The nation reappraises her patriotic sons for their benevolent contributions rendered to safeguard the hereditary rights of the motherland. February 23 marks the birth anniversary of a great patriotic icon who was born in the year 1886 - namely Don Richard Wijewardene, the third son of Muhandiram Don Philip Wijewardene and renowned Buddhist ‘Mahoupasika’ Helena Wijewardene Lamateni of the Sedawatta Walawwa in the Kelani Valley.
By nature he was a man of few words who only believed in the perfect implementation of whatever the deeds. Renowned as the founder of Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. and ‘Father of Print Media,’ he spearheaded the national independence struggle without seeking publicity or profit for himself. Nevertheless, owing to his inspiring news updates, the name of this unseen hero became a household term in Sri Lanka. He highlighted the campaigns launched by the national stalwarts islandwide, and educated the masses through his
It was a crucial period in Sri Lankan history as the battle fought for nearly four centuries to regain the plundered national Sovereignty was at its culminating point.
Since 1815, several attempts were initiated to restore independence by sacrificing thousands of lives of heroic men of the caliber of Keppetipola Maha Disawe, Gongalegoda Banda, Puran Appu and Kudapola Hamuduruwo.
At the dawn of the 19th century, another group of remarkable personalities emerged to fulfil the aspirations of their forefathers.
Most Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, Ven. Wadibhasinghe Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, Srimath Anagarika Dharmapala, Brahmachari Walisinghe Harischandra, Henry Steel Olcott and Ven. Poet S. Mahinda of Sikkhim had rekindled the flames of the final liberation struggle. The others who joined the final uprise were F.R. Senanayake, Sir P. Ramanathan, Sir James Peiris, Sir D.B. Jayatilleka, Sir Arunachalam Ponnambalam, D.S. Senanayake, E.W. Perera, E.W. Jayawardene, D.R. Wijewardene and several other stalwarts. They rose together without any caste, class, creed or communal difference.
D.R. at the prime of his youth enjoyed the privilege of acquiring higher education at the Cambridge University. During his days in the U.K., he had no special interest except for horse riding. The only other activity in which he showed interest was politics. He was very much concerned about the Constitutional reforms and agitation campaigns that were taking place in his homeland. He was very much impressed by the thoughts and deeds of the Indian visitors to Cambridge. Among them were Lala Lajput Raj, Be Pin Chandrepal, Surendranath Benergy and the distinguished Indian Legislative Councillor Gopal Krishna Gokhale.
The turning point in his life was when he started his association with F.H.M. Corbet, a Sri Lankan-born English barrister practising in the U.K. There had already been several delegations to the U.K. to represent matters regarding Sri Lanka. In fact, D.R. came to know patriot E.W. Perera at Mr. Corbet’s Chambers in 1909.
Through his influence, it was Corbet who had put Wijewardene in contact with some British parliamentarians to raise the issues of Constitutional reforms in Ceylon.
Thus, agitation and propaganda campaigns were voiced in the enemy camp – the British parliament, where all types of obnoxious pieces of one-sided legislations were passed; depriving innocent, unarmed but law-abiding and civilized Asians, Africans of their basic freedom and human rights.
More and more appeals, that sought law reforms, were forwarded to the office of the Secretary of State in London.
D.R. still engaged in his studies in the U.K. and was well updated with the developments, and under the guidance of legislator Corbet, promoted lobbying members of the parliament to pressurise the Colonial office. He joined the deputations led by Mr. H.J.C. Pereira and met the Under Secretary Colonel J.E.B. Seely in 1909.
The others included Messrs. Corbet, E.W. Perera, J.W. de Silva, Dr. S.G.K. Gomes and David Rockwood. As a result, Solicitor General Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan was qualified to contest the seat for ‘Educated Member’ and was thereby elected the first member for the Educated Ceylonese Seat.
Two years on, D.R. organised the second deputation to meet the Secretary of State, in protest to multiplication of taverns in Ceylon by the Colonial rulers.
It was also Corbet who had impressed and inspired Wijewardene to establish a national newspaper in order to mould a public opinion and to influence imperial rulers.
Mr. Corbet convinced Wijewardene of the importance of a well-informed public opinion for which a free and independent press was a ‘Sine Qua Non.’
