Remembering the freedom fighters of 1818, 1823 and 1848
by Kapila P. Vimaladharma
@ Sunday Observer
The recent announcement of a project by a prominent private enterprise to set up a national heroes park at Mailapitiya, near Hanguranketa, is indeed welcome news to those in the country, who wish to keep aglow the memories of the illustrious ancestors who selflessly sacrificed of their own life, liberty and wealth, for the sake of the sovereignty of the nation and welfare of the countrymen.
Every year on 25 of November, the newspapers in Sri Lanka publish commemorative articles, bringing to the notice of the reading public, the heroic efforts of a handful of the heroes of the 1818 Rebellion in the Kandyan country. About a hundred, mostly ageing persons, make up the audience of the meeting on a short afternoon, at the Keppitipola Memorial Hall in Kandy town, organised chiefly due to the tireless efforts of the chairman and the participation of the few active members of the Kandy Market Traders Association.
A meeting is held at which commemorative songs are sung, speeches given and sermons made, in praise of the leading figures. The annual ritual of garlanding the statue of Keppitipola Disava is faithfully performed by the Diyavadana Nilame.
The ease with which the key ministers of the Kandyan court fell into the designs of the imperial English authorities, helped them dethrone the king in 1815 and establish colonial rule over the remaining rump of the Sinhale kingdom, thus ending a two thousand five hundred year old sovereign state. However, most national minded chieftains and the ordinary citizens, perceived as well as experienced, the bitterness and inequalities that the alien rule portended. There was a growing popular protest and disaffection.
This mass movement stirred the inhabitants in the Kandyan territory to fight the foreign rulers in order to regain the country's independence lost only 3 years earlier. Of the eleven Kandyan chiefs who signed the Treaty of Capitulation, five found themselves disenchanted with the new masters and rose against them, leading the disgruntled people of their respective provinces. This was termed a 'rebellion' by the British rulers. Until recently, Sri Lankans too continued to use the same term.
We no longer call the freedom fighters of 1818, 'rebels'. It was Sir Paul Pieris, who paid a tribute to them as patriots, in a well researched publication in 1950, which he concluded with the telling words: "His Excellency General Sir Robert Brownrigg Bt.CCB, can be excused for branding as rebels the men, women and children who died for the ideal of a community which should be duly their own: but no generous soul with the instinct of freedom will refuse to honour them as patriots."
Undeterred by the cruel and sadistic punishments inflicted on the concerned individuals and even on whole village communities, and hardly two to five years later there were yet again similar obstinate attempts, albeit weak uncoordinated, and therefore destined to fail. These patriots of 1820 and 1823 have remained totally forgotten. There were vain but bold attempts in 1839 (Walapone Uprising) in addition to the fairly widespread rebellion in 1848. The Kandyans' last stand to regain lost sovereignty has been copiously narrated by Durand Appuhamy.
Annually we do honour the patriots of 1818. Quite customarily, we always honour the leader of the movement, Keppetipola Disava. But, how many others do we remember? These others too have given equally of their lives or of their property. Family members of most of these others, found no redress or restoration of unjustly confiscated property that belonged to them.
Many patriots languished in jail or in exile in remote Mauritius, and the majority found their jobs taken away, property sequestered and their families reduced to penury. They are heard of no more, unless someone cares to look up the dusty records at the Archives Department.
Listed by me are more than 300 of the patriots of 1818, whose names were collected from the archival records and the pages of Lawries' Gazetteer and other documents. Of the 47 'insurgents' captured in 1818 who were first court-martialled to capital punishment, only 28 were finally executed or hanged and the balance banished, imprisoned or later pardoned.
24 were banished to Mauritius island, where many died heart-broken and disillusioned. The survivors were allowed to return in 1832, only after the exiled King Srivikrema breathed his last in Vellore, India. The list given here contains also those who surrendered to the British forces. But it does not contain the many hundreds of small fry camp-followers who died in battle or otherwise decimated. At this distance of time it is difficult to trace these unknown soldiers, from documentary sources alone.
Those involved in the uprising included the high and mighty as well as the minor level officials and ordinary peasants. There were Maha Adhikarams, Maha Disavas, Palace officials such as Saluvadana, Batvadana and Diyavadana Nilames, Piharalas and Sattambi Ralas, Rate Mahattayas, Koralas and Araccis, Mohottalas, Liyana Ralas, Vidanes as well as Basnayaka Nilames and Buddhist Monks.
Amongst those whose post is not mentioned there were at the top, bandaras, nilames, mudiyanses, and appuhamis; in the Middle, bandas and ralas, in the Minor category, duraya, appu, naides, hangidiya, panikkiya, gammehe, guruva (Muslim) and a Tamil servant.
It is time, that a fitting commemorative epitaph is set up in Kandy in addition to the Keppitipola memorial. Inscribed on the pillar should be the names of all the so far identified patriots who lost their lives and liberties fighting for the motherland. In the district capitals of Kurunegala, Matale, Badulla, Moneragala, Ampare and Anuradhapura too similar pillars should be raised to the memory of the patriots of those areas. This is the least that the present generation could do in memory of those brave men.
A suggestion was made that, outside the Keppitipola Memorial Building in Kandy, stone epitaphs for the heroes (vira-gal) be erected so that those interested pedestrians can read them, and in the niches in the wall, the descendants and admirers could place flowers periodically to honour their memory.
I have been tracking down the present-day descendants of those heroes named in this list, and have made some headway. This task can be accomplished fully only if the present-day descendants contact me, so that, through interviews and study of whatever written material they possess, I could then attempt to compile a complete list of the patriots of 1818 etc and their descendants.
It has been suggested that the descendants of the Freedom Fighters against English rule could form an association, which could then take on the responsibility for organising commemorative events in Kandy and in other areas.
The writer has agreed to volunteer to assist with a compilation of the Freedom Fighters and of their descendants. Information should be addressed to him at 72/11, Wijenaike Place, off Pushpadana 2nd Lane, Anniewatta, Kandy.