A significant World War II mutiny took place on the night of 8 May 1942 in a lonely atoll in the Indian Ocean. It occurred in a setting of intrigue, rebellion and the blood and tears of war. Japanese naval forces were at the peak of their southward thrust, and the Ceylonese contingent on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands was restless.
– Noel Crusz in The Cocos Islands Mutiny On 5 August 1942, bombardier Gratien Hubert Fernando, a member of the Ceylon Garrison Artillery (CGA) and just 23 years old, remained quiet as he was led to the gallows at Welikade Prison in Colombo. His courage baffled the onlookers. The first of three Ceylonese soldiers to be hanged for their role in the mutiny on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands – a remote atoll in the Indian Ocean – Fernando and his compatriots were the only Commonwealth soldiers to be executed for mutiny during the Second World War.
With the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, many Ceylonese had enthusiastically volunteered for service with the Allied Forces. Seeking adventure and the chance to travel abroad, most were from the Anglicised middle classes and had been educated in the island’s leading colleges. However, this period also coincided with growing pressure within the island for independence from Britain. Although most Ceylonese wholeheartedly supported the war effort, the left movement, spearheaded by the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), opposed what they termed an ‘imperialist’ war – a stance that resonated with the sentiments of many youths.
Ceylonese volunteers from the CGA and the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI) were posted to the Cocos Islands from March 1941. A group of atolls located approximately halfway between the southwestern tip of Australia and Ceylon, the Cocos served as an important cable relay and wireless station enabling secure communications between Australia, Southeast Asia and Britain. It also functioned as an aviation fuel depot and, from 1944, as an airstrip from which bombing missions were to be conducted deep into Japanese-occupied territory.
The Ceylonese detachment on Cocos was deployed to the two northern atolls in the group – Horsburgh Island and Direction Island. Their prime task was to defend the island’s communications’ facilities against Japanese attack; to this end, Horsburgh atoll was equipped with a battery of two six-inch field guns. On the other atolls, to the south, lived about 1400 islanders of Malay descent. Cocos was certainly no tropical paradise. The supply of fresh water was limited, mosquitoes, centipedes and scorpions could make life miserable, and there was little scope for recreational facilities.
In the months prior to the mutiny, a dramatic turn of events had brought the war much closer to home for the Ceylonese. Japan’s unprecedented advances in East Asia were being closely followed by all Ceylonese, including those who had volunteered on Cocos. Many watched with amazement as, for the first time, Western forces were being routed at the hands of an Asian power. Nightly propaganda broadcasts on Radio Tokyo Rose extolled the slogan of ‘Asia for the Asians’, igniting the belief for some that a Japanese intervention was the best way to end British rule in Ceylon. Nevertheless, this view was tempered by a real fear of the consequences of such an invasion, as news had spread of atrocities being committed by Japanese soldiers in East Asia. Compounding these developments was the resentment that many Ceylonese volunteers felt at the preferential treatment given to their white-skinned counterparts. Barred from the ‘whites only’ clubs where scotch and soda flowed freely, the irony of fighting to advance the cause of freedom while encountering second-class treatment in their own country did not escape attention.
On Cocos, Gratien Fernando too found himself increasingly embittered at what he perceived as the racism of the commander, Captain George Gardiner. A British citizen and chartered accountant who had obtained his commission in Ceylon, Gardiner was by many accounts a very strict disciplinarian. His deputy, Lieutenant Henry Stephens, was a Eurasian planter in Ceylon who had flaunted his English ancestry even as a schoolboy. Gardiner’s predecessor, Captain Lyn Wickramasuriya, a Ceylonese, was wary of both men’s attitude to the soldiers under their command, and on ending his tour of duty advised Gardiner: ‘These are Ceylonese volunteers who are part of the war machine. Do not ever treat them like black cattle. They must be never be driven. They must be led. Treat them as equals in the common cause. Be firm, be ruthless but above all be fair and they will be loyal to you to a man.’ It seems Gardiner did not heed these words.
