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 Post subject: The 1848 Kandyan riots
 Post Posted: Thu Sep 15, 2005 3:58 am 
Result of intolerable taxes
The 1848 Kandyan riots

by Godwin Witane
@ The Island

Kudahapola Unnanse, Dennis and several others were captured in this battle. They were tried by Court Martial and sentenced to death, by tying to a large Rukkattana tree in the town of Matale and shot. People believe that the spirits of the condemned insurgents still haunt the spot. Puran Appu who went into hiding was later arrested by Capt. Horsfall of Akuramboda estate and was tried in Kandy and shot on the 8th of August ,1848, at the age of 35.

The easy victory achieved by the British in possessing the much coveted Kandyan Kingdom encouraged them to enjoy the sudden benefits that accrued to them. The availability of vast forests and mountain ranges along with the confiscated agricultural lands of the Kandyan peasants induced the government to indulge in planting of coffee, which was a cash crop in various tropical countries of the world. The coffee mania was at its climax in 1845. The governor, military, judges, clergy and entrepreneurs from Britain all invested in planting coffee. As many as 247128 acres of crown land had been sold at 2S 6d an acre, the price of a bushel of rice in Kandy. The great valley of Dumbara, Ambegamuwa, Kotmale and Pusellawa were occupied. Thousands of acres were purchased by each person. The Kandyan country was soon dotted with coffee estates. The export of coffee availed finances derived from export duty. But within a short interval, a calamity suddenly appeared which reduced the investors to ruin due to the destruction of the plantations by a coffee blight.

The estates were maintained at a loss and later changed hands at very low prices. These disasters affected an adverse change in government finances which fell below expenditure. The British found it beyond their means to maintain an expensive military and costs of administrating an additional colony. The cost of the military cost nearly £ 40,000. To save this situation, the government imposed direct taxes on the people. Arrack taverns sprung like mushrooms in all parts tempting the villagers to indulge in an unknown vice but one that amasses wealth from the rentals. People became addicted to alcohol. Although the hatred for the British generated by the events of 1818 were at an ebb, it was smouldering in the hearts and minds of some imbibed in patriotic fervour. The remainder of the crest - fallen chiefs conducted themselves half - heartedly under the foreign yoke. Life in the up country almost returned to normal when the people were once again provoked by the rulers when they contemplated hovering unthought of burdens on the innocent public. They began taxing the depraved peasants on paddy lands dogs guns and added a body tax on able males between the ages of 15 - 55 called the road tax. In lieu of pecuniary payment, a male had to perform labour on the roads for six days at a time during a year. This law existed during colonial days even upto 1936. The writer still holds a receipt obtained for working on the roads which exempted him from tax. The road tax appeared to benefit the planters for they needed roads to transport their produce, while the jungle paths were quite sufficient for the people. The tax was levied even, on the priests that the Buddhist people were most scandalised because the priests were mendicants who lived on the charity and faith of the people. In Kandy, every villager needed a gun and kept an ancient flint - lock to keep away wild animals from their chenas and food crops.

Some lost several days of labour to make a long journey to a kachcheri to pay the tax. The expansion of coffee plantations deprived the peasants of their traditional grazing grounds. The Kandyans detested the presence of the White planters settled in their country, moreover the planters introduced cheap labour in the coffee plantations in the form of South Indians, which chiefly offended the mass of people. At the same time, there was repugnance of the Sinhalese and the Kandyans to engage in any work on the estates. The planters at one time employed as much as 129200 labourers from South India. Two revolts were staged in 1831 and 1836 to protest against the partitioning of lands for coffee plantation. The British administration was slowly losing their hold on the people of Matale District.

The new rulers were interested in tax gathering and coffee planting. The British were deeply suspicious of the Kandyan Chiefs and the Rebellion of 1818 sought to reduce their powers. But the people venerated the aristocracy and therefore the government was reluctant to trust them. However, they tried to win them over. They appointed Molligoda as the First Adigar. The government through the in influence of the Missionaries, tried to disassociate the state from Buddhism in betrayal of the solemn undertaking given at the Kandyan Convention. They also failed to honour the pledge in maintaining the Buddhist temples which enjoyed the patronage of the Kandyan Kings. In 1848, it was not the taxes alone that was obnoxious to the peasants, but also the non availability of a King who could profess Buddhism, protect and maintain the religion.

The gap that divided the administration from the people became wider than it was at the beginning. The taxes were new to the people and the government did not make any attempt to explain it to the people the need for such taxes. The attempt of governor Torrington 1847-1850 who attempted to shake off Buddhism from the government greatly irritated the Buddhist priesthood and the chiefs and the imposition of new taxes to increase the revenue caused widespread resentment.

