The Killing of Edward Henry Pedris
Posted on September 24th, 2020

Chanaka Bandarage

Impressions

Edward Henry Pedris is one of Sri Lanka’s least recognized National Heroes.  He was killed by the British more than 105 years ago in Welikada Prison, on the charge of Treason.

True a statue of him was unveiled by the Prime Minister Premadasa in 1987, and a playground and a stadium were named after him on that same day; very little national level commemoration of this Great hero takes place in the country. There is scant discourse about his heroism among the populous and his brave life story has been taken away from school history books.

Is this because he was never a politician and did his struggles against the British on his own, solitarily? Also, that the Pedris family has not sought publicity about their dead member?

Pedris was charged with Treason, Shop breaking, Attempted murder and Wounding with intent to Murder.

An incident happened on 1 June 1915, near Pedris’ shop in Main Street, Pettah, where a Muslim gang had advanced towards him to attack him or set fire to his shop.  During this time the Sinhala – Muslim riots had erupted in many parts of the country. Pedris had come out of the shop with a gun and had fired six shots into the crowd. No Muslims were killed or injured except the Police Constable Senevirathne who was injured in the head.

There had been absolutely no other involvement of Pedris in the riots though allegations were made in the trial that he had instigated a mob to travel from Peliyagoda to Colombo to attack Muslims.  Pedris in his defence stated that he as a Commissioned Officer settled certain disputes between the Sinhalese and the Muslims.

The riots had been very brutal with over 100 Muslim deaths mainly in Gampola, Kandy and Mathale. The Police and the military had shot dead over 100 Sinhalese who were accused of killing Muslims and looting Muslim shops.

To Pedris’ utter misfortunate during this time he and his family had come to the adverse attention of the British authorities. Pedris had left an arrogant lifestyle and the British and their Sinhalese cohorts fiercely despised him.

Pedris was a young man born into an elite Sinhala Buddhist family.  His father, Duenuge Disan Pedris, a native of Galle was a very wealthy businessman, who among other business ventures had shops in Pettah. Pedris was educated at Royal and St Thomas’ colleges. He represented both Royal and St Thomas’ at cricket.  He must be the only person to have represented both schools in Royal- Thomian cricket matches. 

Young Pedris was an excellent marksman and he was enlisted as a commissioned officer of the Colombo Town Guard. At the time of the riots he held the rank of Captain.  Prior to his death he was de-commissioned by the British rule in Sri Lanka.

Pedris excelled in horse riding too. He had a wide knowledge about horses. A Russian Prince from the Tsar dynasty  had presented him a horse named Rally”.  Pedris rode this horse with the composure of a Prince, and the British and their Sinhalese cohorts hated this.

There had been several clashes of young Pedris with the British hierarchy. In one incident, at a Cinema Hall a white man had demanded that Pedris gave him his seat.  Pedris had refused and belittled the British saying that he had paid for his seat.

It is fair to infer that news about young Pedris had reached Governor Sir Robert Chalmers. 

Chalmers, a racist, was an introvert and a recluse.  He was ruthless in eliminating enemies.  Under his command, Brigadier Malcolm went on a killing spree of Sinhalese in areas where the riots took place – notably in Colombo and the upcountry. 

Chalmers was basically scared that the Sinhalese would use the riot to overthrow the colonial administration. During this time the World War 1 was in full swing. The British suspected that there were prominent Sinhalese businessmen in Colombo who had close trade links with Germans. It is believed Pedris family was one.  Over the riot, two of Pedris’ cousins – Albert and Edwin Wijesekera, who were leading businessmen, were taken into custody and were imprisoned in

Jaffna. 

When the riot occurred, the German cruise ship  ‘Emden’ had berthed in Colombo and Colombo businessmen had conducted trading  with it.

It is believed that Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, the Maha Mudaliyar, father of SWRD Bandaranaike, was not in good terms with the Pedris family and he may have had a part in creating the ill feeling between the British administration and Pedris family.  Except hearsay, there is no concrete evidence to prove this. Bandaranaike was the Chief Advisor and Chief  Native Interpreter to the Governor.  Basically, he held the highest native position under the British administration. Prior to him his father and grandfather had also held the same or similar positions for the British administration.

