28 May, 2023


Sir Oliver Goonetilleke: From Dawn To Dusk

By T. Thurai – 

T. Thurai

T. Thurai

Nine years of researching the background to my novel The Devil Dancers introduced me to some fascinating historical characters. One of the most remarkable was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke,(1892 –1978), one of the key architects of Ceylon’s Independence and the first Ceylonese to hold the post of Governor-General. This is the second of three articles on one of the most brilliant statesman of his generation.

The road to Independence

On 26 September 1947, Ceylon’s first Cabinet was sworn in. Led by Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake, the list of 14 Ministers included figures that were to play a leading role in shaping the new nation.

For instance, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was both Minister for Health and Local Government as well as leader of the House of Representatives. Sir Oliver and John Kotelawala also held Cabinet positions: Sir Oliver as Minister for Home affairs and Kotelawala heading the Ministry for Transport and Works.

The Times provides an interesting breakdown of the constituent parts of that Cabinet. After coyly noting that “Mr Bandaranaike … is the son of the late Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike and was educated at Christ Church, Oxford”, it cited four “other university men” (that is, those who had attended British universities).

Sir Oliver Goonetilleke

Sir Oliver Goonetilleke

Further analysis of the Cabinet revealed nine lawyers, nine low-country Sinhalese (including Sir Oliver), two Kandyan Sinhalese, two Tamils and one Muslim. Ten of the ministers were Buddhist, two were Hindus, one was a Muslim and another – Sir Oliver – was a Christian.

Prior to this appointment, Sir Oliver had been Financial Secretary and, being the first native Ceylonese to assume this post, he again made history by becoming one of the ‘Officers of State’. In this role in 1946, he became unusually outspoken.

Taking a tough stance on trade, he hinted at a heavy duty to be levied on exports of tea, warning planters that they should not expect all of the increased profit to go into their pockets. He proposed a similarly strong line against UK and US with regard to duty on rubber exports.

Referring to a recent visit to the United Kingdom, he declared: “For the first time in history the Ceylon Board of Ministers stood up against Imperialism and vested interests.”

This may, of course, be regarded as part of the general manoeuvring prior to Independence – Sir Oliver’s moves were usually part of a broader strategy – but it is an interesting departure from the usual statesmanlike neutrality which usually marked his relationships with both foreign powers and those within his own country.

Back from the abyss

In 1954, Sir Oliver enjoyed another triumph, succeeding Lord Soulbury as the first Ceylonese to exercise vice-regal power as the country’s Governor-General. In this role, he provided invaluable support to four Prime Ministers, the first of which was his old friend, Sir John Kotelawala.

However, Sir Oliver rendered his greatest service during the civil riots of 1958. An already dangerous situation had been fatally mishandled by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who, in an address to the nation, had misrepresented both the manner in which the riots had started and the persons responsible. The result was a conflagration that threatened to engulf the whole country.

Tarzie Vittachi’s account of this episode “Emergency ‘58” portrays a Prime Minister virtually paralysed by his own inadequacy. It also describes how the Governor-General broke with tradition to visit the Prime Minister in his home to impress on him the need for a State of Emergency.

In fact, it was Sir Oliver who declared the State of Emergency and martialled the armed services to quell the rioting while the Prime Minister merged into the shadows. “The Prime Minister, for reasons never openly stated by him anywhere, took the unprecedented step of passing the buck back to the Governor-General—thus making Sir Oliver Goonetilleke virtual ruler of Ceylon.”

Although critical of Sir Oliver’s showmanship and theatricality – and his attempts to silence the press – Vittachi praised qualities that made the “old fox” a perfect choice for the job: “his razor-sharp mind, his adeptness at bluffing his way through the stickiest mess, his ability to visualize the opponent’s manoeuvres three moves ahead, his sweeping cynicism, his blasé attitude to scruples which would baulk another man over weighted with conscience.”

He also recounts an extraordinary episode which, if it had become public, could easily have tipped the balance, plunging the country into civil war.

A gang of goondas attacked the iconic Buddhist temple of Nagadipa on the island of Nainativu, causing extensive damage to the temple buildings and destroying a statue of Buddha that had been donated by the Burmese government to commemorate the recent Buddha Jayanti celebrations.

In an extraordinary operation led by the Governor-General, the disaster was kept secret, the temple was rebuilt and the statue restored in a period of just eight weeks: a remarkable achievement that doubtless saved many lives.

