Monday, 7 July 2003  
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The 88th death commemoration of the national hero Edward Henry Pedris

by Dr. H. N. S. Karunatilake

Edward Henry Pedris was the son of the leading businessman D. D. Pedris who had five children. D. D. Pedris had two other brothers D. C. Pedris, a leading lawyer and the well-known businessman D. William Pedris. Since Pedris met his untimely death at the hands of the British they made it a point to suppress all evidence of the supreme sacrifice he made on behalf of the nation and the country. In fact, to the British, it was a sensitive issue, so much so, that no details were available of the execution and the place where Pedris was secretly buried just before midnight on 7th July 1915.

Edward Henry Pedris

The Edward Henry Pedris statue has been erected at a strategic junction that leads to one of the largest temples in Colombo, the Isipatanarama Vihare, which was built in the hero's memory by his grieving father D. D. Pedris, who was well known as a businessman and philanthropist. In memory of the national hero, D. D. Pedris built a pilgrims rest in Polonnaruwa and named it the "Edward Henry Pedris Rest". This Pilgrims Rest was maintained by the income derived from lands owned by Pedris in Anuradhapura known as the Kuttampokunakele and the Basuwakkulamakele. His wife Mallino Pedris in 1920, gifted the land for the Mallikarama Temple in Dematagoda. Work on the statue, itself, was commissioned to the well-known sculptor Henry Dharmasena of Panadura. During the unveiling ceremony of the statue, Mr. Premadasa the Prime Minister, took a decision to name the adjacent playground and stadium, in Havelock Town, the Edward Henry Pedris Stadium. After work on the buildings of the Stadium was completed, Prime Minister Premadasa declared open the Stadium on 7th July 1987. It is only fitting that the statue of Pedris and the sports stadium should be located opposite the Isipatanarama Vihare, that was for a long time in the past called the "Pedris Pansala".

The unveiling of the statue of Edward Henry Pedris revived and stimulated interest in the role that the national hero had played in freeing the country from British rule and once again focused attention on the life and times of Pedris. In this regard, the initial step was taken by the writer in 1978, when he published a small book on "The Life and Times of the National Hero Edward Henry Pedris" that was released on the day that the statue was unveiled. Thereafter, it has helped to bring into focus the annual commemoration ceremonies that have been held regularly from 1978, for the last 20 years. Since 1978, and up to the present time, the annual ceremonies have been organized by the "Edward Henry Pedris Commemoration Society".

Writers in the past have failed to make a proper assessment of the impact of the execution of Pedris on the momentum it unleashed to accelerate the fight for freedom. There is no evidence of an event before, that made the people realize that they have had enough and more of British rule. The execution of Pedris during the 1915 riots took place several months after the outbreak of the first World War and as far as the local population was concerned it was the first event that occurred after the war broke out. The second event of significance was the arrival of the German cruiser "Emden" off Ceylon and the havoc resulting from its presence. The British unduly panicked with the outbreak of the riots during the war and the then administration was confronted with the first outbreak of riots in the 20th century. The Kotahena riots of the early 1870s were insignificant in comparison. The British suspected that there were many businessmen in the Colombo district that had established trade links with the Germans. On account of this two of Pedris's cousins Albert and Edwin Wijesekera, who were leading businessmen, were taken into custody and were imprisoned in Jaffna. By some curious freak of reasoning the riots were construed as an uprising against the British and that there was a threat to undermine their rule. This was one reason that contributed the ferocity of the action by the British volunteer forces against the civilian population, particularly the Sinhalese. The other factor was the British Governor at that time Robert Chalmers was an introvert and a recluse, but he was ruthless when in action. 

He left most of the devastating military action in the hands of the British commander, Brigadier Malcolm who went on a killing spree not only in the District of Colombo but also in the Hill country and in the distant villages. Under martial law the British took the liberty of indiscriminately shooting hundreds of innocent villagers. Most of the British volunteers were planters from the Kandyan areas who ran amok in the areas that were best known to them. The main charge against Pedris was not proved. As an officer in the Town Guard it is reported that he was found with a firearm when there was a clash near the Crystal Palace between the Sinhalese and the Muslims. The British police officers had stated that he was seen using the firearm. But this had not been confirmed by independent witnesses. Pedris was tried by a military tribunal, and the allegations against him were investigated in less than an hour and the execution was scheduled for the following morning, hardly giving time for an appeal by his parents and influential family members.

The narrative of Edward Henry Pedris's contribution to the freedom movement is a long one, but the credit has to go to two Senanayake brothers F.R. and D.S. who were incarcerated in the Welikada Jail with many other great nationalists. After the execution on seeing the limp body of Pedris slumped on the chair to which he was strapped, F. R. Senanayake vowed that he would initiate a concerted struggle to free the country from British colonial rule.

The execution of Pedris, at 8 a.m. on 7th July 1915, has been vividly recounted by A. E. Goonesinghe. He was among the patriots who had been unjustifiably imprisoned in the Welikada Jail.

He said that Pedris had made a request that he be executed by a Punjabi firing squad, rather than a British squad, as they were non Christians and Asians. The British complied and a Punjabi firing squad was named to execute Pedris who had been strapped onto a chair and was blindfolded. Pedris offered his own handkerchief to blindfold him.

Goonesinghe who was watching the execution from his prison cell window says that although one bullet struck Pedris's body it did not result in his death and the British officer who was present at the execution used his own revolver to lodge the fatal bullet in Pedris's body. Dunuge Edward Henry Pedris, who was just 26 years of age, was buried in the Kanatte cemetery in great secrecy at midnight in the midst of martial law, which had been declared in the island, perhaps for the first time under British rule.

The British never officially disclosed as to when and where Pedris had been buried. The British refused to hand over the body to his grieving parents in order to arrange a Buddhist burial with attendant religious rites. However the influential D. D. Pedris had been able to place persons who were in hiding in and around Kanatte to view the secret transportation of the body to the burial site at the cemetery. Before the burial, that had not been recorded in the General Cemetery registers, the British had come to know that his father D. D. Pedris had owned several family burial plots at Kanatte and one of these plots was chosen for the burial. Except for one or two family members, no one knew the exact location. D. D. Pedris was silent on the matter as he did not want any more of his family members imprisoned by the British. Matters were made worse, for he had not only lost his only son whom he hoped would manage his enormous assets but he also lost two of his sons-in-laws who had also been imprisoned in the Welikade and Jaffna jails. He died later, a broken man and his wife Mallino became a Dasa Sil Upasikawa.

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