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The 1818 rebellion and the execution of Keppetipola Dissawe

By M. D. (Tony) Saldin

To the Sinhalese, British rule in the Kandyan provinces was becoming absolutely incompatible. It was equivalent to jointly yoking a buffalo and a bull on the same plough! From time to time the inhabitants would anxiously query the British on when they hoped to return to the Maritime Provinces. They said, "You have now deposed the king and nothing more is required – you may leave us."

After the British takeover of the Kandyan Kingdom located in the central hill-country in Ceylon in 1815, discontent with the British gradually germinated in the minds of the Kandyan nobility.

Ceylon’s third British governor, General Sir Robert Brownrigg, reneged on the promise of raising Ehelepola Maha Nilame to the vacant throne of Kandy, after deposing the last King, Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe. Gov. Brownrigg also betrayed the terms of the Kandyan Convention, particularly in regard to Buddhism. The natives wanted a king to whom they could prostrate and depend on royal patronage in their religious and social undertakings; not a king thousands of miles away in England, ruling through delegated authority of the governor and other officers.

To the Sinhalese, British rule in the Kandyan provinces was becoming absolutely incompatible. It was equivalent to jointly yoking a buffalo and a bull on the same plough! From time to time the inhabitants would anxiously query the British on when they hoped to return to the Maritime Provinces. They said, "You have now deposed the king and nothing more is required – you may leave us."

Revolt

It is generally believed that the seeds of revolt were triggered by two major events:

The first occurred sometime in June 1816. Madugalle Uda Gabada Nilame, without the knowledge of the British Resident in Kandy, John D’Oyly, secretly proposed to the high priest about the removal of the sacred tooth relic from Kandy. The second took place in Sept. 1816, when he publicly sent offerings and prayers to the deities at Bintenne and Kataragama, for the downfall of the British rulers and the re-establishment of a king.

The British rulers considered these actions as amounting to high treason. On the charges being proven by a court comprising of both British officers and Kandyan chiefs, Madugalle was dismissed from office and summarily dispatched to Colombo under close arrest without being given the opportunity to even bid farewell to his family. His residence or walauwa was publicly burnt on the governor’s orders, and his other possessions were confiscated and sold. Ironically, such sale proceeds went toward the establishment of a pension fund for British officers!

Another event was the anger evoked on the appointment of Haji Mohandiram, a Moorman of Wellasse, as Chief of the Madigey (Transport) Department, a position usually held by the families of Bootawe, Kohukumbura, Nanapurowa Raterala, Allamulle Rala, Baknigahawella Mudiyanse and Nakkala Mudiyanse.

There were other reasons as well. The aristocracy and the Buddhist priests were accustomed to receiving respect from persons who interacted with them. However, during British rule a common British soldier used to pass by a Kandyan chief giving hardly any attention as he would to anybody else. They treated people of all levels alike. Such actions, although committed unconsciously, offended the Kandyan chieftains and the priests.

Wilbawe

In Sept. 1817, Sylvester Wilson, who was the government agent of Badulla, received intelligence that a Malabar had turned up in the Uva Wellasse region with a large following, claiming the throne of Kandy. The British initially mistook him for Doraisamy a relation of the deposed king, but it later transpired that he was Wilbawe, a former priest. Since Malabaris were prohibited from entering the Kandyan provinces without obtaining prior permission, Sylvester Wilson immediately sent the recently elevated Haji Mohandiram with a detachment to investigate.

Haji Mohandiram proceeded to Dankumbura in Bintenne where he received information that Wilbawe and the priests were at Kehelwella guarded by 200-armed Veddahs. While on his way to confront Wilbawe, Haji Mohandiram was captured by Bootawe Rate Rala at Wellassa and, on Wilbawe’s orders, put to death.

Wilson

It was now Government Agent Sylvester Wilson’s turn to investigate.

He set off from Badulla on 16.10.1817 with an armed escort of twenty-four Malay & Javanese soldiers under the command of Lieut-Newman and made contact with Wilbawe’s forces in Wellassa. On two occasions, he tried to reason with the unruly mob, comprising of people of the Uva/Wellasse region, to give up their uprising, but they refused to hear him. On his way back to Badulla, Wilson ordered his escort to continue its march while he stopped at a stream to take a wash. It was at this time that some hundred armed rebels appeared. Wilson defensively removed his coat to indicate to the rebels he was unarmed, and called them to come closer to negotiate. Instead, about forty of them advanced within about six yards of him and shot him with their bows and arrows. Wilson fell dead.

