Sunday Observer April 6 1997
These excerpts also throw interesting light on Sir John's formative years and in retrospect can be read as a record of how a tempestuous political personality was formed. The book was published by George G. Harrap and Co. Ltd.
One of my earliest memories is of a small boy whose widowed mother could not afford to buy him a pair of shoes to send him to one of the leading schools in Colombo. Surprisingly enough, that boy was myself. Today I am regarded as a very rich man; and the popular impression is that my wealth made it easy for me from the very start to make smooth progress on the road that ended with the Premiership. But I was not born rich; and my family's circumstances in my boyhood handicapped me badly.
The school chosen for me was the Royal College. My mother used to give me ten cents every morning to pay my tram fare. I saved this by going to the junction now known as Lipton's Circus and waiting for the carriage that carried a lawyer to the courts at Hultsdorp. Jumping on to a perch at the back of the seat, unnoticed, I waited for the first warning cry from a street urchin or some other passer-by that I was stealing a ride. I could then expect the lash of the driver's whip. It was time to protect my face by covering it with my books. I wonder if the lawyer, who later became the Supreme Court Judge, Sir Stewart Schneider, ever dreamt that a future Prime Minister was up to pranks behind him.
But I was happy at the Royal College, where the other boys found in me a high-spirited companion easily led into fights, and good at games, even if I was nowhere near the top of my class in studies. No teacher saw a brilliant career before me.
I had to leave school in 1915, before I could captain the cricket eleven, as I hoped to, because I was chosen as the most suitable person for smuggling food and comforts into the prison where leaders of the temperance movement, including F.R. and D.S. Senanayake, were detained during the 1915 riots, when the Government panicked and saw a rebel in every prominent social worker.
Strokes of good fortune and the astute use of opportunities had changed my family's fortunes by now. My mother, to whom I owe so much, always gave sound advice to those who sought it. She feared that increasing wealth might tempt us to lead idle, extravagant lives, and that future generations of Kotelawalas would be impoverished.
When the large sum of three million rupees was offered by a foreign investor for our plumbago mines she said that so valuable an asset should be retained by the family, and could be developed with much greater profit if we did not yield to the temptation of selling it at that price. She was certainly right.
My father had gone to Australia in his youth, but he found there was no opening for him there, and returned to join the Ceylon Police Force. He rose to the post of Inspector for the Island. I was only a boy of eleven when his life came to a tragic end, by his own hand, when he was convinced that cruel circumstances and implacable foes were conspiring to convict him of having instigated the murder of a kinsman. The fact that he was a popular hero was amply demonstrated at his funeral.
One characteristic of my father was his unrestrained impulsiveness. He had the habit of acting first and thinking afterwards. When I am accused of doing the same, I think it must be because I am my father's son.
An indelible impression I have of John Kotelawala the First, as some people may call my father today, is of his astounding conduct at a wedding. He was with my mother, my grandmother, and me at the bride's house, awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom's party. The bride was one of my aunts. I was then a boy of six, and stood at his knee, eagerly looking forward to the festivities to come.
The bridegroom arrived in the uniform of an officer of the Ceylon Light Infantry. He belonged to one of the most influential Sinhalese families of the time, and in his entourage were men who mattered.
As soon as the party reached the threshold of the house my father, for a reason unknown to anyone present, rose from his seat, thrust me aside, went up to the bridegroom, and gave him a thundering slap. The amazed officer's helmet fell off, and his other military accoutrements were seriously disturbed. What a reception from the family with whom his fortunes were going to be wedded!
My grandmother thrust herself between her turbulent son-in-law and the humiliated bridegroom, whom she did her best to pacify. Peace was restored, and the wedding took place. But the foundation was then laid for a bitter family feud that went on right up to the time of my father's tragic death and continued later, even in public life. That was a way we had among our people in those days, when a petty private quarrel could lead to a persistent vendetta.
My father was a man of great physical strength. He once accepted the challenge of a visiting strong man and wrestler from India named Mabul Khan, and beat him soundly. In those days if any Ceylonese had a giant's strength and knew how to use it he was called a ``Mabul Khan''. For a Ceylonese to get the better of such a champion was an occasion for national rejoicing. John Kotelawala actually did it. He became a proud people's idol.
