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.

While watching sandbags being piled up for his execution at dawn, Gratien Fernando wrote this poem.

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.


Image → Claudio Schwarz

Rasa → Kāruṇyam (कारुण्यं): Compassion, mercy. Presiding deity: Yama. Colour: grey, Adbhutam (अद्भुतं): Wonder, amazement. Presiding deity: Brahma. Colour: yellow

Archetype → Magician



Kusum waited patiently for the bus conductor to punch the calculator for her balance; she had already done the mental math. She was used to calculating ahead of everyone in general. The painful hours waiting for the temple committee to figure out that her idea was, in fact, the most efficient… The years lived for her husband to finally comprehend her complex maneuvers to get ahead in life… These had made Kusum grow accustomed to waiting for others to catch up. After the conductor had moved to the next passenger, Kusum opened up her purse and peeked inside out of sheer nerves. Yes, the six-digit cheque was still there, safe.

Money had a strange dimension to it. It freed and weighed you at the same time.

Kusum felt the weight of this money particularly. She had taken it out of temple head monk Gunasāra’s drawer the day his unconscious body was rushed to the hospital. Being the chief donor’s wife, and the temple treasurer, Kusum had borrowed money from the head monk several times. He charged her a minimal interest and she returned the favour by overlooking many discrepancies in the temple accounts. That day too, Kusum had come to ask him for a loan to fund her daughter’s dream to start a hair salon in the city. But, in the calamity of the shaken-up temple rushing Gunasāra to the hospital, Kusum realised that she didn’t have to ask for the money. It was simply there, in Gunasāra's drawer—already stolen, as far as Kusum was concerned.

Throughout the week that followed, Kusum revisited her decision. Each time, she reminded herself how it was for a good reason. After finding her daughter Nimali on the bathroom floor—shaking and crying in hysterics holding chunks of cut-off hair—Kusum found a whole new part of herself awake. It was a part that awoke in every parent, when finding their child kicked in the gut by life, broken, and crownless. Kusum was ready to do anything to help Nimali live her dream—even if it meant finding amounts of money that she couldn’t acquire in the decades spent accounting.

Everything had a good reason. Life always evened out all checks and balances.

As the bus came to a halt, Kusum saw Nimali waiting for her. She asked Kusum a string of questions from what took her so long at the bank, to where they’re heading now. “I got you a place,” Kusum said, while crossing the street at the junction; She thrust her hand out at the careless motorcyclist who almost missed the red light. “A place? For wha...FOR MY SALON?’ Nimali asked, tripping on the sidewalk. Kusum smiled furtively and stopped in front of the crowded city mall. “Where???”, Nimali asked, wide eyes darting around in disbelief. Kusum pointed at the vacant storefront on the city mall’s ground floor. It faced one of the city’s busiest roads. She laughed out loud finding Nimali’s weight swung abruptly around her midriff, as the girl cried uncontrollably. “Come now..,” said Kusum. She tried to tuck what’s left of Nimali’s obliquely cut hair behind an ear, avoiding the stares of passersby. “How did you…?” Nimali asked, looking towards the large space. “Come, we must meet the building manager and put down the lease balance. Did you bring your ID?” asked Kusum, starting to climb up the mall stairs. “But, how?”, Nimali asked, wiping her face. “What are we accountants good for?,” Kusum asked without meeting her daughter’s eyes. “Saving up…?” Nimali asked, half frowning, half smiling.

The hardest part of weaving the bridge between reality and dreams was explaining it.

Kusum didn’t have to answer. Ecstatic, Nimali had flipped around and put her palms against the glass doors, eyes glistening and mouth open. Kusum smiled, seeing her girl crowned again. She basked in it for a moment until that familiar feeling of waiting for the world to catch up started to creep in from the corners. “Come on, let’s lock this lease in,” Kusum said walking inside with Nimali scrambling to keep up behind.

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The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred.

Updated: Aug 16

Histories connecting to slavery are among the worst stories from human history. But, we continue to tell them because they hide important lessons that we can’t afford to forget.

In the Cocos Keeling Islands—a circle of islands with many coconut palms, far off Australia's northwest coast—a very discreet form of slavery took shape and survived until recently as 1984. The man who first inhabited the islands, John Clunies-Ross, started populating them through the mid1900s with labourers of Javanese and Malay origins. They became the workforce for a thriving coconut plantation that Clunies-Ross owned. The Clunies-Ross family maintained control of the islands for five generations with sons succeeding the fathers. The Clunies-Ross family had a favourable relationship with the British empire to which Cocos Islands belonged; The administration of Cocos Islands was first handled by Ceylon and later Australia. But, the Clunies-Ross family controlled the education, healthcare, food and most importantly, the currency—the Cocos Rupee. The Clunies-Ross family positioned themselves as the royalty of Cocos Island and used the name ‘Tuan’ which translates to ‘Sir’ in Malay spoken by nearly 70%. Following a method used by many rulers to build trust with a local majority, Clunies-Ross sons imported brides from the Malay aristocracy; they styled themselves Ross I, Ross II, up to Ross V with Malay names like Tuan Pandai, Tuan Tinggi, Tuan John etc.

The currency introduced for Cocos' citizens by the Clunies-Ross family was ‘Cocos Rupee’; it was actually a token that could only be used at the Clunies-Ross family store which controlled the food in the islands. The Cocos Rupee tokens were first made of paper and later from ivorine—a form of plastic that mimics ivory. Only 5000-odd Cocos Rupee tokens were made according to records. These tokens were what ultimately pegged the people of Cocos in a discreet, nevertheless ugly, form of slavery.

Even as the anachronistic notion of monarchy faded with the failure of empires around the world, Cocos Keeling Islands remained under the control of the Clunies-Ross family. In 1974, a UN mission visiting the islands criticised the Australian government for allowing the John Clunies-Ross to continue controlling the currency, education, and health care. For the next date, the Australian government tried to coerce the Clunies-Ross family to hand over the controls, but they resisted. Eventually, in 1978, John Clunies-Ross sold his land to the Commonwealth under threat of compulsory acquisition.

The story of Cocos Islands was not a case of inhuman atrocities that we usually hear in stories relating to slavery; nor of physical or verbal abuse. But, there was a vicious undercurrent of selfishness and control. Power was being distributed through the virtue of birth. Opportunities were controlled. Access was regulated through one family. It was a case of one family imposing the most fundamental conditions of other citizens’ life—a role reserved only for parents and guardians. It was a breach of freedom.

These stories are still relevant today because we see modern forms of slavery in the world continuing this ugly pattern with politically powerful families and self-interested leaders trying to exert unfair control for narrow, egotistic reasons.

Controlling access to basic rights and resources, pushing people into states of dependency, and limiting access to education and self-sustenance are still ways that modern, more subtle forms of slavery continue in the world under the mask of governance.

We discovered a wooden box mounted with a rare Cocos Island Rupee token through an antique dealer in Sri Lanka. It reads ‘Keeling Cocos Islands 1910’. Knowing that Cocos Islands' administrative functions of the British empire were once centred in Ceylon, we can speculate that this rare token ended up here that way.

These tokens are valued by coin collectors for their rarity. But of course, what we find the most intriguing about it, is the story connecting to the question of freedom; the story of how a system of governance should always be in the interest of the public, not one family. We find this token a fascinating piece linking to themes like power, freedom and justice.

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