Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke

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Sir Oliver Goonetilleke
3rd Governor-General of Ceylon
In office
17 July 1954 – 2 March 1962
MonarchElizabeth II
Prime MinisterJohn Kotelawala
S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike
Wijeyananda Dahanayake
Dudley Senanayake
Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Preceded byHerwald Ramsbotham, 1st Viscount Soulbury
Succeeded byWilliam Gopallawa
Minister of Finance
In office
21 March 1960 – 23 April 1960
Prime MinisterDudley Senanayake
Preceded byM. M. Mustapha
Succeeded byJunius Richard Jayewardene
In office
14 October 1953 – 30 June 1954
Prime MinisterJohn Kotelawala
Preceded byJunius Richard Jayewardene
Succeeded byM. D. H. Jayawardena
High Commissioner for Ceylon to the United Kingdom
In office
MonarchElizabeth II
Prime MinisterDS Senanayake,
Dudley Senanayake
Preceded byOffice Created
Succeeded byEdwin Wijeyeratne
Minister of Home Affairs and Rural Development
In office
26 September 1947 – 22 July 1948
Prime MinisterD. S. Senanayake
Preceded byPost Created
Succeeded byEdwin Wijeyeratne
3rd Financial Secretary of Ceylon
In office
16 February 1946 – 3 February 1947
Preceded byHarold James Huxham
Succeeded byAbolished
27th Colonial Auditor
In office
25 June 1931 – 16 February 1946
Preceded byF. G. Morley
Succeeded byE. Allen Smith
Personal details
Born(1892-10-20)20 October 1892
Trincomalee, Ceylon
Died17 December 1978(1978-12-17) (aged 86)
Colombo Sri Lanka
Spouse(s)Esther Goonetilleke (nee Jayawardena),
Lady Phyllis Goonetilleke (nee Miller)
ChildrenJoyce Wijesinghe
Shiela Sathananthan
Ernie Goonetilleke

Sir Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke GCMG KCVO KBE KStJ (Sinhala: ශ්‍රිමත් ඔලිවර් ගුණතිලක) (20 October 1892 – 17 December 1978) was a Sri Lankan statesman. Having served as an important figure in the gradual independence of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from Britain, he became the third Governor-General of Ceylon (1954-1962). He was the first Ceylonese individual to hold the vice-regal post.

Early life and education[edit]

Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke was born 20 October 1892 in Trincomalee in the northeast of Ceylon. He was the fifth child of eight and only son of Alfred Goonetilleke and Emily Jayasekera. His father who served in the Ceylon Postal Service was the postmaster of Trincomalee at the time of his birth.

He was educated at Wesley College in Colombo where he won many prizes and scholarships including the Hill Medal and the Gogerly Scholarship. After completing his secondary education, Goonetilleke joined the teaching staff of Wesley College as an assistant teacher. He later earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of London as an external student.[1]

Early career[edit]

After gaining his degree, he left his teaching post and joined the Bank of Colombo as a sub-accountant, then became the manager of the Ceylon Daily News. He was an honorary Lieutenant in the Ceylon Cadet Corps.[2]

Public service career[edit]

In 1921, Goonetilleke joined the government service having been appointed the Assistant Auditor for Railway in the Audit Office and was thereafter promoted as the Assistant Colonial Auditor.

Auditor General[edit]

Goonetilleke was the first Ceylonese to be appointed as Colonial Auditor of the crown colony of Ceylon on 25 June 1931. With the implementation of the Donoughmore Constitution, the title of the head of the Audit Office was changed to Auditor General of Ceylon and Goonetilleke became the first to hold the new appointment on 7 July 1931 and served in this capacity till February 1946.[3]

As the Colonial Auditor he was an ex-officio member of the Executive Council of Ceylon in 1931. He took on additional duties as Chairman of the Salaries and Cadres Commission, Civil Defense Commissioner and Food Commissioner. He was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the 1941 New Year Honours for services as Auditor General.[4]

Civil Defense Commissioner[edit]

