23 April, 2024


When Giants Clash, The World Shakes, And Police Lose Their Bearings

By Tassie Seneviratne

Tassie Seneviratne

The Attygalle Murder case (1907)

The Attygalle murder case was a clash of giants. The younger generation have a penchant for old sensational murder cases, but the Attygalle Murder case is that old, that none among the living today may have even heard of it, unless one read of it in a book. I had heard of this as it relates to the father of former Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala, who on his own steam, was a mighty sensational character.

My first recollection of ‘our man Kotalewala’ goes back to about 78 years when we lived in Mt. Lavinia. Two beat cops were trying to bring a suspect under control, but the suspect was offering such strong resistance that the cops looked a sorry sight, when a passing car stopped by and a man got off the car,  held the suspect in a grip with ease, and asked the cops to put the hand cuffs on the suspects hands held behind him, and drove off. Our domestic help who was taking us for a walk made inquiries and learnt it was Kotelawala Mahattaya. Police blood was running in his blood for sure. He was truly the father’s son, as I now get to know of the father.

Some of the facts contained in this article have been gleaned from A.C. Alles’ book on Famous Criminal Cases of Sri Lanka.

Sir John Kotelawala | Photo Via Department Of Government Information

Francis Dixon Attygalle was the son of Mudaliar Gemoris Attygalle of Madapatha. Mudaliar Attygalle has been a pioneer of the plumbago industry in Ceylon and owned some of the finest plumbago pits in Kurunegala district. Mudaliar Attigalle had died in 1901 when Francis was still a student at Wesley College.

The Mudaliar’s eldest Daughter, Alice, had married John Kotelawala (snr) leaving the bulk of his property to his widow, and owing to her incapacity and the son being a minor, John Kotelawala had taken over the management of the Attygalle estate.

Born in 1865, John Kotelawala (JK) had joined the Police Department and done extremely well, so much so that he had been specially complimented by the Governor of Ceylon, sir Arthur Gordon. In 1890 he had left the police and proceeded to New South Wales where he learnt the rudiments of gold mining that would make him an expert in plumbago mining in Ceylon. On his return, he had rejoined the Police Force and when he finally left the police, he had been the head of the Criminal Investigation Department.

In 1904, Francis Attygalle, (FR) though still a minor to exercise the powers of a major, had obtained the requisite powers from the Governor after due application, with assistance of the senior Attygalles. This gave FR the power to manage the Attygalle estates. As a result of (JK) being deprived of the management of the family properties, friction had arisen between JK and members of Francis’ family. It is also known that JK had been once made to eat humble pie by Attygalle’s thugs when he had visited the plumbago mines and tried to assert his power. That JK had been biding his time since then, it was alleged.

On the night of 5th December 1906, Francis Attygalle had been shot when he was in the verandah of his house in Dias Place, Pettah, and he had succumbed to injuries two days later. John Kotelawala (JK) had been charged for aiding and abetting, 1.) Baron Singho and 2.) Singhone Perera, in the murder.

Although JK had been away in Japan at the time of the murder, it was alleged that that he had commissioned his trusted servant Singhone Prerera before he left for Japan. Singhone had served under JK as a police constable and they had both left the police force at the same time. Thereafter Singhone had been employed as the rent collector under JK and lived in one of JK’s houses at Messenger Street.

The question as to whether there had been others in the Attigalle camp itself, and elsewhere, with vested interests in the Attygalle estates, who were affected by Francis Attygalle (FA) taking over the reins of management of the Attygalle estates, or for other reasons, motivated to have FA out of the way, had not been gone into.   

It is not possible to present all the evidence led in this case, that is of confusing nature of long drawn out contradictory evidence that is boring. If I may quote A. C. Alles, “A mountain of suspicion was created against him and enormous prejudice built up from the very commencement of the trial. He was not allowed to consult his lawyers before his statement was recorded on his return. – – – -. “Never was a case heard in Ceylon where there was so much prejudice created against an accused person.” This has been a blunder of the police in many a high-profile case.

JK had been a proud and impulsive man and it is surmised that he felt the inadmissible and prejudicial evidence led by the prosecution was heavily against him and that he did not have a fair chance of an honourable acquittal, and rather than face the consequences of a perverse verdict at their hands, he decided to take his own life by taking poison. The case against the other accused is not of interest here.