White man’s clemency
The Japanese attack on Ceylon in April 1942 only heightened the fears of the Ceylonese defenders on Cocos. The atoll had already been bombarded several months earlier, and another attack seemed imminent. The authoritarian leadership style of Captain Gardiner and his deputy soon manifested in a host of disciplinary problems among the men. It was against this backdrop of deteriorating morale, fuelled by isolation as well as a vision of the end of British dominance in Asia, that Fernando hatched a mutinous scheme, discreetly sounding out the views of several other men he deemed sympathetic. The plan was to seize Gardiner and Stephens, gain control of the defences of Cocos, signal the Japanese High Command and proceed to finalise surrender. It was a daring and risky proposal, but not beyond realisation. The date set for the mutiny was the night of 8 May 1942.
Initially, the plan appeared to proceed smoothly. Fernando’s men succeeded in disarming several of the non-mutineers while they slept. But soon things began to go awry. Roused by the commotion, several loyal troops sought to investigate what was happening. In the ensuing confusion, Gunner Samuel Jayasekera was shot and died – and with him, the possibility of a bloodless mutiny. In a defining twist of fate, the Bren gun that Fernando hoped to train on those resisting the mutiny inexplicably jammed. In an instant, the momentum was lost and Fernando realised that his plan had failed. Negotiating a surrender with Stephens, Fernando’s fate, along with those of his fellow conspirators, now lay in the hands of a furious lieutenant.
Convening a field-general court martial with himself presiding (a self-appointed jurisdiction that was certainly questionable), Stephens informed Ceylon of the events and asked for reinforcements. One by one, those implicated in the mutiny took the stand. When the Court eventually delivered its verdict on 16 May, seven men were found guilty on three charges, including causing a mutiny or conspiring to cause a mutiny in His Majesty’s Forces. Although Gardiner wanted the condemned men to be executed at dawn, confirmation from the Ceylon Army Command was not forthcoming. Instead, preparations were made to transport the mutineers to Ceylon. This was done amidst great secrecy, as there were grave fears of the political consequences that news of their predicament would have. When they arrived in Ceylon, the mutineers were marched under heavy guard at night to the military prison in Flagstaff Street in Colombo.
Despite strict wartime censorship, details of the mutineers’ plight soon leaked to the general population. Meanwhile, although a ruling by the assistant judge advocate-general had amended the findings of the original court martial, it had confirmed the sentence of death for three men, with the others now receiving extended jail terms. Despite the intervention of leading local political figures and desperate pleas for clemency by family members to then Governor Andrew Caldecott and Commander in Chief Admiral Geoffrey Layton, the death sentences were not commuted. Fernando himself rejected what he called ‘the White man’s clemency’ and went to the gallows on 5 August 1942. The two other condemned men – gunners Carlo Gauder and Benny de Silva – were hanged shortly afterwards.
The circumstances surrounding the Cocos Islands mutiny continue to generate controversy. Missing wartime records, conflicting accounts by those who served on Cocos regarding what actually transpired prior to the mutiny and a general reluctance by family members to speak of the events have meant that the exact course of events leading up to the mutiny remained shrouded in mystery for many years after the war. Today, the circumstances surrounding the revolt are better known, especially following the publication of The Cocos Islands Mutiny (2001) by Noel Crusz, perhaps the most thorough account of the mutiny to date. While mutiny is considered among the gravest of military offences, it is now clear that there were many extenuating circumstances, not least poor command and racism, and that the military justice meted out to the mutineers was flawed.
In a startling disclosure, former Sri Lankan President J R Jayewardene revealed at an imperial banquet held in his honour in Tokyo in 1979 that he had held secret discussions with the Japanese consul during the 1940s to discuss how to be of help should the Japanese invade Ceylon, providing they helped the island attain independence. While Fernando was at the time vilified as a traitor by the colonial administration, his sentiments and longing for an independent Ceylon were clearly shared by many other Ceylonese. Remaining defiant to the end, on the eve of his execution he proclaimed, ‘Loyalty to a country under the heel of a white man is disloyalty.’ Little could he have imagined that within six years of the failed mutiny, the yoke of colonial rule would be lifted and a newly independent Ceylon would take its place among the free countries of the world.
~ Sanji Gunasekara is a freelance writer based in Wellington, New Zealand, with a background in medicine, international relations and public policy.
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