Sir John Kotelawala: Bequeathed his treasured assets to the nation – By Rear Admiral Dr Shemal Fernando PhD
Sir John Kotelawala, CH, KBE, KSTJ was a planter and soldier turned statesman, who served as the third Prime Minister of Ceylon from October 12, 1953 to April 12, 1956. Erect and soldierly in his bearing, ‘Sir John’ as he was affectionately known was undoubtedly one of the most colourful personalities of his time.
An accomplished politician and a seasoned military officer, his interests ranged from sports and politics to mining, agriculture and architecture. He was a true and proud nationalist who loved his country and its people. Sir John, a skilled and gifted horse rider was commissioned in the Ceylon Light Infantry in 1922, climbed the ladder steadily and was promoted a Colonel in 1940.
He first got elected to the State Council in 1931 from Kurunegala. He was returned uncontested to the State Council in 1936 and continued until 1947, when at the first elections to the House of Representatives, he won the ‘Dodangaslanda’ electorate. He served in the Cabinets of both D.S. Senanayake and Dudley Senanayake as the Minister of Transport and Works.
As the Prime Minister of Ceylon, Sir John was adventurous in the realm of politics and was known for his impeccable dress. Sir John, whether on the campaign trail or travelling around Ceylon, was often seen in his familiar riding kit – breeches and boots.
Befitting his Coat-of-Arms, “For My Country, Always,” Sir John transferred his much treasured ‘Kandawala’ mansion and sprawling fifty acres by way of a gift to the nation to build a defence academy, a truly magnificent bequest worthy indeed as testimony to the character, patriotism and statesmanship of the great son of Sri Lanka.
Birth, education and youth
John Lionel Kotelawala was born on April 4, 1897 to John Kotelawala Snr, a Police Inspector, who later turned businessman and Alice Elisabeth Kotelawala, daughter of Don Charles Gemoris Attygalle. He had a younger brother Justin and a sister Freda.
Sir John lived in considerable comfort owing to the extensive land and mine holdings of his grandfather. However, after his father was forced out of the management of the Attygalle estates, he started his own business ventures.
Kotelawala was only eleven when his father died, ever since he drew his strength from his mother. It is from her that Sir John learnt lessons in tolerance and importance of tackling difficult situations with courage and determination.
His mother who had converted to Christianity, slowly built up the family wealth through careful management of their remaining land holdings and the share of the Kahatagaha graphite mine, which she received from her younger sister Ellen. She was awarded an MBE in 1939 and a CBE in 1951 for her social work.
Young Kotelawala attended Royal College, Colombo, excelling in cricket, tennis, golf, polo, boxing and football. He played for Royal in the famed ‘Battle of the Blues’ cricket encounter.The riots of 1915 inspired him to be a soldier.
With the WWI raging, he embarked on a tour of Europe, and spent five years, spending most of the time in England and France. He attended Christ’s College, Cambridge and studied agriculture. Kotelawala was fluent in Sinhala, English and French.After returning to Ceylon, he became a planter, running his family plantation estates and mines.
Illustrious military career
‘Kandawala’ did not belong to Sir John’s ancestors, he bought the property at a public auction in 1920. In a time when serving in the volunteer forces was prestigious and a gentlemanly pursuit, Kotelawala gained a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Ceylon Light Infantry on September 15, 1922. That year the regiment received colours from the Prince of Wales.
He was promoted a Lieutenant on October 27, 1924. As a young officer, he planned, built and furnished his house at Kandawala, in his own style in 1926 and his household effects bear his legend.
He was promoted Captain on August 23, 1929 and Major on October 1, 1933. On July 1, 1939 he was appointed second in command of the Ceylon Light Infantry and served till September 1, 1940. He was elevated to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel on October 1, 1940 and was posted to the reserve of the regiment.
With the outbreak of WWII in the Far East, the Ceylon Defence Force including the Ceylon Light Infantry was mobilised for war time service with the British Army. Kotelawala as the Minister of Communications and Works, became a member of the Ceylon’s War Council and served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Essential Services Labour Corps.
He provided his home, Kandawala to function as the Officers’ Mess for the wartime RAF station at Ratmalana. He was promoted to honorary rank of Colonel on July 2, 1942, the highest rank that a Ceylonese could achieve at the time.
