28 September, 2023


Sir Oliver Goonetilleke: Life In Exile

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 last of three articles on one of the most brilliant statesman of his generation.

A New Home

Following his loss of office, Sir Oliver’s sudden departure from Ceylon and his final destination were matters of conjecture. A short paragraph in The Times noted his arrival in Paris along with a statement from Mr A. P. Jayasuriya, leader of the Senate, that Sir Oliver was “neither removed from office nor did he resign.” A remark that seems somewhat disingenuous in hindsight.

However, the mystery was soon resolved. England was Sir Oliver’s choice for his self-imposed exile. His friend Sir John Kotelawala had already taken up residence in the Kentish village of Biddenden following his failure to win the 1956 General Election.

Almost immediately, Sir Oliver was received into the highest levels of society. For instance, the Court and Social pages of The Times record a dinner party given “in honour of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke in honour of his relinquishing the office of Governor-General of Ceylon” by Sir Graham and Lady Rowlandson at 18 Grosvenor Square. Among the guests were the High Commissioner for Ceylon and Sir John Kotelawala.

DS and Oliver at Number 10 Downing Street

DS and Oliver at Number 10 Downing Street

Unlike his friend who enjoyed the tranquillity of a rural setting, Sir Oliver preferred the frenetic pace of the city, choosing to live near Hyde Park, at the heart of London. It is one of the city’s most select addresses, just over a mile from Buckingham Palace and with Apsley House, the home of the Dukes of Wellington, as a close neighbour.

Within days of Sir Oliver’s departure from Ceylon, The Times recorded a Troskyite MP questioning the House of Representatives with regard to the amount of money that the former Governor-General had been allowed to take out of the country. The sum in question was £7,000 when the normal travel allowance was only £150.

The delicate question of money resurfaced several months later when the House of Representatives raised 56,250 rupees (£4,000) to be paid to Sir Oliver in lieu of 10 months leave not taken by him when in office. A Government spokesman explained that this was to be sent to him in monthly instalments of £150, Sir Oliver having “told the British press recently that he was penniless because all his money was tied up in Ceylon.”

Doubtless, Sir Oliver had had to leave much of his wealth behind. However, just how penniless he was is open to question. Just two months after settling in England, he is recorded as having paid 1,500 guineas for a horse called Hippo at the Doncaster bloodstock sales.

Horse-racing was to be one of the many activities with which he diverted himself while abroad. He had already established himself as a leading member of the racing fraternity, being described by the Sporting Chronicle as one of the most popular and respected owners. He had raced his horses in England and France for many years, his two-year old Henrico having won the prestigious Prix de la Cascade at Longchamp in 1949. However, perhaps one of his proudest moments was being able to give the famous jockey Lester Piggott his first ride.

Despite his sadness at leaving Ceylon, Sir Oliver did not succumb to grief. Instead, he created a new life. He accepted various posts with companies related to Ceylon’s tea and rubber companies and achieved another ‘first’ when he became the first Asian underwriter at Lloyds.

He travelled extensively – especially during the English winter – paying annual visits to India. He also discovered domestic happiness after having spent many years as a widower since the death of his first wife Esther in 1931.

He first met his second wife Phyllis Miller when she visited Ceylon as secretary to the Soulbury Commission. After that, they stayed in close contact and, following his removal to London, she helped him with his business affairs. They married quietly in 1968, only announcing their marriage several months later.

However, his self-imposed exile did not guarantee immunity from deteriorating political conditions at home. Two years after Sir Oliver’s departure, Philip Gunawardena, head of the United Left Front, declared his belief that sinister forces were at play. His evidence? Recent visits to Ceylon by Lord Mountbatten, Lord Soulbury and Sir John Kotelawala, a trip to Madras by Sir Oliver and alleged telephone conversations between Sir Oliver and Dudley Senanayake.

They were flimsy threads from which to weave a plot but Mrs Bandaranaike took these claims seriously and invited Philip Gunawardena to her home for secret talks. The result was uproar with everyone accusing everyone else of betrayal and Dudley Senanayake complaining to the police that attempts were being made to establish a dictatorship. According to The Times “no one knew what was happening.”

By now, Parliament had been prorogued for a record four months and Mrs Bandaranaike was contemplating a coalition with the far Left. With an election looming the next year, the political atmosphere was rapidly becoming toxic, conspiracy was perceived everywhere and even elderly statesmen living thousands of miles away were caught up in the maelstrom.

