A hundred years ago, on July 7, 1915, at the height of the anti-Moor riots, the firing squad of the 28th Battalion of the British Punjab Regiment, executed 27-year-old Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris at the Welikade Prison. The young man, a Captain of the Colombo Town Guard (CTG) was a prominent socialite and scion of one of the richest families in colonial British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
On May 28, 1915, a petty incident in the town of Gampola in Ceylon, triggered a spate of communal riots between the Sinhalese and Muslims. It is now known as the ‘anti-Moor riots’ or ‘the 1915 riots’. Like wildfire, the riots swept through several districts of the Central, Western and Southern Provinces.
The Muslims in Kandy Town decided not to allow any perahera (procession) of the Buddhists beating the traditional drums, flutes and using any other musical organs to disturb worship at their mosque. But, on the following full Moon Poya Day of Vesak, the Buddhists held their usual perahera, following the usual route. When the perahera was passing the Mosque, a group of irresponsible Muslims jeered and threw stones at the passing pageant. There was a pandemonium. The Buddhists retaliated resulting in a free-for-all leading to a conflagration.
The riots spread to Matale, Kegalle and even to Colombo. The Sinhala people harassed the Muslims throughout the country, leading to many deaths and loss of property. The Muslims sustained heavy losses.
Sir Robert Chalmers, the 21st British Governor of Ceylon, feared he might lose control of the colony. He mistook the riots as a Sinhalese-Buddhist movement to oust the British from Ceylon, through mass violence. So, the British Colonial establishment waged war on the Sinhalese-Buddhists.
The British used untrained volunteers recruited from commercial establishments, shops, factories, and plantations, to suppress the riots.
The soldiers of the 28th Battalion of the Punjab Regiment brought from India to help quell the riots, along with the volunteers unleashed a reign of terror in villages occupied by Sinhala Buddhists. They shot hundreds of civilians on sight and hauled up hundreds of innocent people before the military courts.
According to the available British records, 86 mosques and 17 Christian churches were burnt or damaged, around five boutiques and shops looted, 35 Muslims killed, 198 injured and four women raped. But unsubstantiated claims say thousands of Sinhalese died of bullet wounds.
Captain Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris
Our protagonist, the young Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris at first attended Royal College Colombo. Later, he joined St. Thomas’ College. He excelled in sports and cricket. He was a member of the school’s first eleven cricket team. After some time, he returned to Royal College where he again played cricket and took part in sports activities.
After he finished school, Henry Pedris was much interested in horse riding. He excelled as a horseman and had a wide knowledge about horses. A Russian Prince gave the Pedris family a horse named “Rally”. Henry rode the horse with the composure of a prince which made the minions of the British rulers envious of him.
Once, at a cinema hall, a British official walked in and demanded his seat. Henry refused and said that he too had paid the same fare and would enjoy the film from that seat.
When World War I broke out, the British mobilized the Ceylon Defence Force and raised the Colombo Town Guard (CTG), a regiment of volunteers to defend Colombo if attacked.
His father, Duenuge Disan Pedris, had great hopes for his son’s future. He wanted his only son to take over his business enterprises and become a leader in the business sector. But Henry Pedris opted to join the Colombo Town Guard as a private. He was the first Sinhalese to enlist to the new regiment. His excellence in marksmanship and horsemanship made him a commissioned officer in the administrative (mounted) section. Within a year, he was promoted to the rank of Captain. Though Henry Pedris was by no means anti-British, he was much envied by the British because of this promotion and his immense wealth.
During the ‘anti-Moor riots’, Captain Henry Pedris was responsible for the defense of the city. He was successful in disbanding several rioting groups after peaceful discussions.
The shooting incidence in Pettah
On June 1, 1915, when Henry Pedris was at his shop on Main Street, Pettah, a mob of Moors advanced towards his shop. Pedris came out with a gun and fired six shots into the crowd. One of the bullets hit police constable Seneviratne in the head.
Many British and jealous Sinhalese henchmen led by Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, the Maha Mudaliyar (chief native interpreter and adviser to the Governor), wished Henry Pedris and his rich family ill. They brought charges against him. They accused Henry Pedris of inciting people to march to Colombo from suburban Peliyagoda. He was also charged with shooting at the Moorish mob and attempted murder of constable Seneviratne, even though the constable survived.
The British officers and Punjabi soldiers raided the Pedris’ residence on Turret Road. They then broke the doors and almirahs and rifled the whole house, searching for any incriminating documents. They arrested Henry Pedris and incarcerated him in the Welikada Jail.
On June 2, 1915, Martial law came into effect throughout the country. Due to the rigor of the enforced martial law, normalcy returned within ten days. However, the Martial law was in force until August 30, 1915.
On July 1, 1915, a military court tried Henry Pedris. Sir Hector Van Culenburg, the elected Legislative Council member pleaded for Henry Pedris. Many prominent citizens and educationists, both British and Ceylonese alike, including Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan appealed against the judgment. An appeal was also made to King George V.
