WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Veera Puran Appu: stood up against the might of British Empire

(@ CDN: by Tyronne Fernando MP, PC )

Veera Puran Appu originally Veera Hennedige Francisco Fernando was born on the 7th of November, 1812 in Moratuwa and was executed by the British on the 8th of August, 1848 in Kandy. Francisco left Moratuwa at the age of 13 and stayed for sometime at Ratnapura with his uncle Marcellenus Fernando, the first Sinhala proctor who had a flourishing practice there. Between 1842 and 1844, he became famous as a fearless person in the Uva province. In early 1847, he met and married Bandaramenike, the daughter of Gunnepana Arachchi in Kandy.

By the time Puran Appu came to Kandy the Kandyan provinces were in a state of turmoil. They had been under British rule for 32 years. The depression in the United Kingdom had severely affected the local coffee and cinnamon industry. Also, a blight had struck the coffee plant.

Planters and merchants clamoured for a reduction of export duties. Sir Emmerson Tennent, the Colonial Secretary in Colombo recommended to Earl Grey, Secretary of State for Colonies in London that taxation should be radically shifted from indirect taxation to direct taxation. This proposal was accepted. It was decided to abolish the export duty on coffee and reduce the export duty on cinnamon leaving a deficit of 40,000 Pounds Sterling which was to be met by direct taxes on the people. A new Governor, 35 year old Torrington, a cousin of Prime Minister Lord Russel was despatched to Colombo by Queen Victoria to carry out these reforms.

On the 1st of July, 1848, licence fees were imposed on guns, dogs, carts, shops and labour was made compulsory on plantation roads, unless a special tax was paid. These taxes bore heavily not only on the purse but also on the traditions of the Kandyan peasant.

A mass movement against the oppressive taxes was developing. The masses were without the leadership of their native King (deposed in 1815) and their chiefs (annihilated after the 1818 rebellion). The leadership passed for the first time in the Kandyan provinces into the hands of ordinary people.

The real leader of this group became Francisco Fernando, now popularly known as Puran Appu. Professor Kingsley de Silva in his book "The Rebellion of 1848" says that "Puran Appu was a most resourceful and courageous man who took a leading part in the events and died a courageous death." On 28.07.48 Puran Appu led an attack on Matale. This was successful. However, the other leaders who attacked Kurunegala and Wariyapola failed. Ultimately, Puran Appu himself was captured and he was executed after trial on the 8th of August, 1848.

In times of crisis such as this it is good and useful to remember and honour the Heroes in our nations history.

It gives us a sense of perspective, stability, and hope for the future. Puran Appu was a leader who stood up against the might of the British Empire. The might of the British Empire was at its zenith under Queen Victoria in 1848. Puran Appu proved that the unity of our people, and proper and courageous leadership would be the basis to face any crisis.

The best tribute to him was paid by his enemies. Governor Torrington wrote to the Colonial Secretary (The letter can be seen at Durham University and I have a photocopy of it). "I remind you of the last words of Puran Appu. He held up his hand and said, if there had been half a dozen such men as me to lead there would not be a white man living in the Kandyan Provinces.

This is true. If there had been such leaders, without doubt for a time we should have lost the country."

It must be remembered that Puran Appu was a low country man. He was a stranger to the Kandyan Provinces, except for the fact that he had married a Kandyan girl. The people of the Kandyan Provinces had lost their king in 1815 and lost their nobles in 1818.

They rallied round Puran Appu although he was from a different part of the country. They rallied round him because he was a leader who was suitable for their immediate task.

James de Alwis wrote in 1876 in the 'Ceylon Over-land Examiner' that Puran Appu had "a bold and daring disposition combined with a strong and healthy constitution."

On the 8th of August, 1848, Puran Appu was executed in Kandy exactly 153 years ago. The events of 1848 had its sequel in the British House of Commons.

A Select Committee was appointed which consisted of Peel, Gladstone and Disraeli among others. These three were later to become Prime Ministers of England. On the recommendation of the Committee, the obnoxious taxes which Puran Appu fought against were repealed and the conduct of the British Governor and his assistants were severely criticised.

Thereafter, the attitude of the British in Ceylon took a different turn, repression gave way to welfare schemes and 100 years later Ceylon attained full independence and later became Sri Lanka.

154th Death Anniversary of Veera Puran Appu

Veerahennadige Francisco Fernando alias Puran Appu is one of the most colourful personalities in our history.

