Captain Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris (16 August 1888 – 7 July 1915) was a militia officer and a prominent socialite in colonial Ceylon (present Sri Lanka) who was executed by British officials for alleged incitement of racial riots in 1915, which were proven false. His execution at a young age was viewed as extremely unjust by most Sri Lankans, hastening the movement towards independence and providing motivation and a martyr for those who pioneered the movement.
Henry Pedris was born in Galle, Ceylon, the youngest of five children and the only son of Duenuge Disan Pedris and Mallino Pedris. Both his father and uncle N.S. Fernando Wijesekara were leading businessmen of the time, and his family was among the wealthiest and most influential in Sri Lanka.
Pedris first attended the prestigious Colombo Academy (later renamed as Royal College) situated in the Pettah. From there he joined St. Thomas’ College where he excelled in sports and shone as a good cricketer, playing for the school’s first eleven cricket team. After some time he returned to Royal College where he again played cricket and engaged in other sporting activities.
Pedris was a teetotaler and his father had great hopes that Pedris would one day take over his business enterprises and become a leader in the commercial world.
Colombo Town Guard
With the outbreak of World War I the British mobilized the Ceylon Defence Force and raised the Colombo Town Guard a regiment of volunteers to defend Colombo if attacked. Pedris opted to join the Colombo Town Guard as a private and first Sinhalese to be enlisted to the new regiment. He soon became an excellent marksmen and due to his excellent horsemanship was made a commissioned officer in the mounted section. Within a year, he was promoted to the rank of Captain. This, along with his immense wealth, resulted Pedris being much envied by many.
Sinhalese Muslim Riots
The Sinhalese Muslim Riots (known as the 1915 riots) which began in Kandy when a group of Muslim attacked a Buddhist pageant with stones soon spread across the island. The British Governor of Ceylon Sir Robert Chalmers fearing he might lose control of the colony, on advice of Brigadier General Malcolm came down with a heavy hand on the Sinhalese community and declared martial law on 2 June 1915 and ordered the police and the Army to shoot any one who they deemed a rioter without a trial. It is said the numbers of Sinhalese killed this way were in the thousands. With the escalation of the violence, looting broke out within Colombo. Capt. Pedris, as he was responsible for the defense of the city, successfully managed to disband several rioting groups after peaceful discussions.
The vanity and jealousy towards Capt. Pedris and the rich Pedris family of both the British and their sinhalese henchmen, led by Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranike the Maha Mudaliyar (chief native interpreter and adviser to the Governor) culminated in false charges being drawn up against Capt. Pedris which eventually let to him being court martialed. It was that Capt. Pedris shot at a group of Muslims and had incited people to march to the city of Colombo from Peliyagoda. Based on these accusations, he was swiftly arrested.
Following his arrest the British, fearing open rebellion, imprisoned more than 80 prominent Sinhalese leaders. Among those imprisoned were D. S. Senanayake, D. R. Wijewardena, Edwin Wijeyeratne, Dr. Cassius Pereira, E. T. De Silva, F.R. Dias Bandaranaike, H. Amarasuriya, A.H. Molamure and several others.
Soon after his arrest and incarceration he was tried by a military court on the 1st of July 1915. Capt. Pedris was tried by three military officials and declared guilty and branded a traitor. His sentence was death by firing squad. The date of the execution was set for 7 July 1915 without any form of appeal.
Chalmers passed on the decision to confirm the death sentence to Brigadier General Malcolm. The only person who was able to intervene in this case was Sir Hector Van Cuylenberg who was the elected representative in the legislature, but his representations were not taken seriously by the military. Many prominent citizens and educationists, both British and Ceylonese alike appealed against the judgment, without any impact. An appeal was made to King George V. The execution was promptly carried out to prevent these action from taking any effect. On 7 July 1915, Capt. Pedris was stripped of his rank and executed by firing squad. Its said that he refused the blindfold offered to him, requesting to face death fearlessly. After the execution in keeping with military tradition, his body was buried in an unmarked grave against the wishes of his family. In 1987 Capt. Pedris’s grave was unearthed and the remains were verified as his and reburied with military honors (it is said his father knew exactly where his son was buried).
A Court inquiry that followed, found Pedris not guilty and he and his family were cleared.
Capt. Pedris’s death was also meant as a warning for other Ceylonese leaders who were leading the Independence struggle. After the execution the blood soaked chair on which Capt. Pedris was shot was taken to the prison cells that contained many Sinhalese leaders including D. S. Senanayake and shown to them with the warning that they would be next.
Many claim the execution of Pedris and the actions of the British, marked the beginning of the independence movement with many people specially from the educated middle class taking an active role in it. Their action resulted in Ceylon gaining independence in 1948.
Governor Chalmers was removed from the post and made Under-Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Lord Wimborne. The powers of the Mudaliyars were abolished when the Native Department was closed down in 1938.
Two statues of Pedris have been erected in Havelock Town, Colombo and in Galle is home town. On the occasion of unveiling ceremony of the statue in Havelock Town, then Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa stated that the adjacent sports grounds should be renamed in his memory. On July 7, 1987 the “Edward Henry Pedris Stadium” was declared open by Prime Minister Premadasa. Incidentally located across the street from Edward Henry Pedris Stadium is the Isipathana Vidyalaya, built by his father D. D. Pedris in his sons memory in 1916. D. D. Pedris built a pilgrims rest in Polonnaruwa and named it the “Edward Henry Pedris Rest” which was maintained from income gained from lands owned by Pedris in Anuradhapura known as the Kuttampokunakele and the Basuwakkulamakele. Pedris’s mother, Mallino Pedris gifted the land for the Mallikarama Temple in Dematagoda in 1920 in her son’s memory.