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Banishment of the first Ceylonese family to Australia


by M. D. (TONY) SALDIN - Sunday Island Jan 12 2003

Drum Major O’Deane, a Malay Non commissioned officer of the 1st Ceylon Regiment, who deserted to the Kandyans in 1803, was absorbed into the service of the Kandyan Monarch and provided with a Sinhalese girl as his wife. When the Kandyan Kingdom was captured by the British in 1815, O’Deane was arrested for treason, court-martialed and sentenced to be shot. However, O’Deane’s sentence was later commuted by Governor Robert Brownrigg to "transportation to the Penal settlement of New South Wales in Australia because of the uniform good conduct of the Malay Regiment."


After ousting the Hollanders in 1796, the British were able to gain a foothold in the maritime provinces of Ceylon. Despite this victory, they were now eyeing the Kandyan Kingdom to consolidate their position as masters of the whole island.


When General Hay MacDowall attacked Kandy in 1803 on the orders of Governor Fredrick North, King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe retreated, after a brief resistance, to the mountains of Hanguranketa, carrying with him the Sacred Tooth Relic, albeit after checking the auspicious time from the court astrologer. The sight which greeted British red-coats when entering the city was an ornately carved horse drawn carriage in flames, a gift from Governor North to the Kandyan Monarch, set on fire by the retreating court. The British then installed their puppet Prince Muttuswamy, half brother of King Sri Wickrama as the new Ruler, but he was largely ignored by the people. Moreover, Muttuswamy was dependent on the British for his protection. Ironically, Major Adam Davie, a Scotsman, was entrusted the command of the British garrison in Kandy which he accepted with much reluctance.

Within a few months King Sri Wickrama was able to rally his militia and levies to expel the British. On 24 June, 1803, the Kandyan King’s Malay mercenaries referred to as the ‘Padikkara Peruwa’ led by Sangunglo, their agile captain, commenced the attack on the British garrison. After a short resistance Major Davie, raised the white flag and negotiated terms with Adigar Pilima Talawa for a withdrawal. This arrangement was agreed upon. Davie abandoned 149 of his sick and wounded men in Kandy.


After spiking their cannon and throwing their excess powder and shot into nearby waterways, the beleaguered garrison comprising of 30-Europeans, 300-Malays, 12-Bengali gun lascars and 30-Indian pioneers with the drummers beating a staccato beat were making their forced march to Fort Ostenburg in Trincomalee together with Prince Muttuswamy, when they were trapped at the Watapuluwa ferry near the village of Mawilmada, on account of the flooded conditions of the Mahaveli river.


Some bamboo rafts were made by the troops, but the river was not navigable. Attempts to secure ropes across the river were also thwarted when the Kandyans severed the ropes on the far bank.


On the following day the King’s officials arrived with a request to surrender Muttuswamy, which was rejected by the British. Reluctantly, Davie surrendered Muttuswamy, only when the Kandyans threatened to take him away by force. Muttuswamy with three of his relations were then led about a mile away to the presence of the Kandyan monarch and after a summary trial, were condemned to death and beheaded.


Major Davie thereafter decided to return to Kandy, but found that they were surrounded by about 20,000 of the king’s forces. Several soldiers then began deserting to the Kandyans. Major Davie then gave a strange order, that all troops ground their arms. The British troops were then surrounded and the Asian soldiers were separated from the Europeans, and the officers from the men. They were then given the option of either entering the Kandyan king’s service or face death. Those who refused were immediately beheaded. However most of the European officers chose to shoot themselves with their pistols rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. The first war of 1803 proved a disaster to the British.


The rest is history. Kandy, the last bastion of the Kings of Lanka, fell to the British in 1815 due to the insidious plotting, planning and betrayal by the Kandyan nobles who, one by one, turned against their King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe. For the first time on 5th March 1815, the Union Jack was hoisted in Senkadagala, and British cannon heralded that Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe had been replaced by George the Third of Great Britain.


