This blog was written by Danielle Wiles, Archive Assistant (Graduate Trainee).
This blog explores Sri Lanka’s journey towards independence between 1930 and 1948. Throughout this blog, I will refer to Sri Lanka using its former name Ceylon, as this was how the country was known during the date range. The demand for dominion status began in the 1930s when Ceylon, sought to change its constitution.
As colonies began to seek independence from the British Empire, dominion status was frequently discussed during Parliamentary debates. In 1922, members were cautious to provide a definition of the term as they felt that self-governance would look different in each new country. However, dominion status can be understood as an autonomous country that is equal in status to Britain while remaining within the Commonwealth.
All Votes Matter
The Donoughmore Commission of 1927 arose due to continued demands for change from Ministers and permanent residents of Ceylon. It aimed to resolve the existing difficulties of governance enforced by the 1924 constitution and recommended communal representation be abolished. A new system of government was recommended and took the form of a State Council, this was a single legislative system of government. Following the Commission, the Donoughmore Constitution represented the beginning of the transfer of political power that continued until 1947.
This Constitution was pivotal in changing the voting system in Ceylon as it removed communal representation and replaced it with universal suffrage. Communal representation is the idea that communities have reserved seats and that each community elect someone within the community to take the reserved seat. This change emphasised the importance of individuals opinions outside of community politics. However, communal representation was important to some minority communities as it gave them voting power. Whereas the principle of universal suffrage meant “one person, one vote”, therefore larger groups such as Sinhalese majority would now have greater voting power, and smaller minority communities such as Muslims, Europeans, and Tamils would have less.
This was the first time a colony within the British Empire was given control over internal civil administration. Furthermore, it was a fundamental first step in separating political beliefs from ethnicity and religion, nonetheless, some communities such as the Ceylon Tamils relied on communal representation and in retaliation boycotted the 1931 elections as a form of protest.
10 years later, during the Annual Session of 1940, the President of the Sinhala Maha Sabha Party demanded dominion status for Ceylon. Once again demands for change echoed throughout Ceylon, from citizens as well as ministers in the Ceylon National Council. A large majority desired a re-examination of the 1931 Ceylon Constitution and were no longer willing to be patient. The people of Ceylon had acquired their individual voice through universal suffrage, as a result, calls for fairer representation and change within the political structure of Ceylon grew louder.
The War Effort
Following the requests for further constitutional reform, in 1941 the British government made assurances to the Board of Ministers in Ceylon that the subject would be examined further through a Commission or Conference once World War II came to an end.
In March 1942 Albert James Sylvester, expressed just how important Ceylon was to the war effort in a letter to Sir Lloyd George. The letter highlights that Ceylon had to be defended at all costs, without them the war in South Asia and the Middle East would be lost. Therefore, discussions of movement towards gradual independence were halted as altering the status of their relationship with Britain could have impacted the war effort.
The Start of a New Beginning
Nearing the end of World War II Ceylonese moderates were becoming restless as no steps had yet been made to examine Ceylon’s Constitution. Additionally, rumours of some ministers’ intentions to join forces with India and attain their goals through different means were spreading. In a bid to resolve looming problems and make positive strides forward, Don Stephen Senanayake, a Sinhalese statesman, requested a reply to Ceylon’s demand for dominion status as a matter of urgency. On May 26th, 1943, during a UK Parliamentary Debate, MP, Peter Macdonald acknowledged that the 1931 Constitution had never worked satisfactorily, following this a declaration was issued regarding the reform of the Constitution. Ceylon Ministers were then asked to frame a constitution in accordance with the declaration, to be examined by a commission or conference but the demand for dominion status fell on deaf ears. The key theme within the Declaration was control, His Majesty’s Government wanted to ensure Ceylon remained interwoven within the fibres of the British Empire and firmly placed as a part of the Commonwealth. Although the Declaration claimed there would be less British interference under a new Constitution, it was stated that matters relating to defence, and currency could not be changed without British instruction.
Before the arrival of the Soulbury Commission in December 1944, members of the Ceylon State Council met to discuss constitutional changes and rejected Britain’s ideas of incremental reformation and continued control, stating that they now only desired full Dominion status and would not cooperate with the Commission upon its arrival. Members did still interact with the Commission through hosting duties such as showing them around Ceylon. Nevertheless, they did not bring forward any proposals for the new constitution and rejected the idea of potentially becoming a puppet state, Ceylon desired complete self-governance.
