Edward Henry Pedris: his untimely death forged the way to freedom
Edward Henry Pedris
REMEMBERED: Edward Henry Pedris was born at the turn of the twentieth
century. His father, D.D. Pedris commenced business in plumbago in 1872
and owned practically one of the oldest mines at Anasigalahena, Kalutara
Up-to-date machinery was imported to operae these mines. His
interests diversified and he started a drapery establishment at Cross
Street, Pettah, which soon attained such large proportions that it had
to be housed in extended premises.
Not only was there brisk sale of piece goods but it also became an
outfitting line generally. He soon became a well-known business and
philanthropist. He also became the benefactor of one of the largest
temples in Colombo the Isipathanarama Temple, Colombo 5.
It is probably a temple which has been constructed by a grieving
father in memory of his son, a national hero. It contains all the
components of a complete temple.
The buildings are well spaced out on a large extent of land so as to
afford devotees complete freedom in comfort to worship. The architecture
is pleasing to the eye and the Viharage paintings were done by famous M.
D.D. Pedris and his brother-in-law, N.S. Fernando Wijesekera, had
entrenched themselves in business in Pettah, the business hub then,
along with a few Sinhalese, such as Don Carolis.
The rest of the business concerns were in the hands of minority
communities. Pedris had four daughters and one son. Edward, was
carefully brought up in the tenets of Buddhism. Edward first attended
the Colombo Academy, which later became Royal College, where he excelled
in sports, especially cricket.
He later joined S. Thomas College, Mt. Lavinia, where he became top
scorer in the cricket eleven. Being of a friendly disposition, he made
many friends in school and his closest friend was Francis Molamure who
was later the first Speaker of Parliament. He was also Knighted by the
British. Having left school, his interests turned to horses.
He persuaded his father to buy him a horse. A Russian Prince had
arrived in the island at that time bringing with him a beautiful brown
Pedris lost no time in purchasing the horse for his son. This horse
was named Lally and was Edwardâ€™s favourite at the stables. Lally was
carefully groomed at the stables at 9, Turret Road, Colombo and during
the Easter vacation he was sent to Nuwara Eliya where Pedris owned a
property known as Allerthorpe Cottage.
The British officials and fraternity were not only envious of the
handsome debonair, Edward, but also of Lally which was the only horse of
its kind. It was his predilection for horses that led him to join the
volunteer force known as the Town Guard.
Here, he excelled as an expert horseman and marksman and obtained
quick promotions, rising to the rank of Captain. Throughout his life,
Edward showed signs of being fearless and would not bow down to any
signs of superiority displayed by the British. These qualities did not
endear him to the administrators.
The Governor, prior to the 1915 riots, was the newly appointed Robert
Chalmers, an introvert, who was an oriental scholar with a brilliant
academic record at Cambridge. Unfortunately, he proved to be a poor
administrator who misinterpreted the situation arising from the riots.
The events which led to the riots are well documented in â€śMemorial of
the Sinhalese peopleâ€ť, dated November 25, 1915. It states that the petty
trade of the island was largely in the hands of coast Moors who were
different from the Muslims.
The poorer classes of Sinhalese were compelled to buy their
necessities from the coast Moors who were unscrupulous in their dealings
and once they established themselves in the rural districts they bought
all the ancestral lands of the poor Sinhalese once they fell into debt.
Hence, there arose enmity between the two groups. It was probably
this enmity which initially led to the riots. The stranglehold on
economic factors invariably spilled over to the religious activities of
Buddhists and Hindus.
To safeguard the rights privileges and practices of Buddhists, the
Convention of 1815 had been signed between the British and the Chief of
the Kandyan Kingdom. The policy of the local authorities had been not to
obstruct religious processions or Peraheras but to regulate them so as
not to interfere with the worship of other religions.
In spite of this Convention of 1815, there was friction form time to
time between the Moors and Buddhists. What set in motion the chain of
events leading to the riots of 1915 was the religious procession or
Perahera which passed through the streets of Kandy on Vesak Day on May
Two carol parties had been licensed to conduct their procession,
subject to the clause that they should not pass a newly built mosque on
Castle Hill Street with music after midnight.
At about 1.00 a.m., there was a confrontation with some Moors who had
assembled to create mischief. Fearing a breach of the peace, the Police
diverted the carol carts, as clashes had taken place between the two
communities. They soon spread to other parts of the town.
Riots had now erupted, resulting in the wanton destruction of both
Sinhala and Moor property. The unrest and destruction had spread to
Matale, Gampola, Kadugannawa, Kegalle and a few other Kandyan districts.