Our narrative now takes a different turn. Drum Major O’Deane, a Malay non-commissioned officer of the 1st Ceylon Regiment, who deserted to the Kandyans in 1803, was absorbed into the service of the Kandyan Monarch and provided with a Sinhalese girl as his wife. When the Kandyan Kingdom was captured by the British in 1815, O’Deane was arrested for treason, court-martialed and sentenced to be shot. However O’Deane’s sentence was subsequently commuted by Governor Robert Brownrigg to ‘transportation to the Penal settlement of New South Wales in Australia’ because of the fact that the Governor was impressed with the ‘uniform good conduct’ of the 1st Ceylon (Malay) Regiment. O’Deane also had much information on his former Commanding Officer, Major Davie, whilst he was a captive of the Kandyan monarch.


On 17 February, 1816, the attention of the residents of Sydney, Australia, were drawn to the following article, about the arrival of a family of five from Ceylon, appearing on page-1 of the Sydney Gazette:


"The HM Brig ‘Kangaroo’ has brought hither from Colombo several convicts, some of whom are prisoners who had escaped from this Colony. One of the prisoners brought by the ‘Kangaroo’ is a Malayan, who was a Drum Major of the 1st Ceylon Regiment in the memorable Kandyan war in 1802-1803; and having gone over to the enemy, was upon the late capture of the Kandyan country taken prisoner, and condemned to be shot; which sentence was commuted to transportation for life to this territory; whither he is accompanied by his wife and three fine children. The man, who appears to be intelligent, gives an account of the death of several officers who were made prisoners by the Kandyan Monarch; among whose unfortunate number were Major Davey, of the 1st Ceylon, and Captain Romley, of the 73rd Regiment."


"He is dark complexioned, approaching to a black, and is about 5 feet 10 inches in height. His wife who is a Singhalese, being a true descendant of the aboriginal inhabitants of the island, is of a small stature, handsomely formed, of a dark olive complexion, and agreeable features, as are also her three children, of whom the two youngest are boys. The appearance of this little family is truly interesting: and the more so, when the feeling mind considers that misfortune has brought them to a part of the world in which it is scarcely conceivable they can find any means of contributing to their own support. Their native country abounds in fruits, and all the natural luxuries of the East, which are attainable almost without the necessity of human exertion."


The Drum Major was O’Deane. In December 1818, O’Deane, who had taken the first name of William, was assigned as Watchman in HM Dockyards in Sydney, and, in 1825, changed his employment to that of Constable of the Govt. Domain. In May 1827, William O’Deane received a job which he was more familiar with; that of Malay Interpreter for the Australian government.


William O’Deane, accompanied by one of his sons, reported for duty to the Commandant at Fort Wellington, Raffles Bay on the Coburg Peninsula in July 1827. O’Deane was required to act as liaison with Macassarese fishermen from Indonesia who used the coastal areas of the Northern Territories to dry their harvest of trepang (sea cucumber) before export to China. For some reason the British considered it advantageous to establish ties with these fishermen and hence O’Deane’s role as Malay interpreter. The Macassarese and Malay fishermen in their armed Prahu’s docked into Raffles Bay from time to time for stocks of water, and it was a familiar sight to see O’Deane accompanied by the Fort Commandant or his Deputy, boarding these vessels to talk to the fishermen. The fishing vessels would fire their guns whilst leaving the Bay, and the cannon in the Fort were fired in return, acknowledging the salute. O’Deane was given a salary of 70 pounds per year plus a residence for his services. From time to time, O’Deane’s son also acted as interpreter in his father’s absence.


His wife, Eve O’Deane, whom he had left behind in Sydney, and who joined him later at Raffles Bay, was a practical housewife. Records at Fort Wellington shows that she brought with her a table and 4-chairs, beds and bedding, box of clothing, a cross cut saw and other tools, a gun, a basket of soap, 2-boxes of ‘Delph’ and glass, a box of pipes, some kitchen and laundry utensils, a bag of ‘grasstree gum’ and a goat and fodder. O’Deane returned to Sydney in 1829 to his previous employment as a watchman at HM Dockyards. He continued as interpreter for the government when required until 1842. O’Deane was probably the first Malay interpreter employed by the Australian govt. William and Eve O’Deane had six children: three were born in Ceylon and three in Australia.