The bloodless coup

While Sir Oliver was largely responsible for restoring calm after the 1958 riots, further political trauma was to take place the following year. On 25 September 1959, Mr Bandaranaike was fatally shot in his home, the victim of a plot masterminded by his erstwhile supporter Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera.

Eight months later, Mr Bandaranaike’s wife Sirimavo was elected Prime Minister.  Her incumbency marked a substantial shift from the more relaxed and liberal forms of government that preceded her premiership.

In the speech that opened the new Parliament, the Government announced its intention of taking over the newspapers.  A few months later, the armed forces were sent into the Northern and Eastern provinces, the whole island was placed under a State of Emergency, press censorship and a curfew were imposed, the Federal Party was proscribed and 45 people, including MPs, were arrested.

In 1962, an article in The Times noted two more measures that had stirred up further opposition to the Government. These were:  the taking over of private schools, many of them Roman Catholic which “was handled intemperately”; and a Bill which retrospectively imposed the death sentence for conspiracy and which “has brought the Ceylon Bar out in almost unanimous condemnation.”

A picture emerges of a Government that was beset with problems to which it responded with increasingly draconian solutions. Another brief item in The Times reported that “the Governor-General of Ceylon has extended the state of emergency, proclaimed last April, for another period.” It also noted the mutterings of Opposition MPs “alleging that the stage was being set for permanent military rule.”

Shortly afterwards, plans for a coup were discovered. The conspirators were a group of high-ranking police and army officers many of whom appear to have been Christian and were, possibly, motivated by the Government’s appropriation of faith schools.

While details of the conspiracy were vague, one of the leaders Colonel F.C. de Saram was reported to have said that, once the coup had taken place, the plotters had intended to force Sir Oliver to take over the Government. It was also claimed that both Sir John Kotelawala (at that time residing in England) and Dudley Senanayake had prior knowledge of the plot.

All of this was reported to the House of Representatives by Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External affairs and close relative of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. While no evidence was adduced to substantiate these claims – and Felix Bandaranaike was careful to state that the Government had not made any allegations against the Governor-General – the damage was done. What is clear from newspaper reports is that Mr Bandaranaike never lost an opportunity to link Sir Oliver’s name with the attempted coup.

Sir Oliver offered to submit himself to investigation. However, his offer was not taken up and, without any reference to the Governor-General, the Prime Minister requested that the Queen replace him with a prominent Kandyan lawyer M.W. Gopallawa who had been Ceylonese ambassador to both Washington and Peking.

Viewed in retrospect, it looks as if the Government took advantage of the plot to mount its own counter-coup and rid itself of some ‘old-school’ politicians who it may have regarded as a threat to its own power due to their continuing influence within Ceylon and close ties with Britain.

Back in 1960, The Times had described Sir Oliver as standing “all-seeing, all-knowing” behind the interim Prime Minister Mr Dahanayake. It also made a prophetic comment: “These men have been accused of separately wishing to secure all power in their hands, but on the face of it this does not seem to be the case. At present no dictator, military or civilian, is in sight.”

Events two years later show that these fears had not been laid to rest, however groundless they may have been. With his wealth of experience, Sir Oliver was probably regarded by the executive as a potential threat to its own power, whatever his intentions.

Whatever the truth, it is clear that in his role as Governor-General, Sir Oliver had been living on borrowed time. Already by 1959, his customary 5-year period of tenure had been extended by two years and, beyond the end of that term, he had continued in office indefinitely pending the appointment of a successor.

Nonetheless, the circumstances which obliged him to leave office must have left a bad taste. It was a bitter irony that a man who had done everything to ensure his country’s stability should have been linked – however tenuously – to a coup.

Yet, despite the injustice of his treatment, he never made any public complaint or levelled any criticism at those who had sought his dismissal. According to his biographer Sir Charles Jeffries, Sir Oliver’s personal motto was ‘Service with humility’. This may well account for the dignity with which he faced the attack on his reputation.

A week after vacating the post of Governor-General, Sir Oliver quietly left Ceylon for an undisclosed destination. He was in his seventieth year and had completed 40 years of public service.

Next: Part 3 – Life in Exile

*T. Thurai – Website: http://www.thedevildancers.com/ Blog: http://tthurai.wordpress.com/

Related posts;

Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (1892 –1978): The Road To Independence

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Latest comments

  • 1

    T.Thurai, he? Which part of hell did this character appear from?

    • 2


      “Which part of hell ”

      you are in it keep walking!

      Snail, means just like your bunker space,
      A Slug with a crash helmet attempting to Swim.

      toma toma toma ven aqui ven aqui!

