By 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.
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