Puran Appu was executed by the British ending the "1848 Rebellion", the only people's revolution in this land. He fought against a world empire and sacrificed his life for the freedom of our nation.

He was born on November 1812 in Moratuwa. He left Moratuwa at the age of 13 and stayed in Ratnapura with his uncle, who was the first Sinhala proctor, and moved to Uva province, where he became famous for his opposition to British rule in Sri Lanka. In early 1847, he met and married Bandaramenike, the daughter of Gunnepana Arachchi in Kandy.

Viscount Torrington, the governor of Ceylon from 1847 to 1850 stated in his letter dated 9th October, 1849 to Earl Grey, the Colonial Secretary in London that, "I remind you of the last words of Puran Appu the hour before he was shot and he was a brave man. He held up his hand and said if there had been half a dozen such men as me to lead (the 1948 Rebellion) there would not have been a white man living in the Kandyan provinces, and this is true and we would have lost the country even for a short while". Puran Appu in his last words points his finger to the problem faced by the Sri Lankans over generations. The problem of leaders; we have probably the best leaders, but they are only a few!

Puran Appu acted with strong determination against British rule. Long before the Rebellion, he broke into the Magistrates house in Badulla because he felt the magistrate was unjust. He was imprisoned, but he broke the prison and escaped. The gazette notification by the Governor on 1st of January, 1847, offering ten pounds for his apprehension provides probably the best bio data of Puran Appu available today. It says "Puran Appu, originally of Morotto, lately of Kandy, trade - unknown, cast - fisher, height - 5ft 7 1/2 inches, hair - long and black, eyes - light hazel, complexion - light, well looking, make - well made, stout, marks of punishment on the back and 4 vaccination marks."

Governor Torrington was not successful in hiding his fear of the national leadership symbolized by Puran Appu. He wrote in one of his other letters to the colonial secretary that "several prisoners who had been captured since the proclamation of martial law was tried and shot; and amongst them, one of the most desperate robbers in the island, who had, on more than one occasion, broken the prison, and for whose apprehension, a reward has long previously been offered ..... he (Puran Appu) died exclaiming, if the king had three men about him as bold and determined as myself he would have been master of Kandy".

Puran Appu further teaches the national leaders, the inevitability of being bold and determined to achieves success.

Puran Appu was not only a political revolutionary but also a social revolutionary! He marks the history of Sri Lanka in a very peculiar way. Being a boy from low country town, Moratuwa, he was able to marry a daughter of a Kandyan chieftain and led the Kandyan masses in a rebellion against the might of the British empire. The story of Puran Appu goes against the common belief still prevailing in our society that cast and class are barriers to success. He proved that the people of this land are not reluctant to rally round a person, if he demonstrates genuine leadership qualities and is honestly determined to serve the common man.

And he was also an economic revolutionary! He led the common man against the British Empire. The 1848 Rebellion demonstrated a special character in that its intention was not merely a political one. By the time Puran Appu came to Kandy the Kandyan provinces were in a state of turmoil. The British had been ruling the country for 32 years. The depression the British economy was experiencing during this period had affected coffee and cinnamon prices, and the planters and merchants clamoured for a reduction in export duties. In response, the British decided to abolish export duties and to meet the resulting reduction in the government revenue, by imposing direct taxes which weighed heavily on the Kandyan peasant.

Sir Henry Charles in his writing titled "Ceylon and the Cingales - 1850" cites a notice circulated throughout the villages prior to the rebellion, which said that "His Excellency the Governor has, for the present, enacted several taxes to be levied from the inhabitants of the island viz. upon firearms, dogs, men, boats, and boutiques, and in addition to this, it is also enacted to levy, in a few months more, a tax upon trees, lands, cattle, and all useful quadrupeds".

Professor K.M. de Silva in his book, "The Rebellion in 1848" says that "the political objective may have been less important to them (the Kandyan peasants led by Puran Appu) than the more important need to compel the government to make some concession in the matter of taxation". Governor Torrington himself wrote the Colonial Secretary on August 11, 1848 after the execution of Puran Appu on August 8, 1848 that, "I believe there is no spot on the earth where less poverty exists than in Ceylon".

Thus, Veera Puran Appu fought to protect ourselves from the best economy that prevailed in the world during his time, one and a half centuries ago.

Puran Appu was a hero in the real sense of the word. He was probably the most prominent political, social and economic revolutionary in the history of the country!

Tyronne Fernando (P.C.), Minister of Foreign Affairs.

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