What must have been the first strike in Ceylon was one started by carters in Colombo. A regulation was introduced by which these drivers of bullock carts were forbidden to sit on the pole of the cart and compelled to walk by the side of their bulls. When they were seated, they could not get their carts out of the way quickly enough to please the lordly Sahibs who thought the roads belonged only to them in those colonial days.
The men went on strike as a protest, and appealed to my father for sympathy. He gave it to them readily, and undertook to feed them all and their bulls while the strike lasted.
I have a vivid picture in my mind of the garden of our home being crowded with carters, their families, and their bulls. How different from the strikes of today, when workers out on strike often have to fend for themselves, while their leaders go to dances and have a good time generally. In the end a compromise was reached. The strike was settled, and my father became a hero of the working classes.
My father was one of the earliest temperance workers in Ceylon, and he regarded this as part of the nation-building activities in which he and a few other patriots were engaged. Their temperance was of the militant type. When they caught a man who had drunk to excess they would march him through the streets the next day, making him wear a chain of coconut shells, in order to render him an object of ridicule and contempt among the people.
My father was one of those who struck the first open blows against colonialism in the days when white men in Ceylon thought they were lords of creation before whom the natives should cringe. And the blows came from hard fists with a terrific punch behind them, and the full force of patriotic pride.
Without a father to guide me in my formative years, I looked to my mother alone for help and advice in every difficulty. Her strength of character and sagacity were great influences in shaping my career. She could understand everything, and forgive much. It is from her that I have learned lessons in tolerance, and the importance of tackling every difficult situation with courage and determination. Hers was an indomitable spirit.
Her exemplary life as a Christian and ardent social worker taught me a sense of values, and inspired me with a profound respect for religious principles, regardless of the creeds we embraced. A Buddhist by birth, my mother sought the solace of another faith in the early days of her widowhood, and became a more devout Christian than some of the friends who helped to convert her. But she did not forget her obligations to the religion of her family, and Buddhist institutions received some of the benefits of her benevolence.
The man who had most to do with moulding my character and influencing me for good in my youth was F.R. Senanayake, who had married my mother's sister, and managed our family's estates. He became one of Ceylon's most respected patriots in his day. His memory is still honoured every year in Ceylon.
I remember an incident which illustrates his high principles and keen sense of fairness. His brother D.S. and I had been discussing a case in which the superintendent of one of our estates was to stand his trial for selling tea produced on the estate and misappropriating the proceeds. A little later I was passing F.R. Senanayake's house, when I was surprised to see the accused superintendent leaving it.
I immediately visited F.R. myself, and asked him why he had entertained the man who had cheated us. His reply surprised me. He said he had given the man enough money to retain one of the best lawyers of the time of defend him. He thought it only fair to do that for him.
The superintendent was convicted, and given a year's imprisonment. When he came out of gaol F.R. insisted on re-employing him, because he felt the man had paid the full penalty for his crime.
D.S. Senanayake was paid a salary of 400 rupees (Rs. 400) a month and myself Rs. 100, for looking after the estates of my mother and my aunt - his brother's wife, Mrs. F.R. Senanayake. The future Prime Minister Senanayake's first entry into active politics was in 1924, when he was elected uncontested as Member for Negombo in the Legislative Council.
A rugged character, more a plain plumbago miner than an astute politician, he found it quite a problem to make his first speech in Council. The subject was rubber-restriction. His brother F.R. wrote the speech for him, and I was present at the rehearsal. When I went to Council to hear him deliver it, I'm sure my heart beat faster than his. In those days the President of the Council was Governor Manning, a stern old soldier, who strictly enforced the rule that no speeches should be read.
D.S. Senanayake had memorized most of his speech, although he did not quite understand what it all meant. Anyway, he kept the typescript in front of him for the purpose of glancing at it when his memory failed him. We had worked an American joke into the speech. And when he came to this point the breakdown I dreaded occurred. One of the sheets of typescript had fallen to the floor, and all D.S. could say was: ``This reminds me of the American joke - er - joke -''. He could get no further, and flopped back into his seat.
When he came out of the Council Chamber he told me he would never again try to memorise a speech. He would either read it out or make one of his own. Later in his career, he became one of our ablest parliamentary debaters, in spite of his too frequent use of such explanatory phrases as ``The thing is this'', and ``Actually, as a matter of fact''.
