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E W Perera, Lion of Kotte

All nations, including our country were engulfed in fear and uncertainty during the First World War which left a trail of decay and destruction from 1914 to 1918. The sky was dotted with military aircraft and gunfire, deafening sounds of bombs and blasts became the order of the day. German submarines roamed the seas around the globe and no person in his right mind would have ventured to undertake either a seaborne or an airborne journey.


E W Perera

During this period, the people in Sri Lanka faced untold suffering and misery under the yoke of the white colonial masters who administered the colony in an autocratic, high-handed and manipulative manner. People and their leaders, especially the Sinhala leaders had no means of breaking free from the ruthless and oppressive hold and petitioning to the British Monarch against the local Governor and his administration appeared to be the only alternative for emancipation and extrication.

Passing of the ‘shoot on sight’ order worsened the situation and the necessity for petitioning grew stronger. Petitioning had a stumbling block against it, ie how the petition could be safely delivered to the British Monarch? Posting the petition was a sure impossibility. Journey abroad by sea or air was a frightening endeavour.

Son of the soil

In spite of the hurdles to be overcome and perils to be faced a daring, a determined son of the soil came forward to board a ship and carry the petition to England. He was none other than Edward Walter Perera, who later earned name and fame as EW the ‘Lion of Kotte’

He hailed from a very respectable family. His father was Edward Francis Perera of Kotte, a judge of the Supreme Court and his mother was Johana Matilda, the fifth daughter of Mudliyar William David Perera Jayawickrema Seneviratne of Thalpaththuwa, Galle. He was the eldest in the family and born on December 12, 1875.

He grew up at his ancestral home of ‘Kotte Walawwa’ under the watchful eyes of his parents and he did his schooling at home. L J Walt, an Irish lady was his English tutor. Later he entered the ‘Colombo Academy’, the present day ‘Royal College’ (Colombo) and exhibited his innate talents by mastering English in an excellent manner. He won prize after prize for English and became the editor of the English magazine, published at the academy.

EW’s father E F Perera was a practising, faithful Anglican Christian and he was an active member of the Church of England. (now Church of Ceylon). He joined forces with Pandit Batuwan Thudawa and carried out a relentless campaign of petitioning and protesting to the British Government which resulted in ‘Vesak Poya’ day, the most venerable day for the Buddhists being declared as a holiday. Questions arise as to the number of people who are aware of this singular contribution made by a Christian to uphold a Buddhist right.

EW, a son of a noble father of such calibre, grew as a Christian and he attended the ‘Sunday School’ conducted by the Anglican Church at Polwatta, right in front of Galle Face, Colombo. He mastered Sinhala under the guidance of the scholar monk Most Ven Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, who served as the head of the Maligakanda (Colombo) Vidyodaya Pirivena.

Thereafter, he entered the high hall villas of the Law College and emerged out as an accomplished advocate in 1900. Then he took wings to England where he continued his studies in law at ‘Middle Temple Law College’ and soon donned his cap as a barrister. During this sojourn, he had the opportunity to associate with advocate H J C Perera and work with a group, deliberating over constitutional and administrative reforms in Ceylon.

This resulted in the election of an intelligent and educated person to the constitutional council in 1910.

Sinhala-Muslim riots

During the Sinhala-Muslim riots which erupted in 1915, EW had an opportunity to contribute in good measure in the cause of the Sinhalese, upholding justice and righteousness. Stoning of a ‘Bakthi Geetha’ program at Kandy on a Vesak Poya Day, the most important day in the Buddhist calendar was at the root of the riots which took a violent turn as the days progressed.

Governor Robert Chalmers, Commandant Malcolm and Government Agent - Colombo Fraser in league with the white planters resorted to most inhuman and cruel methods in the guise of controlling the riots. The cruelty and ferocity of the methods adopted by the white rulers gave lie to the civil rights and good governance of which they preached incessantly.

The duplicity of the white rulers was exposed and they stood stark naked in the eyes of the civil-minded people. The governor acted like a tyrant and went to the extent of declaring Martial Law in all parts of the country excluding Northern and Eastern provinces. Battalions of Punjabi and Marathi soldiers were brought down from India to enforce the draconian Martial Law to the consternation of the people.

