Magazine article The Spectator

'Madam, Where Are Your Mangoes?', by Desmond De Silva - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Madam, Where Are Your Mangoes?', by Desmond De Silva - Review

Article excerpt

Desmond de Silva was born in the colony of Ceylon in the early months of the second world war, the only son of a barrister. After the Japanese entered the war in 1941, Ceylon was in the front line and it faced an onslaught. Winston Churchill appointed Lord Mountbatten as Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, based at Peradeniya, just outside Kandy. De Silva's grandfather George E. de Silva was a member of the Ceylon war council, and Mountbatten, for Desmond, was 'Uncle Dickie'. Four decades later, he was to marry Mountbatten's great niece, Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia. De Silva's life, as seen through these episodic memoirs, has a Boy's Own quality.

These memoirs deal with an often forgotten fact: that by April 1942, because imperial Japanese forces had overrun the rubber-producing countries of Southeast Asia, Ceylon was the only reliable source of rubber for the Allies. If Ceylon had fallen to the Japanese, the impact on the Allied invasion of Europe would have been enormous. Artificial rubber was in its infancy and needed oil to manufacture in any case.

De Silva's was a colonial boyhood with visits to the family rubber and tea estates in the highlands of Ceylon, swimming in the clear waters of rock pools formed by estate waterfalls, with shooting parties and visits from celebrities such as Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Gregory Peck, William Holden and other great screen stars who came to Ceylon to act in films.

The young de Silva was sent to Dulwich College prep school in 1951, returning later to Ceylon and entering Trinity College, Kandy. He was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1964, and entered the famous chambers of the Rt Hon Sir Dingle Foot, QC. With over 50 years' practice in the courts of England and the Commonwealth, de Silva has carved out a unique reputation as a defence counsel, earning him the sobriquet 'the Scarlet Pimpernel'.

But his greatest legal achievement was perhaps the role he played in 2002 in the prosecution of Liberia's Charles Taylor -- the first head of state to be convicted of war crimes since Grand Admiral Doenitz at Nuremberg. Having secured Taylor's arrest and transfer to Freetown, Sierra Leone, de Silva, for reasons of regional security, then had Taylor transferred to the Hague for trial. …

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