How Freeman won the NCP seat

With general elections due shortly and the fact that elections of one sort or another seem to have become a staple in our way of life in Sri Lanka, it may be timely to consider electioneering and politics in an earlier era in this country. The account, which follows, is an unvarnished account of the ‘politics’ of Herbert Freeman, an Englishman resident in Anuradhapura, who was elected by the votes of the people of the North-Central Province to represent them in the Legislative Council and later the State Council (national level bodies, which approximated to the Parliament, which came into being later). He was an uncommon man, which accounts for the fact that much was written about him in reports in and about that era. What follows is compiled from these reports, which may have some minor discrepancies with regard to certain dates, which are understandable since some reports were published many years after the events described; other accounts appeared in contemporary newspapers.

Herbert Rayner Freeman was born on the 6th March 1864, was at Marlborough College, England (1878 to 1882) and came out to the Secretariat in Ceylon in 1885. On reaching the age of 55, he retired as an Officer Class 1, Grade 1 of the Ceylon Civil Service after a period of service of 32 years. His last posting was as Government Agent (North-Central Province) for four and a half years. When he retired, his yearly salary was Rs. 20,250 and his yearly pension, which commenced on 20 November 1919, amounted to Rs. 12,487/50.

When he reached the age of retirement he had the option of returning to England or remaining in Ceylon. He decided to stay on and engage himself in working for the improvement of the life of the villagers of the NCP. His endeavours in this direction are attested to by the dedication by John Still of his book ‘Jungle Tide’ (published in 1930) to H.R.Freeman "Knight-errant and champion of the Jungle Peoples’ rights". Elsewhere, Richard Aluwihare, who was appointed Acting G.A. (NCP) on the 4th December 1941 (and was later High Commissioner to India) has, also, attested to the gratitude, affection and respect of the villagers of the NCP towards Freeman (see John O’Regan, ‘From Empire to Commonwealth; Reflections on a career in Britain’s Overseas Service", 1994).

Newspaper reports of that era, together with information from the above book and various issues of the Ceylon Civil List, fill in the picture of an unusual man. Freeman was in the habit of walking miles along lonely jungle trails (accompanied only by his umbrella!) to visit the sick and those in need of help in other respects. While he was far from being a rich man, he used to buy medicines for the sick and agricultural requirements for needy farmers. (There were those who tried to take advantage of his generosity and it has been recorded in O’Regan’s book that his reaction was "I would far rather be duped by ninety and nine rogues than turn down a single deserving appeal") He, also, paid the fees of a competent lawyer to defend and secure the discharge of someone he felt had been unjustly accused in a charge of murder. On occasions he attended courts to speak on behalf of villagers who were defendants, and there were instances, he had paid the fines of accused, whom he felt should not have been prosecuted.

In 1924, Freeman decided to contest for the seat for the NCP in the Legislative Council. The sitting member was my grandfather, S.D.Krisnaratne (elected 23 April 1921), who has been described by Richard Aluwihare as ‘a Sinhalese lawyer of very high standing". Krisnaratne was, also, Unofficial Police Magistrate, Justice of the Peace and Crown Proctor.

Freeman had two messages for the voters of the NCP. The first related to the fact that his colour for the election was green, while that of Krisnaratne was red. Freeman visited each village with a betel leaf stuck on the side of his tropical hat. He impressed on the villagers that they should vote for the green colour, which was that of the betel leaf, and that Krisnaratne’s colour, red, was that of the spittle when the betel leaf was chewed and spat out.

Freeman’s second message was linked to his style of campaigning. He would walk down a jungle trail (accompanied only by his umbrella) till he reached the intersection of two paths. He would stay there till a few villagers assembled to listen to the ‘Agente unnehe’. He proceeded to tell them in fluent Sinhala that he was contesting for the NCP seat in the Legislative Council and that, if he was not elected, he would be returning to England. He, also, mentioned that he would not be able to offer transport to the voting booths and that they would have to find their own way.

Freeman won the election on the 12th September 1924 by a majority of 7423 having received 8311 votes as against 888 for Krisnaratne, who forfeited his deposit. There were no allegations of election fraud or vote rigging and matters passed off peaceably.

Freeman took up his seat in the Legislative Council and later in the State Council, which opened on the 1st July 1931. In all, he represented the NCP for 20 years until his death in 1945. At his request, the umbrella, which had accompanied him over the years on jungle trails and to high office in Colombo, was cremated with him.

While Krisnaratne had served on the Local Government Board during his term on the Legislative Council, Freeman participated in the deliberations of the Public Works Advisory Board and of the Anti-Malaria Advisory Committee. In the State Council, Freeman (representing Anuradhapura) and the noted engineer, Stephen William Dassenaike (representing Colombo South), were both elected on the 13th June 1931 and both served on the Executive Committee for Communications and Works.

Freeman appears to have been argumentative during his service in the Legislative and State Councils and was (regretfully) suspended on at least one occasion. However, it is a matter of record that his efforts on behalf of the villagers of the NCP was much appreciated and acknowledged by his colleagues in Colombo. The wide-spread acceptance by the people of Anuradhapura and the rest of the NCP of Freeman, who was resident in Ceylon for some sixty years and able to converse with the villagers of the province in their own language, lends credibility to the view that it is, indeed, possible to build a united Sri Lanka free of considerations of ‘minorities’ and ‘majorities’.

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