Trial and Retribution

By the early 1970s, Ceylon had changed its name to Sri Lanka; Mrs Bandaranaike, having been temporarily been ousted by her rival Dudley Senanayake, was back in power and a new threat to stability had arisen: the JVP movement.

As part of the measures to deal with the JVP, the Government introduced the Criminal Justice Commissions Act. Under this, some 130 insurgents were jailed, including one of the JVP’s prime-movers Rohanna Wijeweera.

However, the Act had implications for several people unconnected with the JVP. It was extended to a handful of individuals accused of Exchange Control Offences – among them Sir Oliver Goonetilleke.

Aged 82, he was tried in absentia and sentenced to four years rigorous imprisonment and a fine of 950,000 rupees (£61,000).

While he could not be extradited, the sentence nevertheless had a discernible impact on his life. Having met and entertained the Queen on many State occasions, he was now banned from her presence. In a sense, he was doubly exiled. It must have been a stinging blow.

In 1977, Mrs Bandaranaike was defeated at the polls by Junius Jayewardene. He repealed the Act accusing the previous Government of having used it to destroy its opponents. Those who had been jailed under the provisions of the Act were released and an amnesty declared.

This sparked a flurry of communications between the British High Commission in Colombo and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Due to their sensitive nature, these remained embargoed for 30 years.

Now available for public viewing, these documents reveal frantic activity by diplomats and civil servants in trying to establish the exact nature of Sir Oliver’s status under the amnesty.

The question is succinctly stated in a memo to Bob Dewar at the British High Commission, Colombo from R. E. Holloway, South Asian Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

“We are of course particularly interested in Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and need a full account of where he now stands under Sri Lankan law. As you probably know Sir Oliver has been under a cloud in London since he was convicted and sentenced for the Exchange Control Offences. He is no longer invited to Royal functions or to other occasions at which the Queen is present. We must now advise the Lord Chamberlain on whether, according to Sri Lankan law and in the eyes of the Sri Lankan Government, he is entirely redeemed.”

Other memos show that these concerns were due not only to the niceties of royal protocol but also to an anxiety “that the Sri Lanka Government might take it amiss if we were seen still to be treating him [Sir Oliver] as a distinguished elder statesman.”

Sir Oliver was eventually re-instated and his name cleared, allowing him to return home to Sri Lanka where he died a few months later at the age of 84. Sadly, this last chapter of his life does not reflect well on any of the individuals or authorities who had benefited from his years of devoted service. Some actively sought his final ignominy while others passively complied with it.

However, his contribution to Sri Lanka’s Independence is a lasting monument to his unique skills. In the words of his biographer, Sir Charles Jeffries: “If Ceylon makes it, this will largely be due to Oliver Goonetilleke. If she fails, it will not have been his fault.”


O.E.G. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke – a biography by Sir Charles Jeffries

E.G.C. Ludowyk The Story of Ceylon, p 262 [cited in OEG p. 44]

Emergency ’58: Tarzie Vittachi

The Times digital archive

National Archives – ref: FCO 37/1922

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

Related posts;

Sir Oliver Goonetilleke: From Dawn To Dusk

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

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Sri Lanka will not raise her head from her shame for another 50 years.

    The Mahavansa, Anagarika, the yellow robes, Bandaranike, and Rajapakse destroyed her.

    Please God please prove me wrong within my lifetime.

    • 0

      Stop using God’sname in vain, you khazar heathen.
      Don’t insult God.

      • 3

        In a country that’s gone to the dogs, insulting god is a priority.

        What a joke.

        Is there any other imaginary characters you want us to not insult? Scooby Doo? Tom and Jerry?

      • 1


        Get a life wisdom

        Happily Agnostic

        Heathen will refresh your bowels.
        sweet sounds of David Bowie – A Better Future


        Hampstead Heath

    • 1

      Bless you.!
      Sri Lanka
      Mahavansa, Anagarika,
      Yellow(`giallo` as in Sherlock Holmes)Sareepota,
      Bandaranike,Dickey Bird, & Rajapakse destroyed Sri Lanka 50y’s++.”
      Liz the 2nd left you lonely,never mind.
      croak_et is their stupid passion,(gass gembo)
      shame on them.
      jap’s buddhist lanka buddhist dont give a sh*t apology.
      one iszooo and the other monkey south(pedophile)(real Monkeys)
      Buruvas both stupid and fraudulent.Hindia paradi (beaten track)

      Liars should have good memories;)


  • 5

    The seedy underbelly of Sri Lankan politics. As someone born long after these times, I adore articles like these. No coverups for “the sake of the country” or to “prevent washing our laundry in public”.