Though unsuccessful, Corbet even negotiated with Sir Hector Van Cuylenburg, the owner of the then English daily in Ceylon, to purchase his newspaper on behalf of Wijewardene.
By the time he passed out as a Barrister, D.R. was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple, but he preferred to return home in 1912 and practised his profession at Hulftsdorp for a brief period.
Year 1916 was a milestone for him as he entered into wedlock with Ruby, the second daughter of Adigar Meedeniya.
On a later occasion D.R. pondered: “My interest in politics began during my undergraduate days at Cambridge. There were kindred spirits from India, Ceylon and other parts of the World.”
Evidently, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru had been a contemporary at Cambridge. D.R. was at Peterhouse while Nehru was at Trinity. They had not spoken to each other until Nehru visited Sri Lanka as the Indian Prime Minister years later.
Wijewardene had strongly determined that every single citizen had a historic role to play in the welfare of his motherland. He did not hesitate to implement his desired schemes. He involved himself in the Ceylon Reforms League, Ceylon National Congress and Ceylon Social Service League to serve the national cause.
As decided at Cambridge, he founded the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. with the pure intention of strengthening the Independence Movement. He once said: “I did not start a newspaper enterprise to bring home great argosies. There are many other fields in which fortunes can be made faster than in the newspaper industry.”
In his burning desire to play his role in the national cause, he established the Ceylon Daily News in 1918. He also bought the Sinhala daily “Dinamina” from its owner H.S. Perera. He purchased the Ceylon Observer in 1930 too.
“Beginning from 1918 until Ceylon became independent 1948, his contribution to gain such statuses is regarded as inestimable. It is probably correct to say that no Ceylonese during the present century exercised a more pervasive influence on his countrymen than D.R.,” stated Hulugalla, the distinguished author of D.R.’s biography.
He further adds that: “By any reckoning, D.R. was among the leading newspaper proprietors in the Commonwealth, yet his name was not known outside a small circle of newspaper men. The public knew next to nothing of the press magnate. His photographs did not appear in his own newspapers or in other journals. He was a man of few words and unassuming ways, yet his influence on the events of his time in Ceylon was greater than that of most politicians of the day.”
Having gradually armed himself with a cluster of newspapers as publications of Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. in Sinhala, Tamil and English, he revolutionised the newspaper history in Sri Lanka.
Saviour of the Lion Flag
When great E.W. Perera relocated the Royal Standard of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe after it was taken away by the British in 1803 and deposited in the Chelsea Hospital, it was D.R. who endeavoured to renovate and restore it to its ancient glory and present it to the nation through his Dinamina Newspaper.
D.C. Vijayavardhana in his book ‘Revolt in the Temple’:
The ‘Dinamina’ created quite a stir in the island. The newspaper office, which at that time was located in Norris Road (present Olcott Mawatha, Pettah), was stormed by crowds clamouring for copies which by noon were changing hands at five rupees each, and telegrams began to pour in from the outstations, requesting more copies, but the edition had been exhausted within a few hours of the issue. Vast crowds thronged the road opposite the newspaper office and the police had to be called to control them.
That was the very first occasion our people saw the lion flag after it was removed by the British and deposited in the Chelsea Hospital in London in 1815.
His newspaper empire continues to be a major media organisation in Asia up to date.
During my three-decade stay at ANCL, it was customary to hear someone refer to ‘Boss’ (D.R.), and say how he would have dealt with the present day ‘journalists’ who pollute the noble professional ethics.
George Masom, a former Associate Editor and Legal Consultant at the Lake House, relating an incident told me that: “D.R. was a strict disciplinarian and an excellent judge of men and matters.”
Once, a departmental head had repeatedly made complaints to ‘Boss’ against a junior staffer. To everyone’s surprise, Boss had granted double increments to the accused.
When the headman had cautiously approached the Boss to clarify whether there had been any shortfall, Boss had promptly replied: “The ones who get the blame are the ones who work.”
Former Speaker Dr. Anandatissa De Alwis who started his carrier as a journalist during D.R.’s time at ANCL, later, in a D.R. Wijewardene Oration said: “There are many of us to whom it was a privilege to work in an institution which is part of the history of this country. It is not the mastery of language that makes a book but the mind and the man behind it.”
Although this remarkable patriot passed away on June 13, 1950 at the age of 64, his vision and mission remains evergreen.