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Cocos (Keeling) Islands


The Cocos Islands Mutiny was a failed mutiny by Ceylonesemarker (Sri Lankan) soldiers against Britishmarker officers, on the Cocos Islandsmarker in May 1942, during the Second World War.

The mutineers were to seize control of the islands, disable the British garrison and to transfer the islands to the Empire of Japanmarker. However, the mutiny was defeated after the Ceylonese failed to seize control of the islands. Many mutineers were punished, and the three ringleaders were executed; they were the only British Commonwealth servicemen to be executed for mutiny during the Second World War.

Background

Units belonging to the Ceylon Defence Force (CDF), including the Ceylon Garrison Artillery (CGA), the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI) and the Ceylon Volunteer Medical Corps, were mobilised on 2 September 1939, the day before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. The CGA was equipped with six-inch (152 mm) and nine-inch (227 mm) guns. Several of them were posted to the Seychellesmarker and the Cocos Islandsmarker, accompanied by contingents of the CLI and the Medical Corps. The full contingent to Cocos Islandsmarker of the CDF was around 75 personnel and was under the command of Captain George Gardiner, an accountant of an export firm in Colombo at the outbreak of war, he had obtained an emergency war commission.

The fall of Singaporemarker and the subsequent sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse did to British and Imperial forces what Pearl Harbor had to the Americans: compromise their ability to defend their interests north of Australia and east of India. The Japanese raids into the Indian Ocean, resulting in the loss of two cruisers and the aircraft carrier Hermes, threw into chaos Allied war plans in the entire Southwest Pacific Area.

The feelings of the Sri Lankanmarker troops had been excited by the work carried out by the pro-independence Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), both before and during the war. They had volunteered to fight the racism of the Imperial Japanesemarker but had found institutionalised racism in their own British Imperial regiments . Even the Burghers, who were of European ancestry, found themselves discriminated against .

With the Japanese successes, public sentiment on Ceylon turned in favour of the Japanese; encouraged by successful Japanese-trained and directed rebellions in Indonesia and support for Japanese forces in Thailand, Sinkiang and the Philippines, many Ceylonese hoped that the Japanese there too would serve as liberators. At this time a young J.R. Jayawardene, later to be President of Sri Lanka, held discussions with the Japanese with this aim in mind, however this was immediately stopped by D S Senanayake who would lead Ceylon to independence in 1948.

Mutiny

On the night of May 8, 30 out of 56 personnel of the Ceylon Garrison Artillery on Horsburgh Island in the Cocos Islandsmarker mutinied, intending to hand the islands over to the Japanese. The plan was to arrest Captain Gardiner, the British Battery Commanding Officer and his deputy Lieutenant Stephens, to disarm the troops loyal to the British Empire, to turn the 6-inch guns on the CLI troops on Direction Island, and to signal the Japanese on Christmas Island. However, the soldiers all proved to be poor shots with small arms - one soldier, Gunner Samaris Jayasekera was killed and Lieutenant Stephens wounded by them. The rebels' one Bren gun jammed at a crucial moment, when Gratien Fernando, the leader of the mutiny, had it trained on Gardiner. The rebels then attempted to turn the 6-inch guns on Direction Island, but were overpowered.

Messages sent by Fernando were received in Ceylon, indicating that there was co-operation between him and both the CLI troops and the Australian signalers on Direction Island, however none of them took part in the mutiny. The CLI helped to put down the mutineers. He declared he had surrendered on condition that he would be tried in Colombomarker — it may be that he intended to give a speech from the dock to inspire his compatriots. However, the 15 mutineers were court martialed on the Cocos Islands by Gardiner. The seven men who were found guilty were sentenced to death; and four soldiers received terms of imprisonment. Gunner Samaris Jayasekera was buried with full military honours on Horsburgh Island on the evening of May 10 and later reburied in Singapore's Kranji War Memorialmarker.

The condemned mutineers were shipped back to Ceylon and imprisoned at the military jail in Flagstaff Street and then at military detention barracks at Hulftsdorp. The families of the condemned appealed to Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, then Civil Defence Commissioner and a member of the War Council to save them, H. W. Amarasuriya and Susantha de Fonseka, members of the State Council, also made representations to the Governor Sir Andrew Caldecott and Admiral Geoffrey Layton, requesting clemency. However their pleas failed.

Fernando was defiant to the end, confidently believing that he would be remembered as a patriot, and refused a commutation of punishment. He was executed on 5 August 1942 at Welikada Prison, and two other mutineers shortly thereafter. Fernando's last words were "Loyalty to a country under the heel of a white man is disloyalty".

Consequences

The three mutineers were the only British Commonwealth troops to be executed for mutiny during the Second World War. The CDF detachment in Cocos Islandsmarker returned just before Christmas 1942, these veterans had their promotions suspended and denied the campaign medals for active war service. No Ceylonese combat regiment was deployed by the British in a combat situation after the Cocos Islands Mutiny, however support units were deployed most notably in North Africa. The defences of Ceylon were beefed up to three British army divisions because the island was strategically important, holding almost all the British Empire's resources of rubber. Rationing was instituted so that the Ceylonese were comparatively better fed than their Indian neighbours, in order to prevent disaffection among the natives.

The LSSP's anti-colonial agitation now included references to the Cocos Islands Mutiny. Public disgust at British colonial rule continued to grow. Sir Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke, the Civil Defence Commissioner complained that the British commander of Ceylon, Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton called him a 'black bastard'.

Ceylonese in Singapore and Malaysia formed the 'Lanka Regiment' of the Indian National Army, directly under Subhas Chandra Bose . A plan was made to transport them to Sri Lanka by submarine, to lead a liberation struggle there, but this was aborted.

The LSSP played a significant role in the post-independence politics of Ceylon, most notably by being a major coalition partner of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party government in 1970. Ironically their spell in power was marked by a Marxist youth uprising against the government. This was followed by the decline of the party in the 1980s.

Mutineers

The men who were convicted by court martial of mutiny were:

References

  1. Journal
  • Arsecularatne, SN, Sinhalese immigrants in Malaysia & Singapore, 1860-1990: History through recollections, KVG de Silva & Sons, Colombo, 1991
  • Crusz, Noel, The Cocos Islands Mutiny, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, WA, 2001
  • Muthiah, Wesley and Wanasinghe, Sydney, Britain, World War 2 and the Sama Samajists, Young Socialist Publication, Colombo, 1996


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