With the onset of World War II in the Far East and the likelihood that Ceylon would face a military threat from Japan, Goonetilleke was given the additional duty as Civil Defence Commissioner in the War Cabinet of Ceylon, heading the newly formed Civil Defence Department to undertake civil defense preparations. Some civil defence works such as knocking down buildings to create fire breaks in Colombo proved unpopular, but proved to be justified when the Imperial Japanese Navy carried out air raids on Colombo and other cities in the spring of 1942. In this capacity, Ivor Jennings, Principle of the Ceylon University College, served as Goonetilleke's deputy, and the two worked closely with D. S. Senanayake, the Minister of Agriculture and Lands. This group was known as "the Breakdown Gang" as they began to talk about much besides civil defence, including the steps that might be taken to move Ceylon to complete independence after the war.[5][6] He was knighted in 1944 with a KBE for his services as the Civil Defense Commissioner in the New Year Honours. However, on 18 December 1946, questions were raised in the House of Commons by Douglas Dodds-Parker on irregularities in the Auditor-General's Report on Civil Defence Expenditure for 1943–44 and 1944–45.[7]

Negotiations for independence[edit]

In 1943, a declaration was made for grant of government for all the matters of civil administration in Ceylon. The Senanayake, Goonetilleke and Jennings drafted a constitution, known as the "Ministers' Draft", and submitted it to British Government in February 1944. At this time Goonetilleke who was appointed the Commissioner of Food went to Britain to discuss an urgent food supplies. There he met Lord Soulbury who had been appointed to lead a Commission to Ceylon, pressing his case for self-rule. Goonetilleke was thereafter advised Senanayake on approaching the members of the Soulbury Commission when they arrived in Ceylon in December 1944. Goonetilleke became an "unofficial secretary" to the commission and significantly influenced it.[5]

Financial Secretary[edit]

With the war drawing to a close and the closure of the Civil Defence Department, Goonetilleke left his post of Colonial Auditor which he held since 1931 to take up appointment as Financial Secretary of Ceylon in February 1946. The Financial Secretary was head of the Treasury and responsible for all financial policy of the colony. As the Financial Secretary, Goonetilleke sat in both the Board of Ministers and the Executive Council. He was the first Ceylonese to hold the post of Financial Secretary. He held the position until his resignation in September 1947.[5] He was awarded KCMG in the 1948 New Year Honours for his service as Financial Secretary, Ceylon.

Political career[edit]

The first Cabinet of Ministers of Ceylon

Minister of Home Affairs and Rural Development[edit]

With Ceylon gaining dominion status within the British Commonwealth, in 1947 the first cabinet of ministers was formed with Senanayake as Prime Minister after the 1947 general elections. Goonetilleke was appointed as the Minister of Home Affairs and Rural Development on 26 September 1947. He had been appointed to the newly formed upper house of parliament, the Senate of Ceylon and became the Leader of the Senate when both houses were ceremonially opened by the Duke of Gloucester, marking the independence of Ceylon on 4 February 1948.[8] His term as a Cabinet Minister did not last long as he resigned as Minister and Senator on 22 July 1948, and was succeeded by Edwin Wijeyeratne.

High Commissioner to the United Kingdom[edit]

Goonetilleke was thereafter appointed the first Ceylonese High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and served till February 1951.[9]

Minister of Home Affairs and Rural Development[edit]

He returned to Ceylon in early 1951, to resume his cabinet position as Minister of Home Affairs and Rural Development and Leader of the Senate in March 1951 succeeding Edwin Wijeyeratne and served till April 1952.[10]

Minister of Finance[edit]

Following the Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake's resignation after the Hartal 1953, Sir John Kotelawala succeeded him. Goonetilleke was appointed by Kotelawala to his cabinet as Ministry of Finance and the Treasury on 14 October 1953, while holding the post of Leader of the Senate. Once again his ministerial tenure was brief, lasting only till June 1954.[11]


Shortly after a visit by Queen Elizabeth II to Ceylon in April 1954, the decision was taken to appoint a Ceylonese native to the post of Governor-General, succeeding Lord Soulbury. D. S. Senanayake had died in 1952, and Colonel Sir John Kotalawela was Prime Minister when Goonetilleke succeeded to the position and took up residence in Queen's House. He was a friend of the powerful philanthropist Sir Ernest de Silva who assisted him in the ascension to Governor-General.

