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Kandy: the roots of the rebellion

(Sunday Times - 01/02/1998) Our history is replete with instances where the country was mercilessly plundered by invaders. As we mark fifty years as a free nation, Dilrukshi Handunnetti looks at the Kandyan rebellions against the British which assume particular significance as protest groups oppose the visit of Britain's Prince Charles for the Independence celebrations.

Sinhalese rulers were not the most prudent and wise when employing tactics to be rid of foreigners. They made the repeated mistake of trying to play one group against the other which culminated in the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815- making every inch of this country the territory of the British Crown.

When the British arrived in ancient Ceylon, the country was being governed by the Dutch East India Company which was shrewdly monopolizing trade and export in Ceylon at that time. Whilst ruling the Maritime Provinces, the Dutch also had established links with the Kandyan Kingdom in order to obtain certain concessions. They disliked these methods. Jan Schreuder, Dutch Governor from 1757-1762 recorded, "We cannot even stir, if we did not play the crouching little dog to the Court which is not amenable to reason."

According to historians, the tussle between the Dutch authorities and the Kandyan rulers existed for a long time, and owing to the monopolistic attitude of the Dutch, the Kandyans with much reservations decided to accept the British offer of help. The animosity between the Dutch and the Sinhalese grew especially with the introduction of new taxes in the areas governed by the Dutch.

When the British became the masters of the Dutch possessions in Ceylon in 1796, the desire to capture the rest of the territory bringing it entirely under the King of England also increased. But as England was at war with Holland, the Dutch East India Company was allowed to manage the affairs of the island for the time being, and Ceylon became part of the territory governed by the Governor in Madras.

Many British delegations seeking to arrange treaties of alliance between the British and the Kandyans failed. After a turbulent period of civil dissatisfaction, Ceylon was declared a Crown Colony and Frederic North (subsequently the 5th Earl of Guildford) became the first Governor.

North despite his state craft and shrewdness made several mistakes during his rule. He realised the country's potential and the benefits the British could derive by bringing the Kandyan Kingdom under the Crown.

What paved the way for the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom which appeared indestructible to the forces outside, was the death of King Rajadhi Raja Sinha in 1798 leaving no children.

It is his first Adigar Pilima Talawe who promoted a Malabar Prince named Kannasami who was a nephew of one of the King's wives. He had no right to the throne as other close relatives were alive. Kannasami had no proper education and was considered young and immature. But these disadvantages were overlooked by Pilima Talawe who intended the king to be a mere puppet in his hands. Certain historians have been kinder to Pilima Talawe- attributing his zeal to the noble cause of restoring the Sinhala Dynasty, for he himself was a descendant from the Royal family of Ceylon. The Adigar's efforts paid off when Kannasamy ascended the throne as Sri Wickrama Rajasighe. As Rajadhi Rajasinghe's relatives were imprisoned and his second Adigar was killed by Pilima Talawe, the former king's brother in law Muttusamy who was the rightful heir, sought protection from the British.

Pilima Talawe provoked the British on many occasions to make them wage war against the Kandyan Kingdom. From 1803 there had been sporadic fighting. Despite the lack of intense fighting, there was civil unrest and disenchantment.

Maitland who succeeded Governor North, tried to understand the native culture. He was greatly assisted in this endeavour by John D'Oyly who had mastered the language of the country thereby establishing good links with the Sinhalese, and earned their much needed respect and trust. D'Oyly contributed largely to the expansion of the Bogambara Lake, and imposed severe penalties on British subjects who infringed upon the rights of the Ceylonese. All this culminated in his gradually winning many Kandyan leaders to his side.


Robert Brownrigg, Governor of Ceylon 1812-1818.

The significant changes in the Kandyan Kingdom took place during the tenure of Sir Robert Brownrigg who succeeded Sir Thomas Maitland in 1812. Whilst improving the living conditions of the people, Brownrigg also invited the various Missions to establish themselves here. As a result, the Baptist Missionaries came in 1812, Wesleyan Missionaries in 1814, American Missionaries in 1816 and the Church Missionaries in 1818.

Meanwhile, the young king had embarked upon a course of tyrannical rule. But the King committed his ultimate mistake when he employed brutal methods to kill Ehelepola Adigar's entire family. This brutal act shocked the people and led to a week of mourning. This thrust the Adigar in to the arms of the British, and Brownrigg promised all support to relieve the Adigar of his suffering. The king also provided the much awaited excuse when he tortured ten native traders who were British subjects, hence leading to the proclamation of war against him in January 1815.