The Sinhalese had no alternative against the assault launched by the local imperialist white agents against their freedom and livelihood other than presenting their misery to the rulers in England, the so-called citadel of freedom and democracy.

Leaders of the Sinhalese assembled in secret and formulated a plan of which preparation of a petition to the British Monarch, providing a detailed account of the cruel and inhuman treatment meted out to the local population in a convincing and comprehensive manner. EW was the hero who came forward to carry this petition in person to England in spite of the pains and perils involved. A special shoe with a false bottom was made to hide the petition to avoid confiscation on body search.

A sense of patriotism energized EW to place the nation before self and he boarded the ship, carrying that precious cargo - the petition. His life was at stake, but EW cared the least.

EW’s mission

On reaching England EW met Boner Low, the Parliamentary Secretary for External Affairs at the chamber of the parliament and presented the petition along with a descriptive account of the inhuman, cruel and autocratic rule unleashed by the Governor and his accomplices in Ceylon.

EW’s mission ended in success, repressive laws including Martial Law were withdrawn. EW’s accomplishment was great indeed in that it brought immediate relief to the nation which suffered immensely under the jackboot of autocratic rulers. EW, through his matchless endeavour carved a name for himself in the historical annals of the country as a true patriot. In fact, Sri Lanka and its people owe a debt of gratitude to EW for his self sacrificing contribution.

During the heydays of the cruelties unleashed by the local colonial masters a number of patriots had to pay by their lives on behalf of the country. Notable among them are Edward Hendry Pedris, a rich young Buddhist, aged 26 who was shot to death after a bogus trial, Don Francis Alahakoon, his nephew Don James Amarakoon and W Peter De Seram - all from Biyagama who were hanged at the Welikada prison.

EW’s mission brought an end to the miscarriage of justice carried out by the white colonists and as a result a number of individuals who awaited the hangman’s noose and counted bars in the cells were unconditionally released. Presentations made by EW was so convincing and forceful that the governor Charmers and the commandant Faser who behaved liked mad dogs in uniform had to relinquish their offices and pack home back to England unceremoniously.

EW returned to the island in 1919 and threw himself into politics and he became a founder leader of a political party. EW carried out scathing, thunderbolt like attacks against the colonial rulers on a continued basis. He conducted himself as a fearless and forthright political leader and boldly presented a no-confidence motion against the Governor Manning at the constitutional council in 1920.

EW by his exemplary conduct and erudite exploits impressed upon the colonists the elegance and grandeur of our rich civilization which is replete with the exploits of noble and benevolent kings and queens of the ancient past when the so-called white Europeans would have wandered around, as half naked nomads.

Patriot

EW indeed was a great patriot, a national hero in view of the yeomen service rendered by him to the nation. Today, we hear hosannas being sung in praise of even those whose contribution towards the independence movement of the country pales into insignificance when compared with that of EW. It is sad indeed that memory of EW is gradually fading away in spite of his great contribution.

In 1921, EW contested the election conducted to select members for the constitutional council. He represented the Colombo division from the Western Province and Donald Obeysekera, a man of wealth and power opposed him. EW roamed home with a majority of 3528, polling 5998 out of 9526 valid votes. Thus EW became a member of the first ever constitutional council established in the country.

Incidentally, he had to serve in the council as the leader of the opposition. At the council, EW often took to task the three white officials who served as the general secretary, secretary for finance and secretary for law and named them as the ‘committee of three police officers’.

In 1924, the election for the second constitutional council saw EW entering the polls as a representative from Kalutara division of the Western Province. During the period 1926-27, EW served as the president of the Ceylon National Council. He never compromised his stand on national issues with the colonist masters and he conduced his affairs with pomp and majesty in the fashion of a true patriot.

EW, the ‘Lion of Kotte’, a true patriot of a rare kind, a political leader worthy of being emulated, an erudite scholar, a well-read historian and a persuasive advocate breathed his last and joined his creator on Feb 16, 1953.

The initiative taken by the President Rajapaksa to perpetuate the memory of EW and rekindle the fires of patriotism in the young generations of the nation is highly commendable. Mother Lanka needs people in the calibre of EW now, more than any other time.

Lions of Kotte, Boralugoda and Ruhuna should continue to live in the hearts and minds of the people of Sri Lanka as an inspiration and invitation to put the nation before self.

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