Ten Bullets to One, Twenty to Another

Thomas Meaney

  • Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World by Steven Kemper
    Chicago, 480 pp, £31.50, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 226 19907 8
  • Tamil: A Biography by David Shulman
    Harvard, 416 pp, £25.00, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 674 05992 4
  • The Seasons of Trouble: Life amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War by Rohini Mohan
    Verso, 368 pp, £16.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 78168 883 0

Independence was handed to Ceylon’s elite on a platter. ‘Think of Ceylon as a little bit of England,’ Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke, the first native governor-general, said. This was a point of pride. Don Stephen Senanayake, the country’s first prime minister, remarked: ‘There has been no rebellion in Ceylon, no non-cooperation movement and no fifth column. We were among the peoples who gave full collaboration while Britain was hard-pressed.’ After independence in 1948, Ceylon alone among the former colonies not only retained but promoted the monarchy: the Union Jack flew alongside the Ceylon flag; a new constitution was drafted by an LSE professor, Ivor Jennings; Colombo debutantes were presented at Buckingham Palace; and, thanks to some genealogical ingenuity, George VI was recognised as the latest monarch in the ancient line of Kandyan kings. While the rest of the empire in Asia smouldered – in India there was Partition, in Malaya the Emergency, in Burma the civil war – Ceylon became Whitehall’s model for the transfer of colonial power. ‘There was no fight for that freedom which involved a fight for principles, policies and programmes,’ Solomon Ridgeway Bandaranaike, the anti-colonial head of state who took power in 1956, said when he reviewed the transition a decade later. ‘It just came overnight. We just woke up one day and were told: “You are a dominion now.”’

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