Wilson’s head was decapitated on the orders of Wilbawe and mounted on a stake. An Ola wrapped in a white cloth suspended from a tree contained a Proclamation from the Pretender Wilbawe, announcing himself as the king and enjoining his subjects to put every white man to death.

Keppetipola Dissawe

Rajapaksa Wickramasekera Mudiyanselage Monarawila Keppetipola, the warrior Dissawe of Uva, known as Keppetipola Dissawe was in the hill capital when Wilson met his premature death.

The British Resident in Kandy John D’Oyly, thoroughly alarmed by this tragedy, despatched Keppetipola Dissawe to Badulla with instructions to crush the rebels and restore law and order in his Dissawony.

Keppetipola proceeded with a contingent to Alupotha. After setting up camp there, he rode alone to meet the rebels. They shortly showed themselves and surrounded him. When he asked "What is the matter," Kattambe Rala replied, "The island has been in the darkness, but like the sun that gives light to and shines upon all, a King has arisen – to whom if you be faithful, accompany us, if unfaithful, we shall here slay you and convey your head to him."

Keppetipola endorsed, "If I was unfaithful I would not have come alone. I have come as a friend." Keppetipola and his followers numbering about five hundred men joined the rebels. He returned all his arms and ammunition to the British; probably Keppetipola’s conscience didn’t allow him to use British guns against the British. Perhaps history may have been re-written if he had retained the weapons.

Keppetipola’s defection to the rebel’s cause had a profound effect on the British administrators as well as on the Kandyan chiefs and the people. He was an influential and a highly placed aristocrat, connected to all the leading families in the kingdom. His late sister, mother of child hero Madduma Bandara, was the wife of Ehelepola Maha Nilame, and his uncle was Pilamatalawa Maha Adikaram, former Prime Minister, to the deposed king.

Martial Law

The governor with Lady Brownrigg was on circuit at Trincomalee when a messenger arrived with bad news of the revolt and the defection of Keppetipola.

This adverse turn of events worried Brownrigg. He immediately hastened to Kandy where he set up his field-headquarters, and arranged for strong military action. Martial law was subsequently declared in the Kandyan provinces and 2000-rix dollars was offered as a reward for the capture of the Pretender Wilbawe and 500-rix dollars for each of the other principal chiefs.

On receiving instructions from Brownrigg, Major MacDonald of the 19th Regiment marched from Badulla with two divisions; one commanded by him and the other by Captain Ritchie of the 73rd Regiment. They promptly proceeded to Oosanwelle in Wellasse by taking different routes and were joined by Captain Fraser on the following day. It was in these precincts that they discovered Government Agent Wilson’s head and the Ola.

As an act of retaliation against the rebels and inhabitants, Major MacDonald assisted by Lieut-MacCornell and Lieut-Taylor, set fire to the houses in the surrounding villages, burnt their grain and cut down their coconut, jak and breadfruit trees. The cattle were then driven off to feed the troops. This terrible sight dismayed the people who ceased to shout or skirmish; simply gazing in silence upon the flames, which consumed their habitations, from a distance. They were panic-stricken at the rapid strikes of the swearing and sweating British Redcoats. Incidentally Wellasse which literally means "Wel Lakhsa" or "lakh of paddy fields" was a fertile region which was laid waste by British troops.

King

Wilbawe did not have the legitimacy to the throne but sought to obtain it by getting himself proclaimed as the king in the same manner with due pomp and ceremony.

A palace was built in Diyabetme Wela. On the day of inauguration and anointing ceremony, the people stood in rows, one for the chiefs and the other for the people. The royal insignia comprising the royal umbrella, palanquin, royal cap and other insignia were displayed. On the first day the king appeared, completely covered in white cloth the colour of royalty.

