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The 31st anniversary of Presidency

William Gopallawa, the first President

by Rohan L. Jayetilleke

William Gopallawa with Rt. Hon. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike who served as Prime Minister in 1960-1965.

The littoral of Sri Lanka came under Portuguese control from 1505 to 1658,the Dutch from 1658 to 1796 and the British from 1796 to 1815 and in 1815 with the ceding the last surviving Sinhala Buddhist Kandyan Kingdom to the British under a Convention the entire island came under British rule. In 1948, Sri Lanka gained her independence as a Dominion in the British Commonwealth of Nations and in 1972, during the Premiership of late Madam Sirimavo R.D. Bandaranaike, in terms of a Republican Constitution, drafted by a Constituent Assembly of Sri Lankan statesmen, headed by late Dr. Colvin R. De Silva, of the Lanka Samasamaja Party, constituent political party of the then coalition government, in 1972 Sri Lanka was declared a Republic, with late His Excellency William taking his oath of office before the Constituent Assembly, as the first Republican President at Navarangahala on May 22nd 1972, and continued to hold office until the promulgation of the Second Republican Constitution in 1978, when late His Excellency J.R. Jayewardene was sworn-in as the first Executive President of the Republic.

In the wake of the abortive coup d' etat of 1962, Prime Minister with the consent of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, the Second, appointed William Gopallawa as Governor General with effect from 2nd March 1962, succeeding late Sir Oliver Goonatilleke. Being the first Sinhala Buddhist to hold this august office, he took his oath of office before a statue of the Buddha in the presence of the Prime Minister Madame Sirimavo R.D. Bandaranaike and the Chief Justice H.H. Basnayake at the auspicious time of 8.57 a.m. One of his first acts as the Head of State was to construct a Buddhist shrine in a room at Queen's House, Colombo. He too became the first Sinhala Buddhist to be the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

This year (2003) is the 31st anniversary of the Presidency of Sri Lanka and it is opportune to recollect the life and times of late His Excellency William Gopallawa. He spent his life of retirement at his family residence at Matale, and passed away aged 83 years on 30th January 1981.

William Gopallawa was born on the 17th September 1897 at the Dullewa Maha Walawwa, in Dullewa, a village near Aluvihare in the Matale district.

His mother, Tikiri Kumarihamy Dullewa was a descendant of the Dullewa Maha Adikaram, who was one of the signatories on behalf of the Sinhalese to the Kandyan Convention of 1815, ceding the Kandyan Kingdom to the British, with no alternative in the face of the military fire power of the British. His father was Tikiri Banda Gopallawa, a scion and an icon of a distinguished family from Gokarella in the Kurunegala district.

Tikiri Banda Gopallawa died when his son, who was to become the Head of State, when William Gopallawa was about three years old, soon after the birth of his younger sister.

primary education

William Gopallawa had his primary education at the Dullewa village school and at St. John's College (now named Mahanama Maha Vidyalaya) at Getambe, Kandy. In 1909 in order to be educated in English, which was a sine queen of the time, he joined Dharmaraja College, Kandy.

In order to qualify in science he was shifted to St. Anthony's College, Katugastota, Kandy and having passed the Cambridge Senior Certificate Examination of the Cambridge University (higher English education examinations were conducted overseas in the colonies by the Cambridge University), he returned to Matale.

He joined the tutorial staff of Vijaya College, Matale (then Buddhist English School) and pioneered the setting up a library and a Scouts Group, at the school in his capacity as an English teacher.

He devoted his spare time for social service activities of Matale and inaugurated the Social Service League at Matale and took the message of Temperance mooted by Anagarika Dharmapala to the Matale area.

He later joined the Ceylon Law College, Colombo in 1920 and was enroled as a Proctor, SC and Notary Public in 1924, commencing his legal career as a junior in the Chambers of late Bernard Aluvihare at the kandy Bar. He continued to be in active practice in Matale, Dumbara and Kandy until 1924, until he took up duties as Municipal Commissioner, Kandy in 1939.

He continued his legal career at regular intervals beside his role in the municipality, until he was appointed the Municipal Commissioner of Colombo Municipal Council from 1951 to 1957 his retirement from the public service in 1957.

With the inauguration of diplomatic relations with the then socialist countries by late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister chose William Gopallawa as the first Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the People's Republic of China.


He presented his credentials to the President of China Mao Tse-tung on 18th June 1958. He was later appointed as Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the United States of America and presented his credentials to US President John F. Kennedy on 7th September 1961.

Whilst functioning as the Sri Lanka's Ambassador in the US he was accredited as Ambassador to the Republic of Mexico and Cuba. He was recalled to the island in February 1962 to be appointed Governor General of Sri Lanka, the first Buddhist to adorn this august office and thereafter as the first Republican President until 1978.

In 1926 Gopallawa contested the Urban Council elections of Matale and became the youngest Urban Council Chairman of the time. As Chairman of the Urban Council his main concerns were high transparency in the work of the Council and redress the grievances of the poor citizenry and in 1928 he married Seelawathie, daughter of L.B. Rambukwella.

State Council

In 1936 he unsuccessfully contested elections for the State Council in 1936. During his tenure of office as Municipal Council of Kandy he pioneered the Dangolla Scheme, to prevent the devastation visited upon the residents of Dangolla area of Getambe by the severe over flooding of Mahaveli river.

