George E. De Silva — Champion Of The Poor

By L.B. Abeyaratne

The 57th death anniversary of the late George Edmund de Silva falls on  March 12. He was the third son of the famous ayurvedic physician, who migrated to N’Eliya from the south in 1870 and set up a lucrative practice in the British era. He owned the Orange Tree House  at the foot of the Pidurutalagala Mountain, with a large garden of roses. On March 12, 1950 he died from a stroke followed by two heart attacks he got while playing at the Peradeniya Golf Course with a few English friends. He was 71 years old at the time of his sudden death. He was a very enthusiastic golf and tennis player. His brother Lawyer Timothy de Silva was the first Ceylonese golf champion.

George Edmund de Silva was a very prominent politician in the Donoughmore Era of Sri Lanka’s history. He was a tall, sturdily built, fair, handsome and jovial man with a constant smile and he immediately 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 in the editorial staff of the then famous Times Of Ceylon.  He had a brilliant command of the English Language having being tutored by the famous English scholar at N’Eliya, Henry Young.

He entered the Law College, Colombo.  Being a pupil of the then famous Lorenz College of Colombo, he passed the Proctors Final Exam in 1900  and went to Kandy and within a short period he established a very lucrative practice — his two brothers Timothy and Gregory who migrated to Malaysia were also brilliant lawyers. The Kandy Bar was at that time dominated by Dutch Burgher lawyers and they resented the entry of the new comer George and on the first day all other lawyers including a few Kandyan aristocrats walked out of the liar, but the English Magistrate remained and George won his first case, much to the consternation of those who boycotted the courts. Subsequently he found it difficult to get a chair in the Court House, and he got his valet to bring a chair.

Subsequently he taught a bitter lesson to the Burghers by marrying Agnes, the only daughter of Paul Nell, who was the provincial engineer, from the cream of Burgher Society. 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 in grand style. She was a very kind hearted lady who championed the cause of franchise for females in the 1930’s.
George entered politics as a ward member for Katukelle in the Kandy Municipal Council and in 1931 he was elected to the first State Council of Sri Lanka for the Central Province seat, which extended from Dambulla to N’Eliya. He handsomely defeated Sir Gerard Wijekoon and Kandyan lawyer Albert Godamunne, who were prominent persons in national politics. He was subsequently re-elected and held the Kandy seat for 16 years. He was appointed as the minister of health by the then Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake. He held this portfolio for five years and in the next parliament he was the first Minister of Industries and Fisheries. The cabinet at that time comprised of a dozen ministers only.

The racial riots between the Sinhalese and Muslims started at Gampola in 1915 and spread to Kandy 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 kangaroo courts, presided over by Justices of the Peace, who were mostly senior British planters. Martial Law was enacted and Punjabi troops were brought from India, who harassed the Sinhalese people.

This irked George very much and it proved to be a watershed in George’s political advancement. He fought against the injustices meted out to the Sinhala people by Governor Chalmer, and he went to England along with E. W. Perera, another national hero of this era and had this British Governor recalled by making convincing representations to the Colonial Secretary. He fought valiantly to save the lives of young Hewavitharana and D.G. Peiris. He championed the case of the poor peasantry who under feudal lords had to perform Rajakariya, a compulsory form of free labour.

Due to his efforts the Rajakariya system was abolished and the depressed citizens got their place and dignity in society. He commenced the Mura-Pola Ela irrigation scheme in Hewaheta and many barren lands were irrigated and paddy and vegetable cultivation commenced in the Kandyan areas. Even to-day these farmers are famous for their vegetable and fruit cultivation in this area.

As the Minister of Health there are many landmark achievements. He established the first ayurvedic hospital having come from a generation of famous ayurvedic physicians from Galle, N’Eliya and Matara areas. He established 250 cottage hospitals in rural areas as malaria was rampant at that time. He introduced the system of spraying DDT to eradicate malaria breeding mosquitoes all over the island. The famous Oxford scholar Dr. Jane Russel, published his autobiography. The President of Sri Lanka at that time, J.R. Jayewardene, who was a very close political associate of George, in a foreword to this book has stated as follows:
“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 for progressive thinking, for it must be remembered that together with A.E. Goonesinghe, George E. de Silva proposed the introduction of universal franchise in 1931 and supported the freedom struggle in 1943. George was essentially a man of the people. Although he became the Minister of Health from 1942 to 1947 and President of the Ceylon National Congress on several occasions, he was a man who never lost the ability to feel and articulate heartfelt desires of the common man. His championing the cause of ayurveda and rural hospitals, proved this.

“I welcome the writing of the  biography of this great son of Sri Lanka.”

It is recorded that when George E.  de Silva became the President of the Ceylon National Congress in 1943, before we achieved freedom, J.R Jayewardene and Dudley Senanayake were the Joint Secretaries. G.C.S. Corea, Sir Edwin Wijeyaratne, A.F. Molamure, former speaker P. De S. Kularatne,  Dr. S.A. Wickremasingha, U.M. Rajapaksa, Neil Hewavitharana were  the prominent Congress leaders.

His son Fredrick de Silva, M.BE. followed his footsteps and not only became the leading criminal lawyer in the Central Province, hut also the Mayor of Kandy and a Member of Parliament. He was a class-mate of Dudley Senanayake at S. Thomas’ Mt. Lavinia. Later he was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in France.

He moved a motion in the State Council for the establishment of a Ceylonese bank to help the indigenous entrepreneurs. This was opposed by the Englishmen who had their own banks. He went to England and got the approval of the Colonial Secretary and the Bank of Ceylon was established.

His photograph should be hung in the bank premises as an acknowledgement of his endeavour. As the Mayor of Kandy for nearly a decade he did yeomen service to the rate payers like the inauguration of a pipe-borne water supply scheme, improvement to the Kandy Lake and Wace Park, providing benches to people to sit round the bund, the Deiyannewela Model Tenements Housing Scheme with a school and playground, the Watapuluwa Middle Class Housing Scheme was designed by his daughter, the first lady architect of Sri Lanka who worked with world renowned architect Patric Abeycoombie who designed the Peradeniya University, mooted by George. In  parliament when he was the Minister of Health the new Kandy Hospital was built, which is one of the best hospitals today in the island.

George E. De Silva died a poor man. His tea estate in Kandy was sold on a mortgage and once he  was the co-owner of the largest coconut estate in Sri Lanka. He had a palatial bungalow overlooking the Hantane Range and the Dumbara Valley. All his wealth was spent  to help the poor people. He gave a helping hand to many poor students and looked after his enemies in times of distress.

His worst enemy in the Kandy Bar was Cox Sproule, a leading Burgher lawyer. He spoke against British excesses during Martial Law and he was arrested and detained at Diyatalawa camp to be shot dead. His wife came and fell at George’s feet. It was a remarkable day for George to travel to Diyatalawa in the height of Martial Law and  get the release of his enemy by forcefully arguing the case.

Mr. Weerasooriya Q.C  the famous Kandyan lawyer writing about George commented:

“But then George E. de Silva’s career was unique not only for this professional success and his political career, but also because he was a symbol of new Ceylon, despising and attempting to overcome caste oppression mindful of Lord Buddha’s, message;
It is not by birth that a man becomes an outcast. It is not by birth that a man becomes a Brahmin, it is a man’s character, that makes him an outcast. It is a man’s character that makes him a Brahmin.”

When you enter Kandy city you can see the statue erected by the grateful people of Kandy at the George E. de Silva Park, a fitting tribute to the selfless service he rendered for five decades.

“In this monument 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.”

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