He remained in office after the election of the left-wing S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike as Prime Minister defeating Sir John Kotalawela in the 1956 general elections. Bandaranaike was pressured to remove Goonetilleke, and reduce the pay of the Governor-General by members of his left-wing coalition.

1958 communal riots[edit]

On 24 May 1958 Communal riots erupted, Prime Minister Bandaranaike did not make a formal response. With violence spreading throughout the island, Goonetilleke declared a state of emergency on 27 May 1958 and deployed the armed forces to quell the rioting, while Bandaranaike allowed Goonetilleke to take control of the situation and issue orders to the armed forces to suppress the rioting with force. Goonetilleke authorized the armed forces to shoot rioters, and the armed forces restored order in a few days.[12]

Bandaranaike assassination[edit]

Goonetilleke once again was forced to take decisive action, on 25 September 1959 when Prime Minister Bandaranaike was shot at his home at Rosmead Place while meeting the public. Goonetilleke was at Queens House accepting letters of credence of the Italian Ambassador Count Paolo di Michelis di Sloughhello, when he was informed about the assassination attempt he stopped the ceremony and rushed to Rosmead Place. He informed parliament to continue and at 11 AM declared a state of emergency, bringing the military to full readiness and mobilizing reservists. Bandaranaike, who was rushed to hospital and into emergency surgery, died twenty-two hours after he was shot.

Bandaranaike had been scheduled to go to New York to attend the UN General Assembly in late September 1959. The Leader of the House C. P. de Silva was in London undergoing treatment and Bandaranaike had sent a letter to the Governor General recommending that he appoint Wijeyananda Dahanayake, Minister of Education as acting Prime Minister during his absence. With this letter present, Goonetilleke appointed Dahanayake as Prime Minister on September 26, 1959, and was later confirmed by Parliament.[13]

Political turmoil[edit]

Following the assassination of Bandaranaike, the country faced a period of political instability. The Premiership of Dahanayake lasted one year, with many changes to his cabinet. Fresh elections were called, but the elections in March 1960 were in-divisive as Dudley Senanayake formed a government for a brief period. Goonetilleke had a difficult decision when faced with the classic difficulty for a Governor-General, whether to dissolve Parliament, causing a new election, or call on a different faction to form a government when the Prime Minister (in this case Dudley Senanayake, son of his old friend) lost Parliament's confidence. He dissolved the parliament and called for fresh elections. He briefly held the portfolio of Minister of Finance from 21 March 1960 to 23 April 1960.

Bandaranaike's widow Sirima Bandaranaike was selected by his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party as its leader and won elections in July 1960. Goonetilleke called on Sirima Bandaranaike to form a government and she became the world's first female Prime Minister.

1962 attempted military coup[edit]

In January 1962, the information surfaced of attempted military coup against the government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, with the suspected leaders. Prime Minister's nephew Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and External Affairs stated in Parliament on 18 February 1962 that Sir Oliver's name had come up in the investigations. Goonetilleke indicated he had no objection to be questioned by the police, however Bandaranaikes wanted to replace the Governor-General. Bradman Weerakoon, secretary to the prime minister was dispatched London to present the Prime Minister's request to the Queen to replace her Governor-General in Ceylon. On 26 February 1962, Radio Ceylon announced that the Queen had accepted the request of the Government of Ceylon to appoint William Gopallawa as Governor-General of Ceylon succeeding Sir Oliver Goonetilleke with effect from 20 March 1962. William Gopallawa was the Prime Minister's uncle. Goonetilleke quietly left Queen's House on 2 March and left the country.[14] His tenor lasted eight years and five prime ministers.

Later life[edit]

Goonetilleke settled into a retired life in London, in a self-imposed exile. In the investigation into the attempted military coup, some of the crown witnesses tried to link him and former Prime Ministers, Dudley Senanayake and Colonel Sir John Kotelawala, with the conspiracy; this was never proven.