    Also, this shows how history repeats itself. This “foreign conspiracy” manure being fed to the masses these days seems to be a theme in Sri Lankan politics to keep stoking that inferiority complex we suffer from.

  • 3

    It is not often realized that D. S. Senanayake and Oliver G were complementary in their talents.
    Senanayake and Oliver hatched the “pan-sinhlala” cabinet, with the help of Sundaralingam! However, unlike the pan-Tamil administration of the Arunachalam P, and P. Ramanathan era, the pan-Sinhala period lasted only a short time.

    Seananayke and Oliver G. checkmated Ponnambalam’s efforts in front of the Soulbury commission by giving Ponna to say all he wants (and make a fool of himself by making unreasonable demands), while preventing Sinhala firebrands like SWRD from saying anything and showing the face of Sinhala jingoism. Ponna claimed that the Britsh discriminated against the Tamils, in jobs, education, health services, and in patronage to Buddhism (Buddhist temporalities act etc). However, unlike P. Ramanathan, GGP did not ask for enshrining the Caste system into the constitution. Instead, he wanted the racial structure of the country enshrined into the constitution, with the Tamils representing even the minorities with 50% of the seats in the legislature, while the Sinhalese were to have the remaining 50%. The Kandyans also considered themselves distinct and exclusive, and asked for separate recognition.

    D.S. and Oliver worked behind the curtain and did what was needed to checkmate GGP and what was then known as “Tamil communalism”. Clearly, Oliver also had time to charm Phyllis Miller in the process.

    DS and Oliver adroitly did the balancing act of the politics of that era, where they managed to get G. G. Ponnambalam on board. The Brace Girdle affair launched by the leftists seemed to imply that the Marxists were capable of recruiting the estate Tamils for their Bolshevik struggle. This was enough for DS Senanayake, GGP, Kandiah Vaithiyanathan and the Kandyan aristocrats to introduce the “Indian citizenship act” where citizenship needed continuous residency for 7 years. This requirement is in fact very lenient compared to what Europe imposes, even today, for Turks and other foreign workers living in their midst, or USA for Hispanic immigrant workers. However, the “citizenship act” was denounced by the Marxists and by S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, where as the stiff nature of the citizenship act was in effect created mainly by the Marxists. In fact, D. S. Senanayake had been ready to grant less stringent citizenship requirements until his social group was frightened by Marxist trade unionism and Brace Girdle.

    S. J. V. Chelvanayagam broke ranks from Ponnambalam, refusing to collaborate with DS, and pushed for a separatist agenda as early as 1949, where he claimed that G. G. Ponnambalam was a “traitor” to the Tamil cause. However, Chelva was far less radical than Mr. Navaratnam who was Eelamist right from the beginning.

    • 1

      Your point of view I suppose so
      (what they thought not necessarily what they meant)
      so we say hi_story??

      can verify this from our man wisdom native veddha.


      This requirement is in fact very lenient compared to what Europe imposes, even today, for Turks and other foreign workers living in their midst, or USA for Hispanic immigrant workers.

      So what are you selling luxury fans or WC’s??
      The culture includes ….Sunday sil Monday kill…….. Kill the Vedda..Rob the Buddha… and Blame the Sudda.. It is as simple as that……

  • 1

    I heard, Sir Oliver Gunathilake came from lower middle class background. One of his parents was a post office -master. From that back ground, the Son became very rich only because of his position as the governor General. He bought even vineyard in France. If he had Racing horses too.

    I also heard the reason for demise in Sri lanka was his corruption simply speaking stealing from the govt.

  • 2

    “However, perhaps one of his proudest moments was being able to give the famous jockey Lester Piggott his first ride.”

    That was my childhood favourite and this news is a moment of happiness soothing music- first ride by our man. Many a Sporting Sam of Ceylon knew the man of the times.
    “Having met and entertained the Queen on many State occasions, he was now banned from her presence.”

    Just like what has been happening to Passa (is it why he wants a faster new life) last was for diamond jubilee.

    Nice one Thank you Brilliant.

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