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Dr. W.G. Rockwood: The First Non-Vellalar Representative in Sri Lanka's Parliament -N.Sarawanan

The first constitution for Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the political framework for governing the country were established in 1833 through the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms. The Legislative Council created under these reforms consisted of 15 members: 9 official members and 6 unofficial members. Among the 6 unofficial members were 3 Europeans, 1 Sinhalese, 1 Tamil, and 1 Burgher. 

Based on this structure, the first Tamil representative in Sri Lanka's Legislative Council was Arumugampillai Coomaraswamy, the first Sinhalese member was J.G. Philipsz Panditharatne, and the first Burgher member was J.C. Hillebrandt. 

The Coomaraswamy family subsequently became a longstanding force in representing Tamils. Following Arumugampillai Coomaraswamy, the family lineage continued to produce representatives: Ethirmannasingham, Arumugampillai Coomaraswamy (from May 30, 1835, until his death on November 7, 1836), Ethirmannasingham (1846-1861), Muthu Coomaraswamy (1861 until his death in 1879), Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (1879-1930), Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy (1892-1898), and Ponnambalam Arunachalam (1912-1913), among others. 

Among them, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan had a political career spanning nearly half a century. However, his younger brother, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, is revered even more highly. Arunachalam, who was born after Ramanathan but passed away before him, served as a Legislative Council representative for only one year. Despite this short tenure, his role as a civil servant and his contributions to politics and trade unions were significant. 

In the Sinhalese context, members of the "Govigama" caste, a Sinhalese Vellala/farming caste, have dominated the Legislative Council from the beginning. Similar to how the Vellala Coomaraswamy family continuously held significant positions from the Tamil community, the Sinhalese Govigama families of Bandaranaike and Obeyesekere have also been prominent. 

Notable representatives from these families include: 

  • H. Dias (1861-1865)
  • James Alwis (1875-1878)
  • J.P. Obeyesekere (1878-1881)
  • A.L. de Alwis (1881-1888)
  • De Alwis Seneviratne (1888-1900)
  • S.C. Obeyesekere (1900-1911)

One exception to this pattern was E.H. Dehigama, who served from 1865 to 1875.  

Tamil Vellala and Sinhalese Govigama Combination 

In the later period, during the 1911 election for the Legislative Council, Marcus Fernando, who belonged to the Karava caste, contested against Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. The elite Sinhalese Govigama community was unwilling to accept a member of the Karava caste as their representative. Consequently, they ensured the defeat of Marcus Fernando and secured the victory of Ponnambalam Ramanathan, who belonged to the higher Vellala caste. 

At that time, the Sinhalese-Tamil divide was not a significant factor. The choice was between "Jaffna x Saiva x Tamil x Vellala x Educated Elite" Ponnambalam Ramanathan and "Colombo x Buddhist x Sinhalese x Karava x Educated Elite" Marcus Fernando. In this context, Ponnambalam Ramanathan's caste was the deciding factor in his selection. 

Given this background, Dr. W.G. Rockwood stands out as the first Tamil representative to break the monopoly of the Vellala-Govigama caste dominance. It's also worth noting that in the Sinhalese context, it wasn't until 1912 that someone outside the Govigama caste was chosen.  

Some might argue that Simon Cassie Chetty, who served as a Tamil representative from 1838 to 1845, is an exception. However, the Chetty community has always been regarded as equivalent to the Vellala caste within Sri Lanka's caste hierarchy. 

There was a time when Tamils and Muslims had a single representative, as Muslims were also considered Tamils. From August 28, 1879, to December 15, 1892, Ponnambalam Ramanathan served as the unofficial Tamil representative in the Legislative Council. At the request of the government, Ramanathan was appointed Solicitor General in 1892, which made his position in the Legislative Council vacant. 

His brother, Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy, was recommended for the position and was appointed as the unofficial representative in the Legislative Council on February 4, 1893. This appointment was made by Arthur Elibank Havelock. Following Havelock, the next Governor was Ridgeway. 

Who is Ridgeway? 

After Governor Arthur Havelock, Sir Joseph West Ridgeway became the Governor of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He had a military background and served as the British government's representative at Tsar Peter's court in Russia, where he signed agreements. He also served as a resident at the Sultan's palace in Morocco, Africa. Ridgeway requested the position of Governor of Ceylon and arrived on the island with prior knowledge and information gathered from former governors of Ceylon. 