On the following day the chiefs and other subordinate native headmen appeared in order, with their banners, horses and elephants before a pavilion. Keppetipola and the other chiefs and native headmen then prostrated themselves. The king was then formally crowned according to tradition and presented to the people, amidst the beating of tomtoms and the sounding of trumpets. Wilbawe claimed to be a Suriyawansa and a descendant of King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe. Wilbawe needed Keppetipola’s allegiance so that the Kandyan aristocracy would legitimize his appointment. Accordingly, Keppetipola was appointed as first adigar or maha adikaram. The other officials such as the Mohotalas, Korales, Vidanes, and Arachchi’s were also appointed. They were then told to make war against the British under the leadership of their respective chiefs.

Guerrilla war

The British army in Ceylon usually comprised of Europeans, Javanese, Malay and African troops. Lascoreens and Pioneers were recruited from the Maritime Provinces and the Indian sub-continent.

The Kandyans, acknowledging British superiority in arms and firepower, rarely confronted the Colonial troops in conventional warfare muzzle to muzzle. However, they resorted to continually and expertly ambushing British troops and supply columns traversing narrow jungle paths, by firing arrows, muskets and "gingals" (grasshopper guns). They also chopped trees across paths, set improvised booby traps and pits lightly covered by soil armed with thorns and pointed stakes to catch unwary soldiers. Malaria, Dengue, Encephalitis and other tropical dieses annihilated the rest.

There were several cruel British officers who served in Ceylon. One was Lieut- J. MaClaine of the 73rd Regiment, whose usual habit was to hang captured prisoners whilst he took breakfast. Retribution followed swiftly when the Kandyans waylaid and shot him. Lieut-Col. Hook was another bloodthirsty officer who hanged anyone he suspected to be a rebel or a collaborator.

Lieutenants Colonel Hook and Hardy concentrated their military activities in Wallapone and Badulla. Lieut-Col. Kelly and Major Macdonald engaged the rebels in Uva/Wellassa. First Adigar Molligoda ably assisted the British and was handsomely rewarded by them.

Gradually the rebellion began spilling into other provinces, and more and more chiefs threw in their lot with Keppetipola, after they sensed that the rebellion would succeed. Dumbara was the first; then Sabaragamuwa, followed by the seven Korales. The Kandyan chiefs, Molligoda, Eckneligoda, Mahawalatenne and Dolosvala did not support the rebellion.

Governor Brownrigg issued a Proclamation on 01.01.1818 that the following seventeen persons were engaged in promoting rebellion and war against His Majesty’s Forces, and that they were "Rebels, Outlaws and Enemies to the British." Their lands and properties were to be confiscated by the Crown. They were:

(1) Keppetipola, the former Dissawe of Ouva; (2) Godagedara, former Adikaram of Ouva; (3) Ketakala Mohottala of Ouva; (4) Maha Betmerala of Kataragama in Ouva; (5) Kuda Betmerala of Kataragama in Ouva; (6) Palagolla Mohottala of Ouva; (7) Passerewatte Vidane of Ouva; (8) Kiwulegedera Mohottala of Walapane; (9) Yalagomme Mohotalla of Walapane; (10) Udamadure Mohottala of Walapane; (11) Kohukumbure Rate Rala of Wellassa; (12) Kohukumbura Walauwe Mohottala of Wellassa; (13) Bootawe Rate Rala of Wellassa; (14) Kohukumbura Gahawela Rate Rala of Wellassa (15) Maha Badullegammene Rate Rala of Wellassa (16) Bulupitiye Mohottala of Wellassa; (17) Palle Malheyae Gametirale of Wellassa.

The British considered them as rebels and outlaws, but the indigenous folk saw them as freedom fighters waging war to eject the British colonials who had subjugated their country.

Reinforcements

The spreading rebellion alarmed Brownrigg. He informed his superior, Earl Bathurst in London, that British prestige was at stake and that, if they lost, it would have far-reaching consequences for the Empire in India as well. Accordingly, he requested the British Governor of Madras for reinforcements, which the Madras Government despatched in the form of two battalions; one of European infantry and the other Sepoys of the Madras Native Infantry.

After disembarking, the soldiers marched from Trincomalee across the hills to Badulla with their baggage. They were harassed all the way by the Kandyans. However, they steadfastly maintained their line without disintegration.

