Obituary: Mark Bracegirdle

Sydney Wanasinghe
Wednesday 22 September 1999 23:02

IN 1936, a young settler, Mark Bracegirdle, arrived from Australia in the British colony of Ceylon, to embark on a career in tea planting. He worked at the Reluges Estate in Madulkelle as a creeper (apprentice planter) for seven months. During this time he witnessed the dreadful conditions experienced by the Indian Tamil plantation labour force. Their illiteracy, long working hours, shoddy housing and living conditions, and low wages shocked him.

His open sympathy for the workers displeased his employers, who booked him a return journey to Australia. But he decided to stay on in Ceylon and fight the cause of the estate workers. He became a hero of the tea plantations.

Soon after his dismissal from the tea estate he joined Ceylon's first political party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party ("Equal Society Party"), and began exposing the subhuman conditions on the plantations and arousing the consciousness of the workers to their predicament. This was intolerable to the British community, who saw him as a danger to law and order and worker discipline. With the support of their newspaper The Times of Ceylon and the assistance of the police, they plotted to get rid of him. The Governor, Sir Reginald Stubbs, was persuaded to invoke an outdated order- in-council of 1896 and ordered Bracegirdle to leave Ceylon.

On his failure to comply, Stubbs ordered his arrest and deportation. He went into hiding. In May 1937 he addressed a mass rally of 50,000 in Colombo, but soon afterwards was arrested and put behind bars awaiting deportation.

The actions of the Governor immediately raised strong protest. A resolution was passed in the state council that the Governor had acted unconstitutionally. An action of Habeas Corpus was put before the Supreme Court, on the grounds that the Governor's exercise of absolute power interfered with the liberty of a British subject, violated the rule of law and the constitution. His arrest was declared illegal and he was released. He left Ceylon in 1937, but it was not until 1948 that full independence was achieved for the former colony, and 1972 that it was renamed Sri Lanka.

Mark Bracegirdle was born in London in 1912, into a family of artists. His mother, Ina, was a suffragette, a talented artist and a member of the Independent Labour Party. She was once arrested during a march to the Houses of Parliament when she was alleged to have disturbed some flowerbeds.

In 1928 he emigrated to Australia with his mother and brother Simon. He joined the Young Communist Part in Sydney, and during the Depression years sought work on sheep farms before travelling to Ceylon to train as a tea planter.

During the Second World War he was a conscientious objector, and after it qualified as an engineer, then settled in Gloucestershire with his wife, Mary, whom he had married in 1939.

In the 1970s, working for the flying doctor service in Zambia, he again met his old adversary Sir Reginald Stubbs, who is said to have remarked, "Bracegirdle. Where have I heard that name before?"

Bracegirdle ended his career lecturing in engineering at North London Polytechnic, and in his retirement studied archaeology and worked voluntarily for London University. His many interests included the history of Chinese scripts, the theories of Darwin, Leninism and Marxism, Roman glass, ornithology, farming, art and design.

Mark Anthony Lyster Bracegirdle, tea planter, engineer and campaigner: born London 10 September 1912; married 1939 Mary Vinden (one son, three daughters); died London 22 June 1999.

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