20 October, 2017

Kent’s Illustrious Exiles: Sir John Kotelawala

By T. Thurai – 

T. Thurai

T. Thurai

When a character, encountered only in books, suddenly steps off the page, it is an electrifying experience. Nothing prepares you for that moment when the bare bones of history suddenly acquire flesh. You do not know where the discovery will come, or when. It is so unexpected that it seems surreal. Yet one thing is certain, it is always accompanied by a frisson of excitement.

I was fortunate enough to have such an experience at a birthday party held in a converted barn only three miles from my home. I was sitting next to a local farmer – the owner of the barn – and had mentioned my interest in 1950s Ceylon, including one its Prime Ministers Sir John Kotelawala.

“Oh,” said the farmer. “My Dad knew Sir John. He lived around here, didn’t he?”

He did indeed, but I had not expected to meet anyone who recognised the name – let alone had any memory – of the colourful and pugnacious man who was Prime Minister of Ceylon.

Sir John Kotelawala and companions at a local fete in Kent

Sir John Kotelawala and companions at a local fete in Kent

Sir John’s personal story was a remarkable one of rags-to-riches. Having been accused of murder, his father had committed suicide and the family had faced destitution. However, Sir John’s mother had staged a remarkable comeback and rebuilt the family fortunes.

Sir John must have inherited her determination, climbing the exceptionally greasy pole of post-colonial politics to become the country’s third Prime Minister after Independence (1953 -1956). Cast in the ‘old school’ mould, he maintained close ties with the British establishment, being appointed to the Privy Council in 1954 and proving himself a fierce anti-Communist.

Pathé News reels show him on several official trips abroad, including a summit of Commonwealth Prime Ministers at 10 Downing Street where he rubbed shoulders with Winston Churchill and Pandit Nehru.

While Sir John is only briefly mentioned in my book The Devil Dancers, he acquired a particular interest for me when I discovered that, after losing Ceylon’s 1956 General Election, he had bought a house in the English county of Kent where he lived for a number of years.

On Saturday, 7 July 1956, The Times’s Property Correspondent recorded Sir John’s purchase of Brogues Wood estate at Biddenden in Kent. Interestingly, this idyllic village with its medieval half-timbered houses had previously provided a home for another political exile: the King of Siam.

Situated a couple of miles from the genteel country town of Tenterden, Brogues Wood was described by The Times as having “four reception rooms and four principal and three secondary bed rooms and stands in grounds of some 103 acres.”

Sir John appears to have pre-empted an auction of the property which was to have taken place later that month; however, The Times politely omits to report how much he paid for it.

While his attendance at glittering social events was frequently recorded in the columns of the Court Circular, Sir John Kotelawala also appears to have taken a keen interest in local Kentish life. A number of old black-and-white photographs show him attending local fêtes, including one at Tenterden.

My meeting with the local farmer fleshed out the fascinating, but ephemeral information that I had already gleaned about Sir John’s life in Kent.

“Sir John Kotelawala and my father both shared an interest in horses,” explained the farmer who told me that his father had arranged tickets for Sir John and his retinue to attend the racing at Ascot.

“The ladies in Sir John’s entourage all wore beautiful saris,” said the farmer. “They turned a lot of heads in the royal enclosure!”

Pathé news reel showing Sir John Kotelawala at a meeting of Commonwealth Premiers at 10 Downing Street in 1955

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Latest comments

  • 16
    4

    and Now we have the great Dutegemunu leading the country in a clown outfit. He kills, steals, assassinates, and he does many other things. Oh by the way, he builds a lot of things and names them all after him. What a great leader:)

    • 4
      1

      Gota the hero,

      “and Now we have the great Dutegemunu leading the country in a clown outfit. He kills, steals, assassinates, and he does many other things. Oh by the way, he builds a lot of things and names them all after him. What a great leader:) ?

      Sir John Kotalawala, was Knighted

      Are they going to Knight

      1. Para- Rajapaksa?

      2. Para-Gotabaya

      3. Other Paras.

      the Land of Native Veddah?

      Sir John Kotalawala, was Knighted

      Sir John Kotalawala, was Knighted

      • 5
        1

        Para Rajapaksa will be knighted for murders, theft, assassinations………………oh boy the wonderful list goes on.

  • 7
    4

    Sir John was one of the many brown sahibs we do so well. In those early days of independence, he was a parvenu, not in the same social league as the old families as DS, SWRD, JR et al and it was his braggadocio that carried him to the top of the political class. When his inevitable fall came, and he saw the rise of the great unwashed, he ensured a bolt hole for himself in the England that he loved so well, and in which he could indulge his penchant for playing the squire. He remains a footnote in the political history of our island.

