George E. de Silva

A forgotten hero who sacrificed his life for the emancipation of the down trodden people of Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon.

by Harris Wickremetunge JP
Ex Deputy mayor of Colombo
The fifty second death anniversary of the late George Edmond de Silva falls on March 12th. He was the third son of a famous Ayurveda physician who migrated to N’eliya in the late 1870,s to set up a lucrative practice at N,Eliya, he owned the "Orange Tree House" in hill street, N,Eliya at the foot of the Pidurutalagala mountain on March 12th, 1950, Geprge E.de Silva died from a stroke followed by two heart attacks he got while playing golf at the Peradeniya Golf Course with an Englishman. He was 71 years old at the time of his death. He was a very keen golf and tennis player. His brother Timothy de Silva was the first Ceylonese golf champion.

George E. de Silva was a very prominent politician in the Donoughmore Era of Sri Lanka history. He was a tall sturdily built man, handsome and jovial with a constant smile and he instantly attracted the attention and friendship of all whom he met. He began his career as a journalist. He was a reporter to the "Ceylon Independent and later worked as a staff journalist at the "Times of Ceylon". He had been a brilliant journalist in his era having obtained many news scoops through his contracts.

He had a brilliant command of the English language having been tutored by the famous European scholar at N’Eliya, Mr. Henry Young. He entered the Law College, from the then famous Loren Tutory in Colombo. He passed the Proctors final exam; and went to Kandy in 1900’s and within a very short period established a very lucrative practice as a criminal lawyer. Two of his brothers, Timothy and Gregory were also lawyers of repute.

The Kandy Bar at the time was dominated by many famous Dutch Burgher lawyers and they resented the entry of George to the Kandy Bar. On the first day of his entry to the court house, all other lawyers staged a walkout, but the English Magistrate remained and George won his first case. Subsequently he found it difficult to get a chair in the court house and he got his servant to bring a chair. In Kandy he met his future partner in life Miss Agnes Nell, the only daughter of Paul Nell, who was the Provincial Engineer. George was a very keen ballroom dancer and quite adept in dancing and singing. He met Agnes at many of these parties and subsequently married her. She was a very kind hearted lady who championed for the franchise for females in the 1930 s.

He entered politics as a Ward Member of the Kandy Municipal Council and in 1931 he was elected as the Member of the State Council seat for the Central Province, which extended from Dambulla to N’Eliya . He defeated Sir Gerard Wijekoon and Albert Godamunne two well known figures in Sri Lankan politics. He was thereafter re-elected as the Member for Kandy for 16 years. He was the Minister of Health for five years and the first Minister of Fisheries and Industries in the first Parliament of Sri Lanka. He was also a Member the War Cabinet from 1942. The Cabinet at that time comprised only a dozen Ministers.

Racial nots

The racial riots that started in 1915 at Gampola, spread to Kandy the next day and within a few days it spread to all parts of the country except the North and East. Many Sinhalese national leaders and professional men from many areas were jailed and some were tried by the "Kangaroo Courts" held by British Planters, who were Justices of Peace. Marshall Law was enacted and the bringing of Punjabi troops from India who harassed the Sinhala people, irked George very much, and it proved to be the water shed in George’s political development. He fought against the injustices meted out to the Sinhala people by Governor Charmers and went to England along with E. W. Perera and had the Governor recalled by making convincing representations to the Colonial Secretary. He fought valiantly to save the lives of young Hewavitharana and Pedris.

He championed the peasantry who under the yoke of the feudal lords had to perform compulsory Rajakariya. The Rajakariya systems were abolished and the depressed class citizens got there due place in society. He established 250 cottage hospitals in rural areas and helped in the eradication of mails by the introduction of DDT spraying. He established the first Ayurveda hospital and gave a great deal of encouragement for the development of Ayurveda. He came from a generation of famous Ayurveda Physicians of Galle & Matara. Mr. J. R. Jayewardene who was a close political associate of George in a Foreword to the book "our George" authored by Dr. Jane Russel an oxford scholar has stated thus;

"I worked with George E. de Silva during the war years in the Ceylon National Congress and came to know him as a patriot and an untiring worker for social and political reform. His death in 1950 deprived Sri Lanka of a man of progressive thinking for it must be remembered that together with A. E. Goonesinghe, George E. de Silva had proposed the introduction of universal franchise in 1931 and supported "Freedom" in 1943. George was essentially a man of the people. Although he became the Minister of Health from 1942-1947 and President of the Ceylon National Congress on several occasions, he was a man who never lost the ability to feel the articulate, heartfelt desires of the common man. His championship of the cause of Ayurveda rural hospitals proved this. I welcome the writing of the biography of this great son of Sri Lanka.

President of Sri Lanka.

15th December

J.R Jayewardene.

1978 President.

When George E. de Silva, was the President of the Ceylon National Congress in 1943, Mr. J. R. Jayewardene and Mr. Dudley Senanayake were the Joint Secretaries. Mr. G. C. S. Corea, E. A. P. Wijeratne, A. F. Molamure, P de S. Kularatne, Dr. S. A. Wickremesinghe were very prominent Congress leaders in this era.