During the Second World War too he was a tower of strength to find redress to the innumerable difficulties faced by the citizens of Kandy. His services during the ravaging floods of Kandy in 1947, William Gopallawa, brought relief to almost all the flood victims. First Lady Seelawathie predeceased him on 4th October 1977.

He is survived by his children Iranganie Ratwatte, Asoka Punchi Banda Gopallawa, Chintha Silva, Moithra Cudabanda (Monty) Gopallawa (former member of Parliament for Matale district, former Deputy Minister of Public Administration, Home Affairs and Plantation Industries and presently the Governor of the Central Province) and thirteen grand children. He was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, II. He was accorded LLD (Honaris Causea) by the Ceylon (Peradeniya) University in 1962, LLD by the Vidyalankara in 1962 and D.Litt by the Vidyodaya University in 1962, in recognition of his inestimable services to his Motherland.

It is opportune from among the numerous accolades showered on him by politicians, statemen, scholars, civil servants, Maha Sangha and many of his associates to select the observations made on him by minority community members, in view of the mistrust that continue to rage among the two main racial groups in view of the peace process now in progress to remove the barriers created by man between Sinhalese and Tamils. William Gopallawa being schooled in Buddhist traditions and enriched his life with the Four Sublime States of Mind, loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna) blissful joy (muditha) and equanimity (upekkha) as discoursed by the.....

In my humble opinion during this era of seeking harmony and peace between the two racial groups Sinhalese and Tamils, without devaluing the accolades showered on him by Sinhalese and Muslims, the best extracts to be garnered from the William Gopallawa Centenary Volume (edited in 1988 Mahen C.L.B. Gopallawa and printed by the State Printing Corporation by Tamil gentleman, who had very close association with him. Banker

C. Sankarakumaran, a renowned Banker and a long standing family friend and also our family friend, very lucidly illustrate the humane qualities of William Gopallawa.

He says, "My grandfather and father, Adigar Naganather and Gate Mudliyar Canaganayagam although based, as Bankers in Nuwara Eliya till 1925, in which year my father was transferred to Kandy, owned an estate in Matale, His Excellency's home town where he practised as a lawyer and, were therefore in close contact with him, even before His Excellency, too moved to Kandy in 1939, as the first Commissioner of the Kandy Municipal Council with my father's election to the first Municipal Council in Kandy and to the office of Mayor of Kandy in 1942, till the demise of my grandfather, of my father and of His Excellency, there blossomed a family friendship and mutual benevolence by claiming kinship between the two families originating in Nuwara Wewa in the North Central Province. it is my proud and pleasant recollection that His Excellency, on his first visit to King's Pavilion in Kandy gave me and my father the privilege of being the very first visitors to call on him.


We had hardly entered, when His Excellency hugged my father in a most affectionate brotherly clasp and said, "Mudliyar, did you and I ever expect this to happen when you and I were working across the road (i.e. Municipality) so many years ago my father's reply before he released him from his hand clasp was, for those who are loved and destined by the Almighty, His Grace flows unannounced I and my son have come to share that joy......... concludes his appreciation quoting two classics of the bard of Avon, William Shakespeare.

"To gild refined gold; To paint the lily
To throw a perfume on the violet
Or add another hue unto the rainbow
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess".
"His life was gentle, and the elements,
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up,
And say to all the world, This was a Man".

My humble self with ever five decades of poetic and writing track, would say William Shakespeare, when he versified had in mind, a future William Gopallawa, of Sri Lanka.

On a condolence vote on H.E. William Gopallawa passed by the Parliament of the Republic of Sri Lanka on 20th February 1981, A. Amirthalingam MP for Kankesanthurai and leader of the TULF observed, "He was a humble person who never asserted himself or threw his weight about whatever position he occupied. He won the affection and regard of everybody who came into contact with him.......... He never bandied words with anybody. I do not think he would have hurt the feelings of anyone. Yet he rose to a position of pre-eminence".

acceptable to everybody

S. Thondaman MP for Nuwara Eliya - Maskeliya and the leader of the Ceylon Worker's Congress on the vote said laconically, "He rose to many high positions. The more he rose to high positions, the more he was acceptable to everybody. He was very simple and fair. The fact that he was able to serve two Governments and be acceptable to both shows how much he was trusted".

H.E. William Gopallawa in his address to the members of the Parliament upon assuming duties as President on 22nd May 1972, thirty-one years ago to date observed, "I take this opportunity to call upon everyone to shoulder the great responsibility of making the future prosperity of the country and the nation a reality. May the people achieve this prosperity, which they expect to realise through the inauguration of the Republic.

This exhortation of late. H.E. William Gopallawa brings into my memory similar observation made by late Jawarhal Nehru, who became in 1947 the first Prime Minister of Free India, in his address to the Constituent Assembly of India, "Long ago, we made a tryst with destiny and now the time comes, when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure but, very substantially. at the stroke of midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill-will to resolve to persevere to serve the great cause".

(Source William Gopallawa Centenary volume, edited by Mahen C.L.B. Gopallawa, printed by State Printing Corporation. Colombo 1998). (The writer is a senior retired official of the government service and a free lance writer in English over five decades or more).

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