In 1956, Sir John as the Prime Minister bought his car ‘Cadillac,’ what was at the time considered the ultimate driving machine. The car the first registered with the letter ‘Sri’ on December 12, 1956, bearing number ‘1 Sri 1’ was his pride and joy.
Distinguished political career
As early as 1915, Sir John had become involved with political leaders such as D. S. Senanayake and his brother F.R. Senanayake, who was married to Kotelawala’s mother’s sister. They criticised the actions of the British following the riots in 1915. Sir John was known as an aggressive and outspoken man.
Being from a politically active family, he entered politics in 1931 and contested the ‘Kurunegala’ seat in the 1931 election for the State Council of Ceylon. He obtained 17,159 votes, a majority of 9,045 and served as a backbencher in its first term.
Sir John was re-elected unopposed in the 1936 State Council election from ‘Kurunegala.’ He was the Minister of Communications and Works in the Second Board of Ministers of Ceylon and supervised the initiation of several major public works projects in the island.
He contested the 1947 General Elections from the United National Party (UNP) and was elected to the newly formed House of Representatives from the ‘Dodangaslanda’ electorate. He was appointed as the Minister of Transport and Works. He founded the UNP’s National Youth Front and also started the UNP’s Sinhala newspaper, ‘Siyarata.’
As a Minister, he disposed more steel, cement, bricks and mortar than any other man in the history of the island. Kotelawala Town, Kotelawala Bridge, Kotelawala Place are a few projects associated with his name. The list includes housing schemes, aerodromes, hospitals, schools, causeways and the best broadcasting station in the east.
Sir John was appointed Leader of the House on July 12, 1951.When D. S. Senanayake suddenly died on March 22, 1952, Sir John was expected to succeed him, as he was the Leader of the House and the most senior UNP member. However, Lord Soulbury, the Governor-General appointed Senanayake’s son and Kotelawala’s younger cousin, Dudley Senanayake as the Prime Minister on March 26, 1952.
An angry Kotelawala threatened resignation. After mediation by senior UNP members including Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, he settled to serve in Dudley Senanayake’s Cabinet retaining his existing portfolio. Soon, Senanayake called for fresh elections in 1952, Kotelawala was re-elected and retained his Ministry and the post of Leader of the House.
The following year, the Senanayake Government faced a major civil unrest with left-wing parties launching the 1953 hartal. In August 1953 civil disobedience, strikes and demonstrations started throughout the island. The Government implemented emergency regulations. Badly shaken by the events, Senanayake gravely ill resigned as the Prime Minister on October 12, 1953.
Sir John was appointed as the Prime Minister of Ceylon, Minister of Defence and External Affairs and leader of the UNP. His government partially retained the rice subsidy which led to the 1953 hartal. An ardent anti-communist, he took a hard-line stand against trade unions and left-wing parties. He formed the Ceylon Railway Engineer Corps and Post and Telegraph Signals to minimise the effects to transport and communication in the event of trade union action.
Sir John planned ‘a grand and sincere welcome’ for Queen Elizabeth II, who arrived in Ceylon on April 10, 1954 with the Duke of Edinburgh, as part of her Royal Commonwealth Tour. It was a remarkable visit as April 21 marked her 28th birthday.
The Queen opened the third session of the second Parliament, wearing her coronation robes adding glamour and grandeur to the occasion.This was the first visit by a reigning monarch and the visit included a royal procession in Colombo, a train ride to Kandy, tours of the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. In Kandy, she experienced a Perahera with 140 elephants and Prince Philip opened the University of Peradeniya.
The Queen spent Easter Sunday in Nuwara Eliya.The visit was a great success and Sir John was honoured by the Queen, appointing him to the Privy Council. Before the entourage left on April 21, Sir John advised the Queen to appoint Sir Oliver Goonetilleke as the Governor-General in succession to Lord Soulbury since he could think of ‘no one better qualified for the high office.’
Sir John became the first Ceylonese Prime Minister to visit the USA. He met the US President Eisenhower on December 7, 1954, presented Ceylon’s first gift to the White House, a sterling silver desk set depicting Sinhalese architecture. He also became the first Prime Minister of Ceylon to be felicitated by Hollywood.