Governor Chalmers and the Inspector General of Police, Herbert Layard Dowbiggin, were adamant that Henry Pedris must die.  They wanted to use Pedris to teach other national leaders a lesson. Pedris was seen as an easy, soft target.

A military court, comprised of three military judges was convened and Pedris was tried on 1 July 1915; a death sentence was passed on him on the same day.  He did not have appeal rights.  A request for clemency was made to King George V by the family and several others but that was rejected.

On 7 July 2015 Pedris was killed by a firing squad. 

Even immediately prior to his death, Pedris showed bravery.   

After he was sentenced to death, he demanded that he should be shot by a Punjabi firing squad, and not by a white British firing squad.  He stated that Punjabi soldiers were Non-Christian and Asian. His request was granted.  A Punjabi firing squad was rushed to Sri Lanka.

When blindfold was afforded to him, Pedris rejected it.  He faced death without any fear.  Until he was twice shot to death, he held his head high.

A remarkable incident took place at the time of the execution. The Additional District Judge of  Colombo, Arthur Charles Allnut, a graduate of the Oxford University and a member of the Ceylon Civil Service had ordered that the 86 Sinhala Buddhist nationalists who were detained in Welikada Prison at that time (over the Sinhala/Muslim riots) should witness the shooting of Pedris.  Thus they were lined up in the verandah outside of the  L-Hall of Welikada Prison, and were compelled to watch Henry Pedris being shot to death.  Among the inmates were DS Senanayake, DR Wijewardane, FR Senanayake, Edwin Wijeyeratne, DB Jayathilaka, Dr Cassius Pereira, Dr WA De Silva, ET De Silva, FR Dias Bandaranaike, Dr CA Hewavitharana, H Amarasuriya, AH Molamure and AE Goonesinghe.

Over the Sinhala/Muslim Riots, the British had also detained Anagarika Dharmapala the Great, in a different location (he had nothing to do with the riots; when the riots happened he was in India).  Until early 1920s, Anagarika Dharmapala the Great was held under house arrest in Calcutta.  He was the longest held political prisoner over the riots. The objective was to teach him a lesson so that he will curtail his anti-imperialist struggle/rhetoric and that he will be psychologically drowned (Anagarika Dharmapala the Great was Sri Lana’s Mahatma Gandhi).   The British were partly successful in achieving both these objectives. The writer has elaborated the altercation that Anagarika Dharmapala the Great had with Governor Chalmers in a previous article (see Why Anagarika Dharmapala is important to India, particularly to the Indian Buddhist? Chanaka Bandarage, ‘New Buddhist’, India July 2015 edition, pp 23 -28; reproduced in Lankaweb, July 29, 2015)

The cream of the country’s nationalist leaders were arrested. This is evidence that the British were using the Sinhala – Muslim riot as a pretext to punish them.  Furthermore, the immense fear that the British had that attempts may be made during that time to overthrow their regime.

Even a person with no legal knowledge would realise that Pedris had done nothing to commit Treason.  Basically, he had done no offence to deserve such a harsh punishment – the death sentence.

Pedris was buried in Borella Kanaththa. The father, who owned several burial plots in Borella Cemetery managed to bury him one of those plots.  The British was unaware of this. Later, the family built a large commemoration plaque in his memory. It exists to this day.

Pedris’ father died as an extremely dejected man. His main hope was that his son would take over his vast business empire one day.  That dream was shattered.  He lost his two sons-in laws as they were also incarcerated in Welikada and Jaffna jails. The parents out of their own money built Isipathanarama Viharaya in Colombo 5 and offered it to Maha Sangha. They did many other meritorious  constructions in memory of young Pedris including the Pilgrims Rest in Polonnaruwa. The mother, Mallino,  died as a Dasa Sil Upasikawa. In 1920 she gifted valuable land to Mallikarama Temple in Dematagoda.

Young Pedris was only 27 when he was mercilessly killed by the British.

One Response to “The Killing of Edward Henry Pedris”

  1. Ratanapala Says:

    Drug pushers, slave traders, plunderers and pirates – thats what they were the British and what they are today albeit clothed differerntly. They built their wealth on the blood, toil and tears of millions of innocent human beings. They will one day reap the benefits of their inhumanity to other less endowed beings!

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