“He was a man of great personal strength of character, yet of profound humanity and humility, unspoiled by the high distinctions he enjoyed. He belonged to the soil and all things of the soil. He loved all living things with a depth, which only those who belong to the soil can feel.” – Percy Spender, Former Australian Ambassador.
D.S. Senanayake was the man who architected the destiny of a nation and single handedly facilitated the smooth transition from semi-colony to independence with great charm and determination. He was the Chief Spokesperson for Ceylon in the transference of power, securing himself the pre-eminent position of first Prime Minister. His formulation of policies on agriculture, irrigation and colonization were far sighted and ensured food security in the country. He was also the founder of one of the leading political parties of the country, the United National Party.
The Early Years
Born on 20th October 1884 as Don Stanley, to Mudaliyar Don Spater and Dona Catherina Elizabeth Perera Gunasekera Senanayake, D.S. was the youngest of four children with two older brothers, D.C. and F.R and a sister Maria Frances. As a child, he was unenthusiastic about academics but was prodigious at sports of a physical nature, excelling greatly at boxing, wrestling and weight-lifting. He received his primary education at S’ Thomas’ College, then located at Mutwal and had a strong affection for his alma mater. His quick wit was apparent even then, making him a favourite among his peers. In one instance, when the Warden saw him wandering in the school grounds said “I seem to be seeing you everywhere Senanayake”, he enthusiastically responded with, “Yes Sir, like God.”
Fifty years later, in a tribute paid to him, the head of his school, Rev. R.S. De Saram had this to say about his continuous loyalty and dedication to the place that taught him a great deal on building character, “He gave the school many generous gifts from time to time, in his quiet unostentatious way, but his greatest gifts were the loyalty and affection he showered on her and the man he was. He was proud of us and we were proud of him. He stood for all that we regard as truly Thomian.”
The Family Business
Similar to his father, he had a deep-rooted belief in the financial potential of graphite mining and visited the mines with Don Spater on several occasions. His easy going nature rendered him appealing to his subordinates.
He foresaw possibilities in the rubber industry and learned about its agriculture and commercial aspects. He was a true “Son of the Soil” and personally planted an estate of sixty acres of coconut. The knowledge and experience that he garnered during this twenty year period between school and the political arena, was instrumental in preparing him for his future responsibilities.
Entrance to Politics
Along with his two brothers and father, D. S. was an active member of the Temperance Movement in Mirigama. Jailed for alleged complicity during the 1915 riots, he was among those who were wrongfully incarcerated by the British Government, when in fact they worked hard to minimize the spread of riots. Their inhumane treatment during this period precipitated an urge to emancipate the Ceylonese from the grasp of the British, as he strongly believed that they could never rise as equals as long as they served a foreign empire. A gentle nudge from F.R. in the right direction was all that was needed to ignite the course that would forever change the history of this beautiful island nation.
Not a natural orator, his political journey required time to manifest, only earning him a seat on the Legislative Council at age 40. Elected unopposed to represent Negombo and appointed as the Secretary of the Council, D.S was the driving force behind the reforms brought about over the next six years. He made his maiden speech a fortnight after the inauguration of the Council, which firmly set him on his path to leadership. He rarely missed an opportunity to partake in discussions on agriculture, peasantry, land and irrigation, with a fervent passion to make improvements. Despite lack of academics and professional training, his shrewd judgment of men and policies gave him a flair for politics.
Agriculture & Irrigation
With the establishment of the Donoughmore Constituition in 1931, the Legislative Council was dissolved and replace by the State Council of Ceylon. This did not deter D.S., who exerted it to his advantage to further the cause for independence. He understood that the country would benefit by the changes, as this led to the appointment of Ministerial Status to Ceylonese, showcasing their ability for self-governance.
Speaking on the Committee system in the State Council on July 19, 1932, D.S. Senanayake said, “Sir, when The Donoughmore Report was accepted I was one of those who was rather apprehensive of the success of the Committee system. At that time I was not certain how the Constitution would work and what difficulties we would have to contend with. But since I have been in charge of a Committee for about a year, I must say that my faith in the Committee system has increased considerably.”
A practical agriculturist, he was appointed as the Minister of Agriculture and Lands, for which his years in the Legislative Council had prepared him.
In 1932, he wrote: “Colonization of the dry zone is the only way out. The distribution of population in the various parts of the country is such that immigration from the over-populous zones to less crowded areas will soon become not a matter of choice, but a grim necessity. “
Undertaking the monumental feat of restoring the tanks and irrigation network of the dry zone, he proceeded with great enthusiasm. By establishing the Minneriya Scheme, thereby restoring large tanks, reclaiming lands for paddy cultivation and building flourishing settlements, he effectively tackled the country’s proliferating demand for rice. His greatest achievement was the rehabilitation of the Polonnaruwa district. The artificial lake created by him, which was larger than the Parakrama Samudraya was named Senanayake Samudraya, in his honour.