The British misinterpreted the situation and thought it was an
uprising against them as they were at war with Germany. Several
Sinhalese were brutally shot dead when the infamous â€śshoot at sightâ€ť
order was given after the declaration of Martial Law on 2nd June, 1915.
The hurriedly created British volunteer forces consisted of European
plantation officials who were given weapons, even without proper
training. After the proclamation of Martial Law, more European planters
were enroled as special police officers and posted to various parts of
the island with Punjabi soldiers hurriedly brought down from India to
The riots had now spilled over to Colombo which was in a state of
turmoil and tension was high.
The riots continued for several days, thereafter. By now the British
Police Officers decided to fabricate a story that Edward, who had
prevented the hostile crowd from Peliyagoda crossing the Victoria
Bridge, was found firing at a Muslim mob when the attack on the â€śCrystal
Palaceâ€ť took place.
Though a shot had been fired, it was later proved in Court when the
claim for insurance on the life of Edward came up, that this shot was
not fired by him and that it was the work of some unknown persons.
Orders went out by the desperate British authorities to arrest Edward
on the false pretext that he had killed a person in Pettah. The British
officers, reinforced by Punjabi soldiers, forcibly entered the residence
of D. D. Pedris at Turret Road.
They unceremoniously bundled all the occupants into their Orchid
House and locked them up. They then rifled the whole house, breaking
open doors and almirahs, in search of any incriminating documents as the
British were also suspicious that some members of the Pedris family were
in league with the Germans.
Edward was arrested at his residence and put into a military vehicle
and taken to the Welikada Jail under the tightened security precautions
seen up to that time. A. E. Goonasinghe who was also arrested on June 2,
by four Punjabi constables, two Englishmen and Inspector V. T. Dickman
and taken to the Welikada Jail saw many prominent men brought in.
He says, â€śThere were sixty of us. These included D. B. Jayatilake, W.
A. de Silva, F. R. Senanayake, D. E. H. Pedris, D. S. Senanayake, Dr. C.
A. Hewavitarana, Proctor John de Silva, Muhandiram D. P. A. Wijewardena,
the famous Battramulla priest, E. A. P. Wijeratna, A. W. P. Jayatilake
and many others.
â€śAll these prisoners were in the L Ward, a section of the prison
which was normally assigned to the most hardened criminals. These
prisoners were interviewed by two special Police Commissioners, R. W.
Byrde and A. C. Alnutt. One of the first to be released was W. A. de
Silva on whose behalf representations had been made before the Chief
The day following the arrest of these leaders, James Pieris, C. P.
Dias, and Bishop Copleston went in deputation to Governor Chalmers and
pointed out the injustice of imprisoning people who had nothing to do
with the riots, but the Governor was adamant.
The Senanayake brothers and D. B. Jayatilake had given strict
instructions to their friends and relatives not to appear on their
behalf as they were innocent. With no evidence against them, they were
not charged before a Court or Tribunal.
They were released 43 days later. At this critical juncture in the
history of the island, Anagarika Dharmapala, who was in India, was
debarred from entering the island.
Prior to his execution, young Edward aged 27, was transferred from
the L Block to another cell as he to be court martialled. When members
of the Pedris family visited Edward a few days before the execution, he
was found in a small cell which had been iron barred and without even a
pillow to sleep on.
He was wearing a pair of shorts and when his mother, Millino Pedris,
saw him in this condition, she fell unconscious. Albert Wijesekera was
watching all this from the upstair cell which he occupied in prison.
The Court Martial consisted of three ciphers who condemned Edward to
death by shooting. He was accused of shooting at a mob and killing a
person. The death sentence was confirmed by Brigadier General H. H. L.
Many citizens of the country were shocked and horrified at the turn
of events. Many valiant attempt were made by his father, influential
friends, businessmen and academics to obtain his release.
To mention a few, Warden Stone of St. Thomas College, Hector Van
Cuylenberg, Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Douglas de Saram, were in the
forefront. At that time, there was no Sinhalese representation in the
Hector Van Cuylenberg did intervene but his representations were not
taken seriously. At an interview with Brigadier Malcolm Captain
Vandestaatan of the Town Guard was present and when Hector Van
Cuylenberg and Ponnambalam and Douglas de Saram were pleading for the
life of young Edward, Capt. Vandestraatan said that Edward was seen on
horse back leading a mob from Peliyagoda cross the Kelani Bridge.