  • 8
    3

    @spring koha, then he must have left behind a bunch of racists who brought the country to an absolute standstill and VP the murderer from the north made it even worse? I am not sure of DS, but SWRD and JR were self proclaimed racists who destroyed this beautiful land.

    • 3
      2

      How true.

      But as usual the para folk of shaglag island are immersed in a lie about north India and 2500 donkeys years heritage- hora oru.

      In fact north Indians are DNA Taliban (the history of north India starts with Afghanistan on west).Aryan died with Hitler and there is no DNA.

      • 2
        0

        Javi,

        “But as usual the para folk of shaglag island are immersed in a lie about north India and 2500 donkeys years heritage- hora oru.”

        Yes, their DNA is confirmation they are para.. They do not have Native Veddah DNA, who were there well over 25,000 years ago.

  • 3
    0

    Thanks to Ms Thurai, good article I learned from history. New Generation must read, and you must write more about the “Ceylon History”

  • 5
    6

    Sir J was no doubt a colourful figure. His achievements as a political leader are hard to find. We was a wealthy, cheerful man; good company, jovial and even humble from all accounts (I had the priviledge of meeting him once when I was a little boy). No opposition leader has condemned Sir J, not even the ever critical Tamil humbugs like Chelva, Ponna and Sunda had bad things to say about him. Why didn’t those Tamil humbugs take their so called grievances to Sir J when he was the PM? The answer is that though Sir J was a decent chap he had no time for humbug and the likes of Ponna, Chelva and Sunda and their racist agenda. He would have dealt with those racist scumbags and their racist agenda firmly. Sadly, Sir J’s most celebrated achievement was earning the nickname “Bundung Booruwa”.

    • 3
      0

      Sir J went to Jaffna in 1955 before the election which he lost to SWRD. He was crowned king in Delft island. where he promised that two Sinhala and Tamil would be made official language. SWRD Racist captured this statement of Sir J in Delft and he capitalised this on his Sinhala only propaganda and against Sir J. Rest is history, even Sir J negated on his stand for parity between Sinhala and Tamil. Like wise NM and Peter K. all were Sinhala Humbugs Lal. To rebuild the glorious days of Ceylon; only solution would be to oust these present Humbugs, by putting them behind bars. Get back all the money they have so far swindled the government coffers, 10% bribes from Chinese on all the construction projects on roads, electricity plant in Puttalam, which needs their engineers to fix, and many others. All these money have been hoarded and some spent on lavish splash outs on cars, and women by Namal and by Rajapaske Clans Gota, 10% Basil. People should demand them to repay all Chinese loans before they leave the Island like Sir J. However the Tamil Humbugs you lal have mentioned never swindled the government coffers.

    • 5
      1

      @Lal, what I write below DOES NOT include Sir John K. He was my favourite (out of all Lankans). We had to send 3 Tamil humbugs from the north to meet about 30 Sinhala humbugs from the south. What do you want the Tamils to send to meet the many Sinhala humbugs who came from the south, 3 priests? Racists like you will never see beyond the Sinhala Tamil divide. Look where Lanka is today compared to where it was under Sir. John K. What kind of leaders you have? coolies from Hambantota, thugs from panadura, murderers from down south somewhere, tamil LTTE killers from the north and east – where can you find them all sitting together? Sri Lankan parliament on the UPFA side. I am so ashamed to call these fellows leaders. I wouldn’t have even hired them to till my farms let alone lead the country. If you are a supporter of these fellows, then that tells me the class you belong to.

    • 6
      0

      Lal,

      Sir J was NEVER against the Tamils, in fact the Tamils liked him and even respected him. In fact Ponna, Chelva and Sunda had a good relationship with Sir J. Most of his (Sir J’s) female companions were also Tamil ladies. On the other hand, Sir J hated the Sinhala-Buddhist monks. He was famous for saying, ‘apply Tar on Buddhist Monks bold heads’.

  • 9
    0

    Spring Koha,

    Your English is super but that unfortunately does not make up for your ignorance.You say that Sir John did not belong to
    the same social league of DS,SWRD and JR.

    You seem unaware that Sir John’s maternal aunt,Ellen,married FR Senanayake,DS Senanayake’s brother,another maternal aunt,Lena ,married Col.TG Jayawardene,,paternal uncle of President JRJayewardene. Sir John’s father,John Kotelawela, descended from Don Philip Kotelawela,,Attapattu Mudaliyar of Hewagam Korale.

    Sir John’s mother ,Alice, inherited the famous Kahatagaha and Kolongaha mines from her father , Mudaliyar Gemoris Artygalle,who was far wealthier,than the Senanayakes,Bandaranaikes and Jayewardenes combined. The fact that the Senanayake’s sought election funding from the Artygalles is well known.