In April 1818, the British scored a major success when Native Lieut. Annan of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment (CRR) and twenty-nine of his men penetrated deep into the Kandyan countryside and trapped Kohukumbure Rate Rala a rebel Chief, (the 11th on the governor’s Wanted List) by pretending to desert to the rebels. Kohukumbure was then taken as prisoner. Annan was subsequently promoted to the rank of Native Captain and he and his men were decorated with badges of merit, in addition to receiving a reward of 500-rix dollars.

September 1818 saw the British gaining the upper hand whilst the rebel leaders showed signs of wavering. One Hapategamme Mohottala wrote to Kiwulegedere Mohotalla, another chief thus: "Our country is entered on all sides by the English, with large bodies from Uva, who kill us and destroy our property. All other countries have submitted, we must either collect our people and fight the English, or take poison. Whatever you do I will follow your example; be quick and decide, for we cannot escape being taken by the English."

Gov. Brownrigg promised leniency if the rebels and their leaders surrendered before the deadline of 20.09.1818. Since the rice fields had been uncultivated for several seasons, there was not enough food, which caused a lot of hardship amongst the rebels. One by one, the rebel chiefs and their men began surrendering with their arms to take advantage of a pardon granted by the governor.

Keppetipola fled to Anuradhapura but was captured together with Pilama Talawa the 2nd in a walauwa on 28.10.1818 by Lieut. O’Neil assisted by Native Lieut. Cader-Boyet of the CRR. Madugalle made good his escape through the back door. However, five days later, on 02.11.1818, in a separate incident, Ensign Shootbraid captured Madugalle hiding behind a rock in the jungles of Elaherra.

On the same day, the Sacred Tooth Relic fell into the hands of Shootbraid. "Its recovery had a manifest effect on all classes and its having fallen into British hands again by accident, demonstrated to the superstitious people of this country that it was the destiny of the British Nation to govern the Kandyan Kingdom," wrote Gov. Brownrigg to Earl Bathurst, in triumph. Some months earlier, Keppetipola Dissawe had the Sacred Tooth Relic spirited away from under the very noses of the British sentries at the Dalada Maligawa.

Ehelepola

Ehelepola Maha Nilame continued to outrightly condemn the Rebellion, but Adigar Molligoda poisoned the minds of the British that Ehelepola was secretly involved. This issue became an embarrassment to Brownrigg who banished Ehelepola and several other chiefs involved in the rebellion, to Mauritius. It transpired later that Ehelepola was secretly helping the rebels.

Execution

Death sentences were passed on both Keppetipola and Madugalle.

Both tried to commute their sentences to banishment, but failed. Dr. Henry Marshall’s record of the last moments of the two chiefs is touching as described by M. A. Durand Appuhamy in his book, The Rebels, Outlaws and Enemies to the British (Colombo, Author, 1990).

"Early in the morning of 25th of November, 1818, Keppetipola and Madugalle were in compliance with their own request, taken to the Dalada Maligawa, or temple of the sacred tooth relic. At the request of Keppetipola, and by permission of His Excellency Sir Robert Brownrigg, Mr. Sawers met him at the temple. Kneeling before the priest, upon the threshold of the sanctuary, the repository of the sacred relic, the Chief detailed the principal meritorious actions of his life, such as benefits he had conferred on priests, together with the gifts he had bestowed on temples, and other acts of piety. He then pronounced the Proptannawah, or last wish; namely, that on his next birth, he might be born on the mountains of the Himalayas, and finally obtain Nibbana, a state of partial annihilation. Having concluded his devotions he was addressed by the priest, who in an impressive tone, pronouncing a benediction, the last words of which were as follows: ‘As sure as a stone thrown up into the air returns to the earth, so certain you will, in consideration of your religious merits, be present at the next incarnation of the Buddha, and receive your reward.’ The scene between the Chief, and the priest was most solemn and impressive. The Chief, who had continued kneeling, rose and turned round to Mr. Sawers, addressed in the following words:- ‘I give you a share of the merit of my last religious offering’ – and forthwith unwinding his upper cloth from his waist he presented it to the temple, jocularly observing, that although it was both foul and ragged, ‘the merit of the offering would not on’ those accounts be diminished, it being all he had to give. He then requested Mr. Sawers to accompany him to the place of execution, which was kindly and respectfully, declined.