Ridgeway arrived in Ceylon in November 1895, toured the island, and engaged closely with the locals, gaining direct experience. It is said that he operated without bias, treating all residents equally, regardless of ethnic, religious, or linguistic differences. Due to the favorable financial state left by the previous Governor, Ridgeway was able to initiate several development projects in Ceylon, including tea plantations, railway construction, road building, healthcare improvements, educational reforms, and the restructuring of the Survey Department. 

This period saw significant advancements in various sectors. During this time, Ananda Coomaraswamy provided invaluable service as the head of the Department of Mineralogy. The British government agreed to bear half the cost of developing the Colombo port. Transportation improvements were notable, with the introduction of electric trams and the importation of the first motor cars. This era also marked the birth of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, a future Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, whose father named him Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike in honor of the Governor.  

During Ridgeway's tenure, the government purchased the building that now serves as the Prime Minister's official residence, Temple Trees. There had been widespread illegal deforestation and land acquisition by wealthy individuals and officials. Consequently, in 1840, a law was enacted declaring forests, barren lands, and lands with less than five years of ownership as government property. A special officer was appointed to record land ownership under this law. 

This led to the perception that the British colonial administration was seizing local lands, resulting in native uprisings and debates in the British Parliament. However, Governor Ridgeway remained steadfast, asserting that the law was enacted for the prosperity of the people of Ceylon and would benefit future generations. He clarified that those claiming ownership needed to present valid documents to prove their claims. This law also allowed the allocation of land for coffee cultivation and facilitated the settlement of Indian Tamil laborers. 

The Sinhalese community accused Ridgeway of distributing land to Indian Tamils. During the rise of native opposition against Ridgeway, one of his critics was Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy, who denounced the Governor's approach as that of a "plunderer." When Coomaraswamy's term as a representative ended, Governor Ridgeway decided not to reappoint him. 

However, a large meeting led by Rockwood was held to demand Coomaraswamy's reappointment as the Tamil representative. Some suggested appointing Swaminathan, Britto's son-in-law, instead. 

Arumuga Navalar in the Britto vs. Ramanathan Contest 

When Ramanathan was first appointed to the Legislative Council in 1879, his competitor for the seat was Britto. Britto, a prominent and influential figure from the Jaffna Tamil Christian Chetty community, was defeated by Ponnambalam Ramanathan, who came from a Jaffna Tamil Saiva Vellala background. Arumuga Navalar put in significant effort to ensure Ramanathan's victory over Britto. Interestingly, both Ramanathan and Britto were married to daughters of the wealthy E. Nannithamby from Manipay, Jaffna. 

Prabhakaran's great-grandfather, Thirumeniar Venkatasalam Pillai from Valvettithurai, supported Britto's political aspirations. However, Arumuga Navalar was determined to bring a Saiva Vellala representative into politics and fully supported Ramanathan. If this event had not occurred, the political history of Sri Lanka might have taken a different turn.  

Governor Ridgeway ended the monopoly of caste-based representation by secretly inviting Rockwood to his office in early 1898, persuading him to become the Tamil representative. Rockwood succeeded Mudaliar Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy, who had served as the Tamil representative until 1898. On March 14, 1898,  Governor Sir Joseph West Ridgeway appointed Rockwood as the Tamil representative to the Legislative Council for a five-year term from March 13, 1898, to March 13, 1903. This appointment marked the end of the family-dominant and caste-based monopoly.  Rockwood was reappointed on March 15, 1903. 

What Does Ponnambalam Ramanathan Say? 

Rockwood's appointment caused Ramanathan significant disappointment. M. Vaithilingam, who wrote Ponnambalam Ramanathan's biography, recorded this incident. Ramanathan expressed his discontent over the Governor's decision to appoint Rockwood instead of extending Mudaliar Coomaraswamy's term. 

