonese Crown Counsel) who assisted Walter Pereira in the prosecution. C. M. Fernando was the brother of Sir Marcus Fernando. Sir Marcus was then a member of the legislative council. These two brothers were married to the daughters of Sir Charles De Soysa.

C. M. Fernando on hearing the crowd approaching went into hiding with his family. The crowd smashed up his house.

Thus ended the first sensational murder trial in Ceylon.