F.R. Senanayake and others interested in me thought that I should be compensated for the interruption of my school career by being given an opportunity of acquiring some `polish' and experience abroad. They suggested a trip to Australia; but I was not interested. I much preferred to go to Europe. This was a hazardous adventure in war-time, with German submarines sinking so many ships. I needed a companion, and found one in a school-mate who had shone at cricket, and who was now in his brother's firm of brokers.
We managed to get passages on a French ship, and felt like two orphans of the storm on board, until some one who could speak English befriended us. He was a British businessman from Singapore, and soon began to take a fatherly interest in the two boys from Ceylon. We were British subjects, and he felt it was his duty to protect and help us.
As we were nearing Marseilles we ran into danger. A submarine attack was feared, and we stood on the deck wearing our life-belts, expecting the ship to be torpedoed at any moment, and hoping we should be rescued.
It was my first taste of war. I am no coward; but I was young, and the thought of losing my life so early without doing anything worth while depressed me. We pursued our zigzag course to Marseilles, and the passengers got off the ship in a frantic hurry. Here we were up against another difficulty. We found it was almost impossible to travel through France by train and get across to England when the Germans were so near Paris.
Our friend from Singapore took us to the British Consul, and did his best to see us through. Ultimately, we reached Paris, where we stayed until we finally got across the Channel to London, where our friend chose a temperance hotel as the best resort for the two youngsters from the East on their first trip to the great city.
Within a few days we experienced our first air-raid. A Zeppelin flew over London, and an attacking British plane dived straight at it and soon shot it down with machine-gun fire. So this was war, brought right to our door-step, and we were thrilled to be in the thick of it. The pilot of the British plane, Leefe Robinson, was awarded the V.C. for gallantry. This remained in my mind ever afterwards, and I resolved that I would one day fight for my country as Robinson did for his.
One of the Ceylonese who helped and advised me in London was E. W. Perera, a great patriot and fighter, who was there to make representation to the Secretary of State for the Colonies against the grave injustices done to his people during a dark period of terror and martial law in Ceylon that followed the riots of 1915. He was a confirmed bachelor, but he tried to be a father to the Ceylonese students in London.
One thing he cautioned us against was the danger of having our pockets picked in Tube stations. He was once telling us that we should always be careful when we wore such things as tie-pins to see that they were firmly fastened and could not be easily snatched by thieves.
As he was doing so he looked for his own tie-pin, and found that it had been stolen. He insisted on speaking to us only in Sinhalese, though his vocabulary in his own language seemed to be sadly limited when it came to describing the things he saw in London.
From London I went to Christ's College, Cambridge, to take a course in agriculture. My keen interest in sport, and the fact that I had enough money to spend freely, made me very popular at the University.
I spent five years in Europe, and returned with no violent prejudices against foreigners, but with a renewed zest for living well and working hard.
It was on one of my visits to France that an incident occurred which led me to make up my mind to take to politics, and fight against the colour-bar, among other evils. I was in the company of a French-woman, who asked me for a cigarette. I handed her my gold cigarette-case, but it happened to be empty. Then a burly American came up to us and thrust his own cigarette-case towards the lady, asking Madame to help herself. She politely refused. He persisted in his offer, and remarked, ``Black man's cigarette not good; white man's cigarette very good.''
I asked him what he meant by that, and told him that this was not his country or mine; we were on neutral ground, and I would show him that a black man's blow was very good indeed. I then gave him a sock on the jaw and sent him sprawling.
An excited crowd of french people rushed towards us, and there was a good deal of confusion. Everybody's sympathy seemed to be with me, since I could speak French and the American spoke only English. Eventually we were taken before a police commissioner, and I explained that I hit the man because he insulted me. We were both advised that if we wanted to fight we should do so in our own countries, and not in France.
My introduction to Army life began through my passion for riding horses. As a boy of fifteen I used to take a horse from our stables at a very early hour in the morning, without anybody's knowledge, and ride it bare-back round Victoria Park to my heart's content. One day I meet D. C. Senanayake, eldest brother of the great D. S., also out riding at dawn, as a cure for his insomnia. The information inevitably reached my mother, and there were no more stolen rides for me.