    In the good old days(Spring may well call bad old days) upper class Sinhalese families – of which the Kotelawelas were certainly one – almost as a rule married into families of the same class and caste.Sir John’s father did exactly that when he married Alice Artygalle .So it was not braggadocio, as Spring Koha asserts , but wealth, caste and class that took the irrepressible Sir John to be Prime Minister.

    So much for Sir John being a “parvenu “as Spring Koha calls him!! Hats off to that great soul who said ” A little learning is a dangerous thing “

    Cuckoo Bird

    • 1
      2

      Cuckoo Bird

      Notwithstanding your comment, I stand by mine.

      The only thing I would say, having known some of the Attygalle’s, is that there is NO ‘art’ in A T T Y G A L L E. My reference for this is correspondence I have had with members of the family.

      Go in peace and enjoy the luminous blessings of these holy Poson days.

    • 1
      1

      So now we know Sir John K ‘s was of a high ‘CASTE’.
      I thought Sinhalese Buddhists had no caste.
      K.A..Sumane, tell us did Sir John belong to the Vellala variety you often comment about in this forum ?

    • 0
      1

      Cooku bird says that Sir John was of high caste. But I thought that Sinhalese Buddhists did not have caste.
      May be K.A.Sumane who seem to know a lot about the Vellala caste about which comments in these columns could let us know if Sir John belonged to that caste.

    • 4
      0

      Spring Koha’s rubbish aside thank you for writing about the family connections. I had always wondered what the connection between the Artygalles and the UNP’s funding was. You have educated me on the subject. This history needs to be told regardless of the jealous brigade and their stupid rantings for it is the history of our country. Also, congradulations to the writer of this article. The legacy of Sir John is far from a foot note. He is the only prime minister that donated his entire family fortune to the country. The Kothelawala defence academy was donated to the military lock stock and barrel after his death. No finer gift could any man give to his country. I curse all the scoundrels who come on this site and try do diminish the stature of a great Ceylonese. You are a bane to society and to the well being of any country. The least you can do is to shut up.

  • 3
    0

    Spring Koha, June 7, 2014 at 6:16 am, says Sir John “remains a footnote in the political history of our island”.

    But undoubtedly Lanka leaders of the 1970’s, 80′, 90’s, and the following 14 years certainly qualify as thieves. [Edited out]

  • 1
    0

    I know this is not relevant but how can we get sunshine back to this beautiful land.Hopefully if we all can work for the positives and leave the negatives out in our leadership and bring common grounds to agree upon.

    Get most of the brains that left the country back and cultivate togetherness and well being of all.

    Let us not dwell on petty differences but bring sanity and justIce to all and sundry.

    • 2
      0

      There is no chance for that my friend …. as long as the Sinhala Buddhist Vote Bank is nurtured and moulded by the Mahana Yakas.

  • 5
    0

    The only man who kept old Nari-Banda in his place.

  • 6
    0

    With Sir John around, Rev Gandhasara and the BBS scoundrels would have stood no chance. They would have been stripped of their Sivuras and hanged by their feet at Galle Face green with tar dripping from their baldies.

  • 3
    0

    Spring Koha

    Friend, you seem to be hurt by the cuckoo bird’s obviously well researched comment.All you could say in reply is that you stand by your comment.Come on mate learn and dispel your ignorance..Don’t always make stupid comments and confirm yourself as a born loser..
    Now what has poson to do with your ignorance?
    Ella Boy in Aus

  • 1
    0

    I remember being taken by my elder brother in the early 1960s on a trip to Kandawela when we visited Colombo from our outstation home. Sir John happened to be having his morning tea in the verandah and gave us a warm friendly smile. I was only about 10 years old and was clearly impressed by his gesture as I had often heard that he was a strict disciplinarian and tolerated no-nonsense from anyone, least of all intruders into his private estate. Nice gent he was.

  • 1
    0

    Sir John and his likes are sorely missed now as he is the one who could have kept the BBS in check!

    @ Lal,if you call the Tamil leaders as humbugs how can we term their Sinhala counterparts like SWRD and his ilk? scumbags perhaps ;-)

    and how do we classify racists like you? humbug,scumbug or gutter rat?

  • 2
    0

    ,Sir. John had a reputation as quite a Don Juan. There were stories that his ‘Ex- girl Friends’ were later married off to others and settled around his Kandawela. Estate in Ratmalana. He was a very much active bachelor . This aspect of his personality should not be forgetting when reminiscing about him,.

    Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

    • 1
      0

      yes i have heard so
      but who were his girl friends? from the rich and elite or the women around kandawala?

      who were purple brigade of ladies around him were they just his admirers or more than that?

    • 0
      1

      Raja Narendran

      Those who could eat, drink, enjoy their lives would do so. The others could gossip about them. Pina Thambi Pina.

      I have no problem with them.

      Which category you are my friend?

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