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Tuesday, 4 February 2020
The Great Hall, University of Sydney
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC

I thank Consul-General Mr Bandara for his invitation to join the Sri Lankan community in its 72nd Independence Day Anniversary, celebrated here on Gadigal land - a land with a 65,000 history of a continuous living civilization  - a land on which more than 200 cultures now walk with over 200 Indigenous Nations. 

I would also like to express my appreciation for the extraordinary generosity of the Sri Lankan community in responding to the needs of those affected by bushfires, expressed in so many ways:  from your prayers, to providing meals for the firefighters and to holding community events to raise significant funds for the firefighting and recovery effort.  That is a wonderful demonstration of community working for and with community.  

The historical and social paths of Australia and Sri Lanka have both criss-crossed since our first encounter in 1816, when Drum Major William O'Dean (a Ceylonese man of Malay descent) arrived in Sydney on the transport ship, Kangaroo. In 1803, O’Dean, a Non Commissioned Officer of the 1st Ceylon Regiment, switched allegiance from the British Crown to the Kandyan Monarch. Arrested in 1815, convicted and sentenced to be shot, the then British Governor of Ceylon Robert Brownrigg ordered his transportation to New South Wales.

Like so many convicts transported to Australia, O’Dean[1] became a successful citizen, becoming the first official Malay interpreter in the colony; indeed, a precedent to the successive generations of Sri Lankans who have engaged in Australia’s professional and business life over decades of immigration.[2]  

William O’Dean’s story provides us with another historical connection. The Governor of New South Wales at the time of the O’Deans’ arrival in the colony was Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

In 1796, Lachlan Macquarie, then a Captain-Lieutenant in the British Army based in India, successfully undertook command of the British military campaign against the Dutch colonial forces in Ceylon.  On 24 February 1796, Captain Lachlan Macquarie wrote to Major Patrick Alexander Agnew, the first Military Governor of British Ceylon in Trincomalee[3] advising that he had taken possession of the town and fortress of Galle at 9 am that morning and had hoisted the British flag. The salute, he advised, was fired at Noon.[4]  Macquarie’s letter is held in the Mitchell Library.

Macquarie was then, for a short time, Governor of Galle.

From that rather interesting beginning, our paths have continued to intersect, enhancing our historical connections and building on our relationship for our mutual benefit.[5]

In World War II, Ceylon fought alongside Commonwealth and Australian forces[6] and, upon Japan’s entry into the war, became a frontline naval base for the Royal Navy and Airforce and Commonwealth forces.  Colombo suffered tragic losses – including of civilians - during the Easter Sunday attack of 1942.[7]

We are each a member of the Commonwealth of Nations; Sri Lanka’s membership of which was formalised alongside Independence on 4 February 1948.[8] At that time, of course, your country was known as Ceylon, a word of Arab derivation, and became Sri Lanka at the time of the Republic in 1972.  Sri Lanka, as I understand it, means ‘Resplendent Island’; ‘Lanka’ being the ancient name of your island.   

The Colombo Plan was launched in 1951 leading to a highly successful social and economic Asia-Pacific partnership. [9] A New Colombo Plan has been launched for university students to study and undertake internships in the Indo-Pacific region.  

And, of course, we share a deep passion, summed up in a single word: “Cricket” … although, I have to confess, I am not as personally enamoured of the trumpeting and drumming Sri Lankan papare bands[10] which follow the team around the world.  The papare music, which originates in Sri Lanka, also borrows from Portuguese roots, reaching back into another era of your colonial past. 

I prefer to watch the game with a quiet concentration, all the time checking whether Slinga Malinga’s bowling really is an authentic round arm action. You should know, of course, that this extraordinary game, watched by millions around the world, derives its present form from women’s cricket.  At the beginning of the 19th century, Christina Willes used the action to bowl to her brother John in practice sessions.  John Willes then adopted it in a game for Kent against the MCC on 15 July 1822. However, as with many events in history, there is more than one version of this story!