Sir John led the Ceylon delegation to the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, during April 18 – 24, 1955. He was instrumental in admitting Ceylon as a Member State of the United Nations on December 14, 1955. He immensely contributed to expand foreign relations, mainly with the Asian countries. He pioneered the Non-Aligned Movement.
During his tenure, major projects such as the Laxapana Power Project, expansion of the Port of Colombo, introduction of aviation and expansion of the Ratmalana Airport, construction of the University of Peradeniya and the New Kelani Bridge took place.
His Government faced numerous problems, so he dissolved Parliament in early 1956. At the elections, Sir John retained his seat‘Dodangaslanda’ but the UNP managed only eight seats. He returned the Party leadership to Dudley Senanayake and retired from politics. He moved to the Brogues Wood estate at Biddenden in Kent, where he lived for several years.
Decorations and medals
The University of Ceylon conferred on Sir John an Honorary Degree Doctor of Laws (LLD) and the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy posthumously awarded an LLD. Sir John’s Orders, Decorations and Medals are on display at Kandawala.
His decorations: Order of the Companions of Honour (CH); Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE), Knight of Justice of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (KStJ), Knight Grand Cross of the Legion d’Honneur, Order of the Rising Sun, 1st Class, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, Knight Grand Cross 1st Class of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the White Elephant and the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Netherlands Lion.
His medals: Defence Medal in 1945, War Medal 1939–1945 in 1945, King George V Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935, King George VI Coronation Medal in 1937, Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal in 1952, Efficiency Medal (Ceylon) with clasp in 1949, Ceylon Armed Services Inauguration Medal in 1955, Ceylon Armed Services Long Service Medal in 1980; Republic of Sri Lanka Armed Services Medal in 1980 and the Sri Lanka Army 25th Anniversary Medal in 1980.
Family and legacy
Sir John married Effie Manthri, daughter of Maria Frances and F. H. Dias Bandaranaike and a niece of D. S. Senanayake. Although the marriage was not successful, ending in divorce, it produced a daughter Lakshmi Kotelawala who married Henry Gerald Kotelawala. Sir John was known for his flamboyance and the company he kept. He would entertain guests at his home at Kandawala and his cottage in Nuwara Eliya. He was a strong supporter of the military. He was the first Chairman of the Ceylon Light Infantry Association in 1974 and was the President of the Ceylon Ex Servicemen’s Association from 1948 to his death.
Once in Mt. Lavinia, two beat cops were trying to bring a suspect under control, but the suspect was offering such strong resistance that the cops looked a sorry sight. A passing car stopped. Sir John alighted, held the suspect in a grip with ease, and asked the cops to put the hand cuffs on the suspects hands held behind him, and drove off.”
D. B. Dhanapala in ‘Among Those Present’ (1962) summed up Sir John: “He had courage. He had brawn. He was frank. He had money. He had friends. He had background. He had personality. He could cut a figure wherever he went.
He was the well graced political actor who could play the hero strutting across the stage.”
In 1978, the Tri-Service Commanders identified a need to establish a Defence Academy. In 1979, General Dennis Perera, the Commander of the Army approached Sir John with the request to donate his Kandawala property to the nation to establish a defence academy. Sir John reacted, “This is the trouble with you army fellows, if you see something good you want to grab it.”
Sir John having reviewed the proposal and consulted his heirs, gifted Kandawala to the nation on July 11, 1979. The ceremony of signing the deed of transfer took place at the President’s House with the participation of President J. R. Jayewardene, the Minister of Internal Security and the Tri-Service Commanders. Later, on April 7, 1980 he transferred his property by way of a gift absolute and irrevocable.
On September 29, 1980, Sir John suffered a stroke at Kandawala and was rushed to the Colombo General Hospital. On October 1, President J. R. Jayewardene and General Dennis Perera visited Sir John and conferred on him the honorary rank of General in recognition of his distinguished services to the country.
Sir John conscious on his death bed acknowledged the accolade with a nod, being a true soldier. He peacefully took his last breath as a 4-star General, the following day, October 2. His remains were first taken to his home in Kandawala and then to the Parliament to lay in State. The final rites took place at Independence Square with full military honours with President J. R. Jayewardene delivering a eulogy.
The defence academy established in 1981, elevated to the status of a defence university in 1986, today stands, as an immortal living monument to him, guiding the destinies of future military leaders on the pathway to wisdom and professionalism.