"Madugalle’s devotions were conducted in a similar manner, but although he had evinced great bravery in the field, he lost self possession on this occasion. When the priest had given him his benediction, he sprang forward, and rushed into the sanctuary, where he loudly craved mercy for the sake of the relic. He was instantly dragged from behind the dagoba by Lieut. Mackenzie, the fort adjutant, with the assistance of some of the guard.

Keppetipola who conducted himself with great firmness and self possession, and was greatly surprised at the pusillanimity of his fellow prisoner, in the most dispassionate manner observed, that Madugalle acted like a fool. He then, in a firm and collected manner shook hands with Mr. Sawers, and bade him farewell.

"The prisoners were then taken to the place of execution which was near to the Bogambara tank about a mile distant from the temple. Here they requested to be provided with water for the purpose of ablution, which was brought to them. Keppetipola then begged to be allowed a short time to perform the ceremonies of his religion. This request being granted, both the prisoners washed their hands and face. Keppetipola then tied up his hair in a knot on the top of his head and sat down on the ground, beside a small bush, grasping it at the same time with his toes.

From the folds of his cloth which encircled his loins, he took a small Bana potha or prayer book and, after reciting some prayers or verses, he gave the book to a native official who was present, requesting him to deliver it to Mr. Sawers, as a token of the gratitude he felt for his friendship and kindness, when they were officially connected at Badulla, - Mr. Sawers as Agent of the government, and Keppetipola as Dissawe of Uva.

"The Chief continued to repeat some Pali verses; and, while he was so employed, the executioner struck him on the back of his neck with a sharp sword. At that moment he breathed out the word Arahan, one of the names of the Buddha. A second stroke deprived him of his life and he fell to the ground a corpse. His head being separated from his body, it was, according to custom, placed on his breast.

"Madugalle continued to evince great want of firmness: and being unable to tie up his hair, that operation was performed by the Heaigha Kangaan, the chief public executioner. The perturbed state of his mind was evinced by the convulsive action of the muscle of his face. He earnestly begged to be dispatched by means of one blow, and then finally pronounced the word Arahan. In consequence of his not having sufficient resolution to bend his head forward, it was held by one of the executioners. After the first blow of the sword he fell backwards; but he was not deprived of his life until he received the second stroke."

That Madugalle flinched faced with the jaws of death, is both understandable and pardonable.

Wilbawe

Wilbawe escaped into the jungles and lived with the Veddhas. He was subsequently captured by the British in 1830 , 12 years after the rebellion and released without any punishment being imposed on him because of a time lapse..

Prologue: Descendants

A year ago, I interviewed a direct descendant of the famous hero Monarawila Keppetipola Dissawa. He is the genial Chandrawansa Chandrasekera Keppetipola Mudiyanse Ralahamylage Manendra Keppetipola of Dodantale Walauwa, in Mawanella. Incidentally the English sea-captain Robert Knox, Jr. was a state prisoner at Dodantale Walauwa for a short period, on the orders of the then reigning Kandyan Monarch Rajasinghe the 2nd in the mid 17th century..

Through Manendra I was able to learn that as soon as the British declared Keppetipola as a rebel, the Keppetipola family converted their ancestral Walauwa in the village of Keppetipola on the Mawanella-Rambukkana Road in the Kegalle District into a Viharaya, to ensure that the British could not touch it.

Manendra had several tales to tell me about his legendary ancestor. A skilled swordsman, the Dissawa could cleanly slice through a thick banana tree with one blow of his sharp sword, and it would take several minutes for the trunk to fall. From time to time he would display his swordsmanship to British Military officers who visited his Walauwa

It was Manendra’s father, Madduma Bandara Keppetipola who, received the skull of Keppetipola Dissawe which was returned to Ceylon by the British, after the island gained independence. The skull was transported on a gun carriage from Colombo port to Kandy and ceremonially buried with military honours at Bogambara opposite the Dalada Maligawa.

References:

(1) The Rebels, Outlaws & Enemies to the British by M. A. Durand Appuhamy.

(2) The Great Rebellion of 1818 by Professor Tennakoon Vimalananda, Head, Dept of History, Vidyalankara University.

(3) The Kandyan Wars – The British Army in Ceylon by Colonel Geoffrey Powell. @The Island


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