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Published in CANBERRA TIMES 6 April 2013

“The Bracegirdle Incident”, Alan Fewster

At 155 pages it is not a long book, but is a ripping good yarn for students of history, politics and the human condition. As Humphrey McQueen says it would translate into an entertaining play and/or television production.

It is a book that operates on a number of levels. At one level it provides some fascinating insights into the colonial life of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the late 1930’s; at another, into colonial governance, with all of the certainties and established procedures of the Colonial Office and its ornate and at times adroit, overseas hierarchy.

It details the growing demand for independence of a racially divided Ceylon, with all of the guile and at times deceit of the local educated elite and the trials and tribulations of the white man’s burden – and bungling.

At yet another it provides an insight into the early causes of the racially motivated problems besetting Sri Lanka today.

The book has a cast of characters that equip it to be translated into a modern Gilbert and Sullivan musical and certainly looked at through one set of glasses, the events portrayed, by former diplomat, now author, Alan Fewster, could provide material for the most wonderful farce.

The main character, as far as Fewster is concerned, is an Australian, Mark Anthony Lyster Bracegirdle, born in England. He has a half brother Simon born as a result of a relationship during WWI. Their mother is an artist, suffragette, Labour Party candidate for the London Borough Council in 1925 and emigrant to Australia with her sons in 1927.

After a period at Bingara, in the north of NSW, she headed to Sydney. There she mixed with artists, socialists, communists and members of the social elite including the Governor. Soon after their arrival Mark Anthony also headed bush where he spent some years knocking around. By 1932, aged 20, he was in Melbourne with his mother and brother, where he undertook study in art.

By 1935 he had come to the attention of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch (CIB) of the Attorney General’s Department for being ‘actually associated with the Communist movement’. The CIB later morphed into ASIO, passing on, for safe keeping, all of its carefully nurtured paranoia.

Mark Anthony Bracegirdle was a man of social conscience, a member of the Communist Party of Australia, the Young Communist League, and a Stalinist.

In February 1936 Bracegirdle applied for and was granted a passport to travel to Ceylon to obtain employment as a junior tea planter or creeper, a term used by the expatriate planters.

He quickly loses respect for tea planters and conversely gains sympathy for the indentured Tamil estate labourers. As a result he quits his job.

Ceylon is overdue for self-government. The colonial administration and the planters are resisting local politicians, who are pressing their claims through the State Council, a colonial body with limited power. Matters are log jammed, until Bracegirdle comes on the scene and gets in touch with local communists, who also happen to be professionals, wealthy and members of the State Council. By now Bracegirdle had gone native, dressing in sarong, shirt and bedroom slippers.

As a white man who has thrown his lot in with ‘the other side’, Bracegirdle is seen as a traitor to his race, a ‘crime’ in this colony far more serious than class traitor, as such he is a most useful propaganda weapon for the Sinhalese hard heads. An opportunity to make a case is presented to them when there is a bungled attempt to deport Bracegirdle from Ceylon. It is a matter which goes to court, Bracegirdle wins, but more importantly allows the increasingly militant and anti-British local politicians to test the power of the inept Governor, Sir Edward Stubbs, the Chief Secretary, the vacilating Sir Maxwell Wedderburn, the irascible and cunning, Leader of the House, Sir Don Baron Jayatilaka, the even more cunning and calculating, Deputy Leader of the House, Don Stephen Senanayake, the no nonsense Deputy Inspector of Police, P.N.Banks, the Chief Justice, Sir Sidney Solomon Abrahams, overseen by the imperturbable H.R.Cowell of the Colonial Office.

Bracegirdle did not just offer sympathy and support, he spoke at two public meetings. In terms of bringing about change they achieved little, however they were very important in establishing his credentials as an Englishman supporting fundamental change and his savvy political minders used them to that end.

Bracegirdle was conscripted and the battle was for constitutional change. Because of the alleged misconduct in the handling of Bracegirdle’s proposed deportation, a Bracegirdle Commission of Inquiry was instituted. Bracegirdle did not hang about; he left Ceylon on 29 October 1937, one month before the Commission sat. He never returned. He went to England, marrying a girl he had met on the boat to Ceylon.

The findings did not alter the political status quo, although it did allow the airing of grievances by local politicians and pushed ahead proposals for constitutional reform which would have amounted to self-government.

However WWII intervened and other measures leading to independence in 1948 were implemented. They did not address the vexed question of minority rights which has brought Sri Lanka to its present sad point in history.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who has served in Sri Lanka

“The Bracegirdle Incident”, Alan Fewster, Arcadia, 2013.