The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Alaine Low; Judith M. Brown et al. | Go to book overview

19

Ceylon

S. R. ASHTON

Ceylon * has several claims to occupy a special place in British colonial history (Map 18.2). Apart from the old colonies of settlement which became Dominions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ceylon was the first of the Colonial Office territories to achieve independence. The means by which the island became self-governing in February 1948 were portrayed at the time as a bold experiment in Western-style parliamentary government in a plural society. The justification for the experiment was that Ceylon had demonstrated its political maturity over nearly two decades by successfully upholding one of the most advanced constitutions throughout the Colonial Empire. The colony had enjoyed universal suffrage since 1931—twenty years ahead of its adoption in India and only two years after its introduction in Britain. In the areas of economic and social activity the island Similarly enjoyed a reputation as an advanced colony. Although not self-sufficient in food, it possessed a buoyant economy based on three principal plantation crops—tea, rubber, and coconut products. A University College, established at Colombo in 1921, was converted into the University of Ceylon in 1942 and, at the time of independence, the government was implementing a scheme of free education from the kindergarten to university.

Especially important from a British viewpoint was the regional context, in which the transfer of power in Ceylon was peaceful, orderly, and negotiated by consent. The communal violence which cast such a long shadow over the transfers of power on the Indian subcontinent was entirely absent in Ceylon. Equally, Ceylon did not, as did Burma, commence its independence hovering on the brink of civil war. Ceylon's new government coveted its status as a member of the Commonwealth and freely negotiated a defence treaty with Britain. In short, not only was Ceylon viewed as a 'model' colony, it was also viewed as the model for others to follow. The colonies next in line—the Gold Coast and Malaya—were both said by British officials in 1948 to be at least a generation away from self‐ government. As one official, actively involved in the Ceylon independence

____________________
*
The country was renamed Sri Lanka in 1972. In Sinhala or Sinhalese, Sri Lanka means 'resplendent isle'.

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