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The Bracegirdle Saga: 60 Years After

T. Perera

MARK ANTHONY Lyster Bracegirdle, at 84 years of age a legend in his own lifetime, lives in retirement in London. His exploits against the planter raj in Ceylon sixty years ago reverberated across the British Empire, investing him with the aura of a folk hero. He has long been a symbol of the island’s anti-imperialist struggle of the 1930s and has held a fascination for many a Sri Lankan who has made the trek to his Wandsworth retirement home. An unlikely visitor was a former Sri Lankan police officer – now domiciled in Australia – who in a memoir published in 1995 devoted an entire chapter to the Bracegirdle saga.

Another policeman then attached to the island’s CID, who met Bracegirdle in Borella on 17 January 1937, recorded in his log: "He was dressed in a shirt, sarong and bedroom slippers.... His views are strongly Communist and decidedly anti-British.... He is a well-made good-looking young man of about 24 years of age, has very regular features and a charming smile.... His hair is dark brown and in large waves, and his eyes are greenish blue. In profile he is rather like the poet Rupert Brooke."

The young immigrant arrived here in Ceylon from Sydney on the SS Bendigo on 4 April 1936 and started "creeping" – learning to be a planter – on a hill country tea estate, "Relugas", at Madulkelle. It was the beginning of the Bracegirdle episode that provoked a notable political and constitutional crisis.

Mark was born in Chelsea, London, on 10 September 1912 and was educated at a school in Kennington. On the eve of the Great Depression he emigrated to Australia with his mother, a suffragette who had been active in Holborn Labour Party and a candidate in 1925 for the borough council. He studied art at a Sydney art school. Then he trained as a farmer on an agricultural-livestock station in the outback. About 1935 he joined the Australian Young Communist League.

What was it made him go to Ceylon? Bracegirdle: "Well, mainly the fact that I was going to learn a new type of agriculture, but nothing really political at that time. I had no knowledge of the politics of Ceylon. On the estate we heard of the left-wing movement and I had a young planter with me, a chap named Simpson Hayward. We contacted Vernon Gunasekera [secretary of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP)] who arranged a meeting with us, and everything started from there. The thing that really made me befriend the movement was the bad treatment the workers received on the estates."

The superintendent of "Relugas" was a Blimpesque supervisor who drove his workers hard. He would go down to the linerooms to force workers to go to work. "Despite many people having malaria, or suffering badly from the results of malaria, he would insist on them picking." Bracegirdle also resented the superintendent’s interventions in the estate school where he forced children to go out and pick tea. "He used to say, it is far better that they should learn to pick. Learning to read and write was only copying white men, and it does them no good at all, and will give them ideas in later life above their station."

Soon there was labour trouble on the estate when the superintendent fired several workers and as a result fifty labourers left the workforce. Accused of fraternising with the workers, Bracegirdle was given short shrift by his employers, who booked a return passage for him on a steamer bound for Australia on 24 November 1936. He declined to oblige and did not sail as expected. He decided to stay put on the island.

The planters were a powerful group of capitalists – the vast British-owned tea and rubber estates covered half of all the cultivable land in the country, hemming in the Sinhalese villages on every side. Tea and rubber, two of the island’s main exports, accounted for the major share of its earnings. Tamil workers had been brought by the British from South India, from the third decade of the 19th century onwards, to provide cheap labour for the plantations. The workforce, numbering half a million in the hill country in the 1930s, were the largest concentration of the working class and the most exploited section. The British were solely interested in extracting maximum profit from estate labour, who lived in squalor in their barrack-like linerooms, segregated from the rest of the population. The children of the labourers were afforded second class schooling – a very rudimentary type of education. Trespass laws denied trade unionists access to the estates.

K. Natesa Iyer, a South Indian journalist, had pioneered the labour movement in the plantations in the early 1930s. The planters were quick to realise the political and economic threat the workforce posed if they organised themselves into unions. They reacted with a virulent campaign to discredit Natesa Iyer and undermine his efforts at unionisation. Caste issues were raised to set the kanganies (overseers) and the subordinate staff (tea-makers, clerks and conductors) against the workers. The employers even financed a weekly Tamil paper. This propaganda rag referred to the worker as "an ignorant individual who would give his last penny to hear some maniac get on to a platform and run others down", and said that hanging was too good a fate for men like Natesa Iyer, "lest they pollute the very rope from whose end they might sway". The chairman of the Planters’ Association railed at "self-constituted leaders who seek to exploit the labourers as a means of livelihood".

