Story of Australian leftist's role in Sri Lanka's independence struggle

The Bracegirdle Incident: How an Australian Communist Ignited Ceylon’s Independence Struggle
Alan Fewster
Arcadia/Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2013
173 pages, $39.95 (pb)

In 1937, Ceylon’s British Chief of Police reported that “it is clearly dangerous” to allow the Australian communist Mark Bracegirdle, to remain in the country “stirring up feelings against employers of labour and against the British Government”.

The top cop in Ceylon, as the then-British governed island of Sri Lankan was known, found a willing listener in the colony’s governor, who authorised Bracegirdle’s deportation.

As Alan Fewster recounts in his account of the “Bracegirdle incident”, the deportation was technically bungled, setting off a political crisis in Ceylon and igniting “an altogether more systematic and aggressive attack on British rule”.

The English-born Bracegirdle had left Australia for Ceylon in 1936, ostensibly to become an apprentice tea-planter. The working conditions of the 600,000 imported, bonded Indian Tamil labourers appalled him.

The labourers lived in dismal barracks unfit for cattle, subject to fines and corporal punishment, working even if sick with malaria, and denied education. Literacy “will give them ideas in life above their station”, said Bracegirdle’s superintendent, who soon sacked his “rather Communistic” protege for “fraternisation” with the labourers.

Joining Ceylon’s small communist party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), Bracegirdle played a highly effective role as a first-hand witness of, and defector from, the planter class.

This made him an “undesirable” to Ceylon’s imperial authorities, too. But their attempted deportation of Bracegirdle overstepped the mark.

It demonstrated Britain’s absolute power over everyone, including the compliant indigenous elite (the Sinhalese aristocracy, rich land owners and others collaborating, for their own gain, in the administration of British governance) who had been granted limited authority via a restricted suffrage local parliament.

When this tame assembly of conservative nationalists and moderate reformists recognised that Britain’s colonial power could potentially be used not just against white communists, but Ceylonese worthies like themselves, they protested with fist-waving, sarcasm and a resolution opposing Bracegirdle’s deportation.

The Supreme Court decision that Bracegirdle’s arrest was illegal capped a huge political humiliation for British rule and a significant propaganda, and membership, victory for the now-800 strong LSSP. The group went on to become the “dynamic new force” in Sri Lanka’s independence struggle.

Fewster, a former diplomat, is most focused on the ructions in the colonial governmental apparatus in Colombo and Whitehall. Bracegirdle the Marxist is more insubstantial, mainly because his motives and deeds (reported, inaccurately at best, by police spies) were sparsely recorded.

So, while Fewster is on sure, if rather dry, ground in the upper civil service strata, the rest of his political analysis is somewhat unconvincing speculation. This includes suggestions that Bracegirdle did not come to Ceylon to radicalise the tea estate workers, but as a Stalinist agent to pull the Trotskyist-leaning Ceylonese Marxist leadership into pro-Moscow orthodoxy.

That Bracegirdle actually succeeded in the former and failed in the latter suggests, rather, that for communists in the 1930s, loyalty to Stalinist Moscow could nevertheless coexist with a genuine commitment to revolutionary activism.

No definitive answers are presented in the book on Bracegirdle’s “ulterior motive”, but what is clear is that he continued his left-wing activism until his death in 1999. This included smuggling refugees from Nazi Berlin via fake marriages to young Jewish women.

From Sri Lanka to Germany, Bracegirdle lived and breathed true internationalism and solidarity.