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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 District.

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. Sarlis.

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.

Fearless

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 thoroughbred horse.

Pedris lost no time in purchasing the horse for his son. This horse was named Lally and was Edward’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 “Memorial of the Sinhalese people”, 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 28, 1915.

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 “shoot at sight” 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 assist them.

Fabrication

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 “Crystal Palace” 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, “There 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.

“All 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 Justice.

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. Malcolm.

Horrified

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 legislature.

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, “Nowhere in file is that mentioned - this is the first time I have heard of this - it is a new charge.” D. D. Pedris who was also present at his interview had come in his car with bags tied with rope.

He appealed to these leading citizens saying, “I 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.”

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 three ciphers.

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 “shoot at sight” 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, “that there was evidence which could have saved Pedris.

Farewell

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 Seelaratana Thera.

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 his cell.

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 prison’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 offered.

When the Superintendent handed him a handkerchief to cover his eyes he declined it and said, “I have mine,” 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, “If 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 lesson.”

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. Edward’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.

 

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