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 Post subject: This Inscrutable Englishman: Sir John D'Oyly, Baronet
 Post Posted: Sun Jun 26, 2005 2:49 am 
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This Inscrutable Englishman: Sir John D'Oyly, Baronet, 1774-1824,
by Brendon Gooneratne and Yasmine Gooneratne

Reviewed by Patrick Peebles

H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online

The Englishman Who Went Into The Hills

John D'Oyly was one of a group of well-educated young men sent to Sri Lanka in 1801 to form the core of the Ceylon Civil Service. He excelled at Sinhala studies and became Chief Translator to the Government, in which capacity he became a key figure in the annexation of the Kingdom of Kandy in the interior of the island in 1815. D'Oyly drafted the Act of Settlement, in which occurs the famous phrase "The Religion of Boodhoo ... is declared inviolable." He was appointed Resident of Kandy and administered Kandyan provinces "according to established forms," through the Kandyan aristocracy. A revolt broke out in 1817, and after its suppression in 1818, the interior gradually was integrated into a uniform administration. He continued to serve in Kandy and died there, never returning to England.

The conquest of the Kandyan Kingdom and D'Oyly's role in it are among the most frequently discussed events in Sri Lankan popular history. The British characterized it as the end of 2537 years of Sinhalese government, and in Sri Lanka today it symbolizes the colonial degradation of Buddhism and Sinhala. D'Oyly is seen variously as a spy who masterminded the conquest, a romantic admirer of Kandyan culture, or both. Both authors have examined the subject before: Yasmine Gooneratne in an introduction to a British account of these events,[1] a family history,[2] and a novel[3]; Brendon Gooneratne it in a published lecture.[4]

This book is aimed at a popular audience. It is beautifully written and attractively presented, with fifteen black-and-white illustrations and eight color plates. It also claims scholarly accuracy in its depictions of the events of their subject's career, and this review will concentrate on this facet of the book.

D'Oyly was a virtual recluse to whom others seldom referred and who wrote little about himself. Selections from his official diary were published in 1917[5] and his notes on Kandyan government have been published,[6] as have been letters he received from his family (along with extracts from a diary he kept as a Cambridge undergraduate).[7] None of these tell us much about the man, hence the term "Inscrutable Englishman," coined by E. F. C. Ludowyk.

After a detailed look at his early life, the authors draw ingeniously on the writings of D'Oyly's contemporaries to depict the English society into which he was thrust in early nineteenth century Sri Lanka. Some of the literary references are anachronistic (e.g., a journey from Galle to Colombo in 1867 stands in for D'Oyly's in 1801) and some are far-fetched (e.g., comparing Kandy with Delhi and D'Oyly with Sir David Octerlony, the British resident in Delhi). On the whole they have constructed a fascinating biography of a complex personality.

Much attention is given to a charming if not convincing description of the supposed relationship between D'Oyly and the woman poet Cornelia Perumal (Gajaman Nona). Gajaman Nona wrote twelve verses addressed to him, which may have been a single poem written on the occasion of his appointment as Agent of Revenue of her district. The Gooneratnes accept some of the legends that have grown up around these verses--that Gajaman Nona petitioned for assistance, that they met privately, and that the Agent granted her a village. There is only "tradition" to support these conclusions, and the only question to the authors is whether or not the 46-year-old poet seduced the 31-year-old civil servant, who they assume was sexually inexperienced.

Governor Sir Thomas Maitland (1805-1811) appointed D'Oyly Chief Translator, displacing the highest Sinhalese official, the Maha Mudaliyar, as the official in charge of communication with Kandy. In this role he gathered intelligence from many sources. When Maitland's successor, Robert Brownrigg (1812-1820) arrived with a more aggressive policy toward the interior, D'Oyly monitored and encouraged the growing antipathy of the feudal lords to the megalomaniacal tyranny of King Sri Wickrema Raja Sinha. D'Oyly's machinations enabled the British to annex the kingdom without resistance as the Kandyan chieftains attached themselves to Brownrigg's army along its march to Kandy. D'Oyly was hailed as a hero and appointed resident. Kandyan resistance festered, however, and broke into open rebellion in 1817. Brownrigg appears to have blamed D'Oyly for the rebellion, as the bhikkhus and Chieftains he befriended defected to the rebels. D'Oyly became more reclusive than ever in his final six years (and possibly was ill with malaria), participating in ceremonial events, collecting notes on Kandyan government and, belatedly, considering a return to England. He was awarded a Baronetcy in 1821.

While this book is a successful biography, it falls short as history. The chapters on the conquest of Kandy draw from modern Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist revisionism, particularly the polemical writings of Tennekoon Vimalananda. This interpretation arose in response to the colonial discourse which treated the conquest of the interior as an unmitigated blessing for the Kandyans, and it has become a source of poisonous anti-Tamil rhetoric today. Its discursive field is the debate in Colombo's English-language newspapers. The authors tend to cite these newspaper articles rather than scholarly research, even when this research appears to be the ultimate origin of the information.[8]

The Kingdom of Kandy was a product of the breakup of the Kingdom of Kotte in the 1470s and the appearance of the Portuguese a generation later. It resisted Portuguese and Dutch invasions by controlling the passes into the hills and by rallying militia under the leadership of feudal lords. The last such defense took place in 1803; by 1815, however, the British were much better prepared and the inevitable occupation took place. The narrative of which this book forms a part presents the conquest of Kandy not only as the tragedy of a poor and weak kingdom overwhelmed by an aggressive power with far superior resources, but as a heroic defense of those values held by today's Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists. Two features of this narrative are particularly salient: the motives of the Kandyan chieftains and the importance of the rulers' Tamil origins.