But my reputation as a skilful and intrepid young horse-man spread, and when a mounted section of the Town Guard was formed one of its officers suggested that my services should be enlisted to break horses in for members of that unit. I was too young to be a Town Guard, but I was delighted to help them in this way.
After the experience of the 1915 riots I had a strong desire to be a soldier myself, and to see a Ceylon Army come into being some day, capable of defending our own country. I felt my ambition was nearer realisation when I became a lieutenant in the Ceylon Light Infantry in 1922.
Sport and military training did as much for me as for any other man in developing the team spirit and discipline, the ability to face triumph and disaster with equanimity, which are so useful in fitting one for public life. I wish all our politicians could be men who excelled at games in their youth, even if they had no experience of Army life.
I was good at cricket and football at school, and latter took to tennis, and developed a passion for polo. It was the thrill of playing the game well and the enjoyment of vigorous exercise that attracted me most. I also found that it helped me to tackle any job in hand with greater zest and concentration.
I must also record my association with the Sinhalese Sports Club, one of the leading clubs started to foster cricket, which belongs to the category of good things that colonialism introduced into our country. At club cricket we learned not only to play the game but to overcome sectional prejudice of caste and creed. Also, on the field, and afterwards when we were hosts or guests, we met representatives of the old colonialism as equals, and in that role they were indeed jolly good fellows.
There was one rather unfortunate feature in club life, owing its origin to the racially exclusive clubs established by the British residents in Ceylon. Other communities _ Sinhalese, Tamils, Malays, Burghers (descendants of Dutch settlers)_ set up their own cricket clubs. Colonialism, that brought us cricket, had also introduced this vicious communalism in sport.
One of my ambitions was to be a gentleman rider at the race meetings in Colombo. On the occasion, I was riding one of my own horses in a race when two jockeys (both white men) deliberately interfered with my mount, and even threw me out of the saddle.
When the race was over I went up to one of them and gave him a stinging blow across his face. Thereupon the secretary of the club (an Englishman) caught me by the throat and thrust me out of the room, threatening to warn me off the course.
when my mother heard about it, she insisted on my giving up racing as far as owning and riding horses were concerned. In later years I became a steward of the ceylon Turf Club, but never owned horses.
My 23 years of army life, and my experience in Ceylon's War Council, gave me the opportunity to meet big men who had done great deeds, and whose example inspired me with courage and confidence when I had to tackle any problem or difficulty.
I also learned that in the Army twelve o'clock meant five to twelve and not half-past twelve. Unpunctuality is a notorious weakness of the Ceylonese, and I have always sought to correct it. It was once said of me in America that, for an Easterner, I was uncommonly punctual.
I was a captain in the Ceylon Light Infantry when I entered politics, and retired from the regiment as Colonel.
It may interest my good friend the Prime Minsiter of India to know that in my youth an admirer described me as a nationalist of the deepest dye, whom his friends and acquaintances called ``Jawaharlal Nehru.'' A journalist wrote in 1931: ``We are sure he will live up to that high expectation and before long become Ceylon's Nehru.''
I had no such ambition then, and was more interested in being described at the same time as a ``pukka'' sportsman, an expert in boxing and a good hand at tennis; also as a rich young man who was in favour of income tax when contemporary men of substance were against it.
My first contacts with colonialism at its worst were when, as an agriculturist, land-owner, and business-man, I came up against the attitude of by no means effortless superiority adopted by the British planters towards Ceylonese of every class. They thought our country belonged to them, and was theirs alone to exploit, while the richer native should be kept in their place and enjoy none of the privileges exclusively reserved for the ruling race.
Social status, sportsmanship, a university education, and physical prowess counted for nothing if you were a son of the soil. The fact that your family prospered was merely due to the tolerance of a kindly Government whose main job it was to civilise the natives and make use of them as coolies or clerks.
I am not saying that all the British officials, planters, and merchants adopted this arrogant attitude towards the people of the country. There were shining exceptions. But colonialism seemed to infect most of them with a tropical disease, of which the most familiar symptom was an ill-concealed contempt for brown, black, and yellow men as such. The ancient civilisation of Ceylon meant nothing to them, unless they were scholars interested in history.
The laws of the land had to be framed primarily for the benefit of British interests. Good roads, hospitals, and schools were a necessity only in the estate areas, and were apparently a luxury to which villagers and peasants were not entitled. First-class railway carriages were not meant for third-class natives even if they were Kandyan chiefs or Tamil knights.