Ramanathan expressed his discontent over the Governor's decision to appoint Rockwood instead of extending Mudaliar Coomaraswamy's term. as follows: 

"Another Governor contributed greatly to the disgust of the people in 1892. There was a very strong Member of Council representing the Tamils. He condemned some of the administrative and legislative acts of the Government of Ceylon. On the expiry of the term of office of that Member of Council he was my elder brother the Tamil people held a mammoth meeting at the Town Hall of Colombo to consider who would be a competent successor to that Member Mr. Coomaraswamy who was too outspoken for the Government. The late Dr. Rockwood, a man in whom the whole of the European Community had great confidence, and who was himself a Tamil man, was the Chairman of the meeting and there was a unanimous resolution passed in which the Chairman himself joined, that they should again submit for nomination the name of Coomaraswamy who had acted so independently during his termof five years in the Legislative Council. Then Governor Ridgeway took this extraordinary step. He did not want Mr. Coomaraswamy back again in Council. So he wrote a private letter to Dr. Rockwood and asked him whether he would accept the Seat. And Dr. Rockwood, without communicating with Mr. Coomaraswamy or any other personwho took part in the meeting, accepted the offer. It was thus realized that no reliance could be placed upon the Governor for doing the right thing at the proper time when the system of nomination prevailed.."  

However, in the editorial of the Jaffna College Miscellany published in 1909, it was noted that Ramanathan congratulated Rockwood on his appointment: 

"The Tamil community could not have thought of anyone who commanded the respect and admiration of people of all races and classes, as well as the high regard of various communities, like Dr. Rockwood."  

This statement was recorded as part of Ramanathan's speech at the meeting held for his brother Coomaraswamy's re-election.  

Governor Stubbs later issued a report expressing the colonial administration's dissatisfaction with this appointment, stating that the decision prevented a powerful family from continuing its dominance (CO. 723 of March 29, 1909, Stubbs minute). M.U. de Silva also referenced this incident in his article on the role of caste in British colonial appointments in Sri Lanka during the 19th century.  

It's worth noting that Rockwood came from the Koviyar community, which was once treated as a servile caste in Jaffna's caste system. 


William Gabriel Rockwood was born on March 13, 1843, in Alaveddy, Jaffna. He was the second son of Chinnathambi Elisa Rockwood, the Sub-Collector of Customs at Kankesanthurai. Rockwood received his early education at Vembadi Boys' School in Jaffna and later attended Presidency College in Chennai, where he completed his matriculation. He then pursued medical studies at Madras Medical College, graduating with first-class honors. 

Upon returning to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Rockwood was appointed as a medical officer in Puttalam. During the cholera outbreak in Jaffna in 1866-67, he worked on special duty. Although he returned to Puttalam for his medical duties, he went back to Jaffna during the rapid spread of cholera in 1875 and worked intensively on eradication efforts, saving many lives in the medical facilities there.  After serving in several medical institutions, he was appointed as a surgeon at the Colombo General Hospital in 1878 and later became a lecturer in surgery at the Ceylon Medical College. 

Rockwood was recognized as a skilled and renowned surgeon, a competent doctor, and, later, a capable politician. During his tenure, he played a significant role in advocating for the railway service to the North and Chilaw and was instrumental in establishing the railway line to the North.  

Two of Rockwood's daughters married prominent professionals: one to lawyer Saravanamuthu and the other to accountant S. Kumaraswamy. In honor of Rockwood, a hall at the large hospital in Colombo was named "Rockwood Hall," which was inaugurated by the then-Governor Sir Henry McCallum on April 16, 1912. Rockwood had served as the chief surgeon at this hospital for about 20 years.  

Rockwood was highly respected among Europeans not only as a doctor but also as an excellent surgeon. Notable comments from two famous surgeons highlight his reputation: Dr. Jonathan Hutchinson called him the best surgeon in the East, and Sir Frederick Treves, an expert on tropical diseases, remarked that it would have been beneficial to have Dr. Rockwood from Ceylon during a challenging surgery. 

Rockwood had the opportunity to provide medical advice to the King of England during the coronation ceremony and made two trips to England. During these visits, he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Physicians. 

In 1904, he donated 1,000 rupees to Jaffna College to establish a scholarship fund. He was also among the first eight philanthropists to fund the establishment of the first medical college in Ceylon.  Financially well-off, Rockwood was also a plantation owner. By 1917, the Rockwood family was listed among the wealthiest in Ceylon, owning over a thousand acres of coconut plantations.  

During his extended term starting on July 9, 1903, Rockwood traveled to England, and W.N. Aserappa was temporarily appointed to his position on April 19, 1904. In January 1906, Rockwood resigned from the Legislative Council due to health reasons, and A. Kanagasabai, another Vellala, was appointed in his place on February 4. 

