The Bracegirdle Incident. How an Australian Communist ignited Ceylon’s independence struggle

Alan Fewster (2013)

The Bracegirdle Incident is the true story of how an Australian communist labour agitator almost brought down the British colonial government in Ceylon in 1936. Unknown in Australia, the case of Mark Anthony Lyster Bracegirdle became a cause celebre in Ceylon’s independence struggle, and his name remains revered among the Left in Sri Lanka today. The son of an artistic English blue stocking, Bracegirdle arrived in Australia in 1927. He joined the Communist Party of Australia and quickly became a ‘bagman’, or financial organiser, attracting the attention of the Commonwealth security service. In 1936 Bracegirdle sailed for Ceylon, ostensibly to become a tea planter.

2. Alan Fewster
3. Mark Bracegirdle
 4. Bracegirdle beside Colvin R. de Silva and other Trotskyite leaders at Horana in 1937 – Pic from Victor Ivan, Paradise in Tears, Plate 164.
5. Sir Reginald Stubbs
6. Andrew Caldecott

Appalled at the conditions endured by his Tamil labourers, Bracegirdle spoke out publicly in their support, antagonising the so-called ‘Planter Raj’, and Ceylon’s colonial authorities. Bracegirdle went into hiding in the jungle and, using skills learned in the Australian bush, for 10 days thumbed his nose at the police, who were unable to find him. He then allowed himself to be arrested.

By then, Bracegirdle’s supporters in Ceylon’s nascent communist party had assembled a formidable legal team to defend him, and won a famous case of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court. This verdict was a complete humiliation of the British governor of the day, and had serious repercussions in the Colonial Office in Whitehall and in Colombo, where there was a commission of inquiry. The local communists made huge capital from the Bracegirdle case, which galvanised tremendous public support for the independence movement. The led to the political downfall of the man Britain had seen as its leading ‘brown sahib’ in Ceylon.

Based on original historical research, the Bracegirdle Incident is the most coherent account of the story to be written in English, or Sri Lanka’s two major languages, Sinhala or Tamil. It is a fascinating insight into the mindset Ceylon’s colonial era and into the culture of the powerful, white tea planting community. The book also examines Ceylon’s labyrinthine nationalist politics, and for the first time, firmly cements an Australian at their heart.


Prologue: Nawalapitiya, Ceylon, 4 April 1937 12
Radical bohemian 13
Creeper to comrade 19
The first convenient ship 26
Futile and colourless agitation 33
Persons of gigantic intellect 40
Wild, Godless communism 52
The T-group and the brown sahibs 62
This most misguided act 71
Well out of it 78
Inaccurate inferences and uncertain facts 86
Constitutional maladjustments 94
A kind of market-place court 102
No great harm 109
The street Arabs’ chorus 114
Epilogue: London, Berlin, 1937-39
Australian Scholarly Publishing

ISBN: 9781921875793
PB Release date: 1 February 2013

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