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Mark Anthony Lyster Bracegirdle (1912-1999): A Traitor to the Imperialist Cause

Wesley S. Muthiah

MARK ANTHONY Lyster Bracegirdle died, aged 86, on 22 June 1999. He was born on 10 September 1912, to Ina Marjorie Lyster and James Seymour Bracegirdle. His mother Ina was a suffragette, a talented artist and a member of the Independent Labour Party. She was arrested during a march to the Houses of Parliament when she was said to have disturbed some flower beds. Her left-wing ideology undoubtedly influenced Mark.

In 1928 Mark emigrated to Australia with his mother and brother Simon. He was 16 years old and the world was sliding into the Great Depression. He sought work on sheep farms, and later joined the Young Communist League in Sydney.

In 1936 Mark left Australia for the British colony of Ceylon to embark on a career in tea planting. He worked in Relugas estate, Madulkelle, as a creeper (apprentice planter) for seven months, during which time he witnessed the pathetic condition of the much-exploited Indian Tamil plantation labour force. Their long working hours, low wages, shoddy housing and illiteracy shocked the sensitive young man.

His open sympathy for the estate workers displeased his employers, who discontinued his services and booked him on a return steamer to Australia. Instead of leaving, Bracegirdle decided to stay on in Ceylon and fight the cause of the oppressed Tamil estate workers. He became a hero on the tea plantations.

Soon after his dismissal he joined Ceylon’s first political party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Equal Society Party), and began appearing on its political platforms, much to the consternation of the colonial planter Raj.

He exposed the subhuman conditions on the plantations and aroused the consciousness of the workers to their predicament. This was intolerable to the powerful British community, so they raised the bogey of Communism and an impending danger to law and order and worker discipline. With the support of their newspaper the Times of Ceylon and the assistance of the police whose upper echelons were manned by Britishers, they plotted to get rid of the trouble maker. For this purpose they persuaded the Governor, Sir R.E. Stubbs, to invoke an Order in Council of 1896 and ordered Bracegirdle to quit the Island.

On his failure to comply, the Governor ordered his arrest and deportation. The police were unable to detain Bracegirdle as he went underground, shielded by members of the LSSP. In May 1937 he addressed a mass rally of 50,000 on Galle Face Green in Colombo. Soon after his address the police rushed to arrest him, but were told by his lawyers that the warrant was out of date. Later he was arrested and put behind bars awaiting deportation.

The action of the Governor immediately caused strong protest in the political arena. A resolution was passed in the State Council that the Governor had acted unconstitutionally. At the same time Bracegirdle’s lawyers launched a Habeas Corpus action in the Supreme Court on the grounds that the Governor’s exercise of absolute power interfered with the liberty of a British subject and violated the rule of law and the constitution. A bench of three judges headed by Chief Justice Abrahams heard the Habeas Corpus application and declared that the arrest and detention of Bracegirdle was illegal and that he must be released.

The Bracegirdle case raised many issues of fundamental importance, i.e. the freedom of the individual, the limits of executive power, the rights of the judiciary to question the executive, the right of the Governor to override the powers of the Ministers, and the political question of workers’ rights.

These issues focused the attention of the educated classes of all groups on the need to free the country from the shackles of colonial rule. Bracegirdle became a key figure in the anti-imperialist movement.

He left Ceylon in 1937, and returned to Britain. In 1939 he married May Elizabeth Vinden. During the Second World War he became a conscientious objector. After the war he qualified as an engineer and settled in Gloucestershire. He joined in the Aldermaston marches against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and was a committed member of the Labour Party.

In the 1970s he worked as a transport manager for the flying doctor service in Zambia. Here he met his old adversary, ex-Governor Stubbs, who is said to have remarked: "Bracegirdle, where have I heard that name before?"

Mark Bracegirdle was extremely knowledgeable on such diverse subjects as the history of Chinese scripts, Darwin’s theories, Marxism and Leninism, Roman glass, ornithology, farming, art and design, etc. He leaves three daughters, a son and five grandchildren.

From What Next? No.14 1999