Bracegirdle as a David taking on the British Plantation Goliath

Bernard VanCuylenberg (2017)

During the colonial period of the late 1930s, a tea plantation in the Madulkelle district Relugas Estate, was the place where what appeared to be a simple act of insubordination by an assistant superintendent, was to have far reaching consequences and wider ramifications not only for the company concerned, but for the colonial government of the time and a left leaning socialist political party called the “Lanka Sama Samaja Party” (The Lanka Socialist Party), popularly known as the LSSP. The “David” in this case was a young assistant superintendent named Mark Bracegirdle and the “Goliath” was the government of the day – at first glance an uneven match.

Bracegirdle with LSSP leaders at Horana– Colvin r de Silva seated and Philip Gunawardena, Wilmot Perera and Leslie Goonewardena among those standing behind.

The Superintendent of this particular estate Mr. H.D.Thomas was badly in need of an assistant, and he petitioned the company accordingly. As was the modus operandum of the day, a young Englishman Mark Bracegirdle was recruited from overseas and after he arrived in Ceylon and spent two days at the Agency House, where the director of tea inducted him into what a planter’s duties entailed. He was then sent to another estate for a stint of ‘creeping’. When he had completed his creeping to the satisfaction of the superintendent of that estate and the company, he finally arrived to take up duties at Relugas estate in Madulkelle to the relief of the superintendent.

Remember his name well. It is a name that figured prominently not only in the tea industry of that period, but also in political, business and government circles. Mark Bracegirdle did not come from England, though he was English in origin. He came from Australia! His mother and he emigrated to Australia from England in 1925 and when he grew up he trained as a farmer. He also joined the Australian Young Communist League — as history will show, his political leanings were to have a dramatic impact on his life in Ceylon. Settling in well, Bracegirdle went to work with vim, vigour and a hearty dose of enthusiasm! He got his hands dirty often as he did not believe in giving instructions and supervising. He would prune, weed, move stones in new clearings, lop trees, and sometimes pluck to the amusement of the women pluckers, and physically was hyper active! He was particularly sympathetic to complaints by the labourers, especially if such complaints were about their line rooms whenever repairs were needed. He was always accessible, and before long became the idol or pin up boy of the entire labour force! He even visited the line rooms of the labour and shared their meals with them.

Mr. Thomas was aghast! This was something unheard of in the days when the English Planters ruled their estates like some petty fiefdom and “never the twain would meet”, with apologies to Mark Twain. Meanwhile, his Manager kept an eagle eye on his progress and concluded that although he was an exemplary worker and a cut above the rest as far as Assistant Superintendents went, his attitude and behaviour to the established norms of the social structure were out of character. He had no idea of the mini revolution looming on the horizon which would rock this estate to its very roots!

One day on his field rounds, the Superintendent was amused to see Bracegirdle standing on a rock in a distant field. He appeared to be preaching a sermon, or giving a speech to a group of labourers. The men and women were gathered around, listening intently to every word. To him it looked like a politician making a speech to a group of voters. Intrigued, he approached the scene to ascertain what was happening, thinking that his able Assistant was instructing the labourers on certain tasks to be carried out. What he heard horrified him ! He was shocked to hear Bracegirdle telling the labourers that they should submit a petition to the Company through the Superintendent drawing attention to their substandard living conditions. Their line rooms he told them were not fit for animals, and prisoners in jails had better living conditions. They were exploited to the maximum and deserved to live in dignity. The labourers had never heard anybody, let alone a white man who was their boss speak to them about their substandard living conditions telling them they deserved better! To them, this was a revelation and in their superstitious beliefs Bracegirdle appeared to be a sort of “Sami Dorai”…a ‘Dorai’ who was Godlike! It transpired that Bracegirdle’s political leanings were of a shade dark red, and as already mentioned, in Australia he had been a member of the Communist Party ! Marxist, Socialist, Leftist call it what you will…it was all in his genes. He was a hot blooded activist whose bete-noire was the working and living conditions of the poor and downtrodden. This estate to him was a fertile breeding ground which fanned his revolutionary fervour.