George’s political achievements were innumerable. He was the founder father of the Bank of Ceylon. He not only moved the motion in the State Council to establish the Bank of Ceylon, but also went to England and fought very hard with the Colonial rulers at that time and had spoken personally to the Colonial Secretary Mr. Malcolm Mac Donald and obtained the Royal Assent to the Bill before he returned to Sri Lanka. The Royal Assent to this bill was delayed for over two years as the Englishmen opposed the setting up of indigenous banks. His portrait should be hung in every branch of the Bank of Ceylon as a mark of gratitude for the man who fathered the establishment of this now prosperous bank, which has been a boon to Sri Lankan businessmen.

He had also proposed in Parliament for the utilization of prison labour for opening up virgin land for cultivation to mould the character of hardened criminals. This resulted in the opening up of the Anuradhapura and Pallekelle open Prison Camps. As the first Minister in charge of fisheries he was responsible for getting many welfare facilities for the poor fishermen and also established fishing as an industry. As far as 1933 he moved a motion in the State Council against the Nazi government in Germany to prohibit imports from that country. He was a man with great vision. He was a tee-totaller and championed the cause of temperance.

He was as the architect of adult franchise. He was also responsible for the setting up of the Peradeniya University.

His funeral held in Kandy witnessed the presence of a very large gathering estimated over 2 lakes of people to pay their last respects for the man who fought for their rights and a place in society.

Mr. S. W. R. Dias Bandaranaike, Minister of Local Government and Leader of the House represented the Government at this funeral. Making his funeral oration he said hat George was one of the greatest sons born to mother Lanka and a great freedom fighter for the nation. He had made an incredible mark to amelioration,of the conditions of the depressed classes in the entire island. He further said that he will be remembered in the annals of Sri Lankan history as the champion of the common man. In the mould of Ebraham Lincoln, he was a man who went from the Log-Cabin to the White House. He never wanted to stab a man in the back even his worst enemies or resort to political blackmail.

Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe MP in a message stated that George E. Silva was fit to be the Prime Minister of the country and if he had lived a few more years he would have achieved his ambition. George had many children including the late Minette who was the first Sri Lankan Architect. She was responsible for the Watapuluwa Housing scheme design for public servants of Kandy along with her aunt Mrs. Lorna Wright, the wife of the then Kandy Government Agent. His son Fred E. de Silva followed his father’s footsteps and became the leading criminal lawyer in the Central Province and was responsible redeeming the mortgaged properties of his father who died honourably as a very honest politician having spent his vast wealth on very expensive political campaigns in that era.

Fred E De Silva was a Municipal Councillor for many years, Mayor of Kandy, and Member of Parliament for the Kandy seat. He was subsequently appointed as the Sri Lankan Ambassador in France. He was a Presidents Counsel and the Chancellor of the Peradeniya University. George’s grandson is Desmond de Silva Q.C now in UK having many English lawyers as his assistants in his Chambers. He is married to a relative of the Royal Family in England a highly respected gentleman in UK and a very welcome visitor to Buckingham Palace.

George E. de Silva died as a poor man. His tea estate was sold on a mortgage and he was at one time the co-owner of the biggest coconut plantations in Sri Lanka. He built a palatial bungalow in Kandy at Katukelle. The St. Georges, overlooking the Hantane and Hunnasgiriya Hills. All the wealth he amassed as a very successful lawyer with the best criminal practice in the Kandyan area Magistrate Courts spent on his political campaigns.

He helped many poor students, and his supporters during their illnesses and his enemies in time of their distress and won them round. Whenever he got news that one of his enemies was ill he would visit him with a carload of gifts.

His worst enemy in the Kandy Bar was the late Cox Sproule, the famous lawyer arrested and detained at Diyatalawa Camp during the Martial Law Era. He was to be shot dead like many other prominent Ceylonese in that spoke against the military excesses of the British Raj. His wife appealed to him to save his life, and George being an Anglican was able to save him through his influence with the British rulers.

The late Mr. N. E. Weerasooriya Q. C. the famous Kandyan lawyer, friend of George writing on George commented "But then George E. de Silva’s career was unique not only for his professional success and his political career, but also because he was the symbol of a new Ceylon, despising and attempting to overcome caste oppression, mindful of the Buddha’s message:

"It is not by birth that a man becomes an outcaste,

It is not by birth that a man becomes a Brahamin,

It is a man’s character that makes him an outcaste,

It is a man’s character that make’s him a Brahamin;"

When you enter Kandy town one could see the statue erected by the people of Kandy at the George E. de Silva Park, as a fitting end to the elfless service he rendered to the Kandyans over five decades. The words engraved are;

"In this Moment as in the hearts of the people for whom he lived and laboured, the name of George E. de Silva is enshrined. Born 8.6.1879. Died. 12.3.1950