Tales from the Thotum – the Dark Side

Bernard Vancuylenberg (2011)

The sylvan surroundings, bracing climate and majestic mesmerizing landscapes of the tea estates in the plantation districts of Sri Lanka are an inspiration to the poet, artist, and philosopher. But beneath this facade of nature at her very best, lie tales of dark secrets and murder most foul, four of which I shall set down in this article. The first, and perhaps best known was “The Whitehouse Murder” which took place in 1949.

Mr. Bruce Whitehouse was the Superintendent of Madampe Group, Rakwana in the Ratnapura district. Every month he would travel to Colombo to collect the staff/labourers wages. On these trips he would follow a set routine.

Having collected the wages from the National & Grindlays Bank, he would visit the Colombo Swimming Club for drinks and sometimes lunch, after which he would drive back to Ratnapura. Mrs. Whitehouse usually accompanied him on these trips. Unknown to Mr. Whitehouse, his trips to Colombo and back were meticulously charted and studied by none other than the kingpin of the underworld in Colombo at the time – a veritable Al Capone of the day – the notorious and much feared "Laathara Baas ". This worthy gentleman was responsible for many crimes, murder included, and had fallen foul of the law on several occasions, but thanks to a slick lawyer, he always evaded being put away for life. "Laathara Baas" and his cronies were particularly interested in the trips Whitehouse made to Colombo and back due to the large sum of money he carried on the return trip. The criminal network was so well organised that they knew the exact day he would leave the estate. It transpired later that he was even followed to Ratnapura on a few occasions by a car which kept its distance, in order to ensure that the murderous plan these thugs had in mind would succeed when it was eventually carried out.

On that fateful day, true to form Whitehouse followed the script. "Humourous" is a word I do not care to use considering the events to follow, but into this drama comes the humble Tomato! Mr. Whitehouse had a fondness for tomatoes, and sometimes during these visits he would go to the Pettah market and purchase a sack or two of the best tomatoes to take back to his bungalow. On the day in question he did just that, and three sacks of tomatoes were placed in the boot side by side with the bags of cash. Now it happened that the bags of tomatoes bore a close resemblance to the bags of cash stacked side by side, and this odd mix played an important part in this sordid tale as would be seen later. So Chris, take another sip of Merlot and steel yourself for the action down the track, or in this case, along the Colombo – Ratnapura Road.

As usual on this day Whitehouse was followed to the bank, to his club, and then to the Pettah market; and from there to Ratnapura. In the vehicle trailing him were "Laathara Baas" himself and three of his hoodlums with one intention – to waylay the car at a designated spot, and steal the cash. Unaware that they were being followed, Mr. and Mrs. Whitehouse drove on, until at a sharp curve near the old bridge on the Ratnapura road a vehicle suddenly overtook theirs and blocked the road. Mr. Whitehouse slammed on the brakes, and before he could even begin to think, "Laathara Baas" and two of his sidekicks, fully armed and masked, thrust a gun in his face demanding that he handover the cash. If they thought that Whitehouse was an easy target, they thought wrong.

To their surprise he put up a defiant struggle, attempting to grapple with the thugs. It was three against one, and proved futile. Incensed at being thwarted, the thugs responded in the manner best known to them – they shot Mr. Whitehouse at point blank range, and while his horrified wife watched on, opened the boot and took four bags of cash, making a quick getaway. Not quite, in their haste, thinking that the gunshot would by now attract some unwelcome attention, they had taken two bags of tomatoes along with two bags of cash, leaving the rest of the bags in the boot. Mrs. Whitehouse meanwhile – full marks to this gallant lady – got behind the wheel and cradling her mortally wounded husband in her lap drove the car to the Palmgarden Estate factory from where they attempted to get medical attention which was to no avail because Mr. Whitehouse died soon after. The full force of the law, and the best detectives worked on the case, and after about three weeks, "Laathara Baas" and his henchmen were arrested. Following a trial which gripped the nation, "Laathara Baas" and his cronies went the way that all "good" criminals go. He and three of them were hung at the Welikade jail, while one got a life sentence and died in prison.

To this day, the bend in the road where this gruesome murder was committed is known as "Thakkali Wanguwa" (Tomato Bend). I have seen it and in fact on one occasion stopped awhile at this bend attempting to visualise in my mind’s eye the horrible events as they happened that awful day in 1949. Unfortunately not many are aware of this spot because the last book on this murder went out of print over fifty years ago, and with the passage of time events like this tend to be shrouded in the dark mists of memory.

In 1941 the Nuwara Eliya district was rocked by one of the most brutal murders which belied the bucolic charm of mountains valleys hills and dales, and life in those salubrious climes. I refer to the murder of Mr. George Pope, the Superintendent of Stellenberg Group, Uda Pussellawa (there is an indirect link to Carolina Group which I shall mention at the end of this episode). Mr. Pope was ever the strict disciplinarian and as tough as they came. He managed the estate with an iron fist, and woe betide anybody who stepped out of line. During this period, trade unions were formed on many plantations, and one day a group of labourers met him and requested permission to form a trade union on Stellenberg. Not only was their request refused, but they were soundly berated and threatened with dire consequences as far as their employment on the estate was concerned, if they persisted with this demand. Dismayed at the manner of the refusal in what seemed to them a reasonable request, and angered by the manner in which they were addressed, the labourers held the matter in abeyance, and for a while life on Stellenberg went on.