No doubt the British planters with the aid of Indian labour and of a Government that looked after the interests of foreign investors very well, had done a lot for the development of industries that increased the country's revenue. But was that a good reason for neglecting the basic needs of the permanent population, for resenting the claims and thwarting the aspirations of Ceylonese, and for insulting and humiliating them in their own country?
The cruder eruptions of colonialism used to enrage me in my impetuous youth. I was always a fighter, who believed in hitting hard and well above the belt. It was therefore not surprising that I came to be involved in many escapades in which I invariably felt that my might was right, and that the other fellow's wrong thinking was his weakness.
I would stand no nonsense or impudence from anyone. This, I think, was the reaction to colonialism among all young men of my time with any spirit and with resources to back them; but many of them were more cautious and prudent than I could ever be. It was my belief that I was thrice armed if I got my blow in first.
Two incidents that illustrate the slave mentality that colonialism breeds and the tendency in rural Ceylon to regard British officials as demigods linger vividly in my memory.
On one occasion I was present, as MP for the district at a conference at which Government Agent was explaining in a lordly way how he administered his province. Among those present were some Ratemahatmayas, who were called upon to elaborate some of the points made by the Big White Chief. What astounded and infuriated me in the demeanour of these men was that every time they mentioned the GA in their well-rehearsed recitals they rose respectfully a few inches from their seats, as though they were naming a divine being. I stood it as long as I could, and then I interrupted by asking the GA why they did this. Had he given them the impression that he was a god? He replied that it was the usual custom in his province. ``If that is so,'' I exclaimed indignantly, ``let the custom be stopped. I find it disgusting.''Sir John - the politician, the gentleman, the soldier
by Lorna Wright - Sunday Observer Mar 7 2002
Sir John, a statesman politician of his day and age, who practised the profession of politics with the zeal of a successful evangelist. A gentleman. A proud and confessed nationalist he loved his country and its people.
He had a deep love and respect for his mother Alice Kotelawala but never had the intimate family life that his brother Justin and sister Freda had. However his life was a triumph of discipline over bitterness dictated by wisdom drawn from experience.
Anchored in human reality he would often say 'one needed to go hungry to appreciate a good meal, know loneliness to yearn for a mother's love - only then will one break free from shadows and get permanently reverted to substance. He had a sneaking appreciation of practical down-to-earth men such as A.E. Goonesinhe's golaya - Premadasa.
Promoting him to contest N.M. Perera, remarking, 'that man knows how to handle time.' Sir John exemplified time which was an obsession with him. Observing that everyman had a credit of 86,400 seconds every morning and if he failed to use that days deposit, there was no going back - time waits for no one.
Sir John would insist that in Sir Lanka we lived in a society that based her moral claims on the worth, dignity, and talents of the individual. Sri Lankans were a very talented people. To each his own. Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher yet all a lovable lot, who over the years in a give and take lived amicably together. Friends and politicians of every shade of opinion sat at his famous breakfast table. There never was indiscriminate indictment of one race, or of any one family or another. Never. Kandawala, a simple but well maintained residence had feudal overtones. Families, husband, wife and children in their own houses lived on the estate.
His beautiful gardens, and he had not separated himself from the earth. Chattering and laughing children - gossiping adults were everywhere on Sunday morning, after guests had left the breakfast table. Two hours of cleaning up - breaking cobwebs, polishing brass, dusting, sweeping the residence. He looked after them down to the children's uniform and school books, they had to reciprocate. There was no exploitation or violation of human rights. He had not-distanced himself from everyday people. The green, green lawns, green trees were the green nutrients of his life.
It was not his money, the background of the large feudal estate that led and dominated his way of life. The dictatorial power was there by force of personality, very deep knowledge of his subject, his acceptance to listen to another's point of view. He had a very humane approach to anything he said or did. He understood his supporters as well as his opponents.
Sir John left no one great deed done. A soldier to the marrow of his bone he left his properties to the Kotelawala Defence Academy training men in the Army. The importance of accomplishment and he always had an honest impulse to open up new realms of experience. This needed a great leap of faith in himself and that he had in good measure.