Mrs. Eve O’Deane died in 1839 aged 50 years at the home of her eldest daughter, Sarah Harriet Evans, and was buried at Devonshire St. Burial grounds. William O’Deane, who was also known as John, died on 23 May, 1860, after being resident for 44-years in the colony.


His death notice in the Sydney Morning Herald read ‘On the 23rd instant, at 111 Woolloomooloo Street, at the advanced age of 87, Mr. John O’Deane, the beloved father of Mrs. T. Purcill and of Mrs. J. Brady of Woolloomooloo, an old and respected colonist, and many years Government Interpreter in this city. He leaves a large circle of relatives and friends to mourn their loss’.


The O’Deanes have left behind many descendants in Australia. Mrs. Glennys Ferguson, a great, great, great, great grand-daughter of William and Eve O’Deane, did a remarkable amount of research on her ancestors. She has traced the life of O’Deane from the time of his arrival in New South Wales in 1816 until his death in 1860. She has tracked down most of his descendants currently spread all over Australia. She is also in the process of writing a book on O’Deane. The reason for her to research her ancestors arose when her family could not figure out how they had black hair and brownish eyes. Many questions still remain unanswered on the Sri Lankan side regarding the origins of O’Deane and his wife Eve.


In the past the average Australian was reluctant to reveal his or her ancestral lineage to convicts, but in the present scenario, they take pride in revealing their heritage as descendants of the original settlers of Australia.

References: (1) The Kandyan Wars - The British Army in Ceylon by Col. Geoffrey Powell (2) Tri Sinhala - by Sir Paul. E. Peiris (3) The First Ceylonese Family in Australia — by Glennys Ferguson in the ‘Ceylankan’ Feb. 2002 issue published by the Ceylon Society of Australia.


(The writer is a past President of the Mabole Malay Association) .


Sunday Observer, June 29 2003


Anecdotal account of the 1st Ceylonese soldier migrant to Australia: 

Pioneer, not convict

The word 'convict' is not appropriate to many who were banished to Australia in the early days of its colonisation. During this period even a slight misdemeanour was sufficient for the British imperial forces to label them as convicts and banish them to harsh, inhospitable lands like Australia.

by F. S. R. Jayamanne

The first recorded arrival of Ceylonese to the continent of Australia took place in February 1816, when the SS Kangaroo brought to these shores Drum Major O'Deen, and his wife and three children who were banished to the Penal Colony of Australia by the British Governor, of Ceylon Robert Brownrigg.

The Malayan Drum Major ODeen, later to be known as O'Dean a Non Commission Officer of the 1st Ceylon Regiment, who switched allegiance to the Kandyans in 1803, was absorbed into the service of the Kandyan Monarch. As a reward he was given a beautiful Kandyan girl in marriage.

When the Kandyan kingdom was captured by the British in 1815, Odeen was arrested for treason, court martialled and sentenced to be shot. However, Odeen's sentence was commuted by Governor Brownrigg to "Banishment to the Penal Settlement in New South Wales, Australia". Some speculate the sudden change of heart of the Governor was for two reasons.

One to subsequent good conduct and fighting spirit of the Malay Regiment. Secondly, Odeen provided the Governor with invaluable information regarding the fate of Major. Davie of the 1st Ceylon Regiment and Captain Romley, of the 73rd Regiment. Major Davy's Company on their way to Kandy were outnumbered and surrounded by about 20,000 of the king's forces. The prisoners were given the option of either entering into the king's service or facing death. Obviously Major Davy and some officers refused. Those who refused were immediately beheaded. The first war proved a disaster to the British. The eye witness account of the massacre by Odeen conveyed to the Governor probably saved Odeen from the firing squad.


The article in the Sydney Gazette of 17 February 1816 (page 1) reports: The "Kangaroo" has brought hither from Colombo several convicts. One of the prisoners is a Malayan who was a Drum Major of 1st Ceylon Regiment. He is accompanied by his wife and three children, of whom the two youngest are boys.

The feeling mind could not fathom how this small family could contribute to their own support, given the harsh, unforgiving land to which they were banished. In comparison their native land with salubrious climes abound in fruit and all natural luxuries of the East.