Governor Sir Robert Chalmers and the Inspector General of Police, Herbert Layard Dowbiggin, were adamant that Henry Pedris should die. They wanted to make the swift execution of Captain Henry Pedris a lesson for the ringleaders of the anti-British movement.
The three presiding military judges declared Henry Pedris guilty and branded him a traitor.
The Ceylon Observer of July 5, 1915, records the death sentence passed on Henry Pedris. He was charged with “treason, shop-breaking, attempted murder and wounding with intent to murder.“
The military court sentenced him to death by firing squad and set July 7, 1915, as the date of execution, without any form of appeal.
The British rulers imprisoned more 86 prominent Sinhalese leaders, members of an emerging Ceylonese élite for ‘waging war against the King‘ and abetting the riots against ‘His Majesty’s Moorish subjects.‘ Among the arrested were D. S. Senanayake, D. R. Wijewardena, F. R. Senanayake, Edwin Wijeyeratne, D. B.Jayatilaka, Dr. Cassius Pereira, Dr. W. A. de Silva, E. T. De Silva, F. R. Dias Bandaranaike, Dr. C. A. Hewavitharana, H. Amarasuriya, A. H. Molamure, A. E. Goonesinghe and several others.
Execution of Captain Henry Pedris
At 7.30 a.m., on the day of the execution, Additional District Judge Arthur Charles Allnut, a graduate of the Oxford University and a member of the Ceylon Civil Service, ordered that the 86 Sinhala-Buddhist notables to line up in the veranda outside L-Hall in Welikade Prison, and watch Henry Pedris walk to his death.
Captain Henry Pedris dressed in his Town Guard uniform, but stripped of his rank, marched with his head held high and chest forward. At the site of the execution, they strapped him to a chair.
Before his execution, Henry Pedris requested that he be shot by a Punjabi firing squad, and not a British squad, as the Punjabi soldiers were Non-Christian and Asians. Allnut acceded to his request. He ordered the soldiers of the 28th Battalion of the Punjab Regiment brought from India, to carry out the sentence. Captain Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris rejected the blindfold offered to him. He faced the Punjabis without any fear.
After the execution, F. R. Senanayake on seeing the limp body of Henry Pedris slumped in the chair to which he was strapped, vowed that he would initiate a concerted struggle to free the country from British colonial rule.
The prison authorities then took the blood-soaked chair on which Captain Hendry Pedris sat when shot to the prison cells to warn the incarcerated Sinhalese leaders, including D. S. Senanayake, the future first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, that they could be next.
Burial of Captain Henry Pedris
The British refused to hand over the body of Henry Pedris to his grieving parents who wanted to accord their dead son a Buddhist burial with attendant religious rites.
Before burying the body of Henry Pedris, the British rulers declared Martial law for the first time in the whole island.
They transported the body of Henry Pedris to the Kanatte cemetery in great secrecy at midnight in the midst of martial law. The British had come to know that his father Duenuge Disan Pedris had owned several family burial plots at the General Cemetery at Kanatte in Borella. They chose one of these plots for the burial. It was the only burial not recorded in the General Cemetery registers or any other official register, since 1910. For the first time, the British rulers declared Martial law in the whole island.
Duenuge Disan Pedris had not only lost his only son, but he also lost two of his sons-in-law who were also incarcerated in the Welikada Prison. Though disheartened, he was silent as he did not want any more of his family members imprisoned by the British.
Most Ceylonese viewed the execution of 27-year-old Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris as unjust. The Sri Lankan patriotic leaders took the cue from his death and projected him as a martyr. His death motivated the pioneering patriotic leaders of the liberation movements organize themselves and strive for a concerted campaign to liberate the country from the harsh British rule.
The execution of Henry Pedris and the many unjustifiable and arbitrary brutal acts committed by the British during the 1915 riots hastened the formation of the Ceylon National Congress on December 11, 1919 by members of the Ceylon National Association (founded in 1888) and the Ceylon Reform League (founded in 1917).
- Henry Pedris (en.wikipedia.org)
- Robert Chalmers, 1st Baron Chalmers (en.wikipedia.org)
- Punjab Regiment (India) (en.wikipedia.org)
- 28th Punjabis (en.wikipedia.org)
- Ceylon Defence Force (en.wikipedia.org)
- Solomon Dias Bandaranaike (en.wikipedia.org)
- Ponnambalam Ramanathan (en.wikipedia.org)
- The execution that triggered the struggle for self-rule (ceylontoday.lk)
- The 88th death commemoration of the national hero Edward Henry Pedris (rootsweb.ancestry.com)
- Ceylon National Congress (en.wikipedia.org)
- D. S. Senanayake (en.wikipedia.org)
- D. R. Wijewardena (en.wikipedia.org)
- The Ceylon Observer (en.wikipedia.org)