The annexation in 1815 was indisputably the result of negotiations between the Chieftains and the British, whereas the 1817 revolt appears to have been a spontaneous resistance to British misrule which surprised the Chieftains as much as anyone. The Gooneratnes reverse the two. In 1815, they say, "The resentment and anger of the Sinhalese at the king's obstinacy, his increasingly voluptuous habits, and above all the Tamil domination of the court of Kandy, gradually reached the point of open revolt" (p. 116). On the other hand, the 1817 rebellion is treated as a nationalist uprising led by the Chieftains. Monerawala Keppetipola Maha Disave "and his compatriots" (who defected to the rebels after it was well underway) are treated as "leaders of the uprising" (p. 175). They claim that about 10,000 "Sinhalese fighting men" died in the rebellion (p. 174). This latter is a distortion of John Davy's estimate that a total of 10,000 Kandyans died of all causes, and gives the impression of more extensive warfare than actually occurred.

This narrative omits some crucial details. The objections the Chieftains made to D'Oyly before 1815 were mainly against the sort of practices (excessive use of corvee labor, torture, humiliation of Chieftains, fomenting internecine rivalry, etc.) that Robert Knox describes for the Sinhalese king of Kandy in 1681. (It could be argued that Sri Wickrema, although of Tamil origin, was not Tamil enough!) There was no resistance whatsoever in 1815. The 1817 rebellion began when a man appeared claiming to be a member of the Tamil royal family began gathering a following; it collapsed when it was discovered that he was a Sinhalese bhikkhu in disguise. The Kandyan Chieftains and bhikkhus opposed colonial rule, as recorded in the official diaries of the time, more for the loss of their caste and feudal privileges than for the protection of their religion and culture. It is difficult to argue from that there was much anti-Tamil sentiment in Kandy or that ethnic nationalism motivated the actors.

The history of the period needs further research, but one glaring omission in this work is the veil pulled over the role of the low-country Sinhalese mudaliyars (Sinhalese elites in British territory serving as officials). D'Oyly's Diary makes it clear that much of his information came not from his spies, if that is the proper word, but from the mudaliyars, who themselves operated agents who communicated with the interior. Foremost of these were Don Adrian Wijesinghe Jayewardene (founder of the family of late President J. R. Jayewardene), who was known as Tamby Mudaliyar. It included, among others, Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, ancestor of late Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and current President Chandrika Kumaranatunge. Other low-country Sinhalese mudaliyars established their family fortunes by taking up positions as interpreters and administrators in the Kandyan districts.

One key figure in the occupation was Second Maha Mudaliyar Abraham de Saram Wijesekara Abhayagunaratna, who became interpreter to the Governor. He communicated with the Kandyan Chieftains in March 1815, a return to the practice before D'Oyly became Chief Translator (p. 144). The Gooneratnes point out that John Davy's Account of the Interior of Ceylon avoids reference to D'Oyly, even though "they must have been brought into close daily contact" (pp. 184-85). They believe D'Oyly was virtually ostracized at this time, perhaps for his suspected Buddhist leanings (pp. 186-87), perhaps for his suspected homosexuality (pp. 223-25). The omission of D'Oyly's contribution is indeed suspect, but they are wrong when they say "D'Oyly must have been the conduit through which Davy gained his information on Kandyan social custom and political practice" (p. 185). Davy is explicit that de Saram was his interpreter. The emergence of a loyal, bilingually educated cadre of mudaliyars exemplifies the British return to the Dutch practice of relying on mudaliyars as interpreters and translators, which made D'Oyly's expertise superfluous.


1. John Davy, An Account of the Interior of Ceylon.... Ceylon Historical Journal. Vol 16. [Reprint of 1821 edition] (Dehiwala: Tisara Prakasakayo, 1969).

2. Relative Merits. A Personal Memoir of the Bandaranaike Family of Sri Lanka. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

3. The Pleasures of Conquest New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1995.

4. The Epic Struggle of the Kingdom of Kandy and its Relevance to Modern Indo-Sri Lankan Relations. The 1990 Sally Sage and David McAlpin Lecture (London: Argus Publications, 1995).

5. H. W. Codrington, ed. Diary of Mr. John D'Oyly. Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. Vol. XXV, No. 69. (1917). [Reprinted Navrang, 1995]

6. Ceylon. Statistical Dept. A Sketch of the Constitution of the Kandyan Kingdom, by Sir John D'Oyly.... (Colombo: H. R. Cottle, Government Printer, Ceylon, 1929. [Reprinted Tisara Prakasakayo 1975]).

7. P. E. Pieris, ed. Letters to Ceylon, 1814-1824; Being Correspondence Addressed to Sir John D'Oyly (Cambridge [Eng.]: W. Heffer & Sons, Ltd., 1938).

8. The most important such omission is Colvin R. De Silva, Ceylon Under the British Occupation, 1795-1833..... Vol. 1. (2nd ed. Colombo: Colombo Apothecaries, 1942).

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