Odeen's name changed through different census. From 1818 he was known as William O'Dean/Odeen. From 1822 to 1825 the family name is recorded as Hooden and in the 1828 the census the name is Wooden. By 1840's the 1st name had changed from William to John.

The family

This remarkable family, having survived the Kandyan wars, was later to survive in the harshest of environments on far Northern coast of the Colony, now known as the Northern Territory. Documents regarding O'Dean's activities, records have not provided such an accurate record of all the children. It is assumed that three children were born in Ceylon and another two were born in Australia.

Mrs. O'Dean (The Sinhalese woman) known as Eve died in 1839 aged 50, at the home of the eldest daughter, Sarah Harriett. Incidentally, painstaking research into the O'Dean family tree was compiled by Glennys Ferguson, three times great grand daughter of Sarah Harriett O'Dean, the eldest child of William and Eve O'Dean. Sarah Harriett should be the first child born in Ceylon. Ref: Glennys Ferguson. "Ceylankan" Feb. 2002.

Our hero John O'Dean (Odeen) died 23rd May 1860. The death notice in Sydney morning Herald read, "On the 23rd instant, at 111, Woolloomooloo St. At the advanced age of eighty seven, Mr. John O'Dean, the beloved father of Mrs. T. Purcill and of Mrs. J. Brady, of Woolloomooloo, an old and respected colonist, and many years Government Interpreter in this city. He leaves a large circle of relatives and friends to mourn their loss."

By December 1818, O'Dean managed to secure a plum job as a Watchman at HM Dockyard. This is quite an achievement for a convict. At this point I should mention that the word "convict", is not appropriate. During this period, even a slight misdemeanor, was sufficient for the British Imperial force to label them as convicts, and banish them to harsh, inhospitable lands like Australia, to fend for themselves. Added to their misery, it is on record that they were harshly and brutally treated.

However, it should be mentioned that the British in their wisdom, have selected the right material to tame a wild inhospitable country like Australia.

These unfortunate so-called convicts were tough, resilient, courageous, innovative, and adventurous lot.

They built this vast untamed, inhospitable continent, into a vibrant, country we now call "the lucky country."

Today we enjoy the fruits of their labour. All Australians should be grateful for their pioneering spirit. So we shall call them pioneers and not convicts.

Our O'Dean fall into this category.Coming back to our hero, O'Dean was promoted as a Constable of the Government Domain, and was appointed as a Malay Interpreter in 1827. William O'Dean presumably the first officially appointed Interpreter, between Australia and South East Asia, arrived with his son in Raffles Bay. The name of the son is not recorded. It is assumed that he was one of the two boys born in Ceylon.

Thus ends the saga of the Drum Major of 1st Ceylon Regiment and his comely Sinhalese wife. At the end of their tether they were completely westernized, having joined the rich genetic cocktail that is Australia. Today John and Eve should have thousands, if not millions of their descendants, spread right across Australia and beyond.

These episodes of John and Eve prove that we should not create racial stereotypes, and form ethnic ghettos.

We belong to one gene pool, which is the human race, and that we should consider ourselves as citizens of the world. Today most of John and Eve's descendants will have blond hair and blue eyes, as a result of numerous intermarriages.The original dark skin and brown eyes of O'Dean and Eve (the Sinhalese woman), would have been churned out long time ago. You may come across a brunette, blond or a red head anywhere. You could assume that some of them may be genetically connected to our John and Eve.

Finally I dedicate this article to our human family, with joy and appreciation of the Ceylonese family, John and Eve O'Dean, who made good in Australia - The Lucky Country. My grateful thanks to Victor Melder, our Melbourne custodian of Sri Lankan history, culture and other related subjects. I appreciate his support in giving access to his home library, which is a veritable treasure trove.


1. The Kandyan Wars - by Col. Geoffrey Powell

2. Tri Sinhala - by Sir Paul E. Peiris

3. The first Ceylonese Family in Australia - Glennys Ferguson. In the "Ceylankan" Feb 2002 issue published by the Ceylon Society of Australia.