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85th Death Anniversary of Governor Sir John Anderson : A British Governor who loved Sri Lanka

by Wilfred M. Gunasekara - Daily News Wed Mar 26 2003

Among the twenty nine (29) British governors who ruled Sri Lanka (Ceylon) from 1798 thru 1948 there passed away a Governor who loved Sri Lanka most. He was Sir John Anderson. (1916-18)

He was appointed by the then Imperial Government as Governor of the island of Sri Lanka. He earned the name Peacemaker. As a matter of fact he was actually selected for a difficult task in that he was expected to re-establish the confidence of the people in British Justice and fairplay after the short period of military rule following the riots of 1915.

Sir John Anderson who held the post of Permanent Secretary at the Colonial Office, London, before he was appointed as Governor of our island, was born on June 23, 1858, as son of John Anderson, Superintendent of the Gordon Mission in Aberdeen.

"Young John" the subject of this essay, was popularly called so to distinguish him from his father who also bore the same name was appointed a second class clerk, having being educated at Aberdeen University, he obtained First Class Honours in the M. A. Degree examination in Mathematics and won the gold medal which was earmarked for the "most distinguished graduate for the year." His educational career ended after he was awarded the LL.D in 1907.

In the words of late Mr. Herbert A. J. Hulugalle, this writer's former Guru I may be permitted to deviate from the subject of this essay for a few words about this great and good man. "He grew up with the Daily News. When the mighty Editor S. J. K. Crowther, at the height of his fame threw down the gauntlet in a letter of resignation, to the amazement of all, the nervous young man was placed on the Editorial throne at the Daily News. In the words of my good friend D. B. Dhanapala (D.B.D.) in May 1962, wrote, to Editor Hulugalle a serious thing was a joke. Raillery, good humoured laughter and alluring banter comprised the technique of his rule over the staff. He could talk lightly of serious things."

Mr. Hulugalle wrote: John Anderson enrolled at Gray's Inn and was Bacon scholar in 1887 and gained the Inns of Court Studentship in the following year.

Much travelled

In the course of official duties he travelled more than the average English servant. In 1891 he was appointed Joint-Commissioner, with Sir J. F. Dickson, former Civil Servant who rose to be Colonial Secretary of the Strait Settlements to inquire into certain matters connected with the Registry of the Supreme Court of Gaibraltar. In 1892 he was attached to the Staff of the British Agent for the Bering Sea arbitration in London/Paris. He was Secretary to the Conference of Colonial Prime Ministers with Mr. Joseph Chamberlain in June and July 1897 and again in 1902.

He also had the privilege of accompanying their Royal Highness the Duke and Dutchess of York (future King George V and Queen Mary) when they visited Sri Lanka.

Describing this visit, our late Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, Grandfather of present President of Sri Lanka, wrote thus: "Kandy reception that evening was even more picturesque and troops lined the route to the King's Pavilion where a State Banquet followed.

Important task

Sir John Anderson arrived in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on April 15, 1916 as its Governor with an important task of wading through 'several records of cases of persons who had been convicted during and after the riots of 1915, often on flimsy and fabricated evidence. British injustice has prevailed well over a century and hence it was abundantly clear that the British Government has to think of a device to vindicate justice.

Sir John Kotelawala, who dominated Ceylon politics from the days of the first State Council, rose to the occasion and having convinced of the wrongs done to Lanka during the riots of 1915 he ordered the release of 800 prisoners who were serving sentences for a year or less, on the Birthday of His Majesty the King.

'The Colonial Office had selected the right man, wrote Mr. Hernert Hulugalle, to soothe the outraged feelings of an embittered people. Anderson carried out the task assigned to him with courage and candour, thereby endearing himself to the permanent population but enraging those who had doubts, in good faith, condoned or been responsible for excess committed in the name of law and order.

He appointed a Commission of Inquiry, consisting of Sir Alexander Wood Renton, Chief Justice, and Mr. G. S. Schneider, a Senior member of the Bar. The Commission reported that, "in each of the cases that have been under investigation the case of shooting cannot be justified on the ground of the existence of martial law - in short, it had no legal justification."

Valuable comments

Going back to his Colonial office days, I am reminded of Sir Ralph Furse's Aucuparius: recollections of a Recruiting Officer, published by the Oxford University Press, where reference is made to Anderson thus: "Old John" we called to distinguish him from "Young John", then a Junior in the Nigerian Department but already giving promise of that transcendent ability which carried him to be the Permanent Under Secretary at the Home Office, Governor of Bengal and Chancellor of the Exchequer, the famous Sir John Anderson - later Lord Waverly-Chuchill's or war horse' in the Cabinet of the Second World War."

On a perusal of Renton's Commission of Inquiry report, Sir John Anderson made certain valuable comments on the state of affairs in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), which I feel, should be placed before my learned readers. He said, "The primary responsibility of these deplorable incidents rests on Mr. F. N. Sulow, a member of the Colombo Town Guard artillery, who was selected by the military authorities to command a small body of military to patrol part of the area in which disturbances had taken place, and where there was reason to fear that further trouble might occur.

He received from the Inspector General of Police instructions to deal vigorously with actual disturbances, and seems to have constructed them into a Commission to administer lynch law throughout the area prescribed, for his patrol and to have considered that this effect was to make him the leader of a pose of vigilantes sent out to deal with the desperadoes in the manner depicted in cinema shows and dime novels of the wild West. Tribute

The then Secretary of State Walter Long paid a great tribute to Sir John (subject of this essay) for settling the affairs of Sri Lanka so tactfully and peacefully. The Governor Sir John Anderson suddenly fell ill at Queens Cottage, Nuwara Eliya in 1918 and passed away on 24th March. It is recorded that his Maha Mudaliyar, Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, who happened to be at his bedside, wrote:

"Sir John was the first Governor of this country to die while his term of office in Sri Lanka and was as yet unfinished, and every circumstances combined to make his death a matter of genuine and universal grief, so that it seemed almost a personal loss." May our people of Lanka take an example from this Great and Good man!