Bracegirdle’s interest in improving the conditions of plantation labour prompted Natesa Iyer, who was the member of the State Council for Hatton, to offer the former a stint in the trade union he had founded in 1931.

But Bracegirdle joined the LSSP, a broad socialist party founded barely a year earlier by a group of young intellectuals – Philip Gunawardena, Dr N.M. Perera, Dr Colvin R. de Silva, Dr S.A. Wickremasinghe and Leslie Goonewardene – who had returned to the island in the early 1930s having completed their education abroad where they had been influenced by the Marxist and labour movements.

The maverick planter began to participate energetically in the party’s activities, on which the police kept a close watch. On 28 November 1936, at an LSSP meeting in Maradana, the president of the party, Dr Colvin R. de Silva, introduced Bracegirdle: "This is the first time a white comrade has ever attended a party meeting held at a street corner." Bracegirdle made a speech in which he said that he brought greetings from the workers of Australia: "The capitalists and imperialists were preparing for war and in the event of a war it will be the workers who would have to face the war and suffer." He warned the workers that the capitalists were trying to split the workers of Lanka into two different camps and put one against the other.

He also took an active part in organising a protest meeting in Colombo to mark Sir Herbert Dowbiggin’s departure from the island. It was called to protest against the atrocities during Dowbiggin’s tenure as Inspector General of Police. Bracegirdle referred to police excesses (according to a police report revealed subsequently at the Bracegirdle Commission hearings) in "putting harmless villagers out of their beds at night and shooting them down long after the 1915 riots had been quelled".

By an interesting coincidence his appearances on LSSP platforms occurred during the fortnight-long visit of Mrs Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, a leader of the Indian Congress Socialist Party and one of the most colourful figures of the Indian liberation movement. A South Indian, she was the wife of the poet/playwright Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, brother of the renowned Sarojini Naidu. In 1926 she was the first woman in India to run for the Legislative Council. She was jailed for participating in Gandhi’s Salt March of 1930.

Bracegirdle was on hand with other LSSPers to meet Mrs Chattopadhyaya on her arrival in Colombo. He also accompanied her to meetings in the plantation districts – Kandy, Hatton, Nuwara Eliya and Nawalapitiya. On 3 April, at a meeting at Nawalapitiya attended by two thousand estate workers, at which Mrs Chattopadhyaya spoke, Dr N.M. Perera, Member of the State Council for Ruwanwella, said: "Comrades, I have an announcement to make. You know we have a white comrade (applause) .... He has generously consented to address you. I call upon Comrade Bracegirdle to address you."

Bracegirdle mounted the platform to cheers, clapping and tumultuous cries of "samy, samy" [god]. He said: "Comrade Kamaladevi has pointed out to you how you poor labourers are being mercilessly exploited (cheers). You see those white hills – you see those white bungalows – there the whites live in all luxury. I was also employed in one of the estates.... I came here as I heard it was a rich country, so it is. But all its riches have gone into the pockets of my countrymen (cries of shame, shame).You have only to work for nine hours. You need not work a minute after that. If you work, the estate must pay you overtime. But you know on every estate the rule is that you must work twelve hours. But the planter will not pay you for the extra three hours. Rise, rise and win your freedom and gain your rights (repeated cries of samy, samy)."

A government official who took down Bracegirdle’s speech observed: "the most noteworthy feature of this meeting ... was the presence of Bracegirdle and his attack on the planters. He claimed unrivalled knowledge of the misdeeds of the planters and promised scandalous exposures. His delivery, facial appearance, his posture were all very threatening.... Every sentence was punctuated with cries of samy, samy from the labourers. Labourers were heard to remark that Mr Bracegirdle has correctly said that they should not allow planters to break labour laws and they must in future not take things lying down."

Bracegirdle had joined the Samasamajists who were among the most articulate critics of imperialism and his speeches in a similar vein created a sensation and outraged the planting community. Soon the Peria Dorais – the estate bosses – were in cahoots with the colonial sahibs in Colombo to bundle the rebel planter out of the colony. To this end an old regulation – a relic of the Victorian era meant for wartime exigencies which had lapsed in all colonial territories except the island – was dusted off and invoked. The Governor, Sir Edward Stubbs, who was vacationing in Nuwara Eliya, signed the Order requiring Bracegirdle "to quit the island" and if he refused to obey directed the police "to arrest and remove him on board of any ship or boat proceeding from any port in the island to Australia". He was given 48 hours to leave by the SS Mooltan, on which a berth had been booked for him by the government. The ship sailed on 25 April without Bracegirdle.