      (take it, take it, take it, come here, come here
      here, here, here, come here, come here
      drink, drink, drink, come here, come here)

      tubo de luz (fluorescent tube)

  • 1

    Thurai (interesting Tamil name!)

    No matter what you do, you won’t rewrite the corrupt life history of this man who is nothing in Sri lankan history. Yes, he sucked up to the colonisers and made some money to rise from poverty. But no one in Sri Lanka remembers him for anything.

    So Thurai, save your time. With a wig like that you might be able to do better things with your time. Hit a bar.

    • 1

      `history of this man who is nothing in Sri lankan history. `

      Cyril ponnamperuma (Bio Chemistry NASA during Applo) and A.N.S Kulasingha (authority pre-stressed concrete New York)
      Both studied at the same missionary school and did not have a penny to even buy a pair of shorts but they were just brilliant and the La Salle Bros sent them for their graduation to the US where they shone than Royalist or thomanian.

      JR pleaded with them to come home which they did ANS repaired the leak that balfour Betty Nuttal left of Mahavali with concrete sleeves.

      Their school (next to St lucias cathedral 2 nd largest RC church in the world)felicitated them.

      Now the names of these 2 are taken away from school and the name of a man in yellow saree with a begging bowl heads heads the list- another phedophile perhaps.

      The sihala helped the japenese to bomb the church which the Japs did. the germans never bombed churches where the poor fled even at madras where they bombed tankers.
      The Japs have not apologised because they are Buddhist pricks.
      In 50 years this church may become a Chaitiya that Vijaya built you know his bandit father Asoka.

      • 0

        There is no treatment even Ponnampruma (who ‘thought’ until just before his death that he analysed ‘moon rocks’) could give you. Not even he who later realised that he fell badly for the moon landing hoax.

        The Japanese only bombed the British colonial robbed posessions in Ceylon. Hitler helped chase the British thieves from our part of the world. They are our best friend always.

        • 1

          Thats is your borrowed ambude conspiracy concept which we have read for a good laugh. Now tell me the US does not have the space plane (the ultimate weapon) that orbited 446 days and can shoot all satellites down.
          Some of my mates at campus not SL (low britsh std) who are still at pentagon (elect.engineering and space engg.)is enough insight for me to know.

          The largest investment by the Chinese is in Germany and vice versa.
          Japan is yet to crawl in our region.The Brits awarded the Japanese the Rail development because they will not accept Chinese prisoners working in the UK but you dont mind as long as your tummy is full- where are your morals ethics- confirm now beggars cannot choose. Talking of robbed like stupid camels- I am sure your software is counterfeit- intellectual property theft

          Therefore my reply would be.

          Your moon rock theory is the general sour grapes who say Oh Royal is for the elite while all along I have seen government servants come to colombo line in line room houses on rent `get the chit` enter royal on free edu. but can’t do that with a missionary like thomas because they don’t belong to the faith and don’t want to pay.

          Hitler died a brave man while your hole in one died a coward.
          No one drove the Brits away you are still dependent on them for your exports aid- Saw the clout of Cameron when he barged in Where is your american goon Goo`ta. Tsunami former UN chief, Colin Powell, Clinton all refused entry by just a woman- you know very little about what goes unwritten goes on at the top.
          When she said Orient Club yes its our club we knew it inside out.

          The japanese dump the maximum into your begging bowl not because they love you.You don’t know enough about JICA. We say there is nothing called a free lunch at London.

          As we have said before have some self respect and don’t talk of robbed entirely when only the Brits left much more than your dream- your edu systems, agricultural, roads, services etc. The portuguese enforced caste and brought in slave labour from south hindia etc.

          The culture includes ….Sunday sil Monday kill…….. Kill the Vedda..Rob the Buddha… and Blame the Sudda.. It is as simple as that……

  • 0

    This is similar to father of American Space Dr Quing a Chinese from mainland being jailed on a rumour by KKK. Once the democrats came to power they released him and asked him to stay but the mainland beaconed him. China Space station is named after him and it is now linked to nuclear medicine that is carried out remotely.
    Brain drain you pull the flush it goes down the drain – that was how the public schools and all sports went down. The whole region SARC because it joined the nonaligned movement for mainly- pan Arab vs pan Islam and the only popular game is boring test cricket in the region- just to maintain links – totally unimaginative from a woman M/s B known for shedding crocodile tears about the death of husband while she planned the dynasty over the head of the people- rice from the moon.;)