The Proclamation stated that the war was not against the Kandyan nation but against the King who had by the violation of the every religious and moral law, become an object of abhorrence to mankind. It promised the Kandyans full protection of person and property.

Several days later, the Kandyan Convention was signed on the 2nd day of March, 1815, at the Palace of the city of Kandy. The signatories to the convention were Robert Brownrigg, Governor over the British Settlements and Territories in the Island of Ceylon and ten representative Adikars, Dissaves and other Chiefs of the Kandyan Provinces.

The shrewd British rulers capitalizing on the sentiments of the inhabitants who had faced a tyrannical rule under Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, pressed the point in the Treaty's 1st clause that emphasised the cruelties of the Malabar ruler, for his arbitrary and unjust infliction of bodily tortures and the pains of death, - the cited reason for dethroning the king.

Clause five of the Kandyan Convention held Buddhism inviolable, and its temples and priests were to be protected and maintained as before, and the laws of the country were not to be amended and the king's levies were to be levied as before. The Brtish agreed to this as they saw no other way to get the Kandyan aristocracy to accept them without the protection clause.

The absorption of the old Kandyan Kingdom to the British administration posed serious problems to the British in making it part of the Crown Colony of Ceylon as the British had consented to the continuation of the traditional administration of the Kandyan Kingdom with the signing of the Convention. Here it was specified that the British would administer the Kandyan region without much change, according to the laws, institutions and customs established and in force amongst them. However, the British retained the right to introduce any changes as and when they deemed fit.

In 1817, Muslims in the Wellassa area began agitating , demanding that a member of their community be appointed as Muhandiram. This request was met. Meanwhile, the fields were destroyed and the British began killing the cattle for food, driving the natives to a frenzy. The cultural clash and certain decisions by the British ultimately led to the Rebellion of 1817. The first outbreak was in Uva, with the blessings from the Uva Disawe, Keppitipola. The rebellion caused heavy losses to both sides. Except for a few Provinces, the rebellion spread to all parts of the country and the British sought to suppress the rebels applying the motto by famine, sword and flame. This revolt exhibited the strength of the British military might, making Kandyans suffer severe setbacks.

Sir Edward Barnes Governor of Ceylon (Jan 1824 - Oct 1831)

A significant change with regard to Buddhism was made by the British Government at the same time. As they found that the Buddhist priests were the main architects of the rebellion, the hostile British created a new agreement which merely stated that the priests and the ceremonies of Buddhism shall receive the respect which in former times was shown to them. Despite Governor Brownrigg's resolve to set up a proper road network which would provide the British with the necessary access to the hill country, he could do little to achieve this goal with two uprisings during his tenure. It was therefore Governor Barnes who fulfilled this objective of the British for which he took a decade and did so at much cost.

The challenges of governing increased with the crumbling of the economy. Coffee plantations became non-profit making ventures driving the native and British cultivators to despair.

The seething hatred was fuelled further when the Governor sought to impose new taxes-on boats, roads, dogs etc.; Of all the taxes, the road tax was the most hated as the Ceylonese did not care for new roads and thought that they were being constructed for the benefit of the Europeans alone. Every male between 18-60 years excepting a few categories, were made to compulsorily give six days labour for road construction. It was misunderstood to be a practice similar to the rajakariya system which was abolished in 1832.

The rebellion began in the Dambulla area, where people rallied around Gongalegoda Banda and soon spread to other areas. Many were shot dead on the spot and their houses were burnt by the British Army which went on a rampage, burning and looting the properties of the Sinhalese. Puran Appu was one of the 18 executed following a brief trial by a Court Martial during this reign of terror.

Kurunegala and Matale districts were the most affected, and Kandy was placed under martial law and reinforcements were sought from Madras. In this backdrop, the Kudahahapola Therunnanse was shot dead at Bogambara in his saffron robes-insulting Buddhist priesthood and injuring the religious sensitivities of the people. It was symbolic that monks be executed in their robes which also marked the destruction of the Buddhist Kingdom by the British. In less than three months, the Rebellion had concluded. Torrington's manner of governing the Colony drew much criticism from the British themselves. A Parliamentary inquiry in Britain followed,resulting in his resignation in 1850 which marked the end of one of the most turbulent periods in the history of Ceylon. (Sunday Times)


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