Yesteryear and prisoners were taken out in gangs for maintenance work on public and state owned buildings. Voted budget monies were spent on materials while the labour was free. The supervision was good and pilferage minimal. Post Independence and cultural integrity and social issue surfaced and became complex. Radical labour militants and their class - conscious rhetoric changed procedures. Not being a homogeneous nation, it was not easy to unite and create a good, strong, culture of work for economic progress.
This gave Sir John a new sense of purpose and thought. He set up the ESLC - Essential Services Labour Co. insisting that while the collective intelligence of a large group was average, the collective action was quite high and could benefit the country. This organised, semi-skilled disciplined labour force, proud of themselves in uniform would do the maintenance jobs.
Budgetary monies already voted. The country would be absorbing drop-outs, someday conscription wise and turning them into useful citizens and a much needed semi-skilled workforce - Learn to work was also learn to earn. The cheer squad were mothers proud of their sons, in uniform grateful for some financial assistance, and the discipline and skills training given them.
Sir John believed in discipline of a military nature. Enforcement by law and order. As Minister of Transport, Communication and Works - the PWD (Public Works Department) he was fully ware of pilferage and corruption - chiselling he always said was part of the Asian ambience. Blasting a PWD overseer whom he valued for his efficient work, but suspected of corruption, he was startled at the man's reply.
"Sir if we Overseers take or don't take, they say we take - so we might as well take". Many of his personal friends, he moaned, were committed to unattainable dreams they'd walk through this fire and book and return trip as well, little realising they'd be straining the fragile cords of unity of a multi-racial, mutli-religious country.
Soldiering was his love. Travelling down in jeeps, once a year, foreign and local friends and relations were his guests at Yala game sanctuary for a week. A fiend for daily exercise he'd march them late evening on the drive-way swinging his arms.
"We're the boys of the Army, the mighty CLI, all we have to do - is fight and fight and die".
After this walk one day, Upali his cousin, noticing a wild buffalo standing in his path shouted.
"Lionel Aiya get back, get back, wild buffalo".
Sir John bolted leaving his companions to fend for themselves - much laughter. On another occasion the jeeps were confronted by wild elephants leisurely feeding - cameras started clicking. Some stupid students in a van from the opposite side rushed past banging their vehicle and shouting. The elephants disturbed, stampeded. The jeep drivers tried desperately to reverse. Rukman in the first jeep leapt out and faced the elephants - we learnt later with mantrams the mahouts use. The elephants turned and slowly wandered away.
Sir John greatly relieved quipped, "thank God, we have one Senanayake left who can handle elephants from going berserk".
He had a taste for what was good and strong a sharpness of vision to distinguish the true from the false.
He died a veteran soldier, General the Rt. Hon. Sir John Kotelawala CH, KBE, LLD.
Daily News - Wed Sep 24 2003
Kotelawala Defence Academy
General Sir John's gift to the nation
by Capt. Shemal Fernando, RSP, USP
The convocation of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy will be held at the BMICH today (24). The first ever Master's Degrees of the Academy will be conferred on 17 senior military officers whilst 127 junior officers will receive their Bachelor's Degrees.
The Right Honourable General Sir John Lionel Kotelawala, CH, KBE, LLD is perhaps best known as a former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Erect and soldierly in his bearing, 'Sir John' as he was affectionately known was undoubtedly one of the most colourful personalities of his time.
Always frank and outspoken, Sir John never hesitated to call a spade a spade. He always enjoyed a good story even at his own expense. Anecdotes about his wit and rollicking sense of humour are told and retold to this day.
Beneath his tough exterior, Sir John was a kind hearted and a generous statesman, who made numerous friends among a variety of people. Kandawala with its magnificent mansion and sprawling acres was the home of Sir John for well over five decades.
Being a soldier himself, he had a great regard for the military. In a final gesture of philanthropy and realizing the need for a well disciplined national security system, Sir John took the decision to bequeath his property to the nation for the establishment of a much-needed Defence Academy.
The General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy is surely a fitting monument that stands as testimony to the character, patriotism and statesmanship of the great son of Sri Lanka who held the position of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence from October 12, 1953 to April 11,1956.
Gift to the nation
Lieutenant-General Denis Perera who first presented the idea of the Defence Academy to Sir John, once described the dialogue in a befitting tribute, "I had to ask him for it very diplomatically, because his first reaction was, "This is the trouble with you Army fellows, if you see something good you want to grab it!", But he was interested in the project and wanted to know more about it, so I gave him my project report which he kept for about three months.
