First Ceylonese family to Australia

Drum Major O’Deane, a Malay Non commissioned officer of the 1st Ceylon Regiment, who deserted to the Kandyans in 1803, was absorbed into the service of the Kandyan Monarch and provided with a Sinhalese girl as his wife. When the Kandyan Kingdom was captured by the British in 1815, O’Deane was arrested for treason, court-martialed and sentenced to be shot. However, O’Deane’s sentence was later commuted by Governor Robert Brownrigg to "transportation to the Penal settlement of New South Wales in Australia because of the uniform good conduct of the Malay Regiment." After ousting the Hollanders in 1796, the British were able to gain a foothold in the maritime provinces of Ceylon. Despite this victory, they were now eyeing the Kandyan Kingdom to consolidate their position as masters of the whole island. When General Hay MacDowall attacked Kandy in 1803 on the orders of Governor Fredrick North, King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe retreated, after a brief resistance, to the mountains of Hanguranketa, carrying with him the Sacred Tooth Relic, albeit after checking the auspicious time from the court astrologer. The sight which greeted British red-coats when entering the city was an ornately carved horse drawn carriage in flames, a gift from Governor North to the Kandyan Monarch, set on fire by the retreating court. The British then installed their puppet Prince Muttuswamy, half brother of King Sri Wickrama as the new Ruler, but he was largely ignored by the people. Moreover, Muttuswamy was dependent on the British for his protection. Ironically, Major Adam Davie, a Scotsman, was entrusted the command of the British garrison in Kandy which he accepted with much reluctance. Within a few months King Sri Wickrama was able to rally his militia and levies to expel the British. On 24 June, 1803, the Kandyan King’s Malay mercenaries referred to as the ‘Padikkara Peruwa’ led by Sangunglo, their agile captain, commenced the attack on the British garrison.

After a short resistance Major Davie, raised the white flag and negotiated terms with Adigar Pilima Talawa for a withdrawal. This arrangement was agreed upon. Davie abandoned 149 of his sick and wounded men in Kandy. After spiking their cannon and throwing their excess powder and shot into nearby waterways, the beleaguered garrison comprising of 30-Europeans, 300-Malays, 12-Bengali gun lascars and 30-Indian pioneers with the drummers beating a staccato beat were making their forced march to Fort Ostenburg in Trincomalee together with Prince Muttuswamy, when they were trapped at the Watapuluwa ferry near the village of Mawilmada, on account of the flooded conditions of the Mahaveli river. Some bamboo rafts were made by the troops, but the river was not navigable. Attempts to secure ropes across the river were also thwarted when the Kandyans severed the ropes on the far bank. On the following day the King’s officials arrived with a request to surrender Muttuswamy, which was rejected by the British. Reluctantly, Davie surrendered Muttuswamy, only when the Kandyans threatened to take him away by force. Muttuswamy with three of his relations were then led about a mile away to the presence of the Kandyan monarch and after a summary trial, were condemned to death and beheaded. Major Davie thereafter decided to return to Kandy, but found that they were surrounded by about 20,000 of the king’s forces. Several soldiers then began deserting to the Kandyans. Major Davie then gave a strange order, that all troops ground their arms. The British troops were then surrounded and the Asian soldiers were separated from the Europeans, and the officers from the men. They were then given the option of either entering the Kandyan king’s service or face death. Those who refused were immediately beheaded. However most of the European officers chose to shoot themselves with their pistols rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. The first war of 1803 proved a disaster to the British. The rest is history.

Kandy, the last bastion of the Kings of Lanka, fell to the British in 1815 due to the insidious plotting, planning and betrayal by the Kandyan nobles who, one by one, turned against their King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe. For the first time on 5th March 1815, the Union Jack was hoisted in Senkadagala, and British cannon heralded that Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe had been replaced by George the Third of Great Britain. Our narrative now takes a different turn. Drum Major O’Deane, a Malay non-commissioned officer of the 1st Ceylon Regiment, who deserted to the Kandyans in 1803, was absorbed into the service of the Kandyan Monarch and provided with a Sinhalese girl as his wife. When the Kandyan Kingdom was captured by the British in 1815, O’Deane was arrested for treason, court-martialed and sentenced to be shot. However O’Deane’s sentence was subsequently commuted by Governor Robert Brownrigg to ‘transportation to the Penal settlement of New South Wales in Australia’ because of the fact that the Governor was impressed with the ‘uniform good conduct’ of the 1st Ceylon (Malay) Regiment. O’Deane also had much information on his former Commanding Officer, Major Davie, whilst he was a captive of the Kandyan monarch. On 17 February, 1816, the attention of the residents of Sydney, Australia, were drawn to the following article, about the arrival of a family of five from Ceylon, appearing on page-1 of the Sydney Gazette: "The HM Brig ‘Kangaroo’ has brought hither from Colombo several convicts, some of whom are prisoners who had escaped from this Colony. One of the prisoners brought by the ‘Kangaroo’ is a Malayan, who was a Drum Major of the 1st Ceylon Regiment in the memorable Kandyan war in 1802-1803; and having gone over to the enemy, was upon the late capture of the Kandyan country taken prisoner, and condemned to be shot; which sentence was commuted to transportation for life to this territory; whither he is accompanied by his wife and three fine children. The man, who appears to be intelligent, gives an account of the death of several officers who were made prisoners by the Kandyan Monarch; among whose unfortunate number were Major Davey, of the 1st Ceylon, and Captain Romley, of the 73rd Regiment." "He is dark complexioned, approaching to a black, and is about 5 feet 10 inches in height. His wife who is a Singhalese, being a true descendant of the aboriginal inhabitants of the island, is of a small stature, handsomely formed, of a dark olive complexion, and agreeable features, as are also her three children, of whom the two youngest are boys. The appearance of this little family is truly interesting: and the more so, when the feeling mind considers that misfortune has brought them to a part of the world in which it is scarcely conceivable they can find any means of contributing to their own support. Their native country abounds in fruits, and all the natural luxuries of the East, which are attainable almost without the necessity of human exertion."

