In 1942, a Sri Lankan soldier named Gratien Fernando was taken to Welikada Prison's death row. His crime was orchestrating a mutiny against the British empire colonising Sri Lanka as Ceylon at the time. Gratien led a group of Sri Lankan soldiers in attempting to arrest their British commanding officer while being stationed at Cocos Islands—a lonely atoll in the Indian Ocean. He was the ringleader of the Cocos Islands Mutiny—an event kept under wraps for as long as possible due to the trouble it could bring to established ideas of authority at the time.
We picked up Gratien’s story in records of the Cocos Island Mutiny, books and digital archives of newspapers and personal records; ‘A man called Ceylon’ by Somasiri Devendra (2020, S. Godage & Brothers, Colombo) was particularly useful. We found Gratien Fernando particularly interesting because he embodied a character archetype that we were studying for one of our monthly stories—the archetype of the rebel. The rebel —also known as the iconoclast—is the archetype that challenges the status quo and heralds in change. In all historic stories of revolutions, this archetype is always encountered as figures causing storms.
For Gratien Fernando, revolt was a response to the racism encountered in his military career. With Cocos Island being under the purview of colonial administration of Ceylon, Sri Lankan soldiers were stationed there with British commanding officers. In his garrison, Gratien Fernando saw men of many colours and ethnicities—Sinhala, Tamil, Burgher and Malay Sri Lankans—pegged to outdo one another in a pecking line arranged, by colonial default, according to the lightness of their skin. Stung by this and with little else at hand, Gratien tried orchestrating a mutiny and failed.
Gratien Fernando and two accomplices were sent back to Sri Lanka for execution. His desperate family tried to negotiate a pardon and asked him to plead for mercy from the empire. “I’ll never ask for a pardon. That would disgrace the cause,” Fernando told his family.
Gratien Fernando was executed, followed by two more Sri Lankan soldiers who were his accomplices. They were the few Commonwealth troops to be executed for mutiny in World War Two. According to the book ‘Cocos Island Mutiny’ by Noel Crusz, “none of them were commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which was not the case when British servicemen were executed”.
Some of his writing—from ‘The Cocos Island Mutiny’ by Noel Crusz quoted in ‘A man called Ceylon’ by Somasiri Devendra—makes us think that Gratien died with the sense of peace held only by a person who stood for what they believed in. “Everything seems right with me. Yet, everything is wrong,” he once wrote.
Cocos Island Mutiny is a fascinating story from Sri Lanka’s history, connecting to themes like racism, colonialism and justice. We find stories like this reveal important contexts that formed the deep cracks between the government and the people of Sri Lanka that are evident even today.
Gratien Fernando is among the many inspirations for our next monthly story built using the character archetype of the rebel. If you haven’t signed up already, subscribe to our monthly stories.