He telephoned me one day and said, come with your family for breakfast. He entertained my sons with elephant rides, took us all around his property, showed us his walawwa and then said, "You can have Kandawala, look after it. Tell the President so". On November 11, 1979, Sir John first gifted Kandawala to the nation retaining a life-interest in it.
At the vesting ceremony he had told General Perera, "I say Denis, you must let me live in peace, you can have it after I am no more". Later, on April 7, 1980, Sir John transferred his property by way of gift absolute and irrevocable to the nation - a truly magnificent bequest worthy indeed of a great-hearted patriot.
One day in August 1980 Sir John either had a premonition of death or felt lonesome had told General Perera, the then Commander of the Army that he should go ahead with plans for establishing the Academy. Accordingly, they decided to establish it on October 11, 1980 - the day after Army Day and General Perera's 50th birthday.
On September 29, General Perera had gone to Kandawala with his staff and all the plans for the October 11 ceremony. Sir John himself had sketched the whole layout of the ceremony, approved of them all and yet insisted on going through it on the ground. We first moved out to where the masonry for tablet was being built. And after a small rehearsal we walked back to the mansion. That beautiful tree 60 years old that Sir John had planted himself, and a branch seemed unable to shelter the tablet.
"All this was done and then we had breakfast, which turned out to be the last of the famous Kandawala breakfasts, which Sir John had established many years before", wrote General Perera in his inspiring tribute. Sir John suffered a stroke that afternoon and was removed to hospital.
A few hours before Sir John's death, on October 1, 1980, the then President, His Excellency J. R. Jayewardene together with General Perera went along to Sir John's bedside and bestowed on him the rank of Honorary General. Sir John had been conscious and acknowledged the accolade with a nod, being a true soldier.
Sir John passed away peacefully the following day, October 2, 1980. His remains were cremated at Independence Square on October 5 with full military honours.
Born on April 4, 1897, "Sir John" as he was popularly known received his education at Royal College, Colombo and Christ Church, Cambridge in the United Kingdom. A soldier and statesman of no repute, Sir John's interests ranged from politics and sports to mining, agriculture and architecture. He excelled in sports at school and in the University, his favourite games being cricket, tennis, golf, polo and boxing. He loved horses and took great pleasure in his morning rides.
John Kotelawala was commissioned in the Ceylon Light Infantry in 1922. He rose steadily in the service and was promoted to the rank of Colonel in 1940. This was the highest rank a Ceylonese could hold in those days.
During the Second World War as he was a member of the War Cabinet, he retired from the service. He however took a keen interest in military and was President of the Ex-Servicemen's Association for almost three decades up to the time of his death.
Sir John as a statesman
Sir John entered politics when he was 35 and was a freedom fighter. As a member of the First State Council in 1931, he represented the Kurunegala seat and continued to represent it for 11 years. A founder member of the United National Party, he held several ministerial posts and on October 12, 1953, Sir John had the distinction of becoming the third Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
Sir John as the Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs was responsible for Ceylon's entry to the United Nations. He was also responsible for several public works during his tenure as Minister of Communications and Works, Minister of Transport and Works and later as the Prime Minister.
The Laxapana Hydro-electric scheme, the development of the Port of Colombo, the University buildings at Peradeniya and several other major schemes; the introduction of Aviation and the construction of the Ratmalana Airport; the development of roads and the construction of the New Kelani Bridge were initiated by Sir John when he was a Minister.
Sir John played a significant role in Asian politics as well, and left the mark of his statesmanship. As Prime Minister he initiated the Colombo Powers Conference, which was the precursor to Bandung Conference held in 1955, from where the Non-Aligned Movement took off after his time.
Sir John retired from politics after his defeat at the polls in 1956 and resided in his estate in Kent, United Kingdom for some years. He late returned to Sri Lanka to spend the last years of his life amid the gracious surroundings of his home in Kandawala.
The Defence Academy Sir John's popularity and the regard in which he was held both locally and internationally is borne out by the mementos that adorn the wall cabinets of the museum. Among the various honours bestowed on him in his lifetime are Frances's "Grand Croix of the Legion of Honour", the Order of the Lion of Netherlands, Star of the Rising Sun of Japan, Britain's Companion of Honour and the Knight Cross of the British Empire.