Mr. Pope used to visit the Superintendent of Le Vallon Group, Pupuressa at least twice a month for dinner, and the latter would return the visit. He had a standing order that whenever he returned to the estate late at night, the tea maker on night duty or the factory officer had to telephone his bungalow and inform the bungalow appu to keep the garage doors open no sooner he passed the factory. On the night in question, Mr. Pope went over for the usual dinner rendezvous, and left very late. Driving along the road to his bungalow, a fair distance before the factory, the headlights of his car picked out some obstruction on the road which made it impossible for him to pass. It turned out to be the trunk of a tree, and if – there's always an IF in cases like this – he had fined tuned his antenna it would have told him that something was not quite right. Call it bravery or foolhardiness, but he stopped the car, went up to the tree trunk and attempted to dislodge it giving him just enough room to pass. The labourers who had laid this trap were hiding in the tea bushes armed with pruning knives. No sooner did he reach the trunk and attempt to move it, they attacked him in a fury of pent up anger with the pruning knives, holding nothing back. On that dark lonely road, in the dead of night he was literally hacked to pieces not by one, but by six men who fled the scene having committed this dastardly deed. George Pope lay on that road of death, the flesh ripped from his body, his life blood slowly draining away.

Meanwhile the bungalow appu, anxious that 'The Master' had still not returned as it was now almost 1.00am, telephoned the factory and expressed his concern to the tea maker, Mr. Ludowyke. Alarmed at this phone call, Mr. Ludowyke organised a band of labourers and armed with "pandans" to light their way, went along the road leading out of the estate. Imagine their horror at finding Mr. Pope in a pool of blood breathing his last. The labourers cleared the road and Mr. Ludowyke drove the car to the factory, the dying Mr. Pope by his side. He summoned the dispenser and then arranged for the wounded man to be taken to hospital. To no avail. Having tenuously clung to life, Mr. Pope breathed his last in a scene straight out of hell. Events took a quick turn after this. The Police were informed, and I don’t know about the wheels of justice grinding slowly because in this case the opposite was true.

They came to Stellenberg with all speed and in the early hours of the morning commenced their inquiries. Fate lent them a helping hand almost immediately because at the scene of the murder they found a door key to a line room. At muster that morning, six labourers were missing and could not be found anywhere, including the would be union leader, Ramasamy Weeraswamy. Pieces of the jigsaw began falling into place when the key found at the scene fitted the door to his line room. He and the other five now the chief suspects had absconded. The police then threw all their resources into a search which encompassed most of the plantations in the area and before long, one by one, the five suspects were arrested – except for the union leader. He evaded the law for almost five months and seemed to have vanished.

The Police had by then printed 'Wanted' posters of the man for distribution, which were circulated as far as Kandy. There is a lesson to be learned here. Never take anything or anybody for granted, least of all the humble barber with his scissors, comb and machine in his dingy saloon, unlike the fancy hairdressing saloons and boutiques of today. One such barber among many ran a small barber shop in Kandy with his assistant. One morning a scruffy looking character sauntered in looking the worse for wear requesting a haircut and shave. His unkempt hair and beard did not concern the barber for that was his trade. What he noted was the filthy state of the man’s shirt and sarong. He proceeded with the shave first, and then began the haircut. And this is where Alfred Hitchcock could relate, or rather depict what followed with his sense of the dramatic like a scene in one of his classic movies, leaving the viewers biting their nails, and digging into their arm rests, in jaw dropping suspense.

As he began cutting this customers hair, the face before him in the mirror accelerated his heartbeat as if he was walking a treadmill. Because, in the drawer of his little table at the back of the saloon there was a poster of the 'Wanted' man handed out by the police sometime ago. At the time of distribution the suspect’s hair was not long and resembled the face in the mirror before him! Full credit to Captain Cool for not flinching or losing his nerve at this discovery. Politely telling his unsuspecting client that he had to answer a call of nature, he asked his assistant to continue where he had left off, went to his room, checked the poster, and having scrutinised it once more went to the tailors shop next door and used their telephone to inform the police. Five heavily armed constables led by an Inspector made their way to the saloon, and the wanted man – the union leader, Ramasamy Weeraswamy – meekly surrendered, realising that escape this time was impossible. The long search of five months had ended. The case was heard by one of the finest Judges of the time, Justice Soertsz. Five of the accused, the union leader included were sentenced to be hung and kept their date with the hangman. The other accused was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment when it was conclusively proved that he had no direct link to the murder, but had aided and abetted the accused in plotting Mr. Pope’s murder. One of the names of the accused was Iyan Perumal Velaithen. I cannot recall the others after all this time.