The police mounted a manhunt but the fugitive successfully evaded arrest. The affair gained nationwide publicity with public sympathy showing itself in favour of the rebel. The LSSP’s May Day demonstration that year highlighted the controversy with placards declaring "We want Bracegirdle", "Deport Stubbs".

On 5 May, the "Samasamajist twins" in the State Council, Dr N.M. Perera and Philip Gunawardena, moved a vote of censure on the Governor for having "violated the constitution" in ordering the deportation of Bracegirdle without the advice of the acting Home Minister, which was passed by 34 votes to 7. Of the elected members present there was only one dissentient, H.R. Freeman the Member for Anuradhapura, a former British civil servant, who voted for the resolution. Responding to the public mood, members of the legislature criticised the Governor’s arbitrary action. Several of them had been jailed during the Riots and Stubbs was personally unpopular with them for his role as Colonial Secretary in 1915.

On the same day a meeting was called by the LSSP on Galle Face Green to protest against the Governor’s deportation order, which was attended by 50,000 people. Among the speakers were Dr N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena, A.E. Goonesinha, George E. de Silva, D.M. Rajapakse, Siripala Samarakkody, Vernon Gunasekera, Handy Perimbanayagam and Mrs K. Natesa Iyer (who spoke in Tamil). One of the speakers was S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Minister of Local Government. He said that although he was a Minister he was not afraid of attending that meeting. If the Governor told him he that he should not have done so, he was not afraid of "chucking up his job". In a reference to the events of 1915 he said: "When defenceless women, aged men and innocent children were shot like cats, dogs and rats" the powers under which the Governor perpetrated these atrocities were still retained by him "in spite of the hollow mockery of self-government that the country had been given". Leslie Goonewardene said that Bracegirdle had identified with the workers, he even ate seeni sambol and rice with the workers and slept on the floor.

Shortly afterwards there was a stir among the crowd and Dr Colvin R. de Silva, who presided, appealed for calm. Bracegirdle was seen striding towards the platform. He mounted it and with a clenched fist stood by the chairman. He later recalled: "The problem was that the whole place was surrounded by policemen. Vernon said ‘no problem, just go straight through the crowd’. We walked through the crowd and I climbed up on the platform to a terrific cheer." The impact of his reappearance was electrifying. Addressing the meeting in English, Bracegirdle thanked the crowd for their presence. "I realise", he said, "you are the only instrument of Ceylon’s freedom. My comrades, I may soon leave your beautiful country and never see you again, but as your comrade-in-arms I shall carry your struggles to the hearts of the working people of the whole world."

Bracegirdle recounted how "the police came rushing in with an arrest warrant. Colvin took hold of the warrant. He said, ‘It’s out of date, by several hours. You have to get another warrant’. They said, ‘We can’t’". Two days later, however, Bracegirdle was arrested at Hulftsdorp. "I was living with Vernon Gunasekera. One morning several policemen with truncheons drawn marched in and arrested me." He had eluded the police for a fortnight.

Meanwhile the LSSP, which had orchestrated the moves skilfully, was preparing to test the legality of the Governor’s order. A writ of habeas corpus was served and the legal battle before a bench of three Supreme Court Judges ensued. H.V. Perera, the brilliant civil lawyer, volunteered his services free on behalf of Bracegirdle. "My lawyer was made a King’s Counsel on the day I appeared in court", Bracegirdle remembered. "One judge was Lord Justice Abrahams, a Jewish judge, and there were two Burgher judges." In the course of the legal arguments one judge referred to Bracegirdle as a "Wandering Jew" – "and quick as a flash Abrahams retorted: ‘Or a Flying Dutchman’!" On 18 May the court ordered that Bracegirdle could not be deported for exercising his right of free speech and he was released. Bracegirdle returned to England in the summer of 1937. He was seen off at the jetty by Dr N.M. Perera, Mrs Selina Perera, Vernon Gunasekera and Udakandawala Saranankara Thero.

Two significant events – the successful country-wide speaking tour of Mrs Chattopadhyaya and the Bracegirdle affair – propelled the LSSP to the forefront of national politics. The party grasped the chance to spearhead the burgeoning anti-imperialist movement. The Bracegirdle episode, though a distant memory, underscored the importance of safeguarding the fundamental right of free speech. The cause célèbre in which Bracegirdle figured will always be of interest to students of Sri Lanka’s political history.