The 'Mission' of the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDA) is to educate, train and inspire the cadets to a lifetime of dedicated service in the defence of the nation and to promote leadership skills and intellectual growth combined with professionalism as officers of the regular forces.
The KDA was inaugurated on October 11, 1980 at a simple, yet dignified and moving ceremony at the Kandawala Walawwe. On March 3, 1981, the academic programme was inaugurated with an enrolment of 34 officer cadets drawn from the three Armed Forces.
The academy originally functioned as an institution affiliated to both Colombo and Moratuwa Universities, one or the other of which conferred the degrees on the Academy students on completion of their courses. But by an Act of Parliament (No. 27 of 1988), the KDA was granted full university status on January 19, 1989 and became a degree granting institution in its own right.
General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy in its inaugural convocation on January 14, 1991 conferred the honorary degree of LLD (Doctor of Law) posthumously on Sir John.
From the inception the KDA awarded the Bachelor's Degrees in Defence studies in the disciplines of Technology (Engineering), Management and Technical Sciences, Commerce or Arts as applicable. The Master's Degree programme was inaugurated in March 2001 with the long-term objective of affording a high degree of professionalism in military affairs and to mould the national leaders.
AT the KDA, degrees cannot be obtained through book learning only. Skills acquired in the defence services are a vital factor that will determine whether a student is worthy of a degree in defence studies being conferred upon him. All round training and strict discipline are part of the Academy curriculum.
The degrees conferred by the KDA are recognized worldwide as the Academy is affiliated to the Association of Commonwealth Universities, United Kingdom.
A legally constituted Board of Management manages the Academy. The Commandant is appointed for a term of three years and the post rotates among high-ranking officers from the three services. Currently General Denis Perera holds the position of the Chancellor and Air Vice Marshal G. Y. de Silva is the Commandant.
Professor H. H. G. Seneviratne serves as the Director of Academic Studies whilst the Registrar is Mr. D. G. Jayasuriya. Rear Admiral Terrance Sundaram serves as the Co-ordinator of the Master's Degree programme.
The products of KDA have proved their mettle in the battlefields of the North and East. Many of these young men have made the Supreme Sacrifice for their Motherland.
The name of Captain W. N. J. W. Perera of the 1 SLE who was killed in Action on January 21, 1986 is inscribed in golden letters on a "Roll of Honour" on the spacious walls of the Academic Block.
On October 10, 1993, the Sir John Kotelawala Museum was declared open to the public by the then President of Sri Lanka, His Excellency D. B. Wijetunga. This was in tribute to Sir John who donated his home and its surrounding parklands to the three services and thence to the nation.
Sir John lived by the dictum "For my country, always". His household effects bear the legend set out on his coat-of-arms. He was foremost a militaryman and to this end Sir John gifted Kandawala to the services to foster generations of well-trained and educated youth, to join ranks with those already dedicated to the task of defence.
Kandawala did not belong to Sir John's ancestors. It was his own home, the one he planned, built and furnished in his own style for his requirements. He bought Kandawala at a public auction in 1920. Originally there had been a small three bed-roomed house set in a profusion of cinnamon and coconut trees. The main house was built in 1926 and Sir John entered politics in 1931.
The Kandawala residence, by today's standards is a modest building. Its chief characteristic is that it is bare of ostentation. The grace of the house and the surroundings is of a fundamental nature. The house is open on all sides of the parklands and view of the venerable trees that surround it. One has a sense of space and timelessness amid spacious verandahs, polished floorboards and "open" prospects of the house.
The ground floor comprises spacious living and dining areas and a large airy office-cum-library, where as Prime Minister, Sir John after attended to state business. It is said that he did not live at Temple Trees. This room reflects to a large extent Sir John's love of humour and his attitude to life in general.
Running the length and breadth of the room at ceiling level, in a panel of about 3 feet in width are caricatures of leading political figures of the pre-independence era. Foremost cartoonists Aubrey Colette had done "justice", in his own inimitable style to governor and governed alike, providing his sponsor with delight.
"Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end, dare to do our duty, as we understand it" - Abraham Lincoln.
(The writer is one of the Naval officers being conferred with the first ever Master's Degree a this year's convocation)