British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Mr N P Hadow
Operation Blowfish
Colombo Harbour
It is safe to assert that.-there is no country in the world where quarrying where quarring is practiced and where there is an effective method of ensuring that every entire stick of dynamite can be accounted for with complete and certain accuracy. In one way or another before, during, and after quarrying has taken place, some portion of the charges and detonators will eventually find a route onto the black market, a market which thrives in coastal lagoons and which causes indiscriminate destruction of fish stocks.

In response to urgent representations by Fishery Officers and others concerned with the preservation of stocks in coastal waters, the Government Analyst undertook to carry out experiments with the aim of finding a method of quickly recognising dynamited fish on display in the markets.

But first of all he had to obtain a temporary licence to possess and use explosives and then he had to find someone who was expert in the technique of dynamiting fish; ie, weight of explosive necessary for modest results; type of detonator; length, of fuse etc in relation to the depth of water.

But enough of such official idiom, let us have the real story:

The first step was easy. The Criminal Records Offee did not need to spend much time in turning up the name of Simon Hettiarachi, better known as "Dynamite Simon". He had a string of convictions as long as your arm in every Magistrate's Court from Negombo to Bentota. He ought to fit the bill as expert whether voluntarily or not.

Operation Blowfish
Colombo Harbour Stamp
The next step was to find him. Enquiry among the pool of plain clothes Detectives in the CID turned up the knowledge that PC Podiappuhamy came from the same village as Simon, so he was despatched to bring him in for a talk. He returned in a couple of days and reported that Simon was "missing". Obviously and not very surprisingly, he was shy of authority and had gone underground. A further attempt to contact him would need more careful preparation and patience, to convince him that he, Hettiarachi alias Dynamite Simon, was being invited to give a public demonstration of his expertise without penalty.

PC Podiappuhamy was very carefully briefed on the why and the wherefore of the proposition he was to put to Simon, and told not to hurry back until he had contacted Simon in person and secured his willingness to cooperate in the experiment.

After a few days, Podiappuhamy returned and reported that he had made contact with Simon who, though at first convinced that the authorities were laying a trap for him, was eventually persudded to "think about it" and even to visit Colombo so as to hear more of the proposition. It took a prolonged parley and the promise of Rs 25 to secure his final acceptance to carry out a "controlled Explosion" in the presence of the Government Analyst.

A quiet corner of Colombo Harbour was selected for the experiment, free of launch traffic and few people on shore. The Government Analyst appeared with the DIG and we all looked round for PC Podiappuhamy and his charge. For 10 minutes or so there was no sign of them, but finally two figures approached down the jetty: Simon and his "escort". He was a slim figure, very dark from frequent exposure to all weathers, and dressed simply in a cotton vest and sarong, with a loose turban wound round his head. He looked shyly at the assembled company and clearly would have liked to flee but his way back along the jetty was barred. Then he saw a small bundle of dynamite sticks, with a coil of fuse and some detonators lying in a box at his feet, and his interest overcame his misgivings. It really was true: the invitation to give a demonstration of his artistry was genuine.

He inspected the sticks of dynamite, remarked that it was "good stuff" (Which indeed it was: Eley Kynoch fresh from the Colombo Commercial Co) and turned his attention to the fuse and detonators. These too were given the seal of expert approval, and Simon pronounced himself ready to start, if someone would kindly tell him whether they wanted lots of fish or only a few for starters. A few was prescribed.

A solitary stick of dynamite was detached from the little bundle and handed to Simon who looked round about as though searching for something. He spotted a pencil sticking out of PC Podiappuhamy's breast pocket and deftly extracted it, looking to see if it had a sharp point. He then bent down, picked up a detonator, bit off a short length of fuse and paused for dramatic effect. With gusto and energy he started boring a hole in the end of the stick of dynamite, briskly pushed in the detonator, and turned round to see if everyone was watching. They were, but from a distance of several yards which unanimously and athletically the assembled company covered in a single bound.

Siimon remained a solitary figure at the end of the jetty, but all could see him draw himself up and cast the charge 8 or 10 yards from the jetty. The duty boat nervously backed water. After what seemded quite a long pause, there was a modest swirl on the surface of the water, and every eye watched for results. Nothing happened for quite some time, and then suddenly the surface was broken by the silvery shapes of fish rising belly uppermost and obviously dead or stunned. The duty boat was hailed to come inshore and pick up the catch, which numbered six or eight fish of about a pound in weight.

Simon turned round and spoke with briskness and authority; what had been achieved so far was pretty modest stuff, and he suggested that a second shot should be fired and at a greater depth so as to get some realy decent fish. Approval was given and he busied himself for a second time with preparing the charge. The spectators crept a little nearer in fascination, but not too close. Again the charge was cast out from the jetty and this time the wait seemed longer before the surface boiled into a mushroom-shaped dome of water. Again the wait before the surface was broken by some much bigger silvery shapes, which were collected gleefully by the crew of the duty boat.

At this point, the Government Analyst and the DIG said that enough fish had been "caught" for the purpose of the exercise; the fish were brought ashore, and the company prepared to leave. All that is except Simon who felt that he had only just started. There were four sticks of dynamite lying there unused, and he could do something really big and useful if allowed to continue. Sadly, he accepted that the display had ended, glanced wistfully at the explosives wich were being whisked away, but accepted with dignity the thanks of the powers for his collaboration, and tucked the promised Rs 25 into his waist band. Meantime, the crew of the duty boat made off at speed with the remainder of the fish after the Government Analyst had selected enough for his experiment.

And the outcome of that Experiment? Precisely nil in terms of visible damage or injury to the fish. Only by dissection of the head and examination of the fishes' brainpan could any clear distinction be made between a dynamited fish and any others on the fishmonger's slab in the market. Which was not much use to the Fishery Officers, or anyone else looking for a shortcut to apprehend Simon and his fraternity. Still, it had been fun, and a novel experience for Simon to be working with the forces of law and order rather than against them!

British Colony Map
Colombo Harbour
South Ceylon Map
Colony Profile
Date and Time
0900, One Day in October, 1938
The Bunkering Jetty Colombo Harbour
To determine if there was a simple method of identifying fish killed by underwater explosion.
The Government Analyst
ASP Harbour
Ch Insp Harbour Police
Det Constable Podiappuhamy
Harbour Police duty boat
(1 Sgt and 4 PCs)
Simon Hettiarachi
(alias "Dynamite Simon")


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by Stephen Luscombe