Facebook icon
Twitter icon
e-mail icon

Remembering George Alagiah - The Tamil who fled Sri Lanka to become one of Britain best-loved figures

Alagiah speaking at an event in London, 2009 (DFID)

Hundreds of mourners paid tribute to BBC News presenter George Alagiah at a memorial service in London this week.

Alagiah, one of British television's best-loved figures, was a Tamil who fled Sri Lanka in the wake of the 1958 pogrom and ongoing ethnic discrimination on the island.

Born George Maxwell Alagiah, he was born and raised in Colombo, on 22 November 1955, when the island was still known as Ceylon. His father, Donald, was a successful civil engineer, who had grown up in Kalmunai. But they would not stay on the island for long.

“Tamils very quickly found that they were on the wrong side of history,” Alagiah told The Times in 2019.

“In 1958 there were some pretty bad riots, so my father was one of the first people who said: ‘It’s time to get out.’”

On 27 May 1958, the Sri Lankan state declared a state of emergency after Sinhala mobs had began attacking, raping and murdering Tamils across the island on 22 May 1958. Estimates range from between 300 and 1,500 Tamils murdered in the days of violence which resulted in many more injured and the arson, looting and destruction of Tamil homes and businesses.

“Anyone who sounded or looked like a Tamil was being singled out for a thorough beating,” recalled Alagiah in his 2001 book ‘A Passage To Africa’. “Sinhalese thugs were patrolling bus stops and train queues in search of their prey.”

He went on to write,

“I was three at the time, oblivious of the politics of hatred, but, no doubt, conscious of the fear that was creeping around our home. My elder sisters knew something sinister was happening. They could hear the shouts of a crowd on the main road and knew the voices were raised in anger… All we could do was wait: for the noise to die down, for my father to return, for the rage to ebb away.”

"My aunt in Gampaha, my mother at home in Dehiwala and my father at work in Ratmalana. One family but, on this day, separate and alone: three people caught in the web of hatred that had been spun around this city. When, finally, they were reunited, each knew that day in May had changed their lives.”"

The series of violence was to become another in a series of deadly anti-Tamil pogroms.

Read more: Remembering the 1958 pogrom

Alagiah and his family arrived in Ghana as a boy in December 1961, one of thousands of families who would flee the island. He and his siblings were later educated in England, where he would venture into broadcasting and become one of Britain’s most memorable faces.

“As the years unfolded, we understood that this country had given us opportunities that we would never have had in a Sri Lanka, where Tamils like us were systematically disadvantaged,” wrote Alagiah in 2021. “As we prospered, our cousins back in the old country struggled. If we faced discrimination here, we ducked away. We made do. Perhaps too meekly we accepted that British citizenship wasn’t a birthright. It felt as if we had to earn it. And earn it we did.”

George Maxwell Alagiah passed away on 24 July, 2023.

Read more from the BBC on his legacy here.

We need your support

Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. Tamil journalists are particularly at threat, with at least 41 media workers known to have been killed by the Sri Lankan state or its paramilitaries during and after the armed conflict.

Despite the risks, our team on the ground remain committed to providing detailed and accurate reporting of developments in the Tamil homeland, across the island and around the world, as well as providing expert analysis and insight from the Tamil point of view

We need your support in keeping our journalism going. Support our work today.

For more ways to donate visit https://donate.tamilguardian.com.