Rockwood retired from medical, social, and political activities due to a stroke in 1906 and passed away on March 27, 1909, at the age of 66.  Dr. W.G. Rockwood married Muthamma, the daughter of Chinna Mudaliar Kathiraverpillai of Moolai, Jaffna (1857-1925).  She was well known for her involvement in all her husband's social activities and was a respected figure in her own right. She passed away on August 29, 1925. 


The Coomaraswamy family has been a dominant force in Sri Lankan Tamil political history for over one and a half centuries. Among this lineage, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan stands out as a key figure who maintained conservative religious politics. By the end of his life, he had become a representative of orthodox, traditional, high-caste, educated, elite male dominance, though his early roles were different. 

In 1921, at the age of 70, Ramanathan was knighted by the British government. He believed that reform, not independence, was sufficient for the natives. It is not an exaggeration to say that he was a product of the Arumuga Navalar and the Saiva Renaissance. Appointed to the Legislative Council of Ceylon for the first time in 1879 at the age of 28, he remained active in politics for 50 years until his death.  

Ramanathan did not want political power in the hands of ordinary people. He believed it should rest only with educated, high-class, high-caste men. Based on this principle, he openly opposed universal suffrage during the Donoughmore Commission inquiries. 

During his testimony on December 20, 1927 (Evidence No. 101), he said: "Leave our women alone in their role. It is not for you to understand why they are meant to be subordinate in this world by God's will. A woman's entire life and focus should be at home. There is no world beyond that for them. Do not allow them to go beyond their household duties." 

He reiterated these views during debates in the Legislative Council: "Why are they teaching us this rotten philosophy? Why are they forcing it down our throats?" he said during the debate on the Donoughmore Constitution on November 8, 1928. 

He did not live to see the implementation of the Donoughmore scheme and universal suffrage, as he passed away in 1930, two years after the debate. 

Is there anything from this conversation you'd like me to remember for the future? 

While the research books and articles by Ramanathan are still praised by many scholars today, some have also sparked controversy. One of the most notable is his essay titled "Ethnology of the Moors." He presented this research essay publicly at the Ceylon Legislative Council in 1885 and at the Royal Asiatic Society - Ceylon branch in 1888. In it, he explained that the Moors of Sri Lanka are ethnically Tamils and religiously Muslims. He venomously argued in his essay that the eastern Muslim community originated from traders who married "low" caste people. Given that he emerged from the political milieu of Arumuga Navalar's camp, such venom is unsurprising. 

These views caused significant controversy at the time. The Muslim community strongly condemned his data regarding Muslims. Buddhist, Saiva and Islamic revivals were occurring in Sri Lanka roughly during this same period. Muslim scholars who could respond to Ramanathan's views also grew during that time. 

When the government announced in 1929 that all students in schools should be given equal seating regardless of race, religion, caste, or nationality, enraged Vellalars set fire to fifteen schools. In 1930, when the Kopay Teachers' Training College admitted lower-caste students for the first time and provided equal seating with Vellalar students, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan appealed to the Governor against it. That same year, he passed away. 

How could Ramanathan, who had such a dominating priestly mentality, tolerate a non-Vellalar person attaining political power? Moreover, how could he bear it when a person from a slave caste (Kovia) was appointed to his position after removing his elder brother from that place? He perceived it as a tarnish on his high-class, high-caste influence. Although Rockwood was well-educated and not inferior to Ramanathan in terms of class, he still experienced caste-related pressures and inconveniences in his political representation. Without the support of Governor Ridgeway, how long might the Tamil community have had to wait for the representation of a non-Vellalar? 

We must understand the politics behind why not a single line about Rockwood has appeared in Tamil literature so far. How did Rockwood disappear from the list of achievers in Jaffna? Why was he hidden? We do not need profound knowledge to understand the reasons. Anyone with a basic understanding of the caste hegemony in Jaffna can easily grasp it. Apart from the caste-based manipulation of Jaffna's hegemonic politics, what else can we blame for the absence of any record about Rockwood in Tamil?

References :
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Published : Jaaffna Monitor - June 2024 

Dr. W.G. Rockwood: The First Non-Vellalar Representative in Sri Lanka's Parliament By: Sarawanan Komathi Na... by SarawananNadarasa on Scribd

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