At this juncture Ramanathan lost his temper and took the file in his
hands and said, â€śNowhere in file is that mentioned - this is the first
time I have heard of this - it is a new charge.â€ť D. D. Pedris who was
also present at his interview had come in his car with bags tied with
He appealed to these leading citizens saying, â€śI have brought three
lakhs of rupees in cash. Please save my son by having his death sentence
commuted to a fine of even three lakhs of rupees.â€ť
This money as brought by him to be placed as security for the stay
order of the execution, pending an appeal to the Privy Council, the
Supreme Court being deprived of its powers to review the verdict of the
By now the General had signalled to the Punjabi soldiers at the door
to bring their bayonets to a charging position. The distraught citizens
were compelled to leave the room and did their best to console Pedris.
Thus ended the last pleading for the life of young Edward.
While all this was taking place, E. W. Perera had left the island
carrying the infamous order â€śshoot at sightâ€ť to make representations
against the atrocities committed by the British, especially against the
Sinhalese who had been imprisoned or shot dead during the riots.
He had to carry this order in his shoe so that it would not be
discovered. This order figured in the debates of the House of Commons.
E. W. Perera was assisted in London by D. B. Jayatilake. It resulted in
the reforms and concessions after 1918. It also led to the recall of
Governor Chalmers and the retirement of Brigadier General Malcolm.
John Anderson who succeeded Chalmers as Governor, was a benevolent
administrator who was sympathetic towards the Ceylonese. Anderson took
up the position that the execution of Edward was an act of grave
injustice which was totally unwarranted and added, â€śthat there was
evidence which could have saved Pedris.
With rumours which were afloat that a pardon would be granted the
actual date of execution was advanced from July 8 to 7. The Pedris
family had arranged for pirith to be chanted the previous evening and
among the present was Ven. Dangedera Saranapala and Ven. Maduwanwela
He bid farewell to the Venerable Theras. He next bid farewell to his
brother-in-law, Albert, who was witness to what was taking place from
Ven. Sangedera Saranapala said that Edward made a specific request
that he be executed by a firing squad composed of Punjabis who were non
Christians and Asians rather than by a squad comprising Europeans. He
also made a request to his parents that his horse Lally, be looked after
well in the stables and not be sold to anyone.
He then worshipped his parents in oriental fashion.
At the execution itself, there were few people who were allowed to be
present. Among them were Inspector General H. L. Dowbiggin, Ven.
Dangedera Saranapala Thera, Dr. Swinthin Merle Perera, the prisonâ€™s
medical officer, D. C. Devendre, prisons officer and other members of
the prison staff. A. E. Goonesinghe who was at the Welikade Jail on July
7, recalled the terrible memory of the execution.
The Superintendent of Prisons came to the cell and requested Edward
to dress up for the execution. With courage and fortitude he put on his
uniform, bereft of the decorations of a captain.
Edward was then marched out and it was remarkable to see him smartly
keeping step with the Punjabi soldiers who escorted him to the heavily
guarded execution scene with a wonderful display of fearlessness and
courage, without any parallel. Edward sat down on the chair that was
When the Superintendent handed him a handkerchief to cover his eyes
he declined it and said, â€śI have mine,â€ť and tied it round his eyes.
This innocent young man hailing from a respectable and influential
family was handcuffed and the military cap removed by Inspector General
Dowbiggin. Order was given to the Punjabi soldiers to fire. Only one
revolver was loaded when the fatal shot was fired.
To instil fear in the minds of the distinguished prisoners in L. Ward
the limp body dripping with blood was placed in front of them. However,
it did the reverse and the great freedom fighter, F. R. Senanayake, his
eyes flashing, defiantly told the prisoners that this was an act of a
ruthless British government.
He went on to say, â€śIf they think that they have done it they are
sadly mistaken. On the contrary as far as I am concerned I take the
solemn pledge here and now that even if I am forced to beg on the road
with a coconut shell I will spend all my wealth to teach these fellows a
Indeed, this was the beginning of the independence movement of
Ceylon, spearheaded by great patriots like F. R. Senanayake, E. W.
Perera, D. B. Jayatilake, D. S. Senanayake and others.
The senseless and brutal execution of young Edward in the prime of
life, was an inspiration to those who were craving for an organisation
to fight for freedom. Edwardâ€™s name reverberated in homes for days and
it reminded them of the cruelty and terror which had been unleashed
under British rule.
The multitude of unjustifiable acts committed by the British led to
the formation of the Ceylon National Congress in 1919 which was in the
forefront of the movement to gain full independence for Ceylon.