And here's the “Carolina connection”; the Superintendent who succeeded George Pope was Arthur Doudney. Twenty years later he became Dad's boss on Carolina Group. And George Pope, before he took charge of Stellenberg was Superintendent of Watawala Estate, Watawala, the estate after Carolina, on the road to Hatton. And there this story ends.

Kenilworth Estate, Ginigathena can be reached from the Nawalapitiya – Hatton Road, or travelling from Colombo, on the Yatiyantota – Hatton Road. On any of these roads, it is the first estate before Carolina Group. In the late thirties, the Superintendent was Mr. Roberts. Over a period of time after some careful scrutiny of the books, Mr. Roberts found that the chief clerk had misappropriated funds from the office to the tune of Rs. 2000. He summoned the man to his office who when confronted with the evidence, made a full confession. In normal circumstances this would have warranted an instant dismissal, but Mr. Roberts decided to give his chief clerk another chance to wipe the slate clean. He set a deadline, giving him a period of one month to return the money by a certain day, if the money was not returned, the police would be informed. It was a magnanimous gesture, one to which the culprit readily agreed.

Came the designated day and Mr. Roberts entered his office, summoning the chief clerk expecting the money to be returned. Unknown to him, this man had hidden the estate gun, fully loaded behind the office door. No sooner had Mr. Roberts entered and taken his seat at his desk, the clerk in a flash took the gun from behind the door and shot Mr. Roberts dead. The clerk then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. The Managers bungalow was close to the factory and Mrs. Roberts hearing the gunshots thought that a pig was being shot at the estate farm which happened to be in the vicinity. That was the tragic end of a kindly Superintendent who paid the price for his act of kindness in giving another human being a chance to redeem himself.

Finally, there was the murder of the chief clerk, and the teamaker, both on the same night on Galboda Group, Galboda in 1954; Galboda was just past Mt. Jean. A young lad who had just left Ananda College having passed his exams, boarded the train from Colombo Fort, and after the arduous journey alighted at Galboda station and made his way to the office. Somasiri had secured the position of junior clerk and was to commence work the next day. He settled in well and for a time showed much promise. But soon the chief clerk began to play some practical jokes on him and before long the situation got right out of hand and most of the office staff had a laugh at his expense. On occasion the teamaker joined him. The lad bore this all in silent resignation, not wishing to retaliate in any manner lest he risked losing his job.

One night the teamaker had a dinner party at his house and invited the chief clerk, and some office staff, including young Somasiri. Their aim was to ply him with liquor and amuse themselves. Somasiri being one of the staff could not refuse the invitation, and accepted. Unknown to anyone, he had gone to the estate blacksmith a few days before, and requested him to make a knife which he said he needed for his kitchen. This transpired in the inquest which followed, and it was remarked how strange it was that the blacksmith did not have the least suspicion or doubts about Somasiri's unusual request. On that fateful night, liquor flowed freely and before long the fun began with young Somasiri the whipping boy. He bided his time until his patience ran out. The chief clerk was the first victim. Pulling out the knife concealed inside his jersey (or jumper) he stabbed the chief clerk through the chest with such force that it went right through the man’s chest, and through the rear of the cane chair on which he was seated, according to eyewitness evidence at the trial. The teamaker was next. Retrieving the knife from the chief clerks mangled chest, he plunged it with full force into the teamakers stomach. You are talking of a youth of 21 years against men in their forties. In the prime of his youth, fed by flames of rage, these liquor sodden men did not stand a chance. Most of those present fled in fear, and Somasisri stood beside the bodies and would not let anyone near. Nobody could approach him as he kept brandishing the blood soaked knife threatening anybody who tried with a similar fate.

Meanwhile, Mr. David Murray, the Superintendent of Galboda was notified. He made his way to the scene and on seeing his boss, Somasiri calmed down. Mr. Murray gently and tactfully spoke to him, and convinced him to lay down the knife, and before long, thanks to David Murray the situation was brought under control. The police then arrived, and when the case went to trial the accused was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Many witnesses testified in his favour highlighting the treatment he had received at the hands of the deceased. This evidence was what saved him from the gallows, and the Defence had a strong case. It was remarked during the trial that such behaviour by grown up mature men such as the deceased, towards a novice starting out on life’s road was inconceivable. I was ten years old at the time and can still remember recoiling in horror when this case was discussed by Dad & Mum with some visitors. News of this murder spread through the plantations, and must have been the topic of conversation in front of many a blazing fire in the halls of a faraway estate bungalow, on a cold misty night.

Many years ago I found myself in the Ratnapura cemetery. As is my wont, I proceeded to read the epitaphs on the tombstones until I came across one I have never forgotten. It read “Sacred to the memory of H.G. Ross, shot and fatally wounded on Galbodde Group, Ratnapura, 17th April 1937”. All my efforts at finding out the details of this murder were unsuccessful.

Who knows if in the dead of night on an estate somewhere, one still hears the plaintive voices of these victims mingled with the howling wind as they appear in a ghostly re-enactment of these tragic events of long ago…


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