Much dissatisfaction was evident in the Matale District in 1847 over the gun tax and other impositions. The British Military Agent, Captain Watson warned people of severe punishment to those who concealed unlicensed guns. Several people were publicly flogged in front of the Court House situated on the land where the present Christ Church School is situated. On 6th of July, 1848, an unprecedented crowd all unarmed gathered at the Kandy Kachcheri to protest against taxes.

When the crowd got out of hand military has called to disperse the crowd as the police failed to do so. A few villagers who had been unruly due to the partaking of spirits were arrested and after they came to their senses were dismissed on payment of a fine on the promise of good behaviour. The Colonial Secretary, Emmersant Tennent advised the chief headmen the nature of the taxes and dismissed two ‘Rate Mahatmayas’ of Uda and Patha Dumbara as they had not used their influence to curb the protesters who were mainly from Dumbara. The crowds dispersed sullen and disappointed.

Four forceful personalities appeared on the troubled scene to fan the flickering flames. They were Gonagalgoda Banda, a fearless intrepid man, who claimed relationship to Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, and his brother Dennis. Kudahapola Unnanse, a Buddhist priest of Harasgama village and a dare-devil from Moratuwa called Puran Appu. They engaged in collecting arms entreating the people to rebellion daring to bring conclusions with the might of the British arms. Although the aristocracy stood aloof from this movement a substantial section of the populace, some bikkus supported it and they were ready to follow . The Kandyans wanted to return to the rule of their own kings and win freedom. The simmering heat of patriotism boiled over. They-detested the planters, the labourers and the taxes.

They were used to indigenous royalty and disliked cold and impersonal British. Gonagalgoda Banda having moved about in the Kandyan areas on July 25th, 1848, moved to Nalanda and from there to Dambulla, accompanied by his henchmen Edirille Rala and Puran Appu. On the 26th of July he was crowned King at the ancient Alu Vihare. Hence, along with about 400 men he marched to Matale where more crowds joined them. They attacked the Kachcheri and ransacked government buildings. On the 31st, about 4000 people attacked Kurunegala. Rumours spread that Kurunegala and Dambulla had been regained from the British.

Next day, Gonagalgoda Banda, Kudahapola Unnanse and Puran Appu raised the Standard of Revolt. The white flag of Matale Disawa was once again carried forward to battle. The rioters ransacked and burnt many houses in the town plundered money from the Kachchri vault and freed prisoners lodged at Matale prison. Fort Mac Dowell was captured and the road to Kandy and Balakaduwa Pass were opened. The "Kandyan Army" and Puran Appu’s supporters assumed posts in the area. But in two places, Matale and Kurunegala, success of the rebels were short-lived. The leaders of the rebellion were devoid of the slightest pretension of military discipline. They were unsuited to lead a rebellion against a trained military power.

The peasants joined the attacks only to show their disapproval of the new taxes but not to expel the British. Capt. Watson with a 100 military men and a crowd of 200 men led by Capt. Lilly surrounded the rioters’ stronghold and attacked them. The rioters were out gunned by the British forces. One British soldier fell to the rioters guns while 10 of them fell to British bullets.

Kudahapola Unnanse, Dennis and several others were captured in this battle. They were tried by Court Martial and sentenced to death, by tying to a large Rukkattana tree in the town of Matale and shot. People believe that the spirits of the condemned insurgents still haunt the spot. Puran Appu who went into hiding was later arrested by Capt. Horsfall of Akuramboda estate and was tried in Kandy and shot.

Puran Appu died a courageous death on the 8th of August ,1848, at the age of 35. He was the only leader of the Peoples’ Revolution in our history. Before he was shot, he raised his hand and said, "If there had been half a dozen men as me to lead, there would not be a White Man living in the Kandyan Provinces". The means employed to suppress the spirit of in-dependence shown by ill-armed men and dillusioned villagers far exceeded the limits of honourable warfare.

The Governor, Torrington and Tennant insisted that it was Buddhists and the chiefs who provoked the rebellion. But the Britishers would have tasted the results of a greater calamity if the aristocracy and the bikkus joined in the rebell. The uprising which lasted only a few days cost the government only the life of one soldier while the Kandyans lost over 200 men. The conduct of Torrington, Watson and Tennent were severely criticised in England for the shooting of Kudahapola Unnanse on charge of treason, which hurt the religious feelings of the Buddhists for executing a Bikku in his robes, a gross miscarriage of justice.

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