James Spain’s Review
Don Stephen Senanayake, First Prime Minister of Sri Lanka

By H. A. J. Hulugalle
(Second Edition) 370 pages, soft cover Published by Arjuna Hulugalle Dictionaries 42 Ananda Coomaraswamy Mw. Colombo 3 Tel. 573517. E-mail: hajh@sri.lanka.net Price Rs 495.

It is particularly fitting that more than a hundred years after D. S. Senanayake was born, more than fifty since he became Ceylon’s first Prime Minister, and twenty-five since his biography was first published in 1975, a second edition of this remarkable book has been brought out. It is worth noting also that the man responsible for the new volume, Arjuna Hulugalle, is the son of the original author, H. A. J. Hulugalle, distinguished journalist, diplomat, and close friend of his subject.

The deeds of great men seldom disappear from history but as time passes and new generations appear their images become less vivid. An example of this in the present reviewer’s life: Harry S. Truman was President of the United States at the same time Don Stephen was Prime Minister of Ceylon. I first encountered Truman at the 1944 Democratic convention in Chicago, when I was a very young man toting a camera for the Associated Press and he was an obscure senator from Missouri; my first vote for President was for him in the 1948 election when he upset the favored Republican Thomas Dewey; and one night in Washington in 1950 while aimlessly strolling about waiting for a government job, I ran into him during his evening walk on Pennsylvania Avenue and we chatted for ten minutes.

My now very adult sons share my admiration for Truman’s honesty, grit, tenacity, and place in history but they do not have the same "feel" for the man that I do.

This book will be very useful in bringing to younger Sri Lankan readers an image of what Don Stephen was really like. With just the right mixture of fact and analysis, it takes us in short lucid chapters with him from Botale, the village in the Negombo District where he was born, through St. Thomas’ College, then in Mutwal, and his twenty years as a farmer, plumbago (graphite) miner, and low level civil servant before he entered politics, just in time to be arrested by the colonial government in connection with the Sinhalese Moslem riots of 1915.

Elected from Negombo to the Legislative Council in 1924 he participated vigorously in debates about agriculture, the role of minorities, and the deliberations of the Donoughmore Commission appointed by the King in 1927 to devise a new and more democratic government for Ceylon. In 1936 he became Minister of Agriculture in that government and his career on the national scene really began.

He concentrated on developing the dry zone with its endemic malaria and fifteen hundred years-old ruined tanks. Through careful apportionment of crown lands he encouraged agricultural production at a time when even a higher proportion of food than at present was unnecessarily imported. He worked in harmony with an emerging leadership that included such towering and diverse figures as John Kotelawala, J. R. Jayawardene, and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike who were also to become prime ministers after independence.

Like most politicians in Ceylon Don Stephen supported the British Government after World War II began, especially after Japanese entry into the war, which brought not only a potential but an active threat to the country. He cooperated with the Soulbury Commission sent from London in 1944 to introduce further democracy, and the constitution that resulted was written largely by him. In September 1946 he founded the United National Party (UNP), which achieved a plurality in the 1948 elections after which he became Prime Minister.

While the Hulugalle book, like most biographies, basically hues to a chronological outline, there are useful functional chapters on the various political parties of the time and their leaders, and on the press, foreign policy, and education. The description of how S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike broke with the UNP and used his Sinha Maha Sabha to develop a base for his new Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is especially interesting.

The climax to this extraordinary life came on March 21, 1952, when Don Stephen at the age of sixty-eight had a stroke while riding a favorite horse on Galle Face Green. He died that afternoon as doctors rushed to Colombo from all over the world. Tributes flowed in from the Queen, Winston Churchill, Jawarhalal Nehru, Robert Menzies, Louis St. Laurent, and hundreds of other foreign and local dignitaries. The funeral, still remembered by some of our older citizens, was as impressive as the man was modest.

There is a worthwhile coda chapter on Dudley Sennanayake, Don Stephen’s son which graphically reflects his personality and the circumstances surrounding his choice as successor to his father.

H. A. J. Hulugalle had an almost ideal viewpoint from which to assess Senanayake. He was a close friend and for years Editor of the Daily News. His book combines the best of scholarly and journalistic techniques to present in over three hundred pages a far more lucid and interesting picture than larger and more elaborate ones by or about his successors to the highest office in the land: Its concise index is still useful and its several appendices well worthwhile. It is and will remain the classic biography of Don Stephen Senanayake.

(Mr. J .W Spain, has lived in Sri Lanka since his retirement from the US diplomatic service. His last posting was as Ambassador to Sri Lanka. Prior to that he had served as Ambassador to the UN, Tanzania, Pakistan and Turkey.)