Saturday, July 11, 2015

Henry Pedris: 100 Years On

Had he survived what got him killed and made him a martyr, how would he have lived? What then would have been his legacy? How would he have made us remember him? Would what we celebrate him for have changed or become distorted? What-ifs and how-comes are questions which assessments of legacies rarely delve into. But I persist. 100 years after the execution of Henry Pedris, where are we? More importantly, where is his legacy?

The popular image of Pedris as a passive victim of imperialism has been sustained to date. Notwithstanding the angry reaction, issuing in fits of violence against the Establishment, towards his imprisonment, the truth was that in the year of his arrest (1915), several other anti-imperialist programs were underway. Pedris inadvertently fell into and became a catalyst for all of them. Perhaps that was what made him a hero in the end.

What’s the bigger picture? He came from the urban bourgeoisie. His father owned (among his other estates) one of the oldest plumbago mines in the country (in Kalutara). His residence was in Cinnamon Gardens. His interests included riding horses. Throughout his life, however, he was caught between two worlds. Pedris hobnobbed with the British aristocracy, yes. But he was also a bit of a paradox.

Like most children from the capitalist aristocracy, he was tutored in the two most privileged schools, the Colombo Academy (later Royal College) and S. Thomas’ College. Unlike most of his compatriots there, however, he was a teetotaler and a devout Buddhist, resented by colonial authorities (in one incident, he refused to make way for a European in a section of a cinema hall reserved for foreigners). That was why or rather how he was caught between two worlds.

The rift between historical actuality and popular consciousness has always distorted myth into truth and the lumpen into a mythical hero. This is true when considering the national heroes who are (ritualistically) celebrated today. Most of those who are said to have continued Pedris’ “legacy” fall into this category: from the urban bourgeoisie who promised to fight for independence but who later paid obeisance to the colonialist.

What of Pedris? It’s true that along with him the likes of the Senanayake brothers (F. R. and D. S.) and D. B. Jayatilaka were imprisoned. It’s also true that they all came from the nouveau riche: a class borne from capitalist enterprise. But Pedris was different. Records testify to his family’s commitment to nationalism and Buddhism. Lady Pedris and her husband, for instance, built a temple (the Isipathanaramaya) dedicated to her son after his death.

Historians can attempt at this point to differentiate between him and those who purported to continue his legacy. What happened in 1915 wasn’t merely a backlash against imperialism: it was also a backlash against the class of brown dependants in power at the time. Perhaps this was summed up in what Sir Christopher Obeysekere, part of the two most powerful families in the country back then (the other being the Bandaranaikes), had to say about those raising anti-colonial sentiments: “Nobodies who hope to make somebodies of themselves.”

The “Nobodies” would of course eventually turn out to be just as much a “Somebody” as he was, the irony being that it was a scion of the Obeysekere-Bandaranaike family who directed a populist movement against the these "Nobodies" (I am referring to S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike). As much as the liberation movements of other colonised countries took strength from the bourgeoisie, here that class virtually kowtowed to the same people they had in their youth avowed to combat. An irony, certainly.

Henry Pedris’ legacy stands out here. Nowhere else did the arrest of an individual bring together the bourgeoisie, representatives of the proletariat, and the clergy (of almost all faiths) together as it did in the days leading to his execution. A. E. Goonesinghe clearly wasn’t a sympathiser of the class from which the incarcerated came. But in what he did during this time, there was a rare and altogether unheard of coming together of the proletariat and bourgeoisie – and that on a platform shared by the Buddhist clergy!

What happened next was avoidable in one way but inevitable in another. Those who had been detained alongside Pedris vowed to get rid of the British. F. R. Senanayake, upon seeing the limp body of the dying martyr, reportedly said, “I take the solemn pledge here and now that even if I am forced to beg on the roads with a coconut shell, I will spend all my wealth to teach these fellows a lesson.” These words seem to echo Pedris’ act of refusing to make way for a European at the theatre.

There is a difference, however.

Senanayake’s statement contains a contradiction which ailed those who would lead the independence movement. “Lead” is a strong word, I suppose: “be put into with a silver spoon” would be a better way of putting it. Senanayake’s “pledge” to “spend all my wealth” was squandered when the anti-imperialist movement was reduced to a simplistic conflict between leftwing and rightwing politics.

His brother’s exit from the Ceylon National Congress, the formation of the predominantly conservative United National Party (UNP), the establishment of Dominion status at a time when demands for complete independence were stifled, and the degeneration of the independence movement into the Kotelawala premiership all affirmed the contradiction his statement echoed: that holders of wealth accumulated through capitalist enterprise would eventually partner up with the same colonial class which they had once vowed to get rid of.

But that’s another story.

Pedris’ legacy, then, is reducible to how he diverged from the comprador class. He came from the same background, yes, but his legacy as a passive sufferer of imperialism has been preserved even today. It’s difficult to speculate, more so to chart the would-have-been of the past to the what-might-be of the future. I can say this much though. Pedris’ legacy was not appropriated in any sense by the bourgeoisie. It was the leftists and nationalists who could and indeed did do that successfully.

100 years after his execution, we face a question. Who continued what he left behind? Certainly not those who were “given” the mandate to lead the independence struggle. Certainly not those who are extrapolated as "heroes" today. No. Those who continue his legacy do so from the sidelines. For that, we are grateful. Otherwise (let's be honest) his name would fall among those it shouldn’t fall among.