It is a pity that these two protagonists, Francis Attygalle (FA) and John Kotelawala, (JK) both endowed with wealth, business acumen and popularity, having come together through wedlock of JK to the Attygalle family, had clashed over power, instead of jointly forging ahead when the sky was their limit. Both were individually qualified to enhance their business. A power struggle, however, led to their tragedies. How to avoid disastrous power struggles, has not been a lesson they had learnt.

In the modern context, of course, there are expert organizations advising on all imaginable concepts of working relationships and growth mindsets, that were, unfortunately, not available to JK and FA.

It is highly commendable that JK’s son, Sir John Kotelawala, was able to get all this behind him, rise to the position of Prime Minister of Ceylon, serve all communities and religions alike, displaying statesmanship as against cheap politics that followed, and be the carefree personality that he was. The Kotelawala Defence Academy, instituted in the Kandawala Estate donated by him, is a fitting monument to his memory.

*The writer is a Retired Senior Superintendent of Police

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Tassie, A very fine article and well written. Thanks.

  • 3


    I was rereading for the umpteenth time the book by Tarzie Vittaachi- Trials of Transition when your fine essay appeared on these pages.

    Perhaps, you may be able to lay your hands on this book, wherein on page 19 this para appears……..
    Top brass policemen,who had been haunting Kandawela night and day for two years, expressing their loyalty in gesture,word and deed,suddenly found themselves rushing to protect Mr. Bandaranaike as soon as the first results were announced. A Very, Very Big Knob among the Police Top Brass opened the car door for Banda when he came to a funeral and 40 other peak capped cops cleared the way for the Most Acceptable Man [Banda]

    A few minutes later, The Most Unacceptable Man- but still Prime Minister of Ceylon [Sir John ] arrived at the same funeral. There was no one to jump to attention,salute,and open his car door for him.
    Accompanied only by his one man bodyguard- who had come on his own- Sir. John had to elbow his way through the mob.

    As the ancient Sinhalese philosophers put it : What to do child, napuru kalata?

    The Police too lose their bearings…………..when giants clash……..

  • 2

    Author TS, Thank you for the clash of giants. Would you even dream that a gesture like the PM Sir John serving all communities and religions today could lead to the gifting of his Kandawala Estate for national use. It is the unseen hand of the real creator owner that established the Kotelawala Defence University for the protection of our nation in terms of true future education and not as useless dictating militarisation

    • 4

      The weighty yet elegant garland of 28 pounds certainly needed a Sir john to sport it effortlessly. It was a sight seen in Jaffna in 1954 and I was able to witness in person both his mirth and astonishment. Got down from Madras, it became a template for future creations.

      No article on Sir John ever goes unread.

  • 1

    “Clash of Giants” brings back my memory connected with this “Giant” Sir John Kothalawal. It was the day when a team, of which I too was a member, was placed at the Kahatagaha Graphite mine to take over it from this “Giant”- Sir John. The then Minister under whose purview the “Mine” was to be administered was Late Mr. T.B. Subasinghe, another Gentleman par-excellence, politician. On the previous night before the “Mine” was to become a State Property, this “Giant” hosted the entire team led by the “General Manager” (to be under the State Graphite Corporation) late Mr. Senevirathna- an experienced Mining Engineer by Profession to a dinner at his “Majestic” Bungalow built at the hilltop of the mining property. He addressed all of us in his inborn “Stuburness” but in all “Sincerity” and “Humor”. Oh! What a “TRIBUTE” he offered to Minister T.B.Subasinghe and the Minister Dr. N.M.Perera, whom he (Sir John) knew was the prime mover of the “Take Over”.? He had no cursings, display of animosity, anger, or rebuke towards anyone in the Government that took over his property. We were well “Treated” tossed up with his own bottle of “VAT 69” and “WISHED’ great success, of course not forgetting to pass on his “Experiences” in the management of his “Wealth” and “Property”.

  • 1

    Interesting narration. But the murder and the suicide left me feeling queasy, and wishing I hadn’t read it. In a sense, rose Sir John Kotelawala from the ashes – Saving grace!

  • 1

    Author TS, Thank you for expressing a police view point. Disturbing to see the switch based on vote counting without consideration of any value for loyalty and national service. When giants clashed from JK to SWRD rapidly and with Sinhala only, the latter was soon shot by a monk in September 1959 at age 60 while the former suffered ill health in September 1980 at age 83. Both had the honor of national funerals but JK somehow gifted a legacy for national education, KDU over which there is an ongoing international grab defended nationally. Why is there no unity of purpose for upgrading without destroying such a valuable gift freely and selflessly given to Sri Lanka without an iota of money madness.

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