However, it is to your cultural and literary achievements I would like to make a brief reference. I doubt if there is anyone in this room who has not read, or seen the film: The English Patient, authored by Sri Lankan Canadian writer, Michael Ondaatje, and for which he won the illustrious Golden Man Booker Prize in 2018.[11]

In 1992, Ondaatje founded the Gratiaen Prize from the money he earned from The English Patient.  That prize is now the most prestigious literary prize in Sri Lanka and has enhanced the vibrant and learned literary scene in your country.

I couldn’t help but delve further into some of that literature. Let me read to you the last verse of just one of the poems from a former winner of this Prize, Malinda Seneviratne:    

‘I live in a country whose heartbeat sings to me
And perhaps others.
It gives me heart
It gives me life
And lets me breathe.’[12]

On behalf of the people of New South Wales, congratulations on this 72nd Anniversary. We look forward to the continuation of our enduring friendship and many years of peace and prosperity for Sri Lanka in the years ahead.


[1] O’Dean died on 23 May 1860 at the age of 87. His death notice in the Sydney Morning Herald referred to him as: “an old and respected colonist, and many years Government Interpreter in this city. He leaves a large circle of relatives and friends.”

[2] Multicultural NSW – Sri Lanka profile


[4] The letter reads:

Point de Galle Fort,
24th. Feby. 1796.

I did myself the pleasure
of writing to you a few lines from hence
yesterday, acquainting you that
I took possession of the Town and
Fortress of Galle at Nine O'Clock in
the morning. The British Colours
were immediately hoisted, after taking
down the Dutch Flag, and a Royal
Salute was fired at Noon ...

I have the honor to be,


Your most obedient servant

L Macquarie

Captain 77th regiment

Commander at Galle[4]

[5]Some of the earliest migrants worked on sugar cane farms in Queensland

[6] Ceylonese volunteered and joined the British ArmyRAF and the Royal Navy. They were supplemented by personnel of the Ceylon Defence Force who requested transfer to front line units of the British Army. They served in the Burma and later in Malaya. Ceylonese served in the Royal Engineers in Italy and with the Royal Army Service Corps in the Middle East and North Africa. The 1st battalion, the Ceylon Corps of Military Police, served in Malaya till 1949.[1]Several of those who served with Commonwealth Forces during the war went on to serve in the Sri Lankan Armed Forces after Ceylon gained independence in 1948.

[7] Loss of 27 aircraft, 2 heavy cruisers and many civilians.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill: ‘The most dangerous moment of the War, and the one which caused me the greatest alarm, was when the Japanese Fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base there. The capture of Ceylon, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean, and the possibility at the same time of a German conquest of Egypt would have closed the ring and the future would have been black.’ — From a conversation at the British Embassy, Washington DC

[8] Australia joined 19 November 1926 and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) joined on Independence, 4 February 1948

[9] The Colombo Plan delivered great benefits in health, education and public administration; and brought Australia and Asia together.

[10] Papare is a form of music which originated in Sri Lanka. Adopted from Sinhala Baila music which in turn finds its roots in the Portuguese colonisation of the country. Papare is a very lively genre of music, and is a popular music culture throughout the South Asian region. There are a lot of papare bands in Sri Lanka that play mostly at cricket matches to boost the morale of supporters:

[11] In 2018, to celebrate the 50th anniversary, the Golden Man Booker Prize was awarded. One book from each decade was selected by a panel of judges: Naipaul's In a Free State (the 1971 winner), Lively's Moon Tiger (1987), Ondaatje's The English Patient (1992), Mantel's Wolf Hall and Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo. The winner, by popular vote, was The English Patient.

[12] Malinda Seneviratne, ‘The Heartbeat of My Country’, 2019:

He won the Gratiaen Award for Edges (2013). His translation of Navagaththegama's “Sansaraaranyaye Dadayakkaraya” won him the H.A.I Gunatilleka Award offered by the Gratiaen Trust (2011) Four of his past works of poetry have been shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize

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