In his retirement in London, Sir Oliver with his considerable accumulated wealth became an underwriting member of Lloyd's of London and moved in the social circles of the day. He was also an avid horse racing enthusiast and horse owner with his horses racing at Epsom and Ascot. In 1964, he was accused by Philip Gunawardena of moves against the government Bandaranaike. Goonetilleke also faced many accusations of exchange fraud, for taking considerable sums of money out from Ceylon.

Exchange control offences conviction[edit]

In 1972, he was tried in absentia and sentenced to four years rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 950,000 ($125,000) for exchange control offences by the Criminal Justice Commission. He was not extradited, his daughter Sheila Sathananthan was given a two‐year suspended sentence and fined $72,000 and her husband Coomaraswany Sathananthan was jailed for two years and fined $35,000.[15]

Following the defeat of Bandaranaike in the 1977 general election, the newly elected Prime Minister J. R. Jayewardene, repealed the Criminal Justice Commissions Act and released all who were jailed under the provisions of the Act with an amnesty declared. This allowed Goonetilleke to return to Sri Lanka, where he died after a brief illness in 1978.[16]


A statue of Goonetilleke was erected by members of the public at Kanatte crossroads in Borella. The Government of Sri Lanka issued a commemorative stamp in 1982, to mark the 4th death anniversary of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke.[17] A biography under the title 'OEG' was written by Charles Joseph Jeffries, and memorials to Goonetilleke include a six-foot bronze statue by sculptor Tissa Ranasinghe, commissioned by his family and installed in 1967 at a major roundabout in Colombo.

Personal life[edit]

Oliver Goonetilleke first married Esther (née Jayawardena), sister of Brigadier Christopher Allan Hector Perera Jayawardena. They had three children, Joyce Wijesinghe, Shiela Sathananthan and Ernie Goonetilleke. Esther Goonetilleke died of a fatal illness when the three children were very young and before Goonetilleke entered the civil service. During his self-imposed exile in London, Goonetilleke married Phyllis Miller, who was the secretary of the Soulbury Commission, whom he had befriended during the period of the Commission circa 1944, and lived near Marble Arch at 14, Albion Gate, Hyde Park Place, London W2 prior to his death in 1978.

He was a Director of the YMCA and held several high positions in the Diocese of the Anglican Church of Ceylon.


Throughout his life, Goonetilleke had close links with Britain, visiting the country many times on official business, and receiving a string of British honours and medals:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ M. Lentz, Harris. Heads of States and Governments Since 1945. Routledge, 2014. ISBN 9781134264902.
  2. ^ "1917 Fergusons Ceylon Directory". historyofceylontea.com. History of Ceylon Tea. Retrieved 2 August 2021.
  4. ^ "SUPPLEMENT TO THE LONDON GAZETTE, i JANUARY, 1941" (PDF). thegazette.co.uk. Retrieved 2 August 2021.
  5. ^ a b c Today is his 24th death Anniversary : Sir Oliver Goonetilleke - first Ceylonese Governor-General
  6. ^ Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (1892 –1978): The Road To Independence
  8. ^ First Parliament of Independent Sri Lanka is inaugurated
  9. ^ Former Sri Lankan High Commissioners in the United Kingdom. Sri Lanka High Commission in UK.
  10. ^ "Former Ministers". moha.gov.lk. Retrieved 10 August 2021.
  11. ^ Page 166 of Encyclopedia of Sri Lanka. Encyclopedia of Sri Lanka.
  12. ^ Riot control – then and now
  13. ^ The legend that was Daha
  14. ^ The Kataragama factor and the 1962 coup
  15. ^ "Ex‐Governor Is Sentenced In Absentia by Sri Lanka". nytimes. Retrieved 31 August 2020.
  16. ^ Sir Oliver Goonetilleke: Life In Exile
  17. ^ "4th Death Anniversary of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke". colnect.com. Retrieved 2 August 2021.
  18. ^ "THE LONDON GAZETTE, 2 JULY, 1954" (PDF). thegazette.co.uk. Retrieved 2 August 2021.
  19. ^ "The London Gazette TUESDAY, 11 MAY, 1954". thegazette.co.uk. London Gazette. Retrieved 28 October 2020.

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by Governor-General of Ceylon
Succeeded by
Legal offices
Preceded by Colonial Auditor
Succeeded by