Socialist Worker

Sri Lanka: Mark Bracegirdle and the revolt against empire

by Vinod Moonesinghe
Issue No. 2035

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Bracegirdle Incident, a crucial event in Sri Lanka's struggle for independence from the British Empire.

Mark Bracegirdle was born in London on 10 September 1912. His mother was a suffragette and a Labour Party candidate for the London borough of Holborn in 1925.

She later emigrated to Australia with her son. Mark studied art in Sydney and trained as a farmer in the outback. In 1935 he joined the Young Communist League of Australia.

In 1936 he moved to Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, where he became a 'creeper' (an apprentice planter) on a tea estate (plantation) in the central province.

The planters were almost all white and they formed a privileged minority in the tea and rubber growing areas. They lived in plantation bungalows with servants and with their own 'whites only' clubs.

The workers on the plantations, the 'coolies', lived in wretched conditions. The villagers in these areas refused to work in the estate's nightmarish circumstances.

So the plantation companies employed contracted charge-hands, called 'kanganies', to bring labour gangs of Tamil and Telugu peasants from South India to work there.

Most of them were so-called 'low caste' indentured labourers who were forced to trek across South India and northern Sri Lanka to where they were to work off their indentures.

Tens of thousands died on the journey, as well as on the plantations. They were treated inhumanely, receiving very little healthcare or education. They lived in 'line rooms' which were worse than cattle sheds.

The planters were treated as gods, the labourers having to crouch in drains whenever they passed. Young women workers were forced to submit to their sexual advances – a practice that only ceased in the 1970s.

Plantations

Bracegirdle was aghast at this. He was soon sacked for taking the side of the workers. He went to Colombo and joined the Lanka Sama Samaja (Socialist) Party (LSSP), which had been recently formed.

On 28 November 1936, he made his first public speech in Sri Lanka, at a meeting organised by the LSSP in the capital, Colombo.

Bracegirdle warned that the capitalists were trying to split the workers of Sri Lanka and pit one against the other – this was at a time when ethnic tensions were being stoked in the trade union movement.

Colvin R de Silva, the president of the LSSP, introduced him, saying, 'This is the first time a white comrade has ever attended a party meeting held at a street corner.'

The British Empire was not the idyllic tropical tea party it has been made out to be in numerous books, films and TV series. In Sri Lanka, as in other colonies, the indigenous inhabitants were treated like second class citizens.

Travel in first class railway compartments was limited to whites and the very highest dignitaries of the local elite.

It was in this atmosphere that Bracegirdle helped organise a public meeting held in Colombo on 10 January 1937 to celebrate the departure from the island of Sir Herbert Dowbiggin, the hated chief of police.

In March 1937, Bracegirdle was co-opted to serve on the executive committee of the LSSP. On 3 April a meeting was held in the town of Nawalapitiya, in the middle of the plantation area.

Some 2,000 estate workers attended the meeting. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya of the Indian Congress Socialist Party, who was touring the island, addressed the meeting.

Then Bracegirdle rose to speak. He was greeted with loud applause and shouts of 'Samy, Samy' (meaning 'lord' or 'god' in Tamil).

According to the police report, 'The most noteworthy feature of this meeting was the presence of Bracegirdle and his attack on the planters. He claimed unrivalled knowledge of the misdeeds of the planters and promised scandalous exposures.

'His delivery, facial appearance, his posture were all very threatening. Every sentence was punctuated with cries of 'samy, samy' from the labourers.

'Labourers were heard to remark that Mr Bracegirdle has correctly said that they should not allow planters to break labour laws and they must in future not take things lying down.'

Electric

The effect of the speech was electric. The fact that a white man had spoken out against the exploitation of workers by the companies spelled ruin not just for the companies, but for the imperialist system on the island. The planters got the colonial governor, Sir Reginald Stubbs, to deport Bracegirdle.

On 22 April, Bracegirdle was given 48 hours to leave Sri Lanka. He went into hiding and the colonial authorities were unable to find him.

On May Day, the LSSP carried placards which said, 'We Want Bracegirdle. Deport Stubbs'. A resolution was passed which demanded the removal of Stubbs and the withdrawal of the deportation order.

On 5 May Dr NM Perera and Philip Gunawardena, the two LSSP members of the state council (the colonial parliament), moved to censure Stubbs for having made the deportation order.

The motion was passed by 34 votes to seven. That day a 50,000 strong rally took place in Colombo in support of Bracegirdle. Bracegirdle appeared on the platform.

The police were powerless to sieze him because of the crowd. However, they managed to arrest him two days later. By this time the LSSP had made the legal arrangements needed. The case was called before a bench of three supreme court judges.

On 18 May the court ruled that Bracegirdle could not be deported for exercising his right to free speech.

Bracegirdle later returned to Britain of his own accord. However, the effects of his action were to last long after he departed.

The plantation workers organised themselves in the Ceylon Indian Congress and the All-Ceylon Estate Workers Union.

In 1940 there was a wave of strikes on the plantations which culminated in the formation of a workers' council on the Mooloya estate. Although the strike wave was crushed, the organisation of the plantation workers went on apace.

In 1948, agitation and general strikes forced the British Empire to grant Sri Lanka dominion status and by 1957 the last British forces left the island.

Today, the plantation workers still live in line rooms, but have access to free education and healthcare. And they do not have to crouch in drains when their 'betters' pass.

Bracegirdle, who made such a large contribution to this process, died in England on 22 June 1999.


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Features
Sat 27 Jan 2007, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2035
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