  • 1

    Wasn’t Sir Oliver removed from his position of Municipal Commissioner(MC) Colombo during World War II for corruption charges? The Matale Lawyer William Gopallawa was first Kandy Municipal Commissioner and excelled in that position. He was later appointed as Colombo MC if my memory serves right. There were many stories of Sir Oliver playing out on rations etc. One wonders who one becomes richer during Colonial day. Gopallawa was at that time not connected at all to the Bandaranaikes and was viewed as a very honorable able man who also acquitted himself during the floods in Gatambe/Kandy as MC Kandy. He only later on became connected via marriage to Sirimavo Bandaranaike. When that government was looking for someone to trust because of suspicions of Sir Oliver, they unanimously recommended William Gopallawa. Gopallawa to this date remains the man to have been the longest occupant first as Governor General and then as Ceremonial President from 1962 to 1978 January. That is the longest serving occupant of those hallowed premises. People respected him and venerated him and people referred to him as “uthumano”..during 1965 elections he made an important decision to honor the Constitution of Ceylon when the SLFP lost elections but the LSSP coalition partners were trying to buy time for them to form a coalition government. Mrs B’s emissaries pleaded for time but he refused; Gopallawa invited Dudley Senanayake to form the next government as the head of the party that had the majority therefore confidence of the Parliament and the people. the margin between SLFP led coalition and UNP was small but the UNP Was able to present a coalition with Tamil parties too.

    Later on Gopallawa advised against the release of convicted JVP leader Wijeweera with Hon. JR Jayawardene who was arrogant and did not listen to William Gopallawa. The fact that William Gopallawa governed and carried out his duties and obligation with class, finesse and responsibility is the reason the UNP did not remove him when his term of 5 years ran out and kept him on as Goveror General beyond 1967 because Dudley Senanayake knew Gopallawa could be trusted to honour the laws of the land and Dudley distrusted JR and others who were actively campaigning to get rid of Gopallawa(who also had the Queen’s support) via dirty mudslinging against his son in law Mrs B’s brother. Those are something you might not know.

    Gopallawa was the first buddhist to occupy Queen’s house in a nation where Christian minorities dominated. His first action at Queen’s house was to install a simple beautiful white Buddha statue in a room where he meditated and without failed practiced his faith and recited his prayers every day from 1962 until 1978 Feb 4th. He retired quietly to Matale. His period as Governor General was also tumultuous because he was GG when the first JVP insurgency took place and a parade ground army had to become a fighting force. Everyone who worked for him and worked with him knew how respectful William Gopallawa was of all religions and had Vesak Carols, Christmas carols every year at Queen’s house and also attended Hindu and muslim festival diligently. He represented all Sri Lankans far better than Sir Oliver did.

    • 3

      Your last paragraph gives away the real reason you and your kind disliked the man- religion. It’s always about race and religion in this godforsaken country.

      Let’s see if building roads and towers will change this narrow minded mentality.

  • 0

    Why he was called “Wise old owl”

    • 1


      Perhaps the modern walking owl

      Swing low, sweet chariot
      Comin’ for to carry me home….

      If I get there before you do
      Comin’ for to carry me home
      I’ll cut a hole and pull you through
      Comin’ for to carry me home

      Walking Owls:http://portfolio.austin-thomas.co.uk/birds/2

  • 4

    I write in response to some of the specious comments that have been made.

    As I well remember, Sir Oliver was more sinned against than sinner. He was pragmatic, circumspect and well informed. He was nobody’s fool. Many a colonial officer in the 40’s and 50’s rued the day they came up against him in negotiations – and came second. It was Sir Oliver who steered our country through turbulent times when wily aspiring local politicians jostled to win the hearts and minds of the Sinhala-Buddhist voter. As the first Sirima government got into stride, they found that they needed a malleable incumbent in Queens House – Felix D-B did not fancy his chances against the patrician, no nonsense Sir Oliver – and the good, and amenable, Gopallawa was at hand.

  • 3

    We have to learn to learn and respect our history because it dictates our present and without this knowledge, we cannot change our future.

    Our present clearly shows we are very clever in rewriting history and therefore keep repeating the same mistakes over and over.

    As for the future, nothing is going to change until and unless we are ready to change ourselves.

    • 0

      Probably we were not taught the real history in the schools.

      • 5

        Jim softy

        “Probably we were not taught the real history in the schools.”

        Once in your typing career you are right.

        Now what are you going to do about it?

        Do you still want to retain Sinhala/Buddhist origin myth based on bestiality, parricide and incestuous relation?

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