9 August, 2020

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The Donoughmore Reforms In Ceylon In Retrospect: The Missing Background Of Naval Power

By Michael Roberts

Dr. Michael Roberts

In recent newspaper articles both Leelananda de Silva and Prabath de Silva have presented useful insights on the progressive outcomes flowing from the Donoughmore Commission’s reforms and those flowing from programmes of the State Council in the 1930s and 1940s. Invariably, such reviews are implicitly influenced by the political debates of the immediate post-1948 era. 

One overarching aspect of those debates was the assessment of the Ceylonese political agitation against the backdrop of the stirring mass agitation pursued by Gandhi, Nehru and the Indian nationalists in neighbouring India. This encouraged commentary that belittled the achievements of the Sri Lankan leaders – with those of Marxist persuasion leading this set of criticisms.

Such lines of comparative thinking were (and remain) misleading and befuddled. They bypass and shut out any consideration of the BASIS of British power in the territories spanned by the Indian Ocean. Note that: the INDIAN OCEAN …. meaning the states and spaces extending from the shores of Africa and the Red Sea to the peninsula we know as Malaysia with its strategic ‘lane,’ the Strait of Malacca.

A central aspect of the British imperial presence across this region in the period extending from the 1760s to the 1940s was military power. There were two fundamental pillars supporting this power: (A) the organisational and hardware capacities of the British Army and (B) the naval might of the British Navy. Of these two arms the more central was the Navy – because it could carry lethal force to most trouble spots in the vast span of the Indian Ocean.

Within the land mass of the Indian subcontinent, however. reach and effectiveness of military muscle assembled and distributed by the naval arms was limited …. the more so in the 20th century once the Indian nationalists began assembling mass support and intelligently deployed bodies in non-violent satyagraha. Gunfire, laathis and military regiments directed at female satyagrahis were not feasible as a consistent pattern of repression within the vast spaces of the sub-continent.

Ceylon in contrast was an island — one threaded by a network of roads and railways. It follows that the British could deploy its sea power to marshal the forces required to combat any anti-colonial threat of a violent or demi-violent character. Trincomalee, Colombo and Galle provided ports, while Katunayake, Koggala and Trinco had airports.

It is in this context that the liberal patricians serving as the Donoughmore Commission, his Lordship Donoughmore, Drummond Shiels, Francis Butler and XYJ, presented a forward-moving set of proposals notably involving (A) near universal franchise[1]; and (B) what can by roughly designated as 7/10th independence. 

They so proposed. The proposals went to the Colonial Office headed by Sydney Webb[2] and thence to the British government of that day. I intervene here. What transpired in between that moment and the final “YES” from the British Cabinet?

I speculate.

I suggest that the War Office would have been consulted. The British chiefs of war, representing the Army, Navy and Air Force, would have said: if push comes to shove, we will have few problems in marshalling our forces to retain political control. 

This possibility must be pursued via research work. 

My argument does not end there. Any comparison between the nationalist struggles in Ceylon and India (and, for that matter, those in Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia) should attend to the stress on military logistics and military might that is the central pillar in my argument – with its focus on the British naval capacities …. a longarm if ever there was one

A longarm yes.

Till the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser Repulse were sunk by Japanese planes in the South China Sea off Malaysia on the 10th December 1941 – a few days after the US Navy had been mauled at Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941.[3]

The implications were further underlined when a marauding Japanese aircraft carrier force raided Colombo and Trincomalee on 5th April 1942, sinking the aircraft carrier Hermes off Batticaloa and the cruiser Cornwall elsewhere, while causing extensive damage at the ports of Trincomalee and Colombo.

British imperial might received a mighty blow then in 1941-42. The decolonization process in subsequent decades was aided materially by this set of events. Ironic that: for an expanding imperial power (Japan) to weaken the military foundations of another imperial power in what can be understood as insidious ways.


To comprehend that type of process, therefore, one must attach weight to the vital significance of sea power in the British colonial dispensation across the Indian Ocean.

[1] The Donoughmore Commission restricted the voting power of females to those 30 and over. The Legislative Council of Sri Lanka opted to equalize male and female rights to those. 21 and over.

[2] Sydney Webb’s importance, needs underlining of course – both via the choice of personnel for t he Commission but also throw his own background voice and the probability that Leonard Woolf’s thinking was brought into play in the course of preliminary as well as subsequent discussions.

[3] At Pearl harbour USA lost 4 aircraft carriers, 03 cruisers, 3 destroyers, 01 training vessel and 188 aircraft; while 2403 Amerccan servicemen died.

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    Michael, you have not mentioned the achievements of Sri Lankan leaders. Circumstances suggest that the main preoccupation of the Sinhalese nationalist leaders since universal franchise was in the air was to neutralise the Plantation Tamil vote. For this purpose Molamure and Senanayake proposed a literacy test for the vote in 1928 that denied the vote to most Sinhalese as well. That was their mindset. As you say, the British were desperate once Japan entered the war in 1940 and the evidence is that they were prepared to ditch the Plantation Tamils to placate Sinhalese nationalists. It is for this that Senanayake signed a defence pact with Britain, not for the fear of an Indian invasion. The southern academic school in Sri Lanka has not come to terms with the Citizenship Act and that was the important turning point. The northern school has been supine. 