The Drum Major was O’Deane. In December 1818, O’Deane, who had taken the first name of William, was assigned as Watchman in HM Dockyards in Sydney, and, in 1825, changed his employment to that of Constable of the Govt. Domain. In May 1827, William O’Deane received a job which he was more familiar with; that of Malay Interpreter for the Australian government. William O’Deane, accompanied by one of his sons, reported for duty to the Commandant at Fort Wellington, Raffles Bay on the Coburg Peninsula in July 1827. O’Deane was required to act as liaison with Macassarese fishermen from Indonesia who used the coastal areas of the Northern Territories to dry their harvest of trepang (sea cucumber) before export to China. For some reason the British considered it advantageous to establish ties with these fishermen and hence O’Deane’s role as Malay interpreter. The Macassarese and Malay fishermen in their armed Prahu’s docked into Raffles Bay from time to time for stocks of water, and it was a familiar sight to see O’Deane accompanied by the Fort Commandant or his Deputy, boarding these vessels to talk to the fishermen. The fishing vessels would fire their guns whilst leaving the Bay, and the cannon in the Fort were fired in return, acknowledging the salute. O’Deane was given a salary of 70 pounds per year plus a residence for his services. From time to time, O’Deane’s son also acted as interpreter in his father’s absence. His wife, Eve O’Deane, whom he had left behind in Sydney, and who joined him later at Raffles Bay, was a practical housewife. Records at Fort Wellington shows that she brought with her a table and 4-chairs, beds and bedding, box of clothing, a cross cut saw and other tools, a gun, a basket of soap, 2-boxes of ‘Delph’ and glass, a box of pipes, some kitchen and laundry utensils, a bag of ‘grasstree gum’ and a goat and fodder. O’Deane returned to Sydney in 1829 to his previous employment as a watchman at HM Dockyards. He continued as interpreter for the government when required until 1842. O’Deane was probably the first Malay interpreter employed by the Australian govt. William and Eve O’Deane had six children: three were born in Ceylon and three in Australia. Mrs. Eve O’Deane died in 1839 aged 50 years at the home of her eldest daughter, Sarah Harriet Evans, and was buried at Devonshire St. Burial grounds. William O’Deane, who was also known as John, died on 23 May, 1860, after being resident for 44-years in the colony. His death notice in the Sydney Morning Herald read ‘On the 23rd instant, at 111 Woolloomooloo Street, at the advanced age of 87, Mr. John O’Deane, the beloved father of Mrs. T. Purcill and of Mrs. J. Brady of Woolloomooloo, an old and respected colonist, and many years Government Interpreter in this city. He leaves a large circle of relatives and friends to mourn their loss’. The O’Deanes have left behind many descendants in Australia. Mrs. Glennys Ferguson, a great, great, great, great grand-daughter of William and Eve O’Deane, did a remarkable amount of research on her ancestors. She has traced the life of O’Deane from the time of his arrival in New South Wales in 1816 until his death in 1860. She has tracked down most of his descendants currently spread all over Australia. She is also in the process of writing a book on O’Deane. The reason for her to research her ancestors arose when her family could not figure out how they had black hair and brownish eyes. Many questions still remain unanswered on the Sri Lankan side regarding the origins of O’Deane and his wife Eve.

In the past the average Australian was reluctant to reveal his or her ancestral lineage to convicts, but in the present scenario, they take pride in revealing their heritage as descendants of the original settlers of Australia. References: (1) The Kandyan Wars - The British Army in Ceylon by Col. Geoffrey Powell (2) Tri Sinhala - by Sir Paul. E. Peiris (3) The First Ceylonese Family in Australia — by Glennys Ferguson in the ‘Ceylankan’ Feb. 2002 issue published by the Ceylon Society of Australia. (The writer is a past President of the Mabole Malay Association) .