May 8

1942 The Cocos Islands Mutiny

During the Second World War, millions of troops from the Indian and African colonies of Great Britain served in the wars against the Axis powers. The reason that the contribution of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was so small can be found in this little-remembered mutiny.

The Cocos Islands are an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, half-way between Ceylon and  Australia. Following the outbreak of hostilities with Japan it was deemed to be an important communications link, garrisoned by units of the Ceylon Defence Force and the King’s African Rifles under two British officers. Among the Ceylonese artillerymen were a number dissatisfied with the colonial status of their homelands and who were willing to betray the Union Jack. One of these, Gratien Fernando, conceived a plan whereby he and his anti-imperialist comrades would turn their guns on their officers and any loyal soldiers while signalling to the Japanese that they would surrender the islands to them. (At this time many Asians looked to the Japanese to drive their European occupiers out of the continent. The Japanese were particularly successful in recruiting captured Indian soldiers and turning them into a puppet Indian National Army.)

On the night of May 8, 15 mutineers seized the heavy guns and began their rebellion. It was soon put down by their fellow countrymen in the Ceylonese Light Infantry, but not before one loyal soldier had been killed [his headstone is above]. Quick courts-martial condemned seven to death. At his trial, Fernando spoke of his motives: “I am not so much anti-British as anti-white. I do not have the least grudge against Captain Gardiner personally. would have done the same to any white man. I felt that if I succeeded [in the mutiny] I might do things that would revolutionise the war effort in the East. I wanted to try and get Japanese help. I am in sympathy with the Japanese war aims.” Fernando and two others were hanged in August, the only three Commonwealth soldiers executed for mutiny during World War II.

This outburst of Ceylonese nationalism alarmed the British who took steps to keep that colony, strategically vital and an important source of rubber, happy and well-garrisoned. No Ceylonese combat troops were ever employed by the British after the affair on Cocos Islands.

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