Agitated and alarmed, Mr. Thomas returned to his bungalow and compiled a detailed report of what he had seen and heard, for official purposes. He then summoned Bracegirdle to his office and behind closed doors let him have both volleys verbally, drawing reference to the conditions of his employment. Holding nothing back he said he took a very dim view of this type of behaviour, and warned him that any repetition would mean instant dismissal. But despite all the tough talk he had the sinking feeling that the problem he now encountered would snowball into unimaginable proportions…and he was correct. His words had exactly the opposite effect on the young firebrand. Although he continued working, his political ardour was inflamed further and in order of priority, his devotion to duty was superseded by his political convictions.

Subsequently, he was caught again “preaching” to the labour force, and this time merited instant dismissal. Mr. Thomas meanwhile forwarded a comprehensive report to the Company citing the reasons for the dismissal of Bracegirdle. The director who read the report realized that he was holding a political hot potato in his hands. In the context of the times, any “revolutionary” talk against the establishment and ruling class specially by a ‘White’ worker was sacrilegious! He took the matter up with the Chairman of the Company who in turn notified the authorities and they in their wisdom decided that Bracegirdle should be deported. By now the subject was the talking point in political and business circles, and the press had a field day.

Meanwhile, Bracegirdle had left the estate and joined the “Lanka Sama Samaja Party” (The Ceylon Socialist Party) in December 1936. Until the deportation order was finalised, the police could not touch him since he had committed no crime. The hierarchy of the Party welcomed him with open arms. This White man was a comrade after their own hearts. On one occasion he was introduced to a large crowd by a young Doctor N.M. Perera and Bracegirdle whipped the crowd to a frenzy, thrilling them with his oratory skills. The key figures in the LSSP at the time were Doctor Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardena, Philip Gunawardena and if memory serves me correctly Edmund Samarakoddy, to mention a few. Later on in life some of these politicians became leading luminaries in Sri Lanka’s politics and held ministerial positions in various governments. As time passed, Bracegirdle became a drawcard whenever the LSSP held a meeting – in the language of the present era, he enjoyed rock star status! He was the main attraction while the other speakers were the ‘supporting act!’

His speeches were noted by the undercover police and the authorities, as the British planters were furious that their prestige was being torn to shreds by a fellow white man. He took to the stage with all guns blazing and worked the large crowds to a fever pitch, lambasting the government, colonial rule, and highlighted numerous instances where capitalism was exploiting the working class. Although he intended training to be a tea planter which is why he went to Ceylon, colonialism was not his cup of tea! The press in the meantime had a field day and turned Bracegirdle into a “Robin Hood” type of hero! But his life in the spotlight was soon to come to an end. The Governor Sir Richard Stubbs served a deportation order on him for the 22nd April 1937, and with this order came a deadline. He had to leave the country in 48 hours ! But the LSSP had other ideas. Like some scene from a spy thriller, they snatched Bracegirdle before the long arm of the law could reach him and through a network of safe houses ensured that he was always one step ahead of the police. The best detectives and undercover operators were used to track him down, but he remained elusive and evasive!

But his dream run came to an end. During a visit to the home of the secretary of the LSSP in Hulftsdorf which was closely watched by plain clothes police officers, he was arrested and ended up in court. Who said that miracles don’t happen? The three supreme court judges who heard the case made a ruling that he could not be deported for exercising his right to free speech! Bracegirdle was a free man!

This story did not end with our hero riding into the sunset on a winning streak. Instead he sailed away quietly to England one day in 1937, and was given a fond farewell by stalwarts of the LSSP – Dr. N.M. Perera, Mrs. Selina Perera and Vernon Gunasekera, the secretary of the party. In England he led a busy life teaching, dabbled in archaeology, and was actively involved with the British Museum. Although he was no longer in Ceylon, his aura and mystique impacted the working class and his name was a shining light in socialist and Marxist circles. They honoured him as an activist who had the courage of his convictions, dared to challenge the colonial establishment — and almost won! He died on the 22nd June 1999.

Bernard Vancuylenburg, August 26, 2017, whose original title is “David and Goliath”

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