Senanayake led the negotiations that resulted in the Independence of Ceylon in 1948 and his position as the nation’s first Prime Minister.
On August 16th, 1945, Senanayake sent a letter to the Secretary of State, Mr. George Hall, making his case for dominion status with support and advice from William Ivor Jennings (Vice Chancellor of the University of Ceylon at the time). Senanayake, indicated that Britain’s position on dominion status was unfair as Ceylon had only ever been loyal to the Nation, especially during times of war. This was amplified as the Minister noted the British Government’s promise of dominion status to Burma and India.
Despite the arrival of the Soulbury Commission, the Ceylon State Council passed the Sri Lanka Bill in April 1945 which presented a new Constitution in line with dominion status for Ceylon. Nevertheless, two years later Senanayake was still negotiating Ceylon’s Dominion status despite both Burma and India receiving confirmation that dominion status would be awarded.
One focus throughout negotiations for self-government, was equality. The British Government worked with Senanayake and other ministers to try and ensure the large proportion of ethnic minorities in Ceylon were fairly represented. During the Soulbury Commission one suggestion was implementing a balanced representation system. This system would have grouped minorities collectively and ensured each community had representation, however this did not reflect the voice of all minorities and was seen as a step backwards to communal representation; ultimately this proposed change was rejected as an addition to the Constitution.
Support from Lord Soulbury
The Ceylon majority were not alone in their opposition of the new Constitution or desire for greater steps towards independence. Lord Soulbury, the Chairman of the Soulbury Commission was also a key advocate for dominion status to be extended to Ceylon.
As a prominent figure within the Conservative Party, he continued to promote the future Prime Minister of Ceylon alongside discussions of independence with the Colonial Office. On October 5, 1945, he also wrote to Hall making a case for greater measures of self-government to be extended to Ceylon beyond the scope of the Soulbury Commission, which included arguing for less British involvement in Defence and External Affairs. Later that month during a meeting with Trafford Smith a civil servant based in the Colonial Office, Lord Soulbury conveyed his anxiousness about the implementation of the new Ceylon Constitution, Smith noted that Soulbury “would have no hesitation in expressing his views in the House of Lords, and in putting his knowledge of the subject” if he did not agree with His Majesty’s Government’s decisions regarding the proposed policy changes.
Stability, equality, and further self-government were requested by the Ceylon State Council as well as a large majority of the people of Ceylon in 1940. Although there were differing views throughout the nation by 1947, a new Constitution had been drawn and Ceylon were making strides towards complete self-government. The transition towards dominion status also involved Burma and India as their journey towards independence would impact political relations between all of them. The new Constitution sought to reflect the people of Ceylon and their voice. The Constitutions attempted to positively impact the strained relationships between minority and majority groups through safeguards to protect minorities against any potential discriminatory legislation. Despite this, on December 4th, 1947, during the second reading of the Ceylon Independence Bill in the House of Lords, Soulbury and others were not convinced that the safeguards put in place would be effective and instead emphasised the role of statesmen and tolerance.
On the 10th of December 1947 the Ceylon Independence Bill was passed in the UK, marking the beginning of the 1947 Constitution. Ceylon officially became an independent country within the British Commonwealth of Nations on the 4th of February 1948. Temple bells rang throughout Ceylon in celebration, and special services were held by different religious organisations across the country, continuing over the following weeks. Twenty-four years later, Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972, removing all reference to their British Colonial name.
Ceylon Report of the Commission on Constitutional Reform, September 1945, GCA/3/26
Proposals for conferring on Ceylon fully responsible status within the British Commonwealth Nations, November 1947, GCA/3/37
Sylvester's Daily Minutes, 1942, LG/G/25/1
Ceylon's (Sri Lanka's) passage to independence, A. Jeyaratnam Wilson (2010)
Sri Lanka, Part 1: The Second World War and the Soulbury Commission 1939-1945. British Documents on the End of Empire, Series B Volume 2, K M De Silva (Editor)
Sri Lanka, Part 2: Towards Independence, 1945-1948. British Documents on the End of Empire, Series B Volume 2, K M De Silva (Editor)
The Times Digital Archive
Hansard, Parliamentary Debates