His drive and energy, coupled with his ability to delegate responsibly and his far-sighted vision for the future, brought about a fundamental change in the colonial land policy. He believed that crown lands should be centralized and regulated to favour the peasantry, improving their livelihood. He established a new tenurial system that prohibited the alienation of land by sale or mortgage. It stated that the land could only be passed on to a nominated heir, whereby assuring the continuance of food production.
Agriculture was always a subject that was close to his heart and he continued his interest in irrigation and colonization as Prime Minister, along with his son Dudley, who was appointed as the Minister of Agriculture and Lands at the time. Together, they established the Gal Oya Scheme in the Eastern Province.
The book “Agriculture & Patriotism” was written by him, in an effort to outline his strategy for long-term progression.
The Soulbury Commission
With the aim of achieving Dominion Status that would ultimately lead to the independence of the country, D.S. was in favour of the Soulbury Commission, which included his recommendations for further advancement.
He had numerous discussions with the Commissioners winning the favour and admiration of Lord Soulbury, which helped to rectify the stained relationship between the Imperial Government and the Board of Ministers. It also paved the way for D.S. to obtain the approval of the eagerly awaited Constitution.
To allay fears of the minorities and convince the other Ministers of the benefits of the Soulbury Commission, he said, “And for what are you being asked to vote? It is a motion to wipe out the Donoughmore Constitution with all its qualifications and limitations and to place the destinies of this country in the hands of its people. It is a motion to end our political subjection and to enable us to devote ourselves to the welfare of the Island freed from these interminable constitutional disputes. A vote for this motion is a vote for Lanka, and it is a pleasure and a privilege to move it.”
The State Council endorsed the Motion in an unprecedented manner and Dominion Status that was promised within three years, was granted in two. However, the Soulbury commission only decreed complete self-governance internally, with the Crown remaining in control of defence and external affairs. D.S. did enter into a Defence Pact with Britain as a safeguard from external aggression. Introducing these agreements in Parliament on December 3, 1947, D.S. Senanayake said, “The agreements became necessary for no other reason but because of the obligations that Britain had undertaken on our behalf. There was, therefore, this necessity for an agreement before Dominion Status was granted. Besides that, it was necessary in our own interest to have an agreement to provide for our defence.”
Formulation of the United National Party
D.S. maintained a deep-rooted belief in equality, above all, establishing a stable equilibrium among a multi-ethnic society, believing that the prospect of peace and stability would be vital to the first phase of independence.
He did not force religion upon the minorities and was the only politician to form a party with the unanimous support of all communities. Aptly named the “United National Party”, he forged a coalition that would guide the destiny of Ceylon through innumerable controversies. He believed that independence could only be won by the coming together of all communities for the purpose of one common goal. He believed in self-sufficiency in food, creating equality for all Ceylonese and rebuilding the nation from a colonial past.
The United National Party (UNP) became the largest party in the House of Representatives, at the General Election held in August 1947, leading to D.S. being appointed as Prime Minister.
1st Prime Minister of Ceylon
He successfully guided the country to freedom, when it ceased to be a colony of the British Empire on 4th February 1948. D.S. Senanayake re-hoisted Lanka’s flag that was brought down by the British in 1815, twenty four years after he embarked on his political career in the National Legislature, and proclaimed the country’s independence to the world.
Never losing perspective of the groundwork laid by the Dutch and British, he gave recognition and credit where it was due. It was this unbiased view of history that enabled him to understand the pulse of the people. He closely followed every minute detail in parliament, never missing a valid point for discussion. His previous experience had taught him to give the members of the cabinet more freedom to pursue their own policies, giving them greater opportunities to prove themselves. He was an understanding leader who was well aware of every division of the cabinet and supported its members in their endeavors.
It was evident that his wisdom, clear vision and steadfast perseverance had successfully led the country to independence and economic stability.
With an acute sense of integrity, he firmly believed in maintaining a good rapport with our neighbors. Sri Lanka is a small country, and as such, he knew that we would require the assistance of those far more experienced in matters of self-governance. He concluded agreements with the United Kingdom for military assistance and valued the country’s membership of the Commonwealth. He established strong relations with all of the Commonwealth countries and the United States, as well as Burma and Japan, two of the foremost Buddhist countries of the time. He was a great statesman, known and revered across the world.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Molly Dunuwille, the daughter of a prominent old Kandyan family and had two sons; Dudley, who would go on to be the Prime Minister of Ceylon four times, and Robert Parakrama, who is the grandfather of Vasantha Senanayake.
Following illness due to his heart being weakened, D.S. had been hospitalized for a few weeks in early 1952. This deterioration of the heart culminated when on 21st March of the same year, the Prime Minister succumbed to an untimely death when he suffered a stroke and fell off his horse during his morning ride. The country was plummeted into mourning at the sudden loss of the “Father of the Nation”.
In the words of Kwaja Nazimuddin, Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, “Ceylon has been deprived of one of her most distinguished sons, and the world, of an elder statesman”