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    This encouraged commentary that belittled the achievements of the Sri Lankan leaders – with those of Marxist persuasion leading this set of criticisms.
    …………………………
    Such lines of comparative thinking were misleading and befuddled

    Michael and Thero, even if the comparative study is not doing, they both are always befuddled by the foreign labels. What anyone can do for that.

    Marxist opposed British government. Sinhala Buddhist only worked with Ehelepola to bring in Britain. Sinhala Buddhism never got the Britain out. After WWII, Britain was giving freedom for all countries. Ceylon’s turn was influenced by Indian freedom fights. 1931 Ceylon has had Universal Franchise, but not India. Basic foundation for Soulbury constitution was ready by 1943. If Michel has an iota of the thing called grey matter, he would know even a light push from Colombo might have made Britain leave Ceylon before India, would not have waited for another year. After giving freedom to India, Britain realized the cesspool country called Wildlife Salutary not worth enough to struggle with, so it left. Britain inflicted enough damage to them without a scratch to it. At the end it was the Marxist fought the freedom died, Don won with any pain. Remember Honk Kong did not fight with Britain for freedom. Britain was not prepared to leave even one year earlier than the contract though was negotiating with China for about a decade. When Marxist (LSSP,CP) fought with Britain.

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    “Within the land mass of the Indian subcontinent, however. reach and effectiveness of military muscle assembled and distributed by the naval arms was limited”
    British army India mainly consisted of Indian Soldiers. India did not win freedom by land army’s might. On the other side Nethaji lost. Britain ended giving freedom because of Julian Wala Park incident. That was the first time Britain thought either one thing, repeat Julian Wala to end or get out of India. ( The massacre caused a re-evaluation by the British Army (World over) of its military role against civilians to minimal force whenever possible, -Wiki) Britain had politicians who did know what would the effect on killing 150,000 in Mullivaaikkaal on the Island political influence, economic achievement, Cultural cooperation at IC level….. Even Britain’s most friendly country America was against Britain remaining in India. 1919 for the death of 400 unarmed civilians’ death Britain recalled General Reginald Dyer. That is how Britain still able to maintains it’s might in the world. But Lankawe was belittled within 10 years by a mouse called Singapore, because Lankawe had only Michael, Thero like Sinhala Intellectuals to consult the 8th graders like Don Stephen. It is Mikael like Sinhala Intellectuals are the one belittled Lankawe, nobody else share anything on that.

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    Nondi Kuraikku Sarukinathu Chaddu. (The lame horse fell because the road slipped) Ceylon in contrast was an island — one threaded by a network of roads and railways…………… British could deploy its sea power to marshal the forces required………… It is in this context that the liberal patricians serving as the Donoughmore Commission, his Lordship Donoughmore, Drummond Shiels, Francis Butler and XYJ, presented a forward-moving set of proposals notably involving (A) near universal franchise[1]; and (B) what can by roughly designated as 7/10th independence. (Man ! Based on this comedy piece, Nagesh or Vadivelu cannot come near to Michael) .Lets read Michael in our words. “Britain was well aware that it was too strong for Sinhalese to launch a freedom fight, so it felt the poor deserve a freedom and sent Lord Donoughmore. “ Let me ask a question: Are these the matters these Sinhala Intellectuals were teaching the Modaya students as History. If these milk not choking and make Sinhala Child go as JVP terrorists and die in hundreds of thousand, what else can do? A PhD level man has to put for forward something called logic in his arguments or should rescind that tile.

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    Michael who shamelessly wrote that the Sinhala Buddhist are too coward to fight for freedom, now showing his Nariya’s Tail, thinking its Lion’s Tail. Here Michael’s excellent foresight before he put out the essay.
    I speculate
    Army, Navy and Air Force, would have said: “if push comes to shove, we will have few problems in marshalling our forces to retain political control.”
    This possibility must be pursued via research work.

    Even the crows steal rice from village women winnowing pan doesn’t behave like this. Michael has well protected his PhD thesis before it comes in print, because he too did know how dumb it will look for an unsuspecting reader of Michael’s motive.
    This how in Lankawe the history to kids’ is written in text books: Michael Quote Dubious, Dubious quote Thero and Thero Quote Michael. The Jaffnahistory.com get updated by Bald Heads quoting they all three. The Tamil Text books are printed by Muslim Spies taking from Jaffna History.com.
    Don Stephen went to prison because he was beating Muslims in the riots, that is fighting with his own brethren not fighting the British Navy! Britain was always prepared to cooperate with Ceylonese so Sir.Pon Ramanathan managed to get the leaders from Prison.

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      MALLA

      Any sane reader should be fed up with your alternative history/alternative facts by now. How are you still allowed to post them?
      Can you get a grip and come to terms with the fact your great Thalaivar is dead and you are not going to get 25% of the country to hide away 12% of the population, please?

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        Walter Bagehot,
        Man if your bottom is too big to rest in the 75% of the land, for your info, there is lot of extra land in Tundra and Sahara. If you need more talk to Siri Ma o, she will energize you to moon. Don’t put your hand on Tamils ancestral land, please.

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