Ceylon Becomes an Independent Dominion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1948, Ceylon, largely internally self-governing since 1929, achieved dominion status as an independent parliamentary state under the British crown. Burdened by a shaky cash-crop economy and deep ethnic, religious, and social divisions between the Sinhala majority and the immigrant Tamil minority, Ceylon failed to realize the hopes of British postcolonial policy makers and its native founding statesmen for a model democratic state in the Third World.

Summary of Event

The Crown Colony of Ceylon ceased to exist at midnight of February 3, 1948. The following morning, the former British governor, Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore, resumed office as governor-general of the Dominion of Ceylon. The transition, marked by ceremony, celebrations, and a visit from the duke of Gloucester, who formally opened the new dominion’s parliament on behalf of his brother King George VI of England, culminated two decades of gradual transfer of governmental responsibilities from British colonials to the native Sinhalese elite. Ceylon;independence Sri Lanka;independence Nationalism;Ceylon Sinhalese Tamils Postcolonialism;Ceylon Racial and ethnic discrimination;Ceylonese Tamils [kw]Ceylon Becomes an Independent Dominion (Feb. 4, 1948) [kw]Independent Dominion, Ceylon Becomes an (Feb. 4, 1948) [kw]Dominion, Ceylon Becomes an Independent (Feb. 4, 1948) Ceylon;independence Sri Lanka;independence Nationalism;Ceylon Sinhalese Tamils Postcolonialism;Ceylon Racial and ethnic discrimination;Ceylonese Tamils [g]South Asia;Feb. 4, 1948: Ceylon Becomes an Independent Dominion[02380] [g]Sri Lanka;Feb. 4, 1948: Ceylon Becomes an Independent Dominion[02380] [g]Ceylon;Feb. 4, 1948: Ceylon Becomes an Independent Dominion[02380] [c]Independence movements;Feb. 4, 1948: Ceylon Becomes an Independent Dominion[02380] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 4, 1948: Ceylon Becomes an Independent Dominion[02380] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Feb. 4, 1948: Ceylon Becomes an Independent Dominion[02380] Moore, Sir Henry Monck-Mason Senanayake, D. S. Goonetilleke, Sir Oliver Ernest Kotelawala, Sir John Bandaranaike, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, Sirimavo R. D. Ramsbotham, Herald (first Viscount Soulbury)

Britain had governed Ceylon since 1795, having seized it from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars. The island was then populated primarily by Sinhalese, an ethnic group from northern India who had settled there around 500 b.c.e. and had converted to Buddhism. There were also substantial numbers of Hindu Tamils from southern India and Muslims of North African origin.

Ceylon possessed two advantages for Britain: the fine harbor at Trincomalee, ideally suited as a naval base in the days of sailing ships, and good mid-elevation agricultural land suitable for tea cultivation. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw explosive development of plantations of tea and rubber, labor-intensive crops that brought a high return on the world market.

Since native Sinhalese peasants shunned laboring for others for subsistence wages, plantation owners, Sinhalese and British alike, imported Tamils from southern India. The new arrivals, who became the dominant ethnic group in plantation districts, differed in physical appearance, language, and religion from the native majority. As long as the British colonial administration denied a political voice to all but a small native elite, and as long as an expanding economy minimized direct competition, friction between Tamils and Sinhalese seldom erupted. In addition to setting the stage for ethnic conflict, importing laborers meant increasing dependence on imported rice. Ceylon’s first native government inherited a country that was overpopulated relative to food production and dependent upon a single crop, tea, for the foreign exchange needed to purchase basic necessities of life.

In the 1920’s, Britain, conscious that its paternalistic administration in Ceylon was breaking down, established the Donoughmore Commission, Donoughmore Commission which, after considerable study, drafted a constitution establishing an elected legislature entrusted with most of the internal affairs of Ceylon. Elections were held under the Donoughmore constitution in 1931. The provisions of this constitution ensured that all ethnocultural groups had a voice at the expense of a strictly representational system. During this period, the men who were later to become leaders of independent Ceylon gained experience as legislators and cabinet members.

Support for complete independence was strong as of the outbreak of World War II. Occupying a key strategic position as a naval staging point and supplier of raw materials, Ceylon prospered economically and escaped becoming an actual theater of war. Because supporting Britain and defeating Japan was so clearly in everyone’s interest, Ceylon’s left-wing and communist Communism;Ceylon elements, which were strong among Tamil laborers, never developed into a militant antigovernment force. Indeed, realizing that greater autonomy for a Sinhalese majority under the leadership of an economic elite spelled trouble for an economically disadvantaged ethnic minority, Tamil legislators voted against the draft constitution of 1944, which was adopted with some revisions in 1946.

In 1944, the British Parliament authorized a commission headed by Herwald Ramsbotham (later Viscount Soulbury) to draft an interim constitution preparatory to full independence; the Soulbury constitution became law in 1946. The elections of 1947, the first held on a strictly representational basis, resulted in a signal victory for the United National Party United National Party, Ceylonese (UNP), headed by D. S. Senanayake. One of the first acts of this legislature was to disenfranchise recent Indian immigrants, a move initiated by Sinhalese nationalists but supported by Senanayake because it undercut communist influence in the legislature. Thus, at the time of independence, legislative trends were already in place that were consistent with a formal democratic process but tended to erode the political, economic, and social position of the Tamils, 1.5 million of Ceylon’s 6 million inhabitants.

Under Senanayake’s leadership, the country embarked on an ambitious program of development intended to make Ceylon self-sufficient by building hydroelectric dams, clearing and irrigating large tracts in dry areas, and resettling peasants on their own land. These projects involved massive indebtedness and failed to increase agricultural productivity significantly. Ceylon continued to be dependent on imported food and to subsidize its price to the consumer. Senanayake, a universally respected figure, died prematurely in a riding accident in 1952. He was succeeded by Sir John Kotelawala, also of the UNP, who continued Senanayake’s domestic economic policies. Kotelawala is best known for having been instrumental in bringing Ceylon into the United Nations in 1955 and for being an important figure at the Bandung Conference Bandung Conference (1955) (also in 1955), at which the nonaligned nations of Asia met and formulated policies for economic cooperation in the face of the Cold War. This period also saw the appointment of Sir Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke, one of the chief architects of Ceylonese independence, as the first native governor-general.

Deteriorating economic conditions in the 1950’s fed a growing leftist Sinhalese nationalist movement, headed by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. Raised a Christian and solidly a member of the economic elite, Bandaranaike seceded from the UNP in 1952 to found the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Sri Lankan Freedom Party which later merged with several other groups to form the People’s United Front. People’s United Front (Sri Lanka)[Peoples United Front] He became prime minister when that party won a majority in the 1956 elections. The government signaled its socialist intent by nationalizing key industries, causing foreign investors to withdraw. The British closed the naval base at Trincomalee, throwing large numbers of people, mainly Tamils, out of work. The legislature passed a law making Sinhala the only official language of a country whose name became Sri Lanka.

In May, 1958, Sinhalese-Tamil tensions erupted in violence, triggered by attempted relocation of Tamils from the Trincomalee base. Hundreds died in violence that spread throughout the country, and a state of emergency was declared. On September 25, 1959, a Buddhist monk, as part of a conspiracy within the Sinhalese nationalist movement, assassinated Bandaranaike. He was succeeded by his wife, Sirimavo R. D. Bandaranaike, who became history’s first elected female head of state, continuing her husband’s socialist policies with heavy-handed ability. Her defeat in the elections of 1977 and a belated return to free-market capitalism are thought by some analysts to be the principal factors triggering the civil war Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-) between Sinhalese nationalists and Tamil separatists. That war began in 1983 and would continue into the twenty-first century.


Beginning with Canada in 1867, Great Britain granted dominion status to a number of former colonies populated primarily by English settlers, as well as one (South Africa) where the power structure was entirely white. Ceylon was the first dominion in which the reins of power were handed to the original inhabitants of the country. Considerable effort went into preparing the country for the political transition. In granting Ceylon complete independence under the nominal aegis of the British crown, the British Parliament hoped to set a precedent whereby other British possessions in Asia and Africa might achieve autonomy in an orderly manner while remaining economic and political allies and retaining British-style political and legal systems. To a considerable degree, these hopes were realized. If having a stable representative government, developing a Western legal system, and being a cooperating participant in the larger international community were all that were required to ensure domestic tranquillity, Ceylon might have become a model postcolonial nation.

True liberty includes the liberty to make mistakes. Had Ceylonese leaders looked to the rest of the world, including the United States, for examples of the negative effects of excluding a large segment of the working population from the democratic process, they might have forestalled not only the rise in ethnic tensions that eventually led to civil war but also the unwise economic decisions that fed those tensions. Conversely, the history of Ceylonese independence provides a valuable object lesson in the pitfalls associated with creating a state in most of the world today. Ceylon;independence Sri Lanka;independence Nationalism;Ceylon Sinhalese Tamils Postcolonialism;Ceylon Racial and ethnic discrimination;Ceylonese Tamils

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jeffries, Sir Charles. Ceylon: The Path to Independence. New York: A. Praeger, 1973. Detailed political background, including coverage of the Donoughmore and Soulbury constitutions; offers little information on post-1948 developments. Jeffries was a colonial official personally involved in negotiations for independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ludowyk, E. F. C. The Modern History of Ceylon. New York: Praeger, 1966. Useful for tracing the tangled political history of the immediate postindependence period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ponnambalam, Satchi. Dependent Capitalism in Crisis: The Sri Lankan Economy, 1948-1980. London: Zed Press, 1980. A strongly leftist book critical of immediate postindependence economic policies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wickramsinghe, Nira. Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006. Emphasis on the etiology of ethnic conflicts, tracing their roots to the colonial and immediate postcolonial period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winslow, Deborah, and Michael D. Wood, eds. Economy, Culture, and Civil War in Sri Lanka. Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 2004. Emphasizes